"What do you mean you've hurt 'your' knee, it's Liverpool's knee" - Bill Shankly.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Rafa Benitez - From Rinus Michel's insight

Summarized from reyhendo's analysis of Rinus Michel's book comparing his thoughts with the actions of Rafa Benitez.
Part 1
Part 2
Part 3

Level 3 football - the final step in Rafa's plan

L6 Red's excellent post a couple of days back entitled "This is the Year" got my grey matter ticking over big style. If you've not had the chance to read it yet, I thoroughly recommend it.

It'll make you laugh, and you'll find yourself swept along on a wave of hopeful euphoria. So much so you'll find yourself thinking it might indeed be the year - that we might indeed take the league for the first time in a generation.

I think L6 Red's on to something. I also think Yorkykopite's on to something. To be honest, I think Yorkykopite's "This season's Defence - an Attack" is a tour de force.

... and again it got my brain ticking over.

L6 Red's post is centred around the words of a certain George Michael, and in its honour I'd like to centre this one on the words of his namesake - Rinus. Well - a kind of namesake. A 'naymeshake'. Michael musht be Michels in Dutch, no?

Anyway, Last Christmas, instead of giving anyone my heart, I asked Santa for a copy of Rinus Michels' bible on the art of football coaching and management - "Team Building – the Road to Success". The book is hard work (it's a Dutch-to-English translation and you get the feeling Rinus won't be winning any prizes for literature any time soon (well, I guess not given he passed in 2005, God rest his soul)), but what he does is set out a nice usable framework for coaches and managers at all levels of the game. He was one of the true 'gurus' of the game, after all.

As a result, he also gives you a nice framework for analysing a manager's progress - he describes the steps that must be taken, the things that must not be allowed to happen, and the limits that prevent a manager from developing things further.

I'll start out by summarising the point of the post, because chances are it could be quite a lengthy one.

In L6 Red's thread, the post hints that Rafa's regime is now 'mature'. I know that's not really the point of his post, but it's a view shared by many commentators on LFC under Rafa, and one shared by a growing number of fans.

The view emerging is that Rafa's squad is now 'his'. He's put his stamp on it, and as such there's an argument that this is all we can expect from life under Rafa - this season will show how good we can be. While that's now expressed as optimism for our chances this coming season, you can be pretty sure the optimism will fade should things turn sour over the course of the season.

We still have a while to go before the transfer window closes, but even based on our dealings so far this summer (and especially with the addition of a certain Robbie Keane), we've improved the level of overall quality in our squad. What's more, based on Rinus Michels' words, I think the way we've improved our quality is in itself significant, and it tells us something about Rafa's view of our own progress.

Of course, this assumes that Rafa follows something like the process outlined by Michels - possibly that's a big assumption to make - but my view is Rafa's done the pragmatic and analytical thing throughout his tenure at Anfield, and throughout his career, so aside from some minor details on his preferred playing style and his views on 'creative artists' on the park, he seems to apply the general model set out in the book.

If you take the view that the squad's being 'engineered' in this textbook way, our moves in the summer tell us something about Rafa's increasing confidence in the quality of his personnel.


I'll call Rinus "RM" from now on if that's OK with you, because he gets a mention or two from here on in. Instead of listing the whole thing end-to-end, it's probably better to break it up into bite-sized chunks. With that in mind (and assuming this is 'part 1'), here's what you can expect in parts 2, 3, and 4.

Part 2 – A summary of RM's framework

RM's book tells us (assuming we're coaches) how to build a team.

He doesn't stop at the first team - he regularly hints at the need for broader scope to your planning – for congruence at all levels from youth to first team - and the benefits that brings you in the long term. I think we'd all agree with that - it's good common sense.

The framework's not rocket science. In RM's vision of football, there are two basic teambuilding categories - Psychological Team Building and Team Tactical Team Building (a mouthful, but there you go).

Psychological Team Building

Throughout RM's book, and all through his discussion of the other factors to consider in coaching and management, RM constantly comes back to the need for correct 'mentality'.
"In the football world, it is apparent that most coaches think of team building in mental or psychological terms. For example, the mentality of the players and team spirit. They are, of course, essential. Only with these as the basis, is it possible to perfect team tactics. The better the mentality of the players, the better the environment is for the coach to work on the tactical team building process. Also essential is the player's willingness or readiness to work on team tactics in training so as to bring them to life as efficiently as possible in a match (in combination with a winner's mentality of course)."
It's worth spending a little time on the issue of mentality. It's clear that most (if not all) modern coaches would agree with RM on this. It's also clear that under Rafa, correct mentality has once again become central to life at LFC.

That said, maintaining correct mentality is obviously a complicated issue - one that's inextricably linked to boardroom politics and backing, to the players inherited from the former management regime, from the culture at the club (no, I'm not going down the Boy George route either, before you start) - it's going to be a complicated issue at even the simplest of clubs, let alone LFC in the post-Houllier years, with all the internecine politics that have wormed their way into the club's workings - politics that seem to have only become more entrenched since the new regime took over.

RM lays down some fundamental unbreakable laws that must not be broken if team spirit and correct mentality are going to be preserved - boardroom stability is the first, while an absence of disruptive public statements is the second.

Now I suppose you could argue that Rafa indulges in public statements himself, but for me, the fact that Rafa's kept the tiller steady in spite of the constant barrage of live grenades is little short of a miracle. We still enjoy consummate team spirit and correct mentality at the club, and in my view every LFC fan should be made to sit through forced explanation to make sure they understand what really happened - what's really still happening.

Regardless - in spite of the shit he takes, Rafa has reintroduced 'mentality' as a central 'pillar' of life at LFC.

I'm sure a few of you are shouting at your screen at this stage "but what about Reading away last season? I’m not even sure our manager has the right mentality - we conceded the game!"; but for me the issue was simple on that occasion - Rafa knew it was win next Wednesday, or kiss your Liverpool career goodbye. It's wasn't the greatest environment for him to work in.

