Are You Trying to Fix the Wrong Thing? This Isn’t for Every Coach

Let me start this article on soccer intelligence using a medical example. If you visit the doctor because you have lower-back pain, the doctor might prescribe some muscle relaxers, a couple rehab exercises, and a heating pad. You walk out of the doctor’s office not questioning the doctor’s prescription, because it was a normal visit for a routine problem, and you left with a common remedy. However, what if the lower-back problem was actually caused by poor body alignment? That means the remedy you thought was the answer is not the answer, and does not address the root of the problem at all.  Now let’s jump to the 2020 MLS Final between Seattle and Columbus. The first two goals were a culmination of many errors for Seattle, as both goals exploited Seattle’s lack of marking players at the far post. If this game was shown in a coaching course, the immediate remedy would be to run defensive training sessions the following week. Keep in mind, Seattle already possesses the absolute best technology and data in soccer, their Head Coach has his USSF Pro License, and they probably have run hundreds of defensive training sessions over the past year; it’s common place for teams to run a team defensive session every week, going-over team shape, compactness, transition from the shape, and whatever else. This is a soccer example about giving up goals, followed by prescribing more defensive training sessions to correct the problem. The example should start to sound like the trip to the doctor’s office for the lower-back, that I described. Now let me address deeper what I saw for the first two goals in the MLS final. First, Seattle lacked defensive balance when attacking, the players carried out an aggressive game-model that resulted in un-needed risk & vulnerability to the counter-attack, there was a complete lack of scanning by the center-backs, resulting in no-marking at the back post and lack defensive shifting of players to provide cover, players were focusing on the wrong cues (the ball) which limited what they were able to perceive, let me stop there, but hold onto those thoughts. Let’s now jump back to those defensive training sessions, I contend that the value of not just Seattle’s team defensive training sessions, but all team defensive training sessions are incredibly small at best, as the objectives of the sessions are never really accomplished. Sounds crazy, but let me explain more. I remember being taken through a 90 minute team defensive training routine by a top European Professional Coach. It was a good session, but the team performed it every week for the entire 10 month season, and it failed to account for the actual unpredictability and randomness of the actual game. I guarantee the value of that training session was lost by week #2, in-effect almost wasting one day a week of training for 9 months. Sounds harsh, I know. But think of it this way, teaching high-level players about where they need to be for the team to take-up a good defensive shape is not that hard, they get it very quickly. I remember listening to a top EPL coach speaking at a clinic say, his players can easily learn a new formation and tactics in just one training session. If a coach in the EPL says his players can effectively learn a new formation in 2 hours, it provides yet another clue as to why I say Seattle does not need more defensive sessions to improve their defending. Let me explain a little deeper as to why this is the case. The goals against Seattle were scored because of a lack of soccer intelligence, which in-turn created defensive breakdowns. Let that sink in….because that is the main point, a lack of soccer intelligence is root of the problem. If I was to make Seattle better or any team for that matter, I would work on training soccer intelligence. How would I do that you ask? I would do things like have the center backs regularly play center-midfield in 6v6 game-based trainings. Why?  It would improve their scanning ability, increase their spatial ability, force them to perceive the game differently, and as a result increase their soccer intelligence. I would have the right wingback, who was caught so badly out of position on the goal, play center back in game-based trainings, so he would perceive the game in a different way, seeing first-hand what it looks like when the wingbacks get caught to high-up the field. Those are two small examples, I could prescribe hundreds of ideas to increase player intelligence, but notice that none of my ideas will be centered around pure defensive training sessions as the solution for playing great defense. The solution to playing great defense is increased soccer intelligence, carried out by the entire unit. The solution to playing winning soccer in all four phases of the game is soccer intelligence. Yes, I would go over how the goals happened in the previous match, maybe spending 10-15 minutes on it in a training, but then it’s back to training soccer intelligence in game-based trainings. Of course the game based trainings include all four phases of the game, with defensive organization and transition being important parts. I’m sure at this point, every coaching instructor in the world would throw up their hands, and fail me on the spot, which I would be fine with. Personally, I will continue to opt-out of consistently running these rote type of team defensive exercises. I will run a couple defensive team sessions in pre-season, another one or two in the middle of the season, and add in changes to the defensive game model depending on the opponent, but my objective will always stay focused on increasing game intelligence for players to apply in a flexible game model with ideas that they can bend. I will be writing more about game-model construction in the future, and how game-models can constrain player decision-making, and inhibit player solutions. However for today, the message I wanted to get across is this, “don’t assume in coaching that the way it’s always been taught is the only way, or the best way.”