20 Questions Vol. II: Alex Tapp

This is our second in a series of 20 questions from interesting soccer people.  I met Alex during the National Youth License Course in May 2012.  He is currently working with the Lonestar Soccer Club, and, as you can see from his post, is a converted Austinite.  So here’s to Amy’s Ice Cream, Barton Creek, BBQ, Kirby Lane pancakes, and live music…

1. Where are you from?

South London, England

2. When did you start playing soccer?
I always had a ball at my feet as soon as I could walk. I was probably around 8 or 9 years old when I started with a team.
3. How often did you play soccer as a youth?
Every day! Probably too much at one point. School, club, district, county. It was 7 days a week. (emphasis added)
4. What teams/organizations did you play for?  
 I played professionally for Wimbledon FC and Milton Keynes Dons for over 10 years. As a youth, I was lucky enough to play for my country at U15 level.

5. Did you play sports other than soccer?  If so, did you ever get to a point where you stopped playing sports other than soccer?
I was huge into cricket and played to a pretty high level. But as soon as the soccer season rolled around, that was it. In the end I had to choose, and I chose soccer. I still love cricket, but have to get up really early to watch it!
6. What position did you play? 
 Predominantly a midfielder. But I am left-footed so I also played on the left wing and as left defender.
7. At what age did you specialize in a certain position?

From around 12 to 16, I was a center midfielder. I learned and developed other positions after the age of 17, when I turned pro.  This is probably backwards to how we teach young players today.

8.What was the highlight of your playing days?
My professional debut, when I was 18, was pretty special. Also, playing for England at Wembley against Brazil and against Germany in Munich Stadium. There were 70,000 people there. I won’t forget that.
9. What is your preferred style of play?  Possession?  Counter?  Winger style (crossing)?  etc.
Depends really. I believe you need to develop many styles to adapt to certain game situations. Counter and crossing can be exciting to watch. The purists love the possession style of play. Barcelona are the team who have it right now. Harder to do than it looks though!
10. Who is your favorite club team?  Why?
 Manchester United. Dad was a fan so I grew up with it. I get loads of abuse for it though. People I think I just support them because of their success for the last 20 years. But I remember Ferguson
 almost getting fired back in 1990 if they didn’t win against Notts Forrest. They won and went on to win the FA cup that year.
11. Best English sitcom is . …?
The Office or Only Fools and Horses.
12. Best American sitcom is….?
 Louis C.K.’s show Louie.  Genius! (Note, Louie is on FX if you are interested).
13. What is your current job title?
 I am currently the Assistant Director to the Division One girls’ program at Lonestar Soccer Club (Austin, Texas).
14. What licenses do you hold?
National Youth License.
15. Favorite band or singer?
James Blake and Bon Iver. Also, Bright Light Social Hour who are from Austin!
16. Favorite food?
There’s probably not a food I don’t like, except fast food–rubbish!  I love trying new things. Austin has a great food scene.
17. Who has been your biggest inspiration?
 Lots of people for lots of different things. For soccer, Bryan Robson, Manchester United midfielder.
18. How do you like living in Austin?  
Love it! It would take a lot for me to move from here! There is something for everyone in Austin. A great outdoors city. But don’t tell anyone!!!
19.  What is the differences or similarities with youth soccer in England and US?
Girls youth soccer here is way more advanced. I love that the girls have the same opportunities here as the boys. US has many coaches who have a desire to learn and get better. I think there is huge potential for US youth soccer to do big things. It just takes time. English soccer is in the young players’ blood. They live and breathe it. Watching the game is so important. Thats one thing missing here. Live games and TV games need to be more accessible.
20. Do you hate OU?  (yet)  
Of course! Hook em! Haven’t been to a Red River Showdown yet, but it is definitely on my list! This year will be interesting…not too sure about the 2 QB system at UT though. Hopefully the defense can stand up.
(From me….you would think UT would have learned its lesson on 2 QBs…we have all seen this show).
Bonus Question:  Given your background in cricket, what do you think of American baseball?
Well I think my opinions on baseball would be the same for baseball fans on cricket!  It looks more like a hobby or a past time.  I’ve never got into it like I have other US sports.  But I think if you grow up with baseball you appreciate it more. It’s the same with cricket. Anyone watching it for the first time struggles with it.