There's also the argument that constant rotation undermines the collective spirit, togetherness, and 'mentality' of the squad. My view is that this argument is only valid as long as the players coming in are weaker than the player being ‘rotated' - and that's something that's less apparent with every passing year. But enough on that – here are my thoughts on Rafa's man management approach here if you’re interested.

Anyway, clearly under Shanks it was the foundation of our whole approach.
"For a player to be good enough to play for Liverpool, he must be prepared to run through a brick wall for me then come out fighting on the other side."
There are a million similar quotes, but for me, from Shanks to Kenny, our players always had it right between the ears, or they didn't last long.

For me, when Kenny left that fell by the wayside. For example, Robbie Fowler told a few stories in his autobiography that gave me the impression that under several consecutive managers, we had staff and players at our club whose interests weren't always 100% focused on our consistent success on the pitch. Players like Fowler were undermined - we had talent in abundance, but we lacked correct mentality. That attitude persisted through Houllier's tenure and Rafa inherited a few issues in the squad he took on.

We've since seen a return to core values at LFC. Correct ‘mentality' is once again central to everything we do at all levels, and if the mentality is lacking in any way, people no longer last at the club. They're weeded out.

If you had a tenner for every time Rafa said 'mentality' in a press conference or post-match interview, you'd be a rich man indeed. It's drilled into everyone's head. We've been lucky in the last few days to get a detailed description from Eduardo Macia of our club's scouting and recruitment policy.

We'll come back to that later, but for now, a few quotes from Senor Macia.

On player recruitment.
"The mentality is the most important thing. There are probably a million players with quality in the world. That’s not enough. We don't want someone who is fantastic in September and October. We want someone who is fantastic all year round. If you want to be a successful team you need players who can still be at their best when it comes to the end of the season and the big games arrive almost every few days.

It's not just a matter of quality. You can improve a player’s fitness, technique, and make them tactically better. What you can't do is give them the mentality. You can be a fantastic player at a lower level team but if you want to come here then you've got to be a winner."
On our youth development.
"Now we are building for the future here. We’ve brought in a lot of young players in the last few years. Guys who are 16, 17, and 18 years old and they all have the mentality we want. That's why they won the reserve league last season. We know they can still improve as players, but they have the right mentality."
Another article - this time an interview with Academy supremo Piet Hamberg.
Tell us a bit more about your philosophy...
"...I liken it to building a house with all my coaches and all my assistants and all the people who are working here at the Academy. In the house we start with the management on the ground floor which is like the foundation. We will then set our goals and our philosophy. The second part of the house is the first floor which about having the right mentality. Part three is the technical part, part four is the tactical part and the fifth part is the physical part. I’ve seen many coaches who have tried to coach the young players and they start from the roof if you like which means it's always unstable. We always try and do it the other way and build the house in sections until the players reach the age of 18 or 19 years ago. Then we have the possibility of comparing them to players in the first team. For example we can compare their strength and speed. Then we can say if this player is at this level then maybe he will have a chance of getting to Melwood."
Hamberg's quote here maps perfectly to RM's model, and it’s no surprise, given RM was the architect behind the Ajax system, and that Hamberg served his time there as a player and then coach. In retrospect it's no surprise that Hamberg was recruited. I'd argue Rafa's applying something like RM's model in his work at LFC.

What about the backroom staff themselves? Do Rafa and his staff themselves have the correct mentality? For me, this quote from Macia sums it up.
"That's what we've got to keep doing; improving. If you're not then you're going backwards."
I think that's the attitude everyone has to maintain at LFC, and if they don't, they quickly find themselves on the way out of the club. We deserve nothing less. But for the purposes of this post, it also puts the foundation in place for the next level in RM-style team - Team Tactical Team Building.

Team Tactical Team Building

Although a new coach will start work on this the day he takes the helm, RM separates it out to make the framework clearer to explain. He sets out three categories of TTTB: Organisational Team Building, Strategic Team Building, and Tactical Team Building.

As with his separate consideration of Psychological Team Building, the three categories included here are said to be arbitrary to an extent - the point is to make sure coaches cover the aspects they need to cover. In practice the three categories will overlap.

For me, this is where RM's book gets really interesting in the context of what's happening this summer. He makes some very interesting points - points that made me stop and think 'ah, so if Rafa's going down that route, he must think such and such'.

Anyway, RM's three categories - a little more on each.

1. Organisational Team Building
Simply stated, this is about the formations used, the balance of play chosen, and ensuring that each individual player understands his role in the collective unit clearly - ideally absorbing it so it's performed without thinking.

One thing that's not explicitly covered in RM's framework is squad depth - he makes occasional comments that 'you can’t always field the team you want to', but it's not directly addressed. I think it's something that slots into his organisational category though, and for me it's one of the biggest question marks hanging over Rafa's Liverpool. We’ll get to that in a bit.

2. Strategic Team Building
This is about the more detailed aspects of how play is organised - positioning, zonal marking, hunting the ball, closing down space, running intelligently, not wasting energy, and so forth. It applies equally at all age groups, and RM says this should be coached on an individual basis, with smaller functional groups, and with the team as a whole.

Anecdotally we hear a lot of people talk about how detailed Rafa is on this front. For me we've seen a shift in Rafa's thinking on this front during the last two years, and in combination with 1. and 3, we're starting to see the model mature in the way RM says it should.

3. Tactical Team Building
This category kind of speaks for itself. There's some considerable debate throughout the footballing world as to whether or not our Rafa's a tactical genius. Brian Glanville's view is that this is a myth based on his decisions in the two CL finals we've played in. Others including Arrigo Sacchi feel there's no greater tactical authority on the game than Rafa. The truth? Well, I'm inclined to side with Signor Sacchi on this one.

