I feel compelled to write this blog because in the last few weeks, I’ve seen lots of drills, both online and in person, that seem to be classified as “training”. Usually, these drills don’t involve a defender, but they typically involve some type of body movement around cones or poles, and occasionally, a ball is involved.
While I have no issue with passing patterns and “technical exercises” being used as part of the warm up, I DO have an issue with this consuming 35-60 minutes of a 90 minute session. When I see drills like this, my first question is why?
Why do we train?
What is the purpose of our team training?
Is it to consume time while we run around objects and perform technical skills that we sometimes use in a game (tossing the ball for an inside of the foot volley anyone?) or is there something larger and more important that should be the focus of our training?
I tend to lean towards the latter.
Objectively, the purpose of training is to prepare players to execute better actions within the confines of a team defined playing style (game model), in order to increase the chances that we score more goals and concede fewer goals than our opponent on match day.
If this is our defined training objective, it becomes harder to justify training in any manner that doesn’t involve football actions, a defined team playing style, and an opponent.
I have been a part of many teams that trained football actions, but without a defined playing style or context. What do I mean by this?
Let’s say we are playing a 10v10 game. Each time the ball goes out for a goal kick, the keeper restarts play by playing a short pass to one of the center backs, who then proceeds to build out of the back and into the middle third. Seems fine, right?
The problem is, on matchday, we were extremely averse to building short out of the back (mostly due to our coach shouting “It goes!”). In fact, our goalkeeper would play direct 90% of the time, where our back four would squeeze and we would attempt to win the 2nd ball, in order to build the attack in the middle third.
If playing direct from a goal kick was key to our team playing style, why didn’t we train that in the 10v10 training game?
Is it because it didn’t look as aesthetically pleasing? Or could it be because we didn’t have a clearly defined training objective to be used as the backbone for our training session. This naturally would mean that instead of training to improve our playing style, we performed lots of non-contextual drills that looked like the game, but weren’t the game.
It would have been beneficial to us as players to know that this style was only to be played under certain circumstances (team playing a low defensive block) and if the opponent pressed higher up the field, we would go direct off the goal kick. Now, instead of just training the game, we had some good context for why we were making the decisions that we were.
The best example I can give for a coach who gets this exactly spot on is Pep Guardiola.
He did an interview with a reporter after his team had lost to an opponent with a very direct style of play, where he talked about how in the following weeks, they trained specifically for winning the 2ndball off of direct play.
“Guardiola has admitted City need to be stronger at both ends of the pitch, more aggressive and better at winning the second balls. The Catalan spent 2½ hours a day in the lead up to the 2-1 win over Arsenal on Sunday tailoring training specifically to work on second-ball scenarios.”
This meant that if City was playing 11v11 in training, one team was playing a direct style of play, and Pep was coaching the opposing team (his starting XI) on where he wanted them tactically, what decisions he wanted them to make after they won the ball, and where to drop to if they didn’t win the 2ndball.
Very specific, in the context of the game, and based on his team’s possession based playing style AND based on the expected style of play of the opponent.
While I disagree with the 2 ½ hour session length (one of the reasons I think Pep’s teams typically suffer quite a few injuries over a 9 month season) there’s no denying that his focus on football actions in the context of the game helped them to such a dramatic improvement over their 2016 campaign.
The game should always be the starting reference point, and then given context to the players through our defined playing style and the opponent’s defined playing style. We’ve now given our players the crucial “why”, which gives their decision making and game insight real, contextual meaning.