Is Pochettino the man to make the English rethink their soccer?

By Paul Gardner

I detect signs -- long-awaited signs -- that things are changing in English soccer. I mean real fundamental change. Not the glossy superficial marketing tripe that is constantly fed to us as evidence that something, anything, is new, and therefore must be an improvement. Usually it is just the packaging that is new, gaudily disguising the fact that the product itself hasn’t changed at all.

What I’m looking at here does, I think, suggest that new ideas -- new to the English soccer brain, that is -- are at last forcing their way into the English game.

Exhibit A came during the under-16 tournament played recently in Florida.

Four teams -- Brazil, the Netherlands, England and the USA. With wins over the USA and Brazil and a tie with the Netherlands, England won the competition -- and thoroughly deserved to. The revelation here was not the scorelines, but the quality of the soccer that England played.

So good, in fact, that it might -- for a moment or two -- have had you wondering whether this really was England you were watching. Long balls? A few, not that many. Constant use of the cross? Not at all, the cross was not overdone. Rustic tackling and ball-winning, the trusty “get-stuck-in” approach? Not a factor.

Three absolute staples of the English game, and they were rarely to be seen. This was a team that evidently preferred to have the ball on the ground, and that preference was amply justified by the players’ ball skills, the lightness of the first touch, the clear, instant control, and the smoothness of the passing. With those qualities on display, a possession game was possible, with plenty of accurate on-the-ground passing. A game of intelligent, coherent soccer.

That is the sort of thing that Brazilians have been doing for decades -- though, oddly enough, they looked light years away from that style in their first two games, both lost -- 0-3 to the Dutch, and 0-2 to England. Sadly for the USA, Brazil remembered it was Brazil in time to seriously outplay the Americans 3-0 in their final game.

Well, one swallow doth not a summer make, or something. As I was quickly reminded. A week or so after watching the youngsters I tuned into an Everton game on TV. At halftime, on came the inevitable Brit voices, one of them having it in for Everton’s young Spaniard Gerard Deulofeu.

Oh sure, said the voice, he can do his little tricks out on the wing -- that was bad enough, but the big trouble was that his crosses were awful.

I filed that away as a neat, terse summary of English attitudes to soccer: quit showing off with all the hot-doggery, and just make sure your crosses are decent. That’s the way to play soccer. Pretty depressing.

But then another swallow, maybe a whole flock of ‘em, flew to the rescue. In charge of this flock -- they wear Tottenham Hotspur shirts -- is an Argentine, Mauricio Pochettino. On Thursday I watched these Spurs Swallows dismantle Monaco 4-1. Not bad, considering that six regular first-teamers were being rested. Of Spurs’ ten field players, five -- exactly half -- were British youngsters (four English, one Welsh).

And Pochettino had this sub-strength, 50% British, team playing just the type of soccer I had a week or two earlier so admired in the England under-16 team. Again the possession and the control of the ball was impeccable. Which meant intelligent, purposeful soccer. And -- to a more pronounced degree than the boys had shown -- the traditional English reliance on the cross was not to be seen.

According to my own notes, Spurs got off just one cross that the Monaco goalkeeper Danijel Subasic might have handled -- but it was a pretty woeful effort from Ben Davies that sailed over everyone. A couple more attempts at crossing were blocked immediately by Monaco defenders.

Instead of crossing, Spurs chose to keep the ball on the ground, and to pass it in toward the penalty area. I counted six occasions when Spurs players were in wide positions with the ball, exactly when you would expect them, in the English game -- to whip in, or float in, a cross. The cross was not used, the ball was passed in, it stayed on the ground, controlled by Spurs’ players. During one of these moments, early in the second half, Joshua Onomah was played clean through the Monaco defense, to be thwarted by goalkeeper Subasic.

Reducing the frequency of crosses also allows for a more varied attack -- including direct assaults right down the middle, something that is generally considered a no-no by the English, obsessed as they are with the notion of width.

All four Tottenham goals came from on-the-ground passing sequences, two of them from close ball-control within the penalty area. It was exhilarating to watch (not if you were Monaco devotees, of course) and was decidedly un-English.

Pochettino is making a name for himself in England as a coach who is willing to field young British players. The ones who played on Thursday -- Davies, Onomah, Eric Dier, Tom Carroll and Dele Alli all looked promisingly at home playing in a style that looked more Argentine than English.

