National team observation

Today’s post is an analysis of real life football coaching taken from three different youth-national teams. After observing these teams train and play games against each other we will theorize what was observed and see if there is something for you as a coach to take away and learn from. This post will first look at the structure of the tournament before a short description of the training sessions for each of the observed national teams. Thereafter the leadership of the coaches, how they coached in the sessions is discussed before looking at the games to see what the transfer from the training sessions were. Lastly there will be a summary and a list of potential take aways for coaches.

Somewhere in the world there is a tournament with four youth-national teams from countries with similar population, social and economic status. Let’s simplify it by calling them National team A, B, C and D. The teams observed in training was National team A, B and C and the games played the day after these trainings was; National team A versus National team D, National team B versus National team C. Prediction for the games after observing the training sessions was that team D would beat team A in a game where A have more possession but struggle to score and D scoring on the counter attack, teams B and C would play a close game where B would win, probably by scoring a late goal.

Two of the three teams observed trained in the 2 days leading up to the game and the third team arrived on, and only trained on the day before the game. National team A training was filled with a lot of different themes and concepts within the two sessions. They practiced defending, attacking and set pieces in different ways, switching in between the themes and mostly doing unopposed or low grade opposition (sticks, passive opponents, coaches as opponents). A lot of information for the players to take in during a relatively short time with many water breaks (minimum 5). There was little or no maximum football actions observed during these trainings, low tempo football with low quality execution of actions. There was also very little coaching football, mostly coaching of something that looks a little bit like football. The goalkeepers hardly interacted with the other players during these sessions. In two sessions there was a total of 20 minutes that was actual football training, the rest of the time was artificially constructed situations where the intention was probably to mimic the game in some degree.

National team B was a refreshing experience to observe after seeing national team A train. There was coaching of football from the start, after the warm-up and activation of players. In the session there was a gradual build-up of the players football actions the first 25 minutes and after this point every football action seamed to be executed at 100% of the players ability with the consequence being high tempo football with high quality execution of football actions. There were two themes in the session, the coaches started with defending opposition build-up before coaching transitioning to attack. There was no sticks and a limited amount of foreign objects on the pitch and the progression within the session was fluent. This was a quality football training session.

National team C arrived the day before the game and started off by allowing a handful of players shooting on goal for 10 minutes before the warm-up while the medical staff was engaged in some sort of game with the rest of the coaching staff except the head coach and assistant coach. After practicing running around the pitch for one lap, the warm-up continued for 45 minutes with non-contextual drills and activation of the lower and central part of the body. After these 45 minutes national team C begun with passing exercise that progressed into a possession game before ending with a short tactical game. There was two main themes during the last 45 minutes (none in the first 45 mins) of the session; attacking build-up and defending opponent build-up. Hardly any foreign objets on the pitch, only a few cones and regular goals. The last 45 minutes was coaching football with high quality execution of football actions and high tempo football.

Now, let’s have a look at how the coaches coached in these session, what leadership styles they used when executing coaching actions. We will try to analyze all of the coaches in the staff, although that is not entirely possible since some coaches never interacted with the players in the sessions observed. There will not be any opinions regarding the quality of the coaching actions, only the observed leadership style.

For national team A it was very clear that the head coach was using the leadership style of the teacher with both his players and his staff. In addition it was noted that the head coach was coaching like a very ambitious teacher, trying to cover many subjects for the class in one school session. Something that was very interesting was that even though the head coach was a teacher, the assistant coaches used the leadership style of the commander when executing their coaching actions with the players. They never explained why something should be done in a certain way and from our vantage point never asked questions to the players, only telling. A surprising fact given the leadership style of the head coach and something that did not to appear to be a conscious decision.

The head coach of national team B appeared to coach more like a manager, taking a step back and observing his players while allowing the assistant coaches run the bulk of the session. The assistant coaches were undoubtably teachers who guided the players through the tactical themes of the session in a very clear way, allowing for some discussion before quickly reaching consensus. When only observing one session it’s impossible to say if the head coach always uses the leadership style of the manager or if this was a conscious decision for only this session, the first of the week and two days before the game.

