One of my pet hates as a coach is what I would describe as unrealistic sessions for forward play – finishing drills where the players queue up in a line, play the ball into the coaches feet, coach lays off and the player shoots at the goalkeeper. While this is fine for getting technique right, it bears little resemblance to a game of football. One on one situations are reasonably rare in games. Where is the pressure on the striker as they try to shoot with power and accuracy? Where is the challenge for a goalkeeper, with a defender being in the line of sight or potentially deflecting the ball?

Recently, I observed the London Football Coaches Association session on “Striking with an Emphasis on Follow-Ups and Rebounds”, led by former England under 17 coach, Mark Robson. I was first aware of Robson as a player in the late 1980s, when he had one of the shortest ever careers as a Watford player (yes I know, I’ve brought Watford into it again!), playing just 45 minutes of a game against West Bromwich Albion. To be fair to him, it was during a period where players were switched, bought and sold with remarkable regularity, so was not necessarily a reflection on his performance. Robson went on to have a decent career, most notably with his home town club West Ham and Charlton. Since moving into coaching, he had a spell managing Barnet, and more recently was on the staff at Norwich City. This week he joined Tim Sherwood’s backroom staff at Aston Villa.

It was interesting to note the difference between Robson and his former team mate Martin Allen, whose session I had observed at the end of last year. Allen had been keen to ensure the watching coaches could hear everything he was saying at all times. Robson tended to speak to the players in a group well away from the observers, and then have separate chats with us. However in terms of the coaching style, there were similarities in terms of letting the players play, being quick to praise positives, and trying to get players to think for themselves as to how to improve what they were doing.

Before the session, Robson had outlined what he was looking for from the players, which on this occasion were the Leyton Orient under 15 squad. Firstly he was looking for the creation of shooting opportunities, by combination play, overlapping, underlapping, diagonal runs, and spins or pulling off the shoulders of defenders. He was also looking for a positive attitude to following in for rebounds etc… In the pre-session talk with the players, Robson asked the players what they should be looking to do, and the players gave all the right answers, which was a good start – they then needed to go out and show it.

Striking with Emphasis on Follow-Ups and Rebound

The first exercise was a simple 2 v 2 plus goalkeepers, on a pitch which was smaller than a quarter of full size. The goals were the smaller 7-a-side type, so with a ‘keeper in place, it made scoring goals more tricky. The exercise was very intense, with Robson changing the two teams involved every thirty seconds and with the ball in play. Restarts were always from the same end irrelevant of where the ball left the pitch. In this first session, I counted only a single goal at either end, shots were generally off target and there were few, if any rebounds.

After the first session, Robson called the players together to discuss what had gone on. In the second session of play, which followed the same rules as before, the players were noticeably more positive in their play, but still the finishing showed a lack of accuracy. After another small break and chat, where he also came over and passed his observations to the watching coaches, the third session commenced, and here Robson showed a change in coaching style by intervening into the practice, and making a coaching point about accuracy of shooting. 

Striking with an Emphasis on Follow-Ups and Rebounds

As a progression to the session, a third player was added to each side, although the area was kept the same. What generally seemed to happen is that the team in possession had one player sitting deeper to recycle the play, with the other two looking to work space for efforts on goal. In this situation, Robson emphasised the need to work in a combined movement, for example pulling the defence around by opposite movements (one goes long, one short, opposite diagonal runs etc….). He did however go back to letting the youngsters play and just comment where appropriate without halting the exercise.

Striking with an Emphasis on Follow-ups and Rebounds

The final part of the exercise saw a move to a small sided game of 6 v 6 plus the goalkeepers. The pitch was made slightly bigger for this, and offside lines were introduced, therefore preventing any attempts at goal hanging and getting the players to create chances from creating space and moving the ball quickly. Robson set each team up in a 2-3-1 formation, however it became clear early on that much of what the players had been working towards earlier on had disappeared – there were few overlaps and underlaps, and no following in on shots. The players were therefore struggling to break down the defences. In an attempt to draw out the players attacking instincts, Robson reduced the sides to 4 v 4 plus the goalkeepers, but the struggle continued. It had become a frantic small sided game, with little thought on how to break down the opposition.

I was standing close to the London Football Coaches Association Chairman, John Cartwright, a well respected coach in the professional game. He was commenting during the session that players were struggling with their awareness.  Later in the debrief, he qualified this by saying that he believes a player of 15 or 16 should be able to play in a game and see these opportunities, but in the younger players it’s just not something that’s in their mind. There was certainly no shortage of football technique on show, with several of the Leyton Orient youngsters executing some lovely skills at speed, but the inability to break down defences when more players were added was a concern.

Other topics which were raised in the debrief, included John Cartwright again commenting that the exercise was played at a quick pace all the time, and that sometimes there was a need to slow the game down – a trait which British players in particular struggle with. Other questions included whether the goalkeepers should be “pinned”, in other words preventing from coming out and sweeping behind their defence? Probably not as it removed some realism from the game. Also whether Mark Robson as coach should have intervened more? Ultimately here, is the game not the biggest teacher? Players are forced to make decisions, and you could stop the game and point out where players could have done things differently, but youngsters hoping for a career in football need to learn from each practice and start to recognise where their awareness needs to improve.

This was an interesting session to watch. Whereas the previous occasion with Martin Allen was more about observing the coach’s style, Mark Robson was much quieter and tried to let the game be the teacher. There is some obvious concern about the players’ struggles in a small sided situation, but then, is this not just an example of where we are struggling in the British game? Do we not still have a game in this country where it is more about pace and power and doing everything at break-neck speed, but then struggle to break down the best and most well organised defences on the International stage? Please feel free to comment below or on our Twitter feed!

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