As I’m very well aware of the formidable mulishness of the English soccer mind, I suppose it would be premature to announce that Pochettino is the man to force the English into an agonizing reappraisal of their soccer. We thought (OK, I thought) that the splendid playing careers in England of Argentina’s Ossie Ardiles and Brazil’s Juninho (and more recently of Cristiano Ronaldo) might do the trick. Not so.

But Pochettino is a coach, not a player. And he appears to be capable of doing something that English coaches have failed, or not bothered, to do. He can get English players to use a different mindset, to play a more modern version of soccer that reduces the importance of a number of stylistic elements that have always been considered a key part of the English game.

And while he is doing that, his team is winning both games and admirers.

19 comments about "Is Pochettino the man to make the English rethink their soccer? ".
  1. Edgar Aldana, December 11, 2015 at 4:40 p.m.

    Wow, this is amazing, the English find it difficult to change their game because in there pompous minds they're are still better than anyone else. Paul, your article also should hit at US soccer who's mentality of the game is the same as the English as far as tactics are concerned, we've had so much admiration for the English game that we adapted it's style and also it's failures. It is my hope to see the US game change so that one day it can succeed but it won't until we clean up and reduce the modern game.

  2. Scott Johnson, December 11, 2015 at 7:33 p.m.

    Crossing can be a good tactic in certain instances: 1) Against a defense that isn't set. 2) If you have strikers that can routinely beat fullbacks or the keeper to the ball. 3) To mix things up, so the defense has to defend against the cross, in addition to other ways of entering the ball into the box. Reliance on it as the sine non qua of offensive soccer, OTOH, is silly.

    Quite a bit of UK/US received soccer knowledge seems an overreaction to what is perceived as selfish showboating in other styles of soccer. And indeed, the Latin American game has, over the years, produced its share of selfish showboaters who only make passes if there's a pretty woman in the room. But having good ball skills, including getting around defenders, is also an important part of the game.

    Unfortunately, I also detect a whiff of overreaction in the other direction--that long balls and such are bad soccer. Pish-posh. If your wingers are faster than the other guys wingbacks, and you have a guy who is accurate passing the ball, long balls down the field into space can be a great way to break down a defense. And if your backs and DM can both play long and keep it on the field, then the opposing team has to account for both, and can't overplay one or the other. But like anything, the long ball (or the ball-control game) should be viewed as a tactic, not a strategy. Confusing tactics and techniques with strategies (and thinking that everything is a nail because what you have is a hammer) is one of the great sins of sport.

  3. Kent James replied, December 12, 2015 at 9:10 a.m.

    Very well put. Crossing is not inherently evil. Good offensive teams exploit the defense's weaknesses (though as a caveat, really good offensive teams impose their will on the defenses). PG seems to think being unable to hit a cross is a badge of honor of some sort. Additionally, while I did not see the game in which the commentators were disparaging the "tricks" displayed by the winger, competitive soccer should be played with purpose. Just as there are guys who only want to cross, there are other guys who only want to dribble. Taking on a defender by dribbling, when a more effective pass is open, is a poor decision, even for a good dribbler. One of the joys of soccer is the variety of skills (and strategies!) players can use to be effective. There is no one right answer.

  4. Ric Fonseca, December 11, 2015 at 7:54 p.m.

    Thank you Scott as your statement that "Confusing tactics and techniques with strategies...(sic)" is spot on! While I agree this is an "interesting" article, I would rather read more of this type of article genre ABOUT US soccer, than have to pore over PG's pieces that center on UK futbol-soccer. I really don't care much at all about the goings on in England, or France, or wherever, I want to focus here in the US! Granted, the Brits did spread the sport all over the world during their colonial periods, yet, we're "now in the 21st Century" and England's colonial possessions have shrunk to a handful and our sport has established its own styles from Argentina to Mexico to Brazil, to part of Africa, Europe, etc. BUT, to apparently and constantly read PG's pieces on his native country has gotten very tiring and boring. So I propose to SOCCER AMERICA to tell Mr. Gardner to PLEASE focus on US Soccer, its strategy, tactics, styles of play favored by different MLS coaches, and even those coaching the US M/WNTeams. So in danger of sounding sort of xenophobic against UK "football" and thank you England for spreading the sport during the 19th Century +, let's focus on 21st Century US football-soccer, ok? Gracias!

  5. Carolyn Haack, December 11, 2015 at 9:30 p.m.

    Paul is spot on about the England U16 team. I watched all of the Nike friendlies, and they definitely deserved to win, unlike previous England teams. Passing was crisp and possession was used for more than killing the clock.

