For most of us football fanatics there is a man who we have had a relationship with for over 5 years now. He left us before Christmas 2015 for a proposed love affair In Valencia, Spain. Gary Neville despite his 'Red' history wooed football fans of all afflictions with his incisive analysis of the beautiful game. He didn't pull any punches, mincing his words was not something he was guilty of. And then he took the leap.
Jose Mourinho, remember him, wished him well and then in typical Mourinho fashion he gave us his soundbite 'On the bench he cannot stop the video and move people around'. The media present laughed but the Portuguese linguist is careful with his words even when he sounds flippant. So why the cutting jab? Neville with his illustrious playing career, his ability to run a club as an owner and his undoubted knowledge of the game as so smoothly presented to us every Monday night would surely be an instant success. Mourinho appeared sceptical, was he taking the viewpoint of an Arrigo Sacchi 'You don't have to be a horse to become a Jockey!'.
We talk about the experience so often and for me, the key experience gained by your Mourinho's, Wenger's and Sacchi's of this world is the experience of developing their teaching methods, whilst others were busy developing their playing skills. Knowledge is the 'what' of coaching and even in his short managerial career to date, Neville has conveyed that he knows 'what' he wants. Take the early new year visit to neighbouring Villarreal. The 'yellow submarine' are a 1-4-4-2 outfit who deploy their wide players with intelligence, stretching wide and coming inside in equal measure creating all sorts of numerical problems for La Liga's traditional 1-4-3-3 operations. So Neville a pragmatist devised his plan and opted for a formation that favoured man-marking wing-backs to follow the roaming wide men of Villarreal. He played 3 Central defenders to deal with the opponents 2 strikers. 'Clever that' was the response from this neutral observer. However, for coaching nuts and football geeks like me, my eyes were fixed on the attacking half of the pitch. Neville has spoken in the past of his desire to 'play front-foot, attacking, high-pressing football'.
So 'How' I wondered would he achieve this with a zonal back 3 and a mixed marking/zonal wing backs. Valencia's 1-3-2-3-2 meant another numerical advantage in the midfield zone. So the problem was always going to be 'what' to do with opposing full backs? Who would press them? Who would pick them up? Who would track them? Amazingly, The flat midfield 3 transitioned as the ball moved to a Villarreal Full Back with the nearest Central midfielder shifting to press the fullback leaving a 2v2 in midfield. This was something I personally had never seen before, normally teams would have the Forwards screen this area and the Wing Back pushing on if need be with the remaining defenders forming a back 4.
In the first half, it didn't work, it was certainly not front-foot, high pressing football. It looked to me like the players didn't fully invest in the concept, they never seemed to fully shift as a unit. Add to this the fact that Neville has inherited some truly awful defenders who struggle to ever get set with their body shape, who do not spot danger, problem creators, not problem solvers, Abdennour and Santos I'm looking at you, and they have company too! However, when the second half came round it looked like the first half was a case of 'lost in translation'. Front foot thick, High-pressing tick, Attacking almost! They went on to lose to a free kick from Bruno, the best player on the pitch incidentally. But the signs were positive, I had caught a glimpse of the 'what' of coaching that Gary Neville was putting out and I was buying it.
If he is to be a success, it will be down to a fine-tuning of the 'how' of coaching. What do I mean? The 'how' of coaching is your method as a coach, your way of getting your message across. This, my friends is the tricky part, concocting plans like his Villarreal plan takes Knowledge, it also takes bravery. Getting your players to invest in the plan, to believe in it, to play with purpose within it, that can only happen when as a coach you find your method, your 'how'.
Neville's method as an analyst was, as Mourinho eluded to, to freeze the frame and show. Such a method will positively influence 2 out of 10 footballers (based on statistics available on 'how' adults learn). On Monday Night Soccer he seduced us all with his diction, a method that will work for 1 in every 10 of his new employees (if he learns Spanish or they speak English!). The secret to the 'how' is something we are all familiar with. 'How' did you learn to tie your shoe-laces? Were you a child genius who upon verbal instruction from your parent, tied the lace and ran out to play? Were you a prodigy, who, once visually shown by your teacher mastered your new found art? Personally, I was told and shown 'how' to tie mine, but it was through 'doing' and failing and 'doing' and 'doing' that the penny finally dropped.
The footballer is essentially the child trying his bike without the stabilisers, the coach holds his shoulders throughout the week for reassurance. When Saturday comes the kid is alone no stabilisers, no hands-on guidance. 'Trust' in such situations is a vital component, one too many falls and trust is Broken! So this is why coaches speak about needing time so very often. The coaching process, the doing, the trust, it takes time. So when choosing your first job knowing the owner helps, having a glorious history as a player doesn't hurt but it won't save you when the 'what' and the 'how' of your coaching doesn't translate into results. The Costa Del Azahar may prove to be a difficult coast to blossom Oranges!