Arsenal v. Olympique Marseille Game Review

The Day 3 Champions league match between Arsenal and Olympique Marseille was, for long stretches, sloppy.  Here are some of the links:

Most of the press write up is positive.  Trecker, on Fox, is negative and off-base.  His criticism and praise both seem misplaced.  To his credit, I do think the first half was sloppy for Arsenal as they were not in possession as much as they would have liked — and when they were, they were pushed back.  Arsenal has had a rough go at it since Summer after losing Fabregas and Nasri.  They struggled in early fixtures in the Premier League but are in the process of rebounding.

Wendy and I at Emirates on 9/23/11 (Arsenal v Olympiacos)
In the match yesterday, Jenkinson started at right back in place of injured Sagna.  Santos started at left back in place of injured Gibbs.  Sagna, more seriously hurt, is out for a few months so the right back position is one that needs sorting out.  Gibbs strained a stomach muscle in the last fixture against Sunderland.  

While the Santos transitions evenly for Gibbs, Jenkinson is a major downgrade at right back.  He must be a training monster because his play on the field has been unsteady.  Yesterday, he seemed to only have one thought — sprint with every ball played to him down the right line and cross, no matter the number of defenders in the box (or attackers).  His crosses were ineffectual.  He does add defensive energy, but lacks the tactical understanding of other options with the ball.  When Djourou subbed in, Arsenal upgraded their attack.  In fact, the lone goal was from a cross served with a good angle for which Gervinho played off (accidentally) and Ramsey finished.  Jenkinson would not have been able to play the ball as Djourou did because he would have robbed himself of the angle with the depth of his drive.  Djourou’s timing on the service provided a dangerous angle and options for the Arsenal attack.  

My critique of Jenkinson is that he is too one-dimensional in attack.  As a result, he pulls all of his teammates into his run and reduces the angles for scoring altogether.  It was clear the OM’s defenders knew what he was going to do with the ball too — as they happily accepted service time and again from him.  

I thought Song was great.  He did give up some balls with some poor decisions on angles and passing ideas, but his defensive presence was fantastic as usual.  Van Persie was not much of a factor and went long stretches without the ball.   He seemed frustrated at times (once even throwing up his hands when he was not served the ball while he was in the defensive line).  Truth is, he did not have a great match.  He was caught offsides in key moments and, when he did have the ball late near the top of the box, opted for a desperate shot rather than a more patient attempt.  

The center backs were stout and Koscielny impressive anticipating balls and disrupting passing angles.  Per Mertesacker gets lots of criticism for his lack of speed but I think, but years end, he will have a loyal following.  He has big game experience and has presence on the field.  

I am not sure what to think about Ramsey.  He seems to give the ball up a lot in the middle, but he has a knack for scoring.  He did it again here with a great strike in the 92nd minute.  

Great result away for the Gunners.  Anytime you can get 3 points in a Champions League match away from home is fantastic.  

Possession, Possession, Possession: New US Youth Soccer Guidelines

It’s about time.  Claudia Reyna, US Youth Soccer Technical Director, has been hired by Jurgen Klinnsman to develop a new training system for US Youth coaches and players emphasizing possession and short passing with the ball staying on the ground as much as possible.  On April 21, 2011, Reyna unveiled the new system in a presentation at a Player Development Summit.  The material he used includes training guidelines all the way down to U6.  The documents are as follows:

New Us Youth Soccer Curriculum

You can watch his presentation here:  Reyna Presents New Curriculum

There are literally hundreds of pages of instructions, some drills (not a lot), and concepts generally and broken down for each age level.  Each age has a section for Tactical, Technical, Physical, and Psychosocial; these are referred to as the 4 Pillars of Soccer Coaching.  The main ideas are summarized in the U.S. Soccer Curriculum (first pdf).  It states that the “Style of Play” is an offensive style where “all teams will be encouraged to display an offensive style of play based on keeping possession and quick movement of the ball.”  (Curriculum, page 1).  It goes on to instruct coaches to instruct their players to “avoid over-dribbling.”  While positions are taught, players will be expected to “look for spaces and movements to support forward when attacking by moving away from their original positions.”  Id.  

