Netherlands v England: Don’t abandon your philosophy because of a few mistakes.

Mistakes happen in any philosophy, they are a vital part of learning. England was a Lingard toe, spotted by a VAR decision, away from progressing to the Nations League final last night. In the end, they lost 3-1.

While the final score is disappointing, I find the way different people interpret the manner in which England conceded two goals fascinating.

I listened to Carragher, Neville and to a certain extent Redknapp after the match, and I think they absolutely nailed it between them. Gary Neville in particular impressed with his insight that “the problems are not always where they first seem to be” when talking about the Netherlands third goal, but let’s come back to that in a moment.

So I want to pick up on the Netherland’s second goal, in which Stones slips. Carragher got very animated when asked if England should be playing out from the back when things like that happen, and for good reason. Playing out from the back is a part of Southgate’s footballing philosophy. As Carragher rightly said ‘it’s not playing out from the back that cost England, it’s stupid decisions’.

At the grassroots level, and with kids, those decisions and mistakes are to be expected more often as they learn. I have lost count of the number of goals my own young team has conceded after losing the ball to a high press, but that doesn’t change my mind that keeping possession of the ball by playing through the thirds is the way to play versus kicking it long and ‘getting rid’ every time. That said, I am not against a long pass when it is right to do so.

Last season my boys were accused of being ‘a long ball team’ by an opponent which amused us no end. Think of the principles of play. Penetration. In the game in question, the opposition pressed all of their players into our half to press our goal kick. Their centre-backs were on the halfway line, and our very quick striker was licking his lips at the oppositions half of the pitch totally empty. Of course, we went longer with our passing in that scenario and got joy.

As Bob Paisley once said, “it is not about the long ball or the short ball, it’s about the right ball”. In my own environment, if we can penetrate then great. If not, then can we build it up from the back? When we lose it I don’t throw the philosophy out altogether. It makes me look at the reasons why we lose the ball, and how I can, as a coach, help the players to lose the ball less in the future.

So back to last night. In the lead up to the Netherlands second goal, Maguire played the ball out from the back and into Ross Barkley. Barkley played the ball, first touch, straight back to Maguire and then scanned to see if he could have turned. A scan before receiving would have clearly helped here. After realising he had a little more space than he had at first realised, Barkley dropped deep to receive it back off Maguire, this time turning to face forwards, and he was faced by a wall of orange and a group of England midfield statues. Gary Neville bemoaned the lack of midfield rotation, but any sort of movement would have been helpful at that point.

So Barkley, realising he could not play forwards because of the lack of movement, turned and gave the ball once more back to Maguire. Maguire was pressed, so he sensibly passed the ball sideways to Stones, and the angle of the pass, combined with Stones first touch, took him back towards Pickford’s goal with a Dutch forward breathing down his neck.

So far, not a problem. However, it was a poor decision by Stones to then try to turn back to face forwards without fully appreciating the space he had to work with, when it would have been preferable to pass back to Pickford, to move, and create space and a new angle down which he could both receive, and take a forward touch. As Stones turned back into trouble, he realised, and tried to continue his turn but slipped somewhere in the middle of that 360-degree ‘pirouette’ and the Netherlands scored, despite Pickford making a good first save.

The third goal highlighted once again the lack of movement ahead of the England defender in possession, which is, of course, vital if you want to play through the thirds. Maguire had the ball virtually on the goal-line and in the right-hand corner. His options were limited, as the Dutch forward got closer. Henderson was a statue and Barkley did not look like he wanted to receive it in that central area while marked. Kyle Walker, hugging the sideline, looked a better option, but a forward pass into a marked Ross Barkley put the Chelsea man under pressure and his first touch wasn’t accurate enough. The Netherlands scored again. With hindsight, Henderson had the space in which he could have dropped into to receive from Maguire, but he didn’t. Kyle Walker was the safer option in more space but wasn’t used. Mistakes out of possession in the lack of support for the man in possession, and poor decisions on the ball.

Back to the grassroots game, and linking the challenges England faced last night and the grassroots game.

Often when a defender in my boy’s team loses the ball while playing out from the back, it is the defender that gets the blame. It is the most obvious point of focus, but so often the lack of movement ahead of the defender is at least partly to blame. As Gary Neville said in his commentary last night, “the problem’s are not always where they first seem to be”. I ask my defenders to decide. Can you penetrate? If not, can you be composed on the ball, brave, and play out into midfield or to a full back? That’s great, but if your midfield freezes into statues while being marked like England’s last night, while an opponent starts to press our ball carrying defender, the risk of a mistake increases.

In coaching young players, I try to isolate the idea from the effort and isolate both the idea and effort from the outcome. It allows me to praise good thinking, and good effort, even if the final outcome is not what the player would have liked on this occasion. I believe that repeated good ideas and effort produce better outcomes as players develop. So as an example, if my left-back get’s his head up and sees an opportunity to switch the play, but scuffs the ball out for a throw-in, I can praise the idea. He has done well to recognise the opportunity. If he sees the opportunity and then floats a 20-yard ball towards his intended target, but it was just cut out at the last minute, I can praise the idea and the effort. If it lands to his intended target then the idea, effort and outcome are all great.

Using that model to think about last night, the idea of playing out from the back was right, in my view, but the effort both on and off the ball was not good enough. The movement off the ball in midfield was not good enough, and the decisions and execution on the ball were also, not good enough.

The idea of playing out from the back is not to blame and should not be scrapped. You can’t change the way you think about football every time you face adversity, or you will soon be rudderless, reacting like a candle in the wind.

The decision-making efforts on and off the ball need to be better, that’s all, so coach that.

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