Dribbling v. Carrying the Ball

Andrea Pirlo

I want to give credit to our Head Trainer, Thomas Shenton, who gave me the name for dribbling when you are not necessarily beating an attacker.  Watching the Euros this summer, I couldn’t help but notice Pirlo’s role on the Italian team–he didn’t necessarily beat defenders with the dribble, but he dribbled a lot.  The phrase for how he plays is called “carrying the ball.”  In fact, the Italian team ran their offense through him.  So, if you watched the Italians play, you would see an older, long haired Italian circling around the ball, receiving it, then “carrying” the ball around the field, drawing pressure to him, then distributing.  In the picture to the left, you will notice he is scanning the field with the ball at his feet – a typical Pirlo siting.

For the current Arsenal team, Santi Cazorla is providing a similar service.  It seems, though, that Santi eliminates defenders on the go too (what Opta would consider a “dribble”).  The soccer stat site whoscored.com, as I documented here, is a wonderful site to review statistics for soccer.  I cannot find, however, a stat that measure “carrying” the ball.  So, on whoscored.com, Pirlo is averaging 1.8 dribbles per game.  Given how much he handles the ball in a game, that seems a bit hard to understand.  This season, Santi averages 2.5 dribbles per game.  Another new Arsenal player, Lukas Podolski plays a different style–he “runs at defenders” with the ball.  He is more direct and dribbles forward (primarily).  He is currently averaging 1.5 dribbles per game in the Premier League.

Santi Cazorla

The highest rated “dribbler” for Arsenal currently is Gervinho, at 5 per game.  Walcott is second.  Again, this is not tracking how often he is dribbling, but how often he is dribbling passed a defender.  It is obvious from watching Arsenal that Cazorla has the ball the most.   All stats are taken from the site http://www.whoscored.com/Statistics.

I like all the different styles and am glad to have Podolski on Arsenal because that is something we have lacked (it would be nice to see more long shots too).  If anyone knows a stat that tracks “carrying the ball” or how to use the Opta stats to figure it out, I am interested.  I think “key passes” would be a good indicator for these type players (or passes resulting in scoring chances or even passes resulting in good service).  But, I think it would be interesting if there was a stat that tracked how long a player had the ball during a game (that is what I am looking for and cannot find).  I am sure it is out there.

For example, looking at key passes per game, Santi Cazorla is averaging 4.5 and ranks eight of all players.  Pirlo ranks eleventh with 4 per game.  The top of the list includes these players (some of which I know are not ball “carriers”):


1.  Clement Grenier (CM) – 7/1

2.  Leigthon Baines (LB) – 6.5/1

3.  Adel Taarabt (AM) – 5/2

4.  Antonio Candreva (AM) – 5/1

5.  Hiroshi Kiyotake (M) – 5/2

6.  Wesley Sneijder (AM(C)) – 5/0

7.  Iago Aspas (M) – 4.5/.5

8.  Santi Cazorla (CM/AM) – 4.5/2.5

9.  Aaron Hunt (AM) – 4/3

10.  Andrea Cossu (CAM) – 4/1

11.  Andrea Pirlo (CDM) – 4/2

Stats taken from whoscored.com.  KP = Key passes/game; DRB = dribbles/game.

Interestingly, only one defender makes the list.  I am sure this list will change as the year progresses.

Playing your best passer and ball handler in a position where they will handle the ball more makes sense.  The more this type of player touches the ball, the better your chance that something good will happen.  These types of players tend to include other players and are good passers.  In youth soccer, if I have a player that handles the ball well, has good vision and some tactical awareness, I like to put them in the middle of field where they will involve the other players.  (At the same time, I make everyone play this spot, some just are better at it than others).

Lukas Podolski

While there is definitely value in running at defenders with the ball Podolski-style, carriers of the ball can have great effect in the game by dribbling sideways and backwards, creating space for other players.