The Curriculum also specifies formations.  It instructs coaches to teach the 4-3-3 and its varieties (4-2-3-1 or 4-1-2-3) as opposed to 4-4-2 (reserved for older, more advanced youth).  If teams want to utilize a 4-4-2, they encourage a 4-1-2-1-2 instead (diamond in the middle).  Importantly, all 11v11 should utilize 4 defensive backs.  

Like the style currently used by Spain, Barcelona, Arsenal, and even Ajax, the new U.S. model encourages teaching the ability to play the ball out from the back with short passes rather than long, lofted balls.  (Curriculum, 2).  The Curriculum outlines the following “Principles of Play” for coaches to use:

1.  1,2, or 3 touch maximum.  
2.  Keep the game simple.  (Avoid over-dribbling or long balls without targets)
3.  Keep the ball on the ground.
4.  Accuracy and quality of the pass.
5.  First touch.  (Do not stop the ball)
6.  Perception and Awareness. (scan the field)
7.  1v1 situations.  (still encouraged for players to bear defenders)
8.  Individual Transition. (from offense to defense and vice versa)
9.  Shooting.  (always keep eye on goal)
10.  Take risks.  
(Curriculum, 3)

In line with those principles, skills are outlined to develop at each age down to 5.  According to the plans, dribbling starts getting less priority at age 7.  I think that is a big mistake.  I think it is great that the US is finally implementing what the Dutch started in 1970 and exported to Barcelona.  We all owe a big thank you to Ajax, Cruyff, Michaels and their cutting edge concept of space.  Spain has taken the TOTAL football model from the Dutch, improved it, and won the World Cup demonstrating the virtues of short passing and keeping the ball on the ground–something the Dutch never did (they were runners up in 1974 and 1978 — the 1974 loss was considered by many to be a major upset by the West Germans).  If Klinsman never wins another game, his vision in implementing this at the US Youth level will be worth every penny he earns from us.  

Going back to dribbling, it is a skill that needs continued work until early teens.  If you over-emphasize the pass at 9, you will get players later on who will never take the opportunity and will lack the skill to beat someone 1v1.  For all of the 2v1 and 3v1 sequences of Barcelona, you still need to be able to take a defender 1v1 — it will make the subsequent pass that much more deadly.  So, to that regard, I disagree with the de-emphasis on dribbling starting at age 7.  

It is widely noted that Arsene Wenger altered the playing style of Arsenal to what it is today.  Before Wenger, George Graham’s boys were physical and, like a lot of the EPL competitors, played a lot of long ball; hence, the chant “Boring, boring Arsenal” or “One-nil to the Arsenal.”  When Wenger entered Arsenal, he altered the style of play to a more possession based, short passing approach.  They were taught and trained to play the ball from back to front, and vice-versa.  Width and depth should be explored while in possession of the ball.  But, they did not de-emphasize dribbling.  Rather, they imported ideas from Barcelona’s Academy.  

We should be wary of advice to de-emphasize dribbling at age 7.  Here is quote from the book Arsenal: The Making of a Modern Superclub: “Their (Barcelona) Academy coach Carlos Rexach reveals … ‘Above all what we are after is a boy who is good with the ball and then we hope he becomes strong physically. Other academies tend to look for athletes they can turn into footballers. Most coaches, when they see a kid who dribbles a lot they tell him to stop and pass the ball.  Here (Barcelona) they do the opposite. We tell them to continue so that they get even better at dribbling.  It’s only when the kid develops that we start teaching them the passing game.'”  (Page 68).  

I know firsthand that over-emphasizing passing early will retard dribbling and creativity with the ball.  When coaching and teaching youngsters, encourage them to touch the ball as much as they can.  Allow them opportunities to be creative.  As a result, they will also develop ball control skills that will lead to passing and creative use of space. 

