The blame game: Coaching
We’re nearly there now, honest. I can only apologise for the delay in publishing this, the penultimate entry in my waffly blame game series. Everything’s gone a little quiet on the Coventry City front lately, leaving my attention temporarily averted by other things, such as her majesty raising all that menace.
But it’s time to get back on track. The high-profile culprits have been scrutinised, and I’ve come to the predictable conclusion that they’ve all made a pigs-ear of their roles in some manner.
Sisu have clearly shown incompetencies – they’ve admitted as much – while there are a handful of players who really should be ashamed of themselves. You may remember in the last piece, the focus was on Andy Thorn, who is in the most peculiar of positions. His name continues to be sung with gusto with each game, but away from the ground, and online in particular – there’s a strong feeling amongst many fans that he should be shouldering the majority of the blame.
But you already knew this.
Next up, I’d like to expand upon a few points I made in that Thorn piece. I alluded to the idea that while Thorn ultimately takes responsibility for the actions of the coaching team, seeing as he’s paid to do so – the coaching team is not about just him.
We’ve got to acknowledge the circumstances. Here we have a young (and I use that in the loosest sense of the word) manager, heading up a fairly experienced coaching set up. Steve Harrison has been around since time itself began, and Oggy will never do anything but work at Coventry City. They’re employed to perform specific tasks, and whether commensurate with their role or not, they’re all paid to do them, and do them well.
So what role are they playing? What impact are these guys who are charged with developing and moulding our unit having?
There was little last year to suggest that the work on the training pitch was proving of much use during matches. Okay, we were rarely smashed, which suggests an element of solidity – but was that really a direct result of coaching? The results may have said “solid enough”, but the performances offered a very different conclusion.
There are plenty of areas we could analyse, but in the interest of clarity and ease of reading, I thought I’d break things up a little and give you my thoughts on some of the core aspects of the side. And I must be very clear about this – these are just my thoughts. Those that I see through my eyes, allow to swirl around my head a bit, then blurt out to my pals.
So don’t get too cross if you disagree – I’m the one who has to believe all this stuff.
To start, it’s worth noting the fundamental issue with individual technique and the gulf that exists between continental and British-educated footballers. As you may have seen last week, the FA are finally looking to address this with some pretty important changes to the way youth football works in this country. I’m fully behind this shift in emphasis – it’s about time we took the lead of countries around us who are miles ahead in terms of quality of football.
When it comes to Coventry, we’re in another league entirely. There’s been a shakiness about the team for years, and it appears a lot of our issues stem from the difficulty some of our players have in doing the basics. That’s not to say they can’t do the basics – they’re professionals for crying out loud – but the difference being the level of concentration they need in order to get these right.
For the better players, a skill as regular as controlling the ball just isn’t an issue. That comes naturally, so they’re able to concern themselves with the next step before they’ve even received the ball. They’re already looking ahead, as are the players around them.
A lot of what our players do seems so conscious. Is it coincidence and purely a symptom of a losing team? Do we have a load of tense, on-edge players who struggle their way through games, or is there actually something in the way they’re being drilled which is impacting on them instead?
Steve Harrison has been at the club for 3 years now, and the decline in technical standards has aligned very noticeable with his arrival. Sure, these are professionals – should an old fuddy-duddy like him really be able to negatively influence them?
Well, my answer to that question is unusually emphatic – yes he can. He’s running training every day, he’s setting the drills, he’s setting the standard of what is acceptable. I don’t know what his techniques are, but all the evidence suggests that our coaching staff haven’t got the routines to develop this passing game they seem so adamant that we’re playing.
It’s not a fluid style. The intentions are admirable, but we saw for ourselves how much of an issue we made of even the simplest keep-ball across the back line. Something wasn’t clicking.
The intention of how we’d play, and what actually happened during games, were vastly different. It’s clear there’s an instruction to keep the ball in certain situations. From what I’ve heard, there’s often been an enforced rule in games, that we’d have to keep the ball for six passes before attempting to build an attack. Where’s the problem in that you might ask, Barcelona keep the ball for 20-30 passes before attempting a shot on goal.
Well I have a problem with this. Not the idea of keeping the ball – that’s fine by me. It’s this enforced “you must pass it this many times before doing something” which is not really real. It’s a faux-tactic – an attempt to create the illusion that we’re in control, rather than actually being in control. That’s not how football works. Football is reactive. It’s impulsive. It’s a very British technique to place such rigid instuctions on players. Unfortunately, there’s a clear conflict between this British rigidness from Thorn and Harrison, and the vision of becoming a genuine passing team.
The funny thing is, for a team that has aspirations of being a passing unit, we seem to show very little concern with the value of possession during matches. Once the exaggerated passing around the back is complete, the crowd tends to get impatient, the gaps between players widen, and the requirement to move forward and take more risks with possession invariably leads to sloppy passing, poor decision-making, or aimless passes in the vague direction of an attacking option.
Of course, I’m generalising here, but of all the motions we went through last season – that was the most prominent of them all.
I also have to note the apalling regularity with which we’d throw away leads in matches, and points near the end of matches.
This is another issue to become noticeable since Harrison’s arrival. Our approach to games once we’re in with a chance of taking points – whether that’s a draw or victory – has been frustratingly negative for years. There’s been no change since Thorn got involved.