20 Questions with Nathan Thackeray

This is the first in a series of posts of 20 Questions to some super-cool people I have met in the world of soccer.  I have met a lot, but Nathan is top shelf!  I was privileged to sit with Nathan for our National Youth License.   In his career as a professional and college player (and now trainer), he was (and is) a Goalie.  He is a fantastic guy, fun to be around, and, well, let me let him speak for himself…

20 Questions with Nathan Thackeray
1.  Nathan, when did you start playing soccer?
I started playing soccer at the tender age of 7/8, seems so long ago now though.
2.  Where did you grow up?  (Where are you from?)
I was born in a place in England called Burnley and grew up in and around the greater Manchester area.
3.  Why did you play soccer?
Because my Mother didn’t think I was tough enough to play Rugby…good choice. I continued to play thereafter because of the enjoyment that I got out of playing and being around the game.
4.  When did you start playing keeper full time?
I became a full time keeper at the age of 10 after we played in a tourney and our GK didn’t turn up; they stuck me in between the sticks and I never looked back.
5.  What organizations did you play for?
When I started playing I joined a team called Heyside, a local youth football team in my area. When I was 10 I was seen by scouts and signed for Oldham Athletics’ professional academy where I continued to play for a number of years. At 15 I signed a professional YTS contact with Bradford City, a professional team in the UK; I played there for 3/4 years before moving to the USA to attend a University and carry on my playing career.
6.  What is a Mancunian?
Apart from being the best people around, a Mancunian is someone who is from Manchester.
7.  Do you think it is important for Keepers to maintain their field skills?  Why?
Without a doubt! In the modern game the keeper does more work with the ball at their feet than they do with their hands. If we can encourage keepers to get a good mix of GK training and field work, then we can develop both areas together. Keepers are soccer players as well. (emphasis added)
8.  Did you play sports other than soccer?  If so, when did you stop playing sports other than soccer (what age)?
I played Rugby all the way through high school but eventually put all other sports to the side to concentrate on a career in soccer.
9.  City or United?
Easy… U.N.I.T.E.D! United are the team for me!
10.  Do you think, with Arsenal’s help (RVP), Manchester United will win the EPL title this season?
Fingers crossed, he will. He’s a great addition to the team I just hope he and Rooney click.
11.  Who is your favorite Spongebob character?
I’m not a massive Spongebob fan but my roommate in college was a big one so I’ll go with Squidworm. (I think that’s his name) (Nice try Nate – when he gets a few little Nates he will be sure to get this answer right!  He is talking about Squidward Tentacles).
12.  Favorite sitcom?
The Big Bang Theory. By far the funniest show on the box right now.
13.  Who do you work for now?
I currently work for the Houston Dynamo as the Academy GK coach and the U-16 assistant coach. I also work in the youth programs at the Dynamo which is fantastic and extremely enjoyable.
14.  How do you like living in Texas?
Apart from the Houston traffic,  I love it so far.
15.  You were recently married.  What is your wife’s name, where is she from, and how do you like married life?
Yeah, I was recently married and as you know married life has it’s ups and downs but I couldn’t be happier right now. My wife’s name is Katie and she is from Kingwood, TX (she’s the real reason I now live in Houston but don’t let her know).
16.  Why hasn’t England won a World Cup since 1966?
Hmmmm, good question. I haven’t got a clue! I just hope one comes soon.
17.  How were your youth leagues organized in Manchester?
Quite similar to how they are run here really, each team has age groups that then compete with other teams within the area. Once I joined the professional organizations it became a little different where we played other professional teams around the country.
18.  Did (do) members of your family play soccer?  Professionally?
No. I was the first soccer player to come out of the family as we are predominantly a rugby family. I’m hoping that there maybe another one to break that barrier again later in life.
19.  What advice would you give a 11 year old soccer player who wants to be a full time keeper?
Enjoy the game, it’s the most important thing, not only at this age but all the way through their soccer career. Make sure that they develop their basic GK skills so that they become second nature and keep playing on the field as much as you can to develop your touch and foot skills.
20.  Will Arsenal ever keep a player past the age of 30?
HaHa, they have more chance of doing this than they do winning the Premier League.
Thanks Nathan!

