Skills coaching and the importance of winning 1v1s

“My first question is always: ‘Can this guy dribble?’ I only want players who have that skill, so that’s always what I look at. I want full-backs and central defenders and midfielders and inside forwards and wingers who can dribble. That’s the key.” Pep Guardiola, The Evolution.

THE ability to beat an opponent 1v1 is arguably more important now than ever, because defences are becoming better organised and spaces harder to find.

“We’re used to seeing teams that are narrow, deep and compact when they are out of possession," explains David Adams, Technical Director for the Football Association of Wales. "This makes that ability to beat someone 1v1 integral, especially in the final third.

“With passing alone, a defence can shuffle and slide into position to close the spaces. It’s much harder to do this against a dribbler and 1v1 superiority drags defenders out of position and creates numerical superiority.”

This is why City were willing to pay £100m for the mercurial talent of Jack Grealish, who ranked third in Europe last season (behind only Lionel Messi and Neymar) for progressive carries (moving the ball at least five yards forwards or into the opposition area after taking possession).

The champions have sometimes been frustrated by teams that go narrow, deep and compact against them (Chelsea in the Champions League final), and believe the England playmaker has the ability to unpick even the best-organised of defences.

It isn’t just attacking players who need 1v1 ability though. Guardiola encourages his defenders and even goalkeeper to bring the ball out and to back themselves in a 1v1, as do Jurgen Klopp, Thomas Tuchel and Marcelo Bielsa.

So should clubs be placing more of a premium on technical skills, with dedicated coaches? At some clubs this is already happening.

Gareth Cook will be focusing on technical skills coaching at Liverpool’s Academy this season, while Rangers are on the look-out for a similar position.

Two decades ago, Rene Meulensteen became Skills Development Coach at Manchester United, going on to work with established stars like Paul Scholes, Ryan Giggs and Cristiano Ronaldo in the first team. The appointment was a big success but didn't catch on in the wider game in England.

Meulensteen was a devotee of Wiel Coerver and told TGG: “Wiel had looked at all the best players in the world – Eusebio, George Best, Diego Maradona, Bobby Charlton – and concluded they had a skill level others didn’t possess.

“He studied their moves and skills and broke them down into a series of pictures. So the scissors would be explained in a sequence of four photos, for example. Then you would go away and learn the elements over and over again until you had perfected them."

Saul Isaksson-Hurst, who previously worked with the Chelsea and Tottenham Academies, is a private Technical Skills Coach, as well as being the founder of MyPersonalFootballCoach. He has worked one-on-one with a host of top players, including PSV Eindhoven’s Noni Madueke, Norwich City’s Max Aarons and Fulham’s Cyrus Christie, as well as for clubs like Arsenal, Middlesbrough and Wolves.

He says his work is similar to that of Coerver, focusing on skill acquisition through practice and repetition, but is more dynamic. Aarons recently outlined the work he had done with the coach - which is described as dynamic ball mastery - on the Adidas X Podcast (which you can watch a clip of below).

“I looked at my game and what I could improve on,” the full-back explained. “Saul had watched a few of my clips and said, ‘you need to become more dynamic and sharper with the ball and we can work on different exercises to get you like that.’

“I started training with him when I was 14. Back then, I was a late developer and didn’t really have that explosiveness, which I worked on with him. Now my pace is one of my main attributes. It sharpened me massively. It was all stuff to do with the ball and it brought my game on massively, working with him.

“Sometimes, in training, you are having to wait to have another go in a drill or small group exercise.”

Isaksson-Hurst developed his obsession for technical skills coaching when working with Ricardo Moniz at Tottenham’s Academy. The Dutchman was skills coach, brought into the club by manager Martin Jol, and "one of the best coaches I've seen in my life," according to Isaksson-Hurst.

The Londoner later visited top Academies on the Continent to find out how they coached technical skills.

"I went to Ajax and they have a saying - 'A successful 1v1 beats any formation or tactic,'" said Isaksson-Hurst, who also has an online programme available on the MyPersonalFootballCoach app, including courses and tutorials.

“I don’t think Academies in this country do enough one-on-one technical work. Football at the highest level is about being able to get on the ball, stay on it and manipulate it.

“Especially in elite player development, the 1v1 duel is the base of all football. If you look at the best talent-development centres in world football, you will see this common strand in their methodology.

“At the highest level, 1v1 ability around the pitch is key. Conventionally, you talk about your forward players having those 1v1 abilities, but the reality is that full-backs are now almost like deep-lying wingers and what they do in the final third stands out more than what they do in their own third of the pitch.

“Centre backs are starting the attacks and ability to dribble out comfortably with the ball under pressure and start the attacks is key. Even keepers have to be good on the ball and comfortable under pressure.”

Much of the work Isaksson-Hurst does is unopposed. This subject is a bit of a hot potato, with some coaches arguing that all training should mirror the game.

The My Personal Football Coach founder agrees there should be a ‘layering’ of opposition once a player has mastered the technical skills. This opinion was mirrored by Dundee United’s Individual Development Coach Andy Steeves in an interview with TGG earlier this year.

“Unopposed can be very useful for developing technique through repetition,” Steeves said. “Take deep crossing. We might do it unopposed, then add half pressure with a striker to get on the end of things, then add a defender to create an opposed situation.”

What’s perhaps beyond debate is that technical skills and 1v1 ability will continue to be crucial - no matter what position you play, or what level of the game you compete in.

As former Bristol City and Sheffield United Individual Development Coach Rhys Carr told TGG: “You now see the press throughout the pyramid, when 15 to 20 years ago you wouldn’t have.

"This makes breaking the lines, with someone beating their man, extremely effective, at any level. These players will continue to be the difference-makers for years to come.”

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