The whole Jorge Valdano 'shit on a stick' debate after the2007 CL semi final at Anfield centred around a widely held view that, along with Mourinho, Benítez is a manager who micromanages his players and strangles the artistry from his side in an effort to reduce risk. I think that's a fundamental misconception. It's based on a limited view that presumes the manager's work is complete - that he's honed his squad in his image and taken it through to maturity. That's very seldom the case for a manager, and it's not the case for Rafa - not yet. Some would argue it is, but based on RM's framework, we have a way to go before we reach the 'as good as it gets' level.

Another criticism you sometimes see is that Benítez gambles tactically by rotating in lesser quality players in games where he thinks he can get away with it. So we see Leto play at home v Marseille for example, and he looks way out of his depth. We see Voronin, well... we just see him from time to time. (Actually I'm not convinced he's that bad, but clearly he's not world class or a 'go to guy' in big games.) Again, this criticism is founded on the rotation debate, and it falls when the quality of the squad improves to the point where a 'first choice 11' is more difficult to identify. But again, more on that later.

Tactical work is an area that gets more focus at LFC under Rafa than arguably anywhere else on the planet. Angel Vales is Head of Technical Analysis at LFC (as well as being Reserve Coach) and has worked with Rafa on implementing new analytical software that builds on the state-of-the-art systems already in place at the club. The staff at Melwood aren't content with prozone. I can't remember which RAW member it was, but one of the guys on here contracted at the club on this software project. Our guys are pushing the boundaries of tactical analysis and pushing the boundaries of the technologies used.

Here's some information on Vales.

Here's the quote I wanted to pick out.
What have you learned from Rafa Benítez?

"A lot. For example, the importance of the small details in tactical work. On a tactical level, he is one of the best managers in the world."
This from a man whose former job was a professor of football at La Coruna University.

For me, those close to Rafa betray the depth of his thinking on the game, and I get the feeling we haven't seethe full repertoire yet in tactical terms. Rafa's worked with what he's had, and that pool of players has improved each year.

He's worked with his staff to keep the messages simple, using video clips and clear briefings to communicate what he needs the players to absorb. And coupled with that, the messages he's putting across will have been coached into the players on a regular basis in a detailed programme laid out for the season. They won't be taking things in that they don't understand or expect. As such, we've seen certain players grow under Rafa's tenure, based on their mentality and their footballing intelligence. The ones who haven't learned have found themselves on the transfer list- it's my feeling that Alonso currently falls into that category, although there are clearly financial reasons behind it. I think that, with the transition we need to make, we need our midfield players to perform a strict function, and I'm not sure he's convinced Rafa he can do that - but he's still with us, and if any player is capable of proving his mettle, it's Xabi Alonso.

But I digress (again). Back to the point.

The Team Tactical category has a clear overlap with the organisational category to the extent that they're almost identical; however, the tactical side builds the detail onto the broad canvas laid out at the organisational level. It determines how the players should react based on the specific things that happen during a match.

So that's the framework.

RM then spends some time talking about the things that complicate the process. He talks about how football is inherently more complex than almost any other sport. He talks about the number of tactical variants. For me, that underlines why a player at LFC needs to have true footballing intelligence - it's clearly an advantage if the player is a 'student of the game'. Rafa's end game is a squad who understand all tactical variants to the nth degree, who can read and analyse the ever-changing conditions of the game in front of them, and make the right choices on the park. That exactly mirrors RM's view. He repeatedly emphasises that to reach the optimum level, a coach needs a squad full of players with a. quality, b. footballing intelligence, and c. the ability to make 'team efficient' choices during games.

Now, to achieve a squad that's choc full of players with all three of those attributes, you've got two options. First, you can go and manage a Chelsea or a Real Madrid or a Man United, and you can inherit or buy a deep squad of players with all those qualities in abundance. However, that's not an option at LFC. I know many argue that it is, and that Rafa's had enough money at his disposal to guarantee title challenges year after year, but it's simply not true. We've invested a fair chunk of money, and we have enough quality to take us to the brink of 'Level 3'football (more on what that means in a bit), but we're short of what we need to make the push to full quality.

No - with our finances in their current state, we can't go down that route and reach the level we need to reach. We have to look for value and take risks when investing in senior players, so while we can install world class when the opportunity presents itself, we can't buy world class to fill all roles - at least not yet. For that reason, we need to go with the second option - the option espoused by RM in his book, and the model brought to full fruition under his supervision at Ajax. We need to develop our own quality at youth level.

Youth Development and the Need for a Structured Tactical Programme

RM repeatedly cross-references this throughout the book. He'll be discussing a technical aspect of counter-attacking play, and he'll make an aside along the lines of 'of course, the best way to bake these ideas into your players is to have them on a tactical programme from their early teens'. In other places, he's more explicit. He doesn't even consider buying quality as an option. What he does is lay down criteria for rearing players who tick all the right boxes.

So what's the end goal? What kind of player are we trying to rear? Here's what RM says on the matter.
"Within top teams in the sport of football it is more widely expected of each player that he is more versatile.

The high level of complexity, the continuing action, and the continuous change in attacking and defending, guarantee a high level of unpredictability in the ever-changing situations. that alone demands a lot of insight into the game and football intelligence of the player.

Each player has to learn to see the tactical connection. The tactical framework put forward by the coach facilitates this learning process.

An accomplished football player must, together with adequate technique and specific mental and physical qualities, possess football intelligence, insight into the game, and recognise the ever changing situation. He must be able to choose very quickly the most team efficient solution out of the many possible solutions. Talk about complexity! This is also why from a young age on, the tactical and technical development of players should go hand in hand. Also, the youth football development process must be a structured, ongoing tactical maturation process."
At this stage, let's revisit the interview with PietHamberg.