Coaching Youth Soccer: 8v8 Formation Idea — Applying Spanish Team Tactics to a Youth Squad

So…let me start by saying that I have spent way too many hours thinking about this issue.  While development is the goal, particularly in the small-sided years (anything below 11v11), does there exist a formation for 8v8 that complements development?  Or, I should say, that complements development and my coaching philosophy?  My coaching philosophy is player development with the style of play being possession based soccer, emphasizing creativity and mastery of the ball, short passes with the ball primarily on the ground.  I encourage dribbling around defenders in 1v1 situations, while at the same time recognize the value of the give and go and other 2v1 sequences.   I want the boys and girls I coach to be cerebral players and always “think about the next play.”  “Show for the ball” when your partner is in trouble, move to space when he is not.   I believe strongly that all players need to learn all the positions and be able to interchange (that is Code for “yes, little Johnny may have scored 100 goals as a 7 year old but he needs to learn to defend too”).  That is my philosophy in a nutshell.

I have coached 8v8 since 2006.  I cannot count the number of games I have coached.  I have coached players at all levels of skill, both technical and tactical, from basic recreations to high level competitive kids.  I have labored through the years to come up with an approach from a formation to assist the kids in their understanding of the game and their responsibilities.  I do not believe in teaching kids positions in this stage other than basic soccer concepts and theories of defense (compress the field, delay, cover) and attack (enlarge the field, penetrate, support).   So, what are some formations I have used?

1.  2-3-2

This was where I started.  I did not know then but this is an aggressive, attack-minded strategy.  We were recreation combos of 8 and 9 year olds (before they changed the small-sided rules).  I would think this is still a good rec-based formation but one vulnerable to attacks without the midfielders lending defensive support.  Also, it means that 2/7 of your team is laying up top, not really involved in defense.

2.  3-1-3

This was my second formation.  This formation should turn into a 3-3-1 on defense.  This is the year that I coined the phrase for my outside mids (wingers or whatever you want to call them) that “you are a midfielder who occasionally gets to play offense.”  I found that if kids define themselves as forwards, they tend to work less defensively. They come pre-wired with ideas of what a forward should and should not do.  The fewer of them that you have, the better.  This formation worked but it required a lot of management–reminding girls to return from their runs.  It also stretched the center-mid because the outside mids usually did not return.  Now we have 3 players waiting up top…

3.  3-2-2

I have tried this over and over again.  I just do not like the shapes and I do not like the layers.  At the 8v8 years, it is hard enough to learn how to touch the ball, effective dribbling, etc.  I do not want kids thinking in the games of what is their job versus someone else’s.  I want them “playing soccer and thinking about the next play.”  With the wrong kids in the middle, you will quickly find yourself in a 3-0-4, removing the links you need on the field and continuity.  So, now we have 4 up top….

4.  3-1-1-2

So I varied it.  Since I had a hard time getting the boys (this is year 6 and now with boys…) to defend the middle, I turned to Animal Kingdom.  Basically, what I wanted was a defensive-minded midfielder and an attack-minded midfielder.  Since they generally have no idea what those are, we decided to give the Mids animal names.  The boys named them:  Rhino for the defensive mid (a Rhino has armor they say), and a Jaguar for the attacking mid (obviously).  This really worked.  Each game, different kids were excited to be the Rhino or Jaguar.  What’s more, with something as simple as an animal name, it helped them to know where to be and what role to be on the field without a lot of second guessing.  I tell people all the time that a lot of coaching youth is the ability to effectively communicate with them.  In this instance, I let them name the animals.  So, instead of telling them to “get back” — a vague statement — I could say simply, “remember, you are our Rhino!”)  Even though we play a different formation today, we may shift a midfielder to holding mid now, we still call it Rhino.