Also, it is recommended that at U8, players progress to 7v7 from 4v4.  At U9-10, it is 9v9, and at U11 up to 11v11.  This is counter to the current recommendations of small-sided games.  Depending on the Association, some use 4v4 for U7-U8, 6v6 for U9-10, 8v8 for U11-12, and 11v11 starting at U13.  I do think the 4v4 at U8 is a wasted year currently.  

To sum it up, I was ecstatic to see this change in US Youth Soccer philosophy.  As Reyna says, “it has never been done” in the U.S.  We are late in the day to finally get away from the physical back line, great GK, and fast forward kick and run approach U.S. normally plays, but it is never too late to add some Johan Cruyff magic.  Hopefully it will stick.  I know some coaches in Southeast Texas that are committed to it and have been for a while.  Cheers.  

Welcome & Introduction

I think the most difficult thing to write is the first sentence of the first entry.  I have labored over this in my head — have told myself for months to do it (even years), but I finally decided to start.  So, why am I doing this?  Why is a trial lawyer from Southeast Texas, whose participation in soccer only began 6 years ago, blogging about soccer?

It all started with a uniform.  My oldest child, who was 8 at the time, decided she wanted to have a neighborhood soccer team.  A purple team (with some highlights).  She and her friend decided the uniform first, then the idea.  They needed a coach.  I grew up playing the basic football (American), Basketball, Baseball, and not so basic Tennis.  I always loved coaching — my basketball coach in high school allowed me freedoms there.  I like organizing too — and have organized flag football in my hometown, at law school, etc.  More than anything else, I like to participate, measure, evaluate, and improve.  Soccer provided a great outlet and lab for such a personality.  The kids were willing participants.

So, here I am 6 years later, having coached-trained, at times, 5 teams in the same season.  All of the teams I organized, I trained and coached as our home town lacked a soccer club. When we started, I was aware of one other team from Vidor, by year 2, we added 3 more, then more the next and the next, etc. 

2010 Nike Rush Champs – U13G

In the beginning, the sessions were dreadfully inefficient.  I was learning the game along with the kids.  In our first game, we allowed a goal in under a minute.  In our first season, we scored 7 goals and won two matches.  In our second season, we scored 70, allowed 5 and were undefeated.  A lot of effort and examination occurred along the way (and still does).  My belief is that you can and should learn from those around you.  Two of the challenges to that impede most little league coaches are either (1) apathy (sometimes I wish I had it), or, more commonly in competitive sports, (2) a belief that you already know everything.  

In regard to (2), I once helped organize a coaching clinic with Kyle Green, head baseball coach at Vidor High School and a wonderful teacher of the game.  I encouraged all of the little league coaches to attend.  Most of them informed me that it was a waste of time.  At the same time, Coach Green told me the biggest problem for boys entering high school is a lack of basic fundamentals, including how to throw a baseball.  So, on one hand, you have father-coaches convinced they know enough that they do not need help, while on the other a professional coach saying that the kids have not been taught the basics.  Something has to give.

Back to soccer.  I do not look at my lack of playing time or relatively short experience as a disadvantage.  Rather, it works in my favor.  I was (and still am) effectively a blank slate.  I got in the trenches with the kids and learned the game form the ground up.  Along the way, I asked questions, read books, watched videos and games, watched other coaches train, or whatever else I could do to help the kids.  I learn something new every time I watch a game or coach a practice.  While I wish I could have played growing up, I do not see that as a disadvantage coaching or teaching the game.  Obviously, people that grew up and played the game their whole life can skip the growing pains I experienced, but, at the same time, those growing pains help me understand the game at a very basic level that makes it easy for me to talk to youth about.  

I learned early on that the basics of coaching are (1) paying attention to your team and evaluating their strengths and weaknesses (as well as your own), (2) being flexible (“blessed are the flexible, for they won’t be bent out of shape”), and (3) develop communication channels that are understandable by your team — no sense talking over their head with a bunch of pre-packaged coach-isms.  More on that later.

I look forward to posting ideas on the beautiful game and hope that it is of some interest to someone other than me.  Cheers.