Piet might as well be doing an impression of RM.
"We try to prepare our young players so they can make the step-up from the Academy to Melwood. The technical ability of a player is very important as well as the mental part. Without a good mental attitude and technical ability a player will never achieve their ambition of playing in the Liverpool first team. That is our aim and our goal is to produce players here at the Academy who will go on to play for the first team. If we have these two parts I've mentioned then we go further and teach the players from a tactical point of view and from a physical point of view."
And again...
"I liken it to building a house with all my coaches and all my assistants and all the people who are working here at the Academy. In the house we start with the management on the ground floor which is like the foundation. We will then set our goals and our philosophy. The second part of the house is the first floor which about having the right mentality. Part three is the technical part, part four is the tactical part and the fifth part is the physical part."
You couldn't get a clearer endorsement of RM's model. It's not immediately clear whether Piet will talk the talk and walk the walk, but at the very least, we're starting out with the right vision and philosophy if you see the current LFC project as one that follows RM's model.

Hamberg has introduced a structured skills framework in the Coerver method, and while there's no conclusive proof of this, I'd argue that we're now seeing a pattern emerge in the way Liverpool plays football at youth, reserve, and senior level. We have a variety of ways of playing the game, and a variety of personnel that's suited to each style. Ideally the personnel can adapt to each style of play, and each balance of defence versus attack - these are the players who will form the core of the first team week in and week out - the 'monster' players whose athleticism and versatility allows a team to push the boundaries of its capabilities.

It's worth emphasising at this point that RM's team tactical framework can't be too rigidly imposed. It's a framework - meaning it's only there to enable and guide autonomous decision making on the pitch - to help players make the right 'team efficient' choices based on whatever situation is unfolding in front of them. Individual decisions and collective decisions. When in possession, do I pass, dribble, make a certain run? When the other team is in possession, do I close down space, hold a line, adjust my position, make a challenge?

It takes years to guarantee that a player's decision making is correct in every situation. That's why, in RM's view, it's a must to develop your own players according to a structured tactical programme that takes place over several years. The second factor in its favour from LFC's current perspective is it's a damn sight more cost-effective than the first option when it's done right.

Achieving success on this front is no mean feat, however. To successfully groom a pipeline of players from youth team to first team, and to ensure that the flow of players in is strong enough - these things are difficult. They take specialist know how and forensic planning skills. Funnily enough, the kind of planning and specialist know-how that we've now put in place.

There's a reason our head of Technical Analysis is a former professor of Football at La Coruna University (yes, I know he's Rafa's mate - but they've become friends based on their shared passion for this end-to-end process - they wanted a club where they could take this kind of project to its conclusion). There's also a reason why we our Academy supremo is a dyed-in-the-wool exponent of the Ajax youth development model. The LFC project is RM's project. What we're seeing from the first team now is not thebe-all-and-end-all of footballing life under Rafa Benítez. We're seeing the culmination of the second phase in an RM-style teambuilding process. We're only really now seeing us enter the third and final phase - domination, play-making, and circulation football.

Before moving on, here's a piece from Oliver Kay in the Times that hints at the quality coming through our ranks. Taken out of context, his words question Rafa's desire to bring these players through; however, we've already seen the words of Hamberg on this front – when they're ready technically and tactically, they'll be compared 'like-for-like' with their counterparts in the first team squad. The good ones will always play on merit.
"In the past three years BenÍtez has signed 27 teenagers from overseas: six from Spain, four from Hungary, two from each of Argentina, Denmark, France, Germany, the Netherlands and Sweden and one apiece from Bulgaria, Ghana, Greece, Morocco and Paraguay. Throw in at least a dozen home-grown youngsters, many of whom helped Liverpool to win the FA Youth Cup in 2006 and 2007, and it is easy to see why BenÍtez feels that he has stolen a march on the club’s main rivals at youth level.

BenÍtez could be sitting on the biggest goldmine in European football…"
Part 3 – The three development phases, and the final step in Rafa's plan

Back to the subject of overall progress at first team squad level under RM's teambuilding process. RM doesn't explicitly set development phases out in his book, but reading between the lines it's clear that three levels of quality exist:

Level 1 - Backs to the wall football

Level 2 - Compactness, organisation, and counter-attacking football

Level 3 - Domination, play-making, and circulation football

Let's look at each of these in turn.

Level 1 - Backs to the wall

We don't have to spend too much time on this one. What I'm talking about here is the 'Redknapp to relegation-threatened Pompey' scenario.

In this situation, a coach inherits a nightmare scenario, and has to quickly organise his side based on the limited resources available to make them difficult to beat, and encourage a siege mentality and team spirit that will see them fight their way out of the mire.

Liverpool's never really been in that situation in my living memory, and certainly not under Rafa's tenure. We might have played as if we were under the cosh while Ged was at the helm, but the reality was we were never truly in peril.

Since Kenny left (a time when we were comfortably at level 3, with some of the best football anyone has ever seen)we've been in some variant of level 2...

Level 2 - Compactness, organisation, and counter-attacking football

As hinted at above, Rafa inherited a squad who had learned to play an ultra-defensive, risk averse brand of football. He also inherited a squad of mixed quality - a few gems, a few functional pros, and a few genuine duds.

So Rafa's footballing life at LFC started in the lower regions of level 2. He quickly set about implementing the RM-style team building plan.

Level 2's where RM starts bringing in the detail of his 'Team Tactical Teambuilding' framework. This corresponds to RM's 'Counter Attacking Strategy'. Now I'm massively oversimplifying things here, because clearly teambuilding development is a continuum - there's no instant jump from one level to the next. You'll see elements of level 3football at level 2, and at level 3, not only will the team lapse into level 2 on the odd rare occasion (nobody's perfect), but it will also be able to master a full repertoire of playing styles, shifting balance and style as appropriate based on the situation they face in a game. But more on level 3 later - let's look at level 2 in detail first.

