It has never been hard for me to spot a good player. There is an element of ease, a comfort with the ball, a relaxed, almost nonchalant air when doing ridiculously hard things. In my eyes, the essence of this whole star or the fundamental beginnings of greatness, begins with the ability to play on the half turn and letting the ball roll across the body.
Ronald De Boar in Uefa’s Technician magazine recently described how during Dutch National Team training you could always spot the Ajax Academy graduates due to their ability to create space in tight areas with this move. Much of the Ajax training involves training in triangles and diamonds. Two spaces that encourage these movements.
When I coach I use possession oriented practices that are directional. I want to go somewhere with the ball rather than anywhere and everywhere. In doing so it also becomes a practice that relates more to the game itself. My direction could be trash cans or end zones or cone goals or the real thing.
This type of training is the time to work on the ‘great player’ ability. Key phrases I use that never lose their impact are “receive with the far foot not your favorite foot” or “show a shoulder to the ball” and ” head on a swivel.” In fact, I have an aversion to “back to goal,” as it seems counterproductive on so many levels and if we teach correctly it can be a last resort strategy rather than a requirement.
Bobby Robson on his return to Newcastle helped Geordie legend Alan Shearer become a more productive player by working on “sideways on” rather than that dreaded “back to goal.” Fast forward a few years and one was knighted by the Queen and one received sainthood by Geordies everywhere.
For once in my lifetime the ‘greatest team in the world ‘debate is quiet. No challengers for Barcelona currently. So watch them with a coaches eye. Watch how they receive the ball always knowing where they are going. Watch how the deftest of touches across the body can relieve them of so much pressure. Watch how opponents in tandem are not worries but opportunities to exploit any space between them. Truly they are a master class of playing out of tight spaces, not with tricky moves, but with great passing and receiving and by being so simple they have become so great.
Phil Stephenson is in his 13th season with the Texas A&M soccer team. In December of 2010 he was named the team’s Associate Head Coach after a 12-year stint as an assistant. He has helped lead the Aggie soccer program to 13 consecutive NCAA postseason berths, including four Elite Eight appearances. Stephenson has also seen 10 Big 12 Championships at A&M.