    Ric, having seen the US youth team play, all I can say is the less said about them, the better. There was some definite individual talent on the U16 (Andrew Carleton stands out), but there was no discernible strategy and tactics and technique were lacking too.

  6. Ric Fonseca replied, December 12, 2015 at 3:34 p.m.

    Carolyn, ok kudos to the English U16 team, fine and dandy, and with all respect, you missed my point and that is to have PG's pieces and others, FOCUS on US teams, and yes, if the truth hurts about our youth players, their lack of cohesion on the field, and perhaps misunderstanding of tactics and strategies, having spent almost four decades with this sport, seeing its development, negative and positive approaches, I feel that we, as an entire soccer-playing nation, give our teams the support they deserve, and for crying out loud, the more attention they get, I am sure the better they will perform. As I've said many times over, we've been stuck for too long in the "recreational mode of our sport," to wit the myriad of recreational youth soccer programs, to include ayso, and it is high time we ramp it up tremendously. Lastly TO R2D Dad, you've hit it on the head, especially with the latter part of your comment, so let's get out of the recreational and "Kickball

  7. Scott Johnson replied, December 12, 2015 at 5:23 p.m.

    A useful reminder: Technique (in soccer): That which requires a ball, and can be practised solo or with a partner: Dribbling, passing, shooting, heading, trapping, tackling, winning possession, throw-ins, placekicking, punting, in-play kicking, ball-stopping, penalty-killing. (And if you're English, fouling and flopping. :) Tactics: Higher level skills that everyone should know, but can only be practised in training with a larger group of players: Triangle drills and triangulation. Set pieces (offence and defence). Offside traps. Basic formations. Runs and crosses. That, and the set of skills summed up by the phrase "first touch"--knowing what to do the instant the ball is delivered to your feet (or your head) and doing it before the defense can react. If you have to think, it's too late. Strategy is the responsibility of the coach or manager: Determining overall formations. Staffing the team. Managing substitutions. Managing training sessions and what is emphasized in training.

  8. R2 Dad, December 12, 2015 at 3:23 a.m.

    The key here is that this English U16 group is a youth team that knows how to play the ball on the ground. I didn't find them as convincing as others here, but they were much better than previous iterations. You can always teach on-the-ground players the tactic of long balls/crosses later, after they've learned to play the game. But when players/coaches start out with the long ball, there is no plan B, and it's then too late to teach them the skills required to play soccer. Unfortunately, I've never met an repentant kickball coach, and they should all be banned from youth soccer in this country. If they're so great, let them start coaching U19's, if they have so much wisdom to impart. Then work down to the U8s, once they've learned the error of their ways. Kickball < Soccer.

  9. Bob Ashpole, December 12, 2015 at 10:27 p.m.

    Typically in any match only one team plays possession style while the other counterattacks. Regardless I understood Mr. Gardner to be to referring to the practice on every possession dribbling along touch to the goal line and launching a long cross which endlessly turns over the ball. If readers think that is the "US Style of Play," they need to watch more US amateur soccer. There is more to soccer than "possession" style and old fashioned English wing play.

  10. Wesley Hunt, December 13, 2015 at 10:19 a.m.

    The first step to learn the ball on the ground possession style game is ball mastery. Here is the progression of learning. Me and the ball. Me and the ball and I have an opponent. Me and the ball and I have an opponent and a teammate to help me beat them. So in the beginning the only way for a little kid to get ball mastery is to be allowed and encouraced to dribble and shoot when they are very young. To let them dribble around the house and in the yard and play pick up games with their freinds and siblings when avalible and by themselves when they are not. They see elders watching and talking about soccer and the older kids laying and all obviously being excited by it. Now every game they play is the final in the world cup or the high school championship game. Thus begins the obsession that will make them put in the time to master the ball and become great players. This is how it needs to start. By being greedy with the ball. Me and the ball!

  11. Wesley Hunt, December 13, 2015 at 10:20 a.m.

    The problem here in the US and possibly in the UK is a cultural one. Although ours is a culture that supposedly values individual expression many of our youth soccer coaches squash it at the youngest ages. How so? By emphasizing the passing/positional game of soccer. Wether that be long ball soccer or a short passing game it completely negates the perfect time to teach individual ball skills. Kids as young as 7-8 get pigeon holed into being a defender, or a striker, or a midfielder. Coaches tell the kids to stay wide on the right or left or behind the half line when all they want to do is chase the ball and get a piece of it. This is what they practice with all the stand in line drills. It is a wonder that any kid plays soccer past the age of 10. It is all about the team not the individual. What these good intention for the most part volunteer parent coaches don’t realize is the team part comes later. For most kids under 10 it is not about sharing the ball it is about mastering it.