So far under Rafa we've demonstrated our ability to 'control' opponents. We've become good at playing compact football, and at exploiting our opponents' weaknesses on the counter attack. That's not to say we haven't dominated teams at times - sometimes we've done that beautifully, with memorable results - but we don't yet do that on a consistent basis, which is what, for me, equates to 'Level 3 football'.

So what characterises 'Level 2 football'? There's no point reinventing the wheel here - RM lays out his guidelines for the counter attacking strategy clearly, and as you read, you recognise the key tenets of our European success over the last few years.

Over to you RM...
"The accent in the counter attack style of play lays on the defensive team function, with the emphasis being on the defender's own half of the field and letting the opponents keep the initiative of the game. This is to take advantage of the space that opens up behind their defence for the build-up and the attack. The most important guidelines are:

  • When the team has the time to organise, they will fallback on their own half of the field.
  • When attacking, more players are and will remain behind the ball in comparison to in front of the ball.
  • There is limited space between the goal and the defensive line.
  • On your own half, the marking remains aggressive.
  • The spaces between the defensive, midfield, and forward lines are as limited as possible. This is a matter of creating a compact defensive block.
  • The midfield line acts as the first line of defence. This midfield line plays close to the defensive line and thus defends on their own half of the field.
  • To be able to defend under the pressure of the opponents requires good man-to-man markers and level-headed defenders.
  • To be able to defend under the pressure of the opponents, it is also required that the tactical coherence between the defenders is optimal. In the manner, you can close down the operational attacking space of the opponents.
  • The emphasis within the build-up of the counter-attack strategy lies in taking advantage of the space behind the defence of the opponents. This demands insight to profit from the game situations. You need to have a few very fast attacking players in your team when playing the counter attack style.
  • They prefer to win the ball during the build-up of the opponents.
  • When forced to build-up from the back, a super fast transition is required, including good positional play in a fast manner and in a forward direction.
  •  Mostly, the fast target player who is good with the ball will be the basis. With the big spaces around him he remains an important target to play the ball to. He takes the pressure off his team by being able to quickly receive the long pass.
  • A characteristic is the overlapping midfielders and deep sprinting attackers who have a good sense for the tactical spaces and timing.
  • Many actions are performed at full speed, which is an added difficulty. The trick is to still get the optimal result out of the counter attack. Usually the finishing on goal is done too hastily.
  • Counter attack football places high demands on the team tactical and mental qualities of players.
  • Counter attack football is easier to train. For example, you are able to start earlier in building set patterns in comparison to the game making strategy.
  • When being behind the game, a counter attack team has trouble taking the initiative. Against a weaker team, the coach will have to fall back on a more attacking variation of his counter attack style of play. Most of the time this is not very well mastered. They lack the set patterns in their style of play and the specific players to perform this.
On the other hand, a play-making [level 3] team must also be able to fall back on the tactical counter attack variation. However, this is mastered much more easily.

Counter attack football has shown to be the most efficient when short-term success is desired."

Later, while still describing the counter-attacking style, RM tellingly remarks:
"Coaches and players will have to realise that 'midfield play' is a means to be able to play the ball deep, and not an aim in itself!"
In my view, the passages quoted above encapsulate the stage we reached under Rafa in his second season at the helm. Since that time, it's my contention that we've been 'tweening' (to use an animator's term) - we've been making the difficult transition to level 3 - what RM calls 'the play-making' or 'game-making' style. The reason we've 'tweened' (alternating between periods at level 3 and level 2, or for long periods reverting to level 2 - what seems to be termed a 'slump' in our current context) is that the transition to level 3 is, in RM's words, 'sensitive to quality'.

Level 3 - Domination, play-making, and circulation football

And so to the end goal of RM's teambuilding process. Here's a quote from Eduardo Macia (from the same interview linked above) that tells us something about the intent behind our project - the aim of Level 3 football.
"When you play for a big club - particularly in the Premier League - everyone else will be doing their utmost to beat you every weekend. You've got to be able to deal with that and produce your best.

For example, Lucas Leiva says 'give me the ball, even if I make a mistake I'm not afraid to take responsibility in big games'. That's what we require. They are strong minded individuals who can think for themselves and don't need to be told what to do, clever guys who can make their own decisions on the pitch and help you win. When you combine that with quality then you've got the best players."
That quote, for me, is symptomatic of the intent behind our plan, and hints at what we can expect from our youth pipeline, and from the successful instances in our scouting of senior players.

We're trying to implement RM's highest level strategy. Again, we might as well hear it from RM himself.

The play-making strategy.

"The play-making strategy is not often seen. This style of football is risky to play and needs to have a lot of players with individual qualities. In most football cultures the coaches are scared to use it...

...This risky style of play demands individually a lot of football capacity. It entails that you have to operate in small spaces during the build-up and attack and defend large spaces with few players. This style of play requires a methodical process in the youth program, and also specific types of players; such as the wing forwards and defenders who get involved in the attack."
It's worth pausing to emphasise that last sentence. Keep it in mind as you read on…
Defensive Guidelines

  • "When losing possession in the attacking phase, the entire team has to be tactically able to defend. Preferably by keeping the opponents in their own half or by dropping back more if you do not succeed in that. This demands good positional play in tactical coherence with each other.
  • The defensive line need to push up right away towards the midfielders. In general you defend far away from your own goal.
  • There are 3 or 4 players in the defensive line. The 4th defender will play as a free defender and pushes into the midfield. Defensively this means that you have an extra player to put pressure on the opponent.
  • The 3-man defensive line must be sharp while defending the spaces and they must be fast.
  • The keeper acts as a sweeper when a counter attack team unexpectedly plays a long ball through.
  • The midfield line must have controlling players with tactical insight and discipline who will remain behind the ball during the attack.
  • No player may get passed in his zone. This is especially a point of attention for the defensively vulnerable forwards.
  • Players who can regain the ball are indispensable."
Let's pause for breath here. My argument in this post is that Rafa's realised the squad is ripe for the final push to 'Level 3' football. Why do I think that? Well, looking at each of the guidelines RM lays out, ask yourself who fits the bill...