5.  4-2-1 Winger Attack

This was Coach Tom’s baby.  The two outside defenders operate as wingers.  With only one forward, you are strong up the middle with 2 center backs and 2 center mids.  The problem with this formation is that the workload on the wingers is too high and field dimensions vary too much.  If all 8v8 fields were the same dimensions, there is a chance this formation would work.  But, having been involved in 8v8 for the last 6 years, I can tell you that you never know what you get with a field.  I think full-sided fields are more consistent, but 8v8 fields are all over the place.  If it is on the small side, this formation works great.  But, if it is a large 8v8 field, it is just too much work for the wingers and the boys cannot manage it.  It is a lot to ask mentally too – a player starting as a defender, on the back line,  has to add defensive pressure all the way up the pitch, while at the same time provide cover all the way back.  Our boys just couldn’t manage it.  So, when we were in a bind, we switched to…

6.  3-3-1

It was 2008 all over again, except for this time I was wiser.  Instead of calling it a 3-1-3, where players can get the idea that they are “forwards,” we remove all doubt by calling it a 3-3-1 and again reinforcing the old adage “you are a midfielder who occasionally plays offense.”  I do not think this is that confusing, but it does require some management to remind players of their defensive duties and, alternatively, remind them to go up and attack.  Sometimes we would find ourselves with only one player attacking the goal.  I never loved it, was never loyal to it, and was shopping for the next big thing when the Euros were televised in June…

This is a good formation to teach width in attack.  The midfielder responsibilities transition fine to 442 or 433.


This brings me to today.  Through the summer I worked with some high school girls from Vidor in a 6v6 league.  As I have posted on here before, I love small-sided games, especially for older players.  The small field compresses the game requiring better touch and less space.  Ball control is at a premium, as is the talent of using the dribble to create space (or your first touch).  Some of the girls had a hard time with positions – they tended to define themselves as a forward or defender.  The forwards generally waited for the ball while the other girls battled to get it to them.  My concept of 6v6 is different – I prefer no positions with the requirement that they attack as a team and defend as a team (5 on attack, 5 on defense).  This was a little hard  to accomplish so we modified it 2-3-0: 2 defenders (rotating), 3 midfielders, and 0 forwards.  I used this formation to emphasize that we attack as a team and defend as a team.  I discouraged long counters that stretch our team (making us vulnerable to loss of possession in the middle).  I stole the idea from Spain in the Euros – when they played a 4-6-0.  How did it work?  Fantastic!

While there were still players who tended to “lay up,” the idea started to gel that we all defended and all attacked.  That does not mean that everyone does the same job in attack and defense.  Some pressure, some cover, some support, etc.  But the idea of playing as a unit in a small area of the field, discouraging long passing , encouraging keeping the ball on the ground, started to work.  So, if girls who, for many, had no prior club experience could do it, why not our 10 year old boys, most of whom have played for 5-6 years?

It works!  Not only does it work, it requires less “reminding” than the old 3-1-3.  Somehow, when they know that there are NO FORWARDS, they get the idea of defense.   Again, since there is NO FORWARD, they know that they cannot rely on someone up top to score – they all have to be part of the process.  Mind you, I coach a group of boys that are fairly versatile.  Since we have been together (1 1/2 years), we have not allowed people to play one position.  So, in our first tournament with this formation, everyone played defender and everyone played midfield.  We used four different goalies.  I do provide them with some guidance in the middle by saying two are central mids and the other two outside mids.  But I tell them to feel free to change it as they see fit.  More than half of our team has scored in only two games.  We are still incorporating the winger-cross attack our trainer has emphasized, but, at the same time, we are enjoying a lot more defensive help in the middle from players other than the defenders.  I am not sure it is the ONE (as I have been down this road before), but it sure seems to fit what we are trying to teach and develop.

***Caveat:  I would not recommend this for a team with players who lack tactical understanding of the game.  The two center-mids are not only good technicians, they are good decision-makers.  Some kids just cannot do that job.  For that matter, I would not recommend something with the vagueness inherent in the job description for the kids (like the 2 CMs) for beginning level players.  Our boys compete in the most competitive league in Houston – a very competitive soccer area.  For younger or beginning players, I would prefer a formation that would be easier to teach out of and reinforce concepts I am introducing to them (width in attack, using the CM to link play, etc.)

If you have formations or ideas about game management that has helped you with player development, please post your thoughts.

Coach Clint