A football coach abroad: Cyclones, tropical Bugs and my dugout debut

By Luke Venn

My last entry outlined the process I undertook when planning my coaching cycles and how I saw each week running, this week’s will be almost the polar opposite and how I have found the coaching, and in particular the different coaching styles needed to thrive in this sort of setting.

This week in theory was my first full week with the players, and the aim was to coach one session, each group for each day (1 x U13 and 1 x U15) and as it was week one of the first cycle we would be working mostly in possession of the ball, with the overarching theme of the week being to improve our ability to play out from the back. After a few meetings behind closed doors with a few of the senior players, I gathered that they do play a possession based game, and from most set pieces and goal kicks they play short, in order to build up from the back. The original plan for this week ran something along these lines;

Monday; Passing and Support (BP)

Tuesday; Playing out from the back (BP)

Wednesday; Conditioning session, small sized games (BP)

Thursday; Individual defending (BPO)

Friday; Game training, getting a defender into the middle third

However, as with the best plans, it all fell through on Sunday night, there were a few lads missing from both age groups. Both age groups had 10 players now instead of 12, this didn’t seem like an issue to me at all, modifying all the planned sessions from 12 to 10 players didn’t really phase me. However, the other bit of news, that the other coach wouldn’t be available all week, was a bit of a blow. Being in Kerala we are quite equatorial, and when the sun goes down at 6pm each night it gets dark incredibly quickly, and with the boys finishing each day at school at 4:30, this would only give an hour and a half before darkness to run two sessions.

I bit the bullet and decided on training all 20 together for the full hour and a half, being my second week, this wasn’t a bad idea as it gave me a chance to survey the whole group and work out whose who within it, my plans had to go out the window and a lot of thinking on my feet was needed which I think is going to be a key skill if I am to succeed out here. The draw backs were that it was hard to do any individual coaching, and at the end of each session having to play three team rotations instead of a straight two team game is never ideal.

The next challenge we faced this week was the weather, normally a balmy thirty degrees, a tropical cyclone hit the coast on the Wednesday and we were battered with rains and high winds from Wednesday through Friday, the pitch we normally train on was completely flooded so we attempted to train on the space that will become a 7’s pitch at the academy against my better judgement. After a few slips and half an hour of incessant rain I pulled the plug on the session. The rains didn’t stop and we had to cancel Thursday and Fridays sessions.

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Our training ground pre-cyclone

This wasn’t ideal preparation for the regions quarter final that we were due to play on Monday, we decided to travel as a group to Kochi (where the quarter final would be played) on the Friday night and have a Game Training session on the Saturday morning, and a light session on the Sunday, just to get a bit more movement into the legs.

One thing that had become apparent during the sessions on Monday and Tuesday was the quality of touch and passing of each of the players, they play on such poor-quality pitches but this must really improve their touch, every ball fired into them was controlled instantaneously and all players were comfortable receiving the ball in tiny pockets of space. However, I did notice one real footballing problem, because all of the players were so comfortable in congestion, space was never properly managed and the game was mostly played in front of the opposition. I decided to tear up the original game training plan for Saturday and try and coach the players on the importance of stretching defences and occupying space.

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The session ran really well, and the key points were brought out, however in hindsight, I shouldn’t have deviated from my cycle. The cycle is there for a reason and as a coach if I constantly try to put out fires instead of coaching the syllabus I fear I will breed a lot of reactive footballers, as opposed to the proactive players I wish to breed. Instead I have decided to designate week 6 in each cycle as a “troubleshooting week,” where problems that have been identified during the cycle can be worked on in isolation.

With the quarter final scheduled for Monday morning, we had a light session on Sunday where set pieces were practiced and the game plan established. Monday morning came around very quickly, our kick off was scheduled for 9:30am, and I instructed players to arrive at 8:30. When I arrived at 8:25, we were missing a few players, one of the older boys, and starting right back was standing in the car park, he had been waiting under a tree and had been biting by an insect and he was quickly coming out in a terrible rash. Not the best preparation considering we had two subs, someone scooted off to find some antihistamines and luckily he had recovered by kick off.

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Prior to me coming into the fold the team have always played a 4-2-3-1, it’s not a shape I am a huge fan of, as I feel the striker can be left isolated, and relies on effective transitions, normally in this shape goals are scored quickly after the ball is turned over, where the front four find themselves 4v4 against a back four, and without a designated “6,” the double pivot needs to stay disciplined and well connected to each other. I’ve never had to give a team talk to a group of younger players on my own before and I was surprisingly nervous before hand, I decided to keep my message short, two attacking points, one defensive point and a point to help them manage the first half.

Attacking Points:

  1. When we have the ball the number 9 needs to stretch the defence and affect their positioning even if he doesn’t receive the ball.
  2. If we have controlled possession we are going to try to focus more attacking build up down our right side.

Defensive Points:

  1. I do not want the front four to press the ball, we are defensively sound and our midfield double pivot is where we initiate the press.

Game management points:

  1. In the first five minutes play an intense press, get in the oppositions faces, the same for the last five minutes of the half.

Due to the head (a minimum of 30 degrees), we have to carefully pick our moments to press, but I wanted to start the game on the front foot and also go into half time with our tails up.

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The boys did exactly what was asked and we started the game very strongly, culminating with a goal from a set piece after being camped in the oppositions half for the first ten minutes. We then took our foot off the gas and cruised into half time, which annoyed me a little as 1-0 isn’t an overly safe score. From my FFA B licence I remember being coached that during half time, only have two or three main messages as the time will get away from you very quickly, with five minutes left of the half when the boys were starting to press more intensely I allowed myself time to note three key points to deliver at half time.

Half time key points:

  1. Although we have been playing down our right, their right back is the weak link, can we see if we can create space for our left winger to beat him 1v1.
  2. The only time they have threatened us is when the space between our double pivot is too large and they have gone straight through the middle, we need to reduce this space.
  3. 1-0 is a dangerous score, we need to make sure we get the first goal this half, we need to start how we started the first half.

One of my key learnings from today, is that 10 minutes for half time is longer than you think, I had rattled through and explained my key points within 4 minutes and didn’t really know how to use the rest of my time. In the future, I will explain my points slower and then use the rest of my time to give more targeted individual feedback, but I think first game nerves got the better of me.

The second half started and again we were on the front foot, and what was nice to see was the messages I had given at half time had been absorbed and replicated on the pitch. We scored after 4 minutes of the second half, where our right back overlapped our right winger, delivered a ball to our left winger who beat his opponent 1v1 to score. We controlled the rest of the game and relaxed into some nice possession football until full time.

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This week has been a difficult one, with cyclones, tropical insects and my own doubts creating trouble with preparation but it was brilliant to get the result that we were after in the end. I know that youth football isn’t about results, but to win, play the football that the coach has instructed and take on messages whilst playing to adapt your style and to keep a clean sheet are all big wins in my book. We have a day off tomorrow where players will see their families before the semi-final on Wednesday, hopefully I can iron out the creases in our preparation and we can be successful again on Wednesday!

Until next time..

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