This style demands players throughout the team who are prepared to sacrifice their own agenda and work to defend from front to back. First up - we got confirmation in the last few days that Rafa approached Porto about Quaresma. Quaresma wasn't happy with his proposed role... a role that sounds a lot like one described by RM above.

Liverpool? Well yes their representative came to me, and we spoke. They did not reject me, I believe they wanted to kind of change my role; they wanted me to be less expressive on the pitch and be more aggressive.
Next up, defenders with attacking intent. RM clearly would have seen yorkykopite's point...

We've recruited pacy defenders with the ability to step out of the defensive line and disrupt the opposing side's organisation. That's not a new development especially (for example, we had already brought in Agger, San Jose, Aurelio, Arbeloa and Insua), but it's clearly been prioritised this summer. We've seen the addition of Degen and Dossena - two attack-minded full backs - and with the news that Degen's injured and that Arbeloa may have to return to Spain, we're linked with another of a similar ilk- Rafinha. These players are a clear signal of intent in the shift to level 3 football. Sweeper keeper? Check. Controlling midfield players? Check.

Players who don't let their direct counterpart past them? Check.

(Incidentally, RM's take on this last aspect is interesting- he's critical of Ruud Gullit's inability to 'perform his basic team efficient task' when playing for Holland - that of tracking his own man. Amazing to get an insight into that kind of thinking.)

Lastly, we have players throughout our side who are physically imposing and capable of winning back possession when it's lost. We hunt in packs and we're increasingly good at closing down space.

The trickier aspects come in the build-up and attacking phases...
Building Up
  • "The team must master the 'ball circulation' component to be able to determine the correct moment to start the attack. However, ball circulation is a means, not a goal in itself! To carry the play on the opponents half of the field places high demands of the build-up. There is not much time and space to work in and you have to deal with high defensive pressure. Fast combinations and excellent positional play are a must. Circulation football!
  • To lose possession close to the middle line when building-up is almost 'suicidal' in this risky style of football.
  • One touch passing is also a must in the building-up team function of this strategy. This demands additional tactical insight from the players as situations quickly have to be surveyed. Each player has to anticipate even more.
  • To carry the play means that one time you choose to play in a high tempo and the next time you use delaying tactics to slow the play down.
  • A play-making team must take full advantage of the space and must have defenders who can quickly change the point of attack, wing forwards who remain on the outside, etc.
  • The transition from defence to build-up must be executed very quickly.
  • The team tactical manpower in the centre of the field(central defenders, midfielders and striker) is of great importance.
  • During the build up, the tactical coherence between the central defenders who must be thinking of playing the ball forward, the attacking midfielders and the central striker is very precise work. When possession is lost, it starts in the opposite direction.
  • Good ball circulation puts high demands on the quality of the positional play, the mastering of the tempo and the speed of action."
Now here's a key point for me. Level 3 football demands effective ball circulation. It's stated as a cardinal sin to concede possession in the build-up phase, and it's equally stated as a cardinal virtue to play it simple, with one touch passing, quick release of the ball, variance of tempo, and so forth.

For me this provides some insight into some of the real reasons behind the Alonso v Barry saga. I guess I'm risking a mob lynching here, but for me, this last while we've seen him dally in possession, and occasionally lose it in critical areas. With level 3 football in mind, that's the cardinal sin. Barry's renowned for playing it simple and moving it quickly. I know this always sparks debate, so sorry for opening old wounds - I may be wrong on this, but the way I see it, the end goal is improving our ability to play our football in the final third - to maintain our pressure, circulate the ball, and wear out the opposing team's resistance. That's something we've struggled with in recent years. If the Barry thing falls through, I know in my heart of hearts Xabi's capable of getting it right from now on -and if we do get Barry, maybe this provides some insight as to why we wanted him.

It also tells you something about the reason Lucas is rated so highly by the coaching staff. Rafa's decision to bring on Lucas away v Everton - a situation when we clearly needed to adopt a 'play-making' style, and play the ball deep in their half of the field - thinking back on it, you can see what went through his head based on RM's ideas here.

Robbie Keane is another player with good technique and soft feet whose addition only improves our ability to camp in the other team's final third. He finds space, he manipulates the ball well, and he's capable of doing serious damage in the tight spaces between the lines. Which brings us to...


RM goes into great detail regarding the various attacking strategies available. He concentrates on both flanks, and on more direct routes through the centre. It's best to summarise the key points here.

The qualities needed are:
  • Physical strength
  • The ability to cross 'with feeling', particularly when running at speed
  • Strong technique
  • The ability to switch positions (strikers and wide players)
  • Intelligent running and correct use of space
  • Strong tactical discipline when wide players are used...
...and so forth. but the key point for me is the mention of the second forward.
"Due to the fact that the central forward is the most tightly marked player, it is important that a second player supports him. This player needs to be active while moving in the correct position, and he needs to be strong on the ball. He needs to operate in front of as well as behind the striker...

...Such a player has the technical and tactical qualities of a playmaker however he operates in smaller spaces than the classical number 10 (attacking midfielder). He is a player who can dribble, give chip-passes, play give-and-goes and shoot on goal."
Sound like anyone in our squad? In fact, sound like quite a few coming through our ranks?

Circulation Football
"Circulation football is the name for a specific build-up style.

Not many top teams master this well. This strategy is distinguished by the ability to circulate the ball from player to player until the correct moment arises for the attacking phase and thus, the ball can be played deep. That moment can arise very quickly, but it can also take many passes over many stations. This strategy only then makes sense, and is only efficient when it starts a good attacking phase.