You know the drill: if we take the lead, we spend the rest of the match falling deeper and deeper and desperately trying to hang on to the result, and certainly not attempt to grab a second goal.
If we’re drawing by the second half, we’ll continue on, whilst falling deeper and deeper, and hope that an opportunity presents itself. But we will not force the issue. Heaven forbid.
You can’t blame that all on luck. It happens far too often. To regularly choose or apply the failing approach – spanning across multiple seasons – surely suggests more than bad luck?
Unfortunately, when you hear the post-match interviews, there appears to be a belief that attempting to score and keeping a solid defence are mutually exclusive. This really gives me the hump. Are you trying to tell me that the aspirational idealogy of every single team on the planet, is in fact, impossible? That must be nonsense. We’re not playing at Old Trafford every single week for Christ’s sake. If you can’t set out a team that’s capable of doing both at the same time, then you’re not doing your job properly.
Tactics? Strategy? What’s the difference? Well to me, tactics are the difference between saying and and actually doing. A strategy is what Aidy Boothroyd had. He planned to get us somewhere, fast, with an outline approach to winning things, and would not shut up about it. What he lacked were the tactics to enable him to get there.
Tactically, where did we go wrong? The much-maligned diamond formation came in for a lot of stick. Personally, my issue wasn’t so much with the formation, but the use of it. It could (and did) work well on occasions. Certainly in away games, it’d often provide a compactness in the middle of the field, and gave the required solidity to build on. It was not an attacking formation though, or at least we didn’t have the attacking options to turn it into one. With the diamond, there’s too much reliance on full-backs who can attack, and the playing link between the strikers and the midfield being readily available.
McSheffrey was the key man in this formation for the early part of the season, and as we all know, he provided little more than a fleeting presence in games. There was plenty of rotation as Thorn struggled to find someone to plug this gap – but with all his players struggling for form, there really wasn’t anyone there to step up to the mark.
At the Ricoh, I was never entirely convinced that the diamond was the way to go, and luckily in the second half of the season, with the introduction of Nimely and Norwood, our home performances improved for a while as we reverted to a more recognised 4-4-2 formation.
McSheffrey was able to drift left again, which regardless of what he will tell you, has been his best position during his career. Nimely then became the key link man between the midfield and attack and was able to do this effectively thanks to his lively introduction to the team and tremendous ability to hold up the ball.
Choosing which formation, and when, became the biggest issue. If we won a home game with the 4-4-2, it seemed that would then become the obligatory set up for the following away game, no matter who the opponent.
From my perspective, the 4-4-2 suited us at home, as it’s immediately a more attacking formation, and allowed the freedom to attack in reasonable numbers. It wasn’t a resounding success, but there was enough to suggest that most teams began to recognise the threat posed by Nimely, and adjusted into a more conservative style at the Ricoh. They knew they couldn’t flood forward with him available to break – and that reserved nature allowed us more space to control the game moving forward if we wanted to. We weren’t very good at this, but the gaps were available for us to take advantage if we’d had the attacking wherewithal to do so.
As soon as we took that home mentality and formation away from home, there was trouble. The 4-4-2 didn’t work and made it even harder for us to win matches. I struggled to spot any acknowledgement of the differing environments that away games produce. A formation that allows for quick breakaways at home, will rarely provide the same opportunities on your travels. It’s a very different football paradigm, and given we’d allowed ourselves to become the league’s easiest away visitors, most teams fancied their chances against us far more than was normal.
I don’t want to put all the emphasis on formations, because it only takes a moment of magic to render these pointless, but for an entire season we only appeared to put forward two different shapes. That was clearly frustrating to watch. The coaches struggled to show any invention which seemed vital given the lack of resources, and added to the constant negativity, it’s no wonder things tailed off so radically come the end of season.
That’s when the management prove themselves, apparently. Unfortunately, our finger in the air approach fell woefully short.
So are we any closer to figuring this out?
Well, those are just three facets of the coaching game – but I could go on. Motivation, fitness, set-pieces. Whatever the mitigating factors with the owners and squad, things just didn’t seem to gel. The fight was there from the players (for the most part) – but the organisation and the conviction definitely wasn’t.
I’ve always liked what I’ve heard from Thorn about his preferred approach, and the change that he introduced as soon as he took over. But it took one summer for that all to become diluted. We seem to have this strange mix of a team desperately wanting to appear as a passing unit, but who are lacking the direction, ability and underlying ambition to enable them to competently apply it.
Good blokes or not, the chemistry within the coaching set up doesn’t seem right at the moment. There’s nothing to suggest that they have the coaching and training techniques capable of enforcing the style of play that is whirring around in Andy Thorn’s brain. There’s a conflict. Steve Harrison for one, is an old fashioned coach, from an old fashioned generation. Obviously he’s a respected and solid general coach, but when you see what the likes of Martinez, O’Driscoll, Rodgers and Poyet are doing, I’m always going to have my doubts about him taking sole responsibility of our technical training.
The FA have finally acknowledged that there’s a problem with these tired methods of coaching, and now realise that they are not in keeping with the evolution of the game. Maybe it’s about time that we did the same. With the lack of funds restricting the level of quality we can bring in, the reliance and importance of organisation and tactics is going to be far greater next season. We need new ideas to reinvigorate this group of players technically – and crucially, better methods of imparting them.