  12. Wesley Hunt, December 13, 2015 at 10:20 a.m.

    Although I run a futsal league and coach soccer I am from a basketball background. I learned my individual skills at the playground. My friends and I would watch professional games on TV as well as are very good high school team and then try the cool moves we saw against each other. You didn’t just do a layup even if you had already beat the opponent you had to put something fancy on it for the bragging rights. By the time a coach got hold of us we had the fundamentals skills hard wired into our nervous system. We were ready to learn “I have a teammate who can help me beat the opponent” phase of learning. If this is how soccer was learned in this country we would dominate the game and it would be a beautiful game we would play. I agree that long passing and crosses are a part of the game but if that is all you know by the time you are an older teenager you will have missed the perfect time to develop ball mastery, game vision, and creativity.

  13. Scott Johnson replied, December 13, 2015 at 6:39 p.m.

    Basketball is an interesting analogy. The equivalent, I suppose, of a pass-happy no-dribbling soccer game would be the Princeton offense. (This actually works better in football than in hoops). The equivalent of all dribble-no-past would be the horrible game that dominated US basketball in the late 90s and early 80s (patterned off of a poor caricature of Michael Jordan) that consisted of little more than wing players trying to beat defenders off the dribble--something easily stopped by an organized defense. And the "all crossing" game is reminiscent of 70s/80s halfcourt hoops, when the primary duty of guards on offense was to dump it into the post; also easily defeated by a modern organized defense. (The NBA's horrible ban on zone defenses for several decades--along with a reluctance to double-team the ball, unless it was a player the caliber of Larry Bird being guarded--made these strategies workable, of course).

  14. Scott Johnson replied, December 13, 2015 at 6:41 p.m.

    Late 90s and early 2000s, not early 80s.

  15. Wesley Hunt, December 14, 2015 at 10:28 a.m.

    Like any endeavor in life one will adapt to whatever works in a competive environment. Players and coaches alike. Professional Basketball has tinkered so much with its rules that it is not the same game it was way back when I played and was a fan. I have gotten quite used to the continous flowing nature of a good soccer game. Not a gizzillion time outs like in Basketball and football. Of course futsal is much more quick paced and intense and resembles basketball in movement more than soccer I think that is why I understood it quicker and have found from training that a good basketball player will know where to go and how to move off the ball much better than a players who has played a lot of soccer even if they don't have the footskill to do anything with it.

  16. Wesley Hunt, December 14, 2015 at 10:42 a.m.

    When I played mid 70s, it was zone defense and dump it to the post. The only reason a gaurd would shoot is to keep the defenders honest. Our team however, and this is high school, had a forward looking coach with a bunch of high skilled street players, I was the least of them for sure. Ours was a zone high court press with a run and gun offense. Went to states twice and frustrated a lot of more traditional baskeball teams with all of their discipline and zones and different plays they would call. Most of the time they never could even get it up the court. They were not used to that kind of pressure. But it took players with complete confidence with the ball to pull it off.

  17. Wesley Hunt, December 14, 2015 at 10:45 a.m.

    Yes I did follow Micheal Jordan, Larry Bird and the rest. Have not followed the game ever since ever since Jordan retired. Those were the days for me and now it is Barcelona that I follow and futsal footskilsl to kiddies that I teach.

  18. Ric Fonseca replied, December 21, 2015 at 8:17 p.m.

    Wesley, I fully respect and admire your willingness to learn our sport and now teach it. It is exactly players like you that will help make our country a soccer power sometime down the long yellow brick road, and eventually we will reach and win the golden ring. Keep up the good work, and yes arriba Barca, and throw in some Real Madrid and other La Liga teams, and some other European teams for good measure, and add some salsa from down south of the border and beyond! Feliz Navidad!

  19. Scot Sutherland, January 10, 2016 at 3:47 p.m.

    Bournemouth come to mind. How dare they possess the ball against the likes of Arsenal, Chelsea, Manchester United, etc. I am hoping that they can stick in the top flight simply because they refuse to capitulate to the status quo.

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