As has been said before, only a few teams master this style. It places a high demand on the build-up qualities of the team, together with high-quality positional play. This is a tough assignment, especially if the opponents pressure you constantly.

Quality of the Individual Player
In conclusion: no matter how effective the performance of the team may be or how well the tasks, functions, and strategies are executed, everything rises and falls with the individual qualities of the players. I can not repeat this enough. His technical, tactical, physical and mental baggage is the determining factors.

This is a golden ground rule."
... and there endeth RM's lesson, so to speak.

Now, do you think it's fair to say that, since Rafa's second year in charge, in spells we've seen football that fits the photo-fit description RM sets out above? I'd argue that's a fair assertion. At times we've played wonderful dominant football - the ball's been moved with precision at one-touch pinball speed, we've seen quality opponents struggle to move the ball out of their own half, and we've seen us crush a few quality sides.

What level 3 involves is the consistent ability to do that kind of crushing, and the crucial point RM makes is that it's risky - it's 'sensitive to quality'.

As such, the possibility of consistent level 3 football becomes greater with every 'monster' you add to your squad. Obviously Mascherano's an example, but the clearest description I can remember was in McManaman's autobiography when they described Fernando Redondo. There they described a player who could all but dominate a midfield full of world class opponents on his own. This class of player doesn't become available too often, and if he comes cheap, it's a massive stroke of luck; but when he does become available, you need to take the chance.

It's my view that we missed out big when Alves slipped through our fingers, for example. There's a player who could have answered all our right-sided issues in one fell swoop, and brought us to the cusp of Level 3 football far quicker. I understand why we let him go, but I'm not sure if we'd make the same mistake given a similar opportunity for similar value. Actually, while we're on this subject, I should point out that this is my only real gripe with Rafa's approach - the issue of 'squad depth'. I actually wonder if his experiences at Valencia in 2004 have caused some kind of aversion here.

During that season, his squad worked almost to breaking point to achieve success, and Rafa left as a result. He now likes belt, braces, and elasticated waistband as a result. For me, it's the only weakness - one that's possibly hindered our progress to a degree. Possibly a few less players signed as squad cover (the likes of Zenden for example) would have freed up funds for genuine 'monsters' like Alves when the opportunities arose... but that's our manager's preference, and we have to accept his ways, warts and all. That said, I feel it's only delayed the pace of our first team's progress - that progress has now started to bear fruit regardless.

You get the feeling we've realised our error, and we've taken decisive action with a core of players - extending the contracts of the core of our squad - players who really do the job of two or three ordinary players on their own. These are the core players who can adapt to any strategy or balance we choose; whose mentality and leadership is beyond question. We've got a growing core of players in this mould, and we've even more coming through our youth ranks...

Anyway, I digress again. Back to the point.

I'm sure we can all think of other examples of sides whose level reaches 'level 3'. It's funny, but the majority of our football media would quickly tag Arsenal's football in this way, for example. But that misses RM's point. Sure, Arsenal mostly play a brand of play-making and circulation football exactly as described by RM above; however, RM also makes the point that a level 3 side can vary its approach as suited to the conditions and the opponent - it can switch seamlessly to the counter attacking style, and back again to the play-making style as the situation dictates.

We've often heard the phrase 'they've got no plan B' -well, level 3 football is winning football - it involves plans A, B, C, and D, right through to Z. It involves having a squad full of players who are capable of making decisions on the pitch, and who are schooled in the kind of team-tactical work that takes years to bake in on the academy training pitch. Arsenal's squad wasn't ultimately strong enough to sustain that type of football last year, and when things went wrong, they couldn't ride it out in level 2. They couldn't adapt their style when the situation dictated the need for it.

RM elaborates on this.
"Every player has to be able to perform his specific role in a team efficient manner. Being team efficient means: to create as many possible chances to score, and to give up as few chances as possible. This will give ground to success.

I deliberately do not say: 'team efficient solutions will guarantee success'. To score and get scored on depends to a large degree on the quality of each player."
This is also the reason why, thus far, we've 'tweened', or faltered on the road to consistent level 3 football. We haven't got the balance right, we don't spend enough of our time carrying the game to our opponents, and we haven't yet mastered consistent circulation football against all comers when the need arises.

Reaching that point is the zenith that truly enables a title challenge - the point on which future domination pivots. Reaching it and staying there is the whole aim of the project. Our technical analysis, academy structure, scouting methods and scouting strategy all point towards it.

We're seeing certain styles of player being introduced at all levels - the types of player described in RM's text above.

For me, the summer's recruitment so far (Dossena, Degen, Keane, and the mooted interest in players like Barry, Silva, and so forth) tie in perfectly with RM's description of the players needed to play consistent level 3 football -dominant football that carries the game to the opposition, but with players who are intelligent enough, individually and collectively, to adapt their strategy as needed during a game.


A few words from our Gaffer...

In his column for El Mundo during Euro 2008, he made his intent perfectly clear - there's no doubt he's singing from the same hymn sheet as Michels.
"In the first place, I will let you know that my idea of good football and my concept of a good team relies on team order, balance on defence and cutting-edge on attack. To accomplish this you need players who are able to read the game well, who know when it’s time to play short or long passes, when you need to attack through the middle or down the flank, when it’s time to keep possession of the ball or when you need to start a quick counter-attack. I’m talking about real footballers, who will take advantage of their abilities to help the team win by playing as well as possible, who will be able to adapt when needed, who will try to impose their style of play, but who can also vary that style for the benefit of the team and to help it win games.

In today’s football, cutting-edge in attack is becoming more and more of a collective or tactical effort, depends more on a group of players or positioning on the pitch than on a single player. This is why a skilful player tends to draw our attention more often, but we must be able to distinguish between the skilful player and the cutting-edge player.