Watching national team C train it was interesting to observe the staff and what they did, or more precise, what they didn’t do. There where throughout the session, minimum four staff members standing around with no apparent responsibilities except fetching balls and filling up one team for a short part of the tactical session. The head coach and his assistant (not included in the four) where both using the leadership style of the teacher when they where coaching the players. Interestingly, there was almost no interaction between the head coach and the rest of his staff, the four onlookers who did a good job of supporting the posts of the goal on the sideline.

To summarize the leadership style of the coaches for these three national teams we were able to observe, there were as expected, mostly teachers. That we also saw the leadership style of the manager was not shocking but more of a pleasant surprise while noticing the two assistant coaches for national team A coaching like commanders actually was a shock. (Why were we surprised? Read this post: How should you coach?)

The two games where played on the same day after each other. First up was national team B against national team C. The prediction after watching the training sessions was for team B to win in a relatively close game where B would finish off C the last 15 minutes. How did this prediction stand up to the game? The game started evenly the first 20 minutes with some beautiful goals from both teams. The score after 20 minutes was 2-1 for national team B. In the last 20 minutes of the first half however, team B was dominant and added 2 goals to make it 4-1 at half time. In the second half, national team C started well and dominated the first 20 minutes and scoring one goal to make it 4-2. They pushed on for 10 more minutes until the 75th minute from which point team B could easily control the last 15 minutes and winning 4-2. To summarize, the game was not played as evenly as predicted but it was by no means a one sided game and national team B did get the predicted win. Even though they didn’t win the game by scoring the last goal at the end of the game, team C did not create one scoring chance the last 15 minutes while national team B had full control of the game.

In the game between D and A there was early signals that the prediction for the game would be wrong. This in itself was not very surprising given that the biggest X-factor in the prediction was the team that we did not see train and knew nothing about, national team D. However, it started as predicted with National team A having more possession the first 15 minutes and team D countering before team D took over and had more possession the last 20 minutes of the first half where they also scored the first goal of the game after a beautiful attack in the last minute of the half. There where a lot of corners in the first half, where 5 of team A’s 7 being bundled together in a sequence of 5 minutes. This sequence was a good argumentation for why football should never implement effective playing time. In the second half, the game was evenly played with team A having some possession without creating a single scoring opportunity before the 80th minute mark and team D having numerous counter attacks where they created 4-5 quality chances to score their second goal in the game. At the 80 minute mark, team A shifted some players (they substituted a total of 8 players throughout the second half) and changed their approach to attacking by implementing long balls to the physically superior players positioned as strikers. This shift in strategy was smart since team D had smaller players than team A and it consequently led to the creation of two scoring opportunities and a handful of situations that could have led to chances in the last 10 minutes. When the second opportunity arose in stoppage time on a set piece the equalizing goal was scored and the game ended in a 1-1 draw. This meant that the game was finished with penalty kicks that national team D won 5-4. The prediction of which team would win turned out to be right, even though the way it would happened was not entirely as predicted.

To summarize and draw some conclusions from this limited observational exercise, we will compare the training sessions with what happened in the games. For national team A it was apparent in their attacking that they had not practiced football in training and the time spent doing unopposed ”attacking training” was a waste of time. However, they did get a lot of set pieces which they spent a great deal of time practicing and they also did practice the penalty kicks, although they ultimately lost the game this way. The head coach of team A should receive much praise for having, and practicing an alternative strategy for 10 minutes in training since that led to the goal and the chance to win the game at the end.

National team B was the training session where the coaches was coaching football throughout which also showed in their game against team C. Team B played high tempo football and had a higher level of communication within their team in all of the team functions than their opponent. There was also a clear correlation to what was practiced in training and what was executed on the pitch in the game. For national team C there was some limited transfer of the attacking training to the game. However, team C always was a step behind team B and did not look like they had played together before when defending. This could be a result of the fact that they arrived the day before the game and had a long session with 45 minutes of warm-up before 45 minutes of football training.

What are the possible take aways for coaches in watching and comparing these different approaches of training before the game?

  1. Coaching football in training is the best way of creating a learning effect and transfer to the game. (Don’t know what this is? Read the post coaching football.)
  2. Choose one or two subjects / themes to coach and stick to it.
  3. Use as few foreign objects as possible in training.
  4. As a head coach, make sure you decide how you and your staff coach the players, what leadership style you use and don’t let the personality of the coaches decide.
  5. Delegate responsibilities to all of your coaching staff to avoid staff members only ”hanging around”.

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