Meeting the coach who preaches Imagination Soccer

While talking tactics with a fellow coach the other night, I ventured that the all-conquering Spanish team of 10 years ago had been too perfect for its own good. It passed the opposition to death. Which was great if you were a Spaniard, enjoying your nation's peerless superiority and endless possession, but actually quite dull for everyone else. I said that I could recall the trophies (two European Championships and a World Cup between 2008 and 2012) and the names of all the players, but not so many great moments that had me leaping out of my seat.

My fellow coach gave me a bemused, searching look. I waited for his counter-argument, which would have been impossible to disagree with. How could I dispute that the technical excellence of Xavi and Andres Iniesta, to name only two, had been anything besides mankind at its absolute soccer peak? Yet, he countered with nothing of the sort. Instead he said, "I think I understand what you mean. And there's something I want to show you. Meet me here tomorrow at 5 pm."

The next evening I showed up as arranged and he ushered me into his car. We drove to a soccer field about an hour out of town, where he introduced me to Nico, a former player of his and now a young coach in his 20s who was about to take practice with his boys U-15 team. We sat down in the dugout to watch. "Why did we come all this way to watch an amateur youth team practice?" I wanted to know as they went through their warm-ups. My colleague gave me a dismissive gesture and the curt instruction: "Just be patient."

The 22-strong roster lined up for a full-field scrimmage, both in a 3-2-4-1 formation, and for the first 15 minutes played the equivalent of the very 'tiki-taka' I'd been critical of the night before. They were impressive enough, though, and when one side had possession, their opponents found it very hard to win the ball back. Nice to watch, for a short while.

Tellingly, there were no shots on goal. Again, I wondered out loud what we were doing there, and this time my colleague ignored me completely.

On a short instruction from Nico, both teams switched formations and tactics. The defenders on both teams swapped positions with the midfielders and attackers, while the shape resembled an old-fashioned 4-2-4. Distribution came via both wings, and players were suddenly willing to dribble past opponents and try the unexpected. There were more mistakes and turnovers, but also a lot more pace and goalmouth incident. By the end of the second 15 minutes the score was 2-2.

Then, on a further signal from Nico, there followed ten minutes where both teams built from the back to feed a play-making No. 10, who in turn supplied two attacking fullbacks and a duo of out-and-out strikers. Each side scored another goal, and I presumed this would be the formation until halftime until a final call from Nico of, "Five minutes, full English!" From this point on, both teams played long, high balls toward the penalty area, as though desperate to win the game at any price. It was unseemly kick and rush, but - I have to admit - fun to watch. There were several scrappy chances and a couple of counterattacks, but no one scored the winner.

While the players took a break, my colleague and I talked to Nico. "I'm trying to teach them something called Imagination Soccer," he explained. "Eventually, I want them to switch playing systems of their own accord, on a given signal from any player. I'm also encouraging them to adjust and modify the formations and tactics on their own - to add and subtract. To subvert the very systems I'm teaching them."

"Why?" I asked. Not because I disagreed with him, but because I wanted to know more. "Because otherwise they get bored," said Nico, smiling. "I don't want them to get bored. I want them to enjoy themselves. Repetition is deathly. It's existentially criminal. We are human animals, outdoors with a bouncing ball, so we need to be entertaining ourselves, and anyone who comes to watch. It's my goal to coach every player to fit it into every position, so they can dribble past an opponent, speed down the wing, thread a pass into a crowded penalty area, tackle an opponent hard but fairly, or effectively lump it long in the last five minutes if we need a goal."

I pointed out that this was an amateur club, so how could he possibly have the time to teach so much to so many players. "We train five times a week," said Nico, "and more if we don't have a game at the weekends. That's at the players' request. Did you notice that they didn't niggle once? No fouls, no complaints. It's because they all want to be here. We scrimmage a lot and only do drills as needed. They work on technique in their own time."

Finally, I couldn't resist asking. How's the team been getting on? "Oh, you know," said Nico breezily, as though the question was quite irrelevant. "Sometimes we win, sometimes we don't." This week I stepped down as a soccer coach after 20 years on the sideline. I'm also sad to report that neither Nico nor his team actually exists. But if I was starting out again with all that I've learned after two decades, he's the coach I'd want to try and be. And his dedicated team is the one I'd want to see out on the field, learning to make their own decisions and loving every second they get to play.

6 comments about "Meeting the coach who preaches Imagination Soccer".
  1. Kevin Sims, July 13, 2020 at 12:53 p.m.

    Dare to imagine!

  2. Ben Myers, July 13, 2020 at 7:51 p.m.

    Yes, indeed.  Let the kids learn to think for themselves.  It is absolutely fundamental that they understand the various styles of play and that they can execute them.  There is absolutely no reason why a team, even down to the U12 level, can't think for itself on the field and make the adjustments in formation to fit the circumstances.  The mantra of "don't teach tactics" does not hold for me with younger kids.  I prefer to tell kids that soccer is not rocket science, to quote an old friend who repeated this every time he was interviewed by a reporter after winning yet another high school state championship.  So we keep it simple, emphasize a few sound principles of play, keep the kids having fun and let them work on technique.  Rather than "drills", simulation of small match-like situations with small number of players.  No need to yell, scream and shout at players, just applaud what they do.

  3. Bob Ashpole, July 14, 2020 at 12:26 p.m.

    Great essay, Ian.

    My first thought is how much things have changed in the last 60 years if "imagination soccer" is when players make their own decisions and have fun.

    I liked the game better before there were technical areas when coaching from the sidelines was prohibited.

  4. Wooden Ships replied, July 14, 2020 at 10:15 p.m.

    I know what you're saying Bob. It was more fun back in the day. Why? We weren't over coached and we had freedom as a side. I played with some great youth clubs in the 60', early 70's in St. Louis. All the coaches had a wealth of experience professionally and internationally and nearly all would minimally instruct. There was always the reminder of recognizing space and the importance of skill with the ball. As a striker it was okay to be selfish and risk taking. We instinctively recognized and reacted to tactics as we were always paying attention.

    I'll never forget playing an all deaf team one time. Not sure where they came from, but they silently schooled us, with their skill with the ball and positional awareness. And, the joy they played with was contagious. 

  5. Chris Lemley, July 15, 2020 at 2:29 p.m.

    Why can't you "start out again," so to speak?

  6. Ian Plenderleith replied, July 17, 2020 at 3:29 a.m.

    Because on Monday I turn 55 and owe my wife 20 years worth of weekends.

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