The first will dribble or dwell on the ball showing his technical ability; the second wins matches, is a constant threat to opposing teams and the solution for his team-mates when they can’t find their way. With a single touch he can find an open team-mate, he can find an open space when and where he should, makes an effort to do things the right way and always tries to do what will benefit his team the most. In other words, he will play good football in order to win matches, not just for show."
For me, the buys he's made and the players he's been linked with over the course of the summer show he's reached a genuine level of confidence in the abilities of the squad's core.

We've also seen the addition of real quality, both at first team level, and in line with the other two categories in Macia's 'three tier' plan. (For more on this, see this thread.) We've seen genuine talent added in the likes of Buchtmann, Ince, Saric, Weijl, and NGog. The production line has already added several genuine prospects to our first team squad including Insua, Plessis, Pacheco and Nemeth.

I reckon our manager's recognised that our squad is ripening nicely in terms of RM's framework - he's making clear changes to improve our chances of playing this type of football consistently.

It's my contention that he's not quite there yet - our finances dictate that we won't be able to bludgeon our way to the title by first team buys alone. We are equipped to challenge, and again we'll be competitive on all fronts...but...

It's not until the youth pipeline bears its proper fruit that we'll see the kind of quality in depth that's needed to play truly dominant football - consistent league winning football. As RM emphasises, you need players throughout your squad with the correct mentality, quality, and team tactical schooling to sustain all variants in our pattern of play.

We'll get closer year-on-year, and we might even go mighty close to a win this year, but one thing's for sure - the longer we stick with the long-term plan, based on RM's teambuilding framework, the better chance we'll have of returning to our rightful place - consistent domination of domestic and European football.

For that reason, I'd call on everyone to check their expectations this year, no matter how many titles our rivals have accumulated - remember how close we are, remember how good our project is, and remember how hard it is to find talent of the sort we have at the helm of the club.

I'll finish by restating my own reply to L6's most excellent 'PS3 for Xmas'-based post.
...while we're on the Xmas theme, let me don my Ebeneezer Scrooge hat for a moment...

This [optimism and belief that we're going to win the league next season] is exactly the kind of thinking that might hamstring our long-term progress (which has continued year-on-year under Rafa, regardless of the neverending sequence of boardroom catastrophes and signing debacles that have hindered him).

"this year I expect the league" is exactly what leads to the mass knee-jerk calls for Rafa's removal down the line if things don't go exactly to plan, and that's precisely what we need to avoid at all costs. we have a sh_tstorm behind the scenes that badly affects our club's finances, but even in those conditions, Rafa and his staff have a sophisticated 3-tier plan in place that's going to ensure we can still improve and win trophies when times are tight and the banks are on the blower asking for their interest payments. we have a sophisticated set-up in place and we need continuity.

That's why Carragher's call to 'challenge' is more sensible. in case you haven't noticed, we don't seem to begetting Gareth Barry, and we've been unable to get one or two other first-choice picks in the not too distant past. this might be rafa's squad, but in quality terms we've got a year or two to go before we reach the level you're hinting at here [a squad that's choc full of Rafa's first choice players] - we still have the odd chink in our armour. I'd not hold Cavaieri out as an unqualified success just yet, for example.

Rafa and his staff need enough time to demonstrate the results of the youth pipeline. I for one won't be demanding justifications until the likes of Pepper and Dalla Valle reach age 21-22. then the plan will have been seen through its first cycle, and we'll be in a genuine position to judge its effectiveness. the results thus far are impressive - everyone's agreed that Pacheco and Nemeth are exciting prospects. give it time and let's keep our heads on, cos unqualified expectation is a dangerous thing."
Before signing off, here's some recommended reading submitted by posters in the original thread. We can keep adding to this list as the debate progresses (and thanks guys for some fantastic links - it's the quickest route to footballing enlightenment!).

The link to the Rinus Michels book on Amazon:

L6Red's "This is the Year":

yorkykopite's "This Season's Defence - An Attack":

The "Rafa's Bootroom" series from the LFC.tv site...

interview with Eduardo Macia:

interview with Piet Hamberg:

interview with fitness coach Paco De Miguel:

interview with fitness coach Gonzalo Rodrigues:

interview with goalkeeping coach xavi valero:

interview with scout mike mcglynn

interview with profile compiler Dave McDonough

interview with Angel Vales:

Some more good stuff on Angel Vales (we need ASF to work on this one, but until then, maybe use google translate or babelfish):

Interview with Italian scout Mauro Pederzoli (a little background on Rafa and his criteria for player selection):

A post that profiles Arrigo Sacchi, and goes into considerable depth...

hesbighesred's post inspired by the Sacchi piece on Liverpool's use of pressing and forcing:

hesbighesred's assessment of where our rivals currently are in the level 3 process:

joeterp's breakdown of LFC's players by age:

Special mention to ASF's translations of Rafa's Euro 2008 columns:










Some other stuff not directly related to the original posts...

Stussy's recommendation of "Inverting the Pyramid" by Jonathan Wilson:

Some excellent analytical pieces by Uli Hesse-Lichtenberger (with application of 'Moneyball'-style principles to the progress of Freiburg in Germany) - not directly relevant to the original post, but very interesting stuff:





clive woodward - podcasts on the sporting project leading up to the England rugby team's world cup win in 2003...


the individual links...






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Quote of the moment

Defying belief however, is a market Benitez has cornered quite well. The moment you think Benitez is clueless, he defies it by pulling off a result of majesty, like the one achieved in Madrid. The moment he is hailed a genius, he masterminds toothless surrender to a team going nowhere. In the ongoing Anfield power struggle, just when he was cornered by the firing squad, the Spaniard's demise at Liverpool looking practically assured with the ominous suspension of betting by the bookmakers, he squeezes