Developing multifunctional players

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Former England U19 head coach, Noel Blake, discusses the importance of developing multifunctional players for the modern game.
How are formations and systems evolving in the modern game?At youth international level one system doesn’t fit all. We can say we want to play 4-3-3 but it can’t be in straight lines because straight lines in the modern game don’t work.

You’ve got to have multifunctional players now, especially in the front six positions [midfield and attack]. The players know their definitive roles, but we encourage positional interchange throughout.

Interchange is encouraged all over the pitch. For example, if one of our defenders steps out into midfield, one of our midfielders is comfortable enough to drop back in.

Liverpool's Joe Gomez runs forward with the ball.
Liverpool and England defender, Joe Gomez, has played across the backline at club level. Image: Paul Greenwood/BPI/REX.

How do you encourage movement in the front six positions?Likening it to basketball, if you can picture the ‘ball handler’ moving the ball up the court, it is the equivalent of the number four in football. Or, alternatively, it might be one of your centre-backs.

If someone confronts the ball handler or the centre back, you need movement from teammates to give passing options. In a midfield three, if one is the ball handler and the other two midfielders are marked, how are they going to get on the ball? So, the theory I encourage is if you’re in, get out; and if you’re out, get in. Meaning if two midfield players are marked, they must move to vacate the space, allowing others to move in and receive the ball.

Sometimes it might be the other way around where, depending on the level of intelligence of the players, it may be that two players come into the midfield spaces and one moves out, allowing for an overload. Who are the opposition going to pick up now?

If you play 4-3-3, sometimes your wide players can rotate with your midfield players. With the modern wide player [7 and 11], there’s nothing wrong with one of them coming inside and one of the more central midfield players moving outside.

Additionally, you can rotate one of your midfield players with your number 9. You can also rotate one of your wide players with your number 9, so your number 9 can become a winger. That gives you real flexibility.

How do you work on rotation of position during practice?We sometimes work unopposed. The back players will work the ball across the backline and wait for a trigger so the ball can go quickly into midfield.

Then we work on both movement, interchange and receiving skills. Are they going to take it on the inside or outside of their foot? Are they going to shield it?

If they receive it when someone is marking them, what do they do? Do they try to turn in a difficult area? Or do they play the way they’re facing? If they can turn, can they play forward? Recognising when to play forward is key.

The intelligent player recognises when their teammate is ready to receive the ball and plays accordingly.

If you move you create space. Movement in the game is critical. Movement hurts. No movement means it is very difficult to hurt people. We will work on all these things.

What ingredients does a multifunctional player have?I think it’s a multitude of things, but most importantly it’s their footballing ability and their footballing intelligence.

Over the years we’ve seen boys who can adapt to many positions and roles.

Those players are invaluable, particularly in tournament play. You don’t want to change your team around but sometimes circumstances dictate that you do. Having multifunctional players can allow you to adapt.

For example, Javier Mascherano, was a top holding midfield player who could play in the back four or in a back three.

The multifunctional, multidimensional player is the modern player.

Manchester City's Jesus Navas controls the ball and holds off Barcelona's Javier Mascherano.
Javier Mascherano had the capability to drop into the defensive line. Image: Garcia/BPI/REX/Shutterstock.

Can football intelligence be developed?Football intelligence can be worked on. Others may beg to differ, but in my opinion you can because I’ve seen it done. I’ve seen the value of it and, most importantly, the players see the benefit of it.

Game management is an extremely important skill at all levels of the game. Both coaches and players should be asking: What’s the state of the game? Where are you at in that game? Do you need to chase the game? Can you win the game 2-0 rather than chase to win it 4-0?

If you try to keep it to 2-0 and the opposition have got to come out and attack, all of a sudden you can pick them off and before you know it, you’re at 4-0, 5-0 anyway because you remained disciplined.

Having these types of conversations with the players, and incorporating these questions into practice sessions, can help develop football intelligence.

When working on movement and interchange of position how do you ensure security in defensive areas?If you liken a game to war, you’re going to attack. Your ground forces are attacking with your aerial patrols providing the ground forces with security.

Your attacking approach may be to go through or round the opposition. But equally there’s always someone back at base patrolling.

So, if you liken it to the game, it’s the same thing because the game is about transition. When you’re attacking you will not get an end product every time.

Somewhere down the line there’s going to be a transition. So, players must be prepared for that transition.

The key point here is that if you start to think about defending when the turnover comes, it’s too late. When I’m working with my team I’m always working the back line, keeping them on their toes. And when the transition comes the back line will be prepared.

When we’re defending, I’m looking at my front people, because when the turnover occurs in our favour and we regain possession, can we counter? Players must think this way otherwise we’ll always be under pressure. You always have to be ready. You have to see danger both in terms of attacking and defending. You have to see opportunity to create mayhem for the opposition and you have to spot danger that may create mayhem for you.

A tactical camera angle during the England v Cameroon game showing the Lionesses progressing up the pitch whilst having cover at the back in case of a transition.
It’s always important to think about transition, even if you’re in possession, to make sure there’s cover at the back.

Can coaches at grassroots level begin to work on positional interchange?Of course. In Holland, in the development programme, nobody is pigeon holed into positions. This only happens when they get into the U15 and U16 age groups.

Every player needs to understand what it’s like to play in other positions: how does a striker want to receive the ball? What is it like to receive the ball in midfield? The only way they can do that is by having a taste of it.

I look at other nations and they’re very good technically, as we can be, but I think sometimes they outdo us tactically. Tactics are not just about 4-3-3 against 4-4-2, that’s just a starting position. We need to understand what tactics really mean.

We also need to understand game understanding and game management. When I work with the national team, they are the areas I feel that we’re behind when we come up against some opposition. We’ll continue to work at it and we’re getting better at it.

This article was first published in The Boot Room magazine in April 2013.

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