Adding Purpose to Possession – with Liverpool FC’s Matt Beard

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A common concern among youth coaches in the U.S. is that we continue to develop players who are great at keeping possession in a typical keep-away game, but who struggle to recognize when and how to develop scoring opportunities from it. Compounding the problem is a perceived overreliance on unopposed technical training at the older ages. Although their footwork is quick when playing in set lanes against cones, they struggle when they have to think and react against actual defenders.

We had a brief chat with Liverpool FC’s head women’s coach – Matt Beard about what he does to help players bridge the gap from maintaining possession to achieving an outcome. Much of what he told us echoed the sentiments of Gary Curneen in his recent interview with us about the importance of position-specific training.

Session Organization

Specifically, on the subject of getting away from simple keep-away, Matt said “we try ensure that we have some sort of end product in our sessions and we also try and make whatever the players are doing position specific so no matter what your topic is hopefully everyone can get something out of a training session.” The most obvious form of end product would be an opportunity to finish on goal, but if you are working on possession further back down the field, it might make more sense to have players build possession through zones, to gates, lines or targets. At Liverpool, Matt likes “splitting the pitch into three zones, which allows players to work through the thirds.” Whichever approach you try, you will be adding an extra element of direction to the session, which forces players to prioritise their options and act accordingly.

One question we get asked a lot though, is how do you paint the initial picture in the players’ minds of the different priorities they should be looking for? Jumping straight into a larger game with zones and units trying to work together can prove to be too challenging for younger or less experienced teams. Matt will start with pattern play (initially unopposed in shadow play) to “give the players an idea of structure, where they should be on the pitch and to make sure that their movement is always in relation to the ball.” Once players begin to visualize team shape in a variety of different situations, they can improve their own runs on and off the ball. For Liverpool, not only is the goal to create a passing option, but sometimes it is for players to “make unselfish runs for the team to create space.” A threatening run off the ball can drag defenders out of position and create spaces for other players to exploit, getting the ball forward.

Session Adaptation

When your practice activity is set up, it is important to monitor the level of success players are having. As a general rule, try to avoid it to be so easy that they get bored and don’t have to work hard. Similarly, it shouldn’t be too difficult that they don’t have any success and get frustrated. Part of the challenge for a coach is finding that peak of the wave where players are at the edge of their ability – intermittently achieving goals but also being forced to step up their game.

Like a real wave though, the crest is constantly moving. An activity might provide the right level of challenge at the start, but over time (as players improve) it may become too easy for them. At that stage, the coach can consider various methods to increase the difficulty. Matt told us that at Liverpool “we tend to mix it up.  Sometimes we will restrict the players’ touches if we feel that their movement off of the ball needs to better.” Some coaches will change the size of the space – reducing the field to limit time on the ball or changing the dimensions to emphasize length or width in the decision making.

There are also ways a coach can influence the game without being so concrete with rules. Soccer is often described as being like jazz, in that it has a basic framework and a great deal of freedom for expression and interpretation. For Matt, he likes giving teams specific “scenarios or giving two teams a certain idea of how they should play in the training session” to increase the difficulty and encourage more complex thought.

Timing of Coaching

Another consideration for coaches is when and how to communicate with the players. Where traditional coaching models recommended freezing play in the moment (giving everyone a picture of exactly what needed to be fixed), others feel that this can disrupt the flow of the activity and frustrate the players, who want to play! Conversely, some coaches prefer waiting until natural stoppages (the ball going out), or water breaks. This keeps the flow but relies on players remembering what the moment was that you are trying to fix. At the professional level, Matt prefers to “coach during breaks unless there something that really stands out that you need to stop the session for.” But his players have a high degree of self-motivation and assessment, which may not translate well if you try to replicate it for 11 year olds.

Scouting and Recruiting Players

We also asked Matt about the club’s approach to finding new players, and whether they had a specific approach to finding international players. He told us that “for all of the players we sign we do our research:  we look at their video clips, 90 minute games and then I get to know the player.  Sometimes the person and the character is more important than the quality itself.”

The Impact of the Professional Game in England

Finally, we asked about what impact Matt felt the current Women’s Super League has had on the growth of the women’s game in England – specifically at the grassroots level. He told us that “the stats don’t lie.  Women’s football I believe is the most played team sport in England.  I think it is having a positive effect on grass roots football and the National Team are doing well at the moment.  In future with the majority of clubs full time now that will benefit the National Team as not many of our international players currently have full time teams.”

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Matt Beard has been the head women’s coach at Liverpool FC for three years. In that time he turned them around from being bottom of the division to winning the Women’s Super League in both 2013 and 2014. Previously he was head coach at Chelsea FC Ladies where he guided the team to the FA Cup Final. Matt has also been assistant coach at Charlton Athletic Women and Millwall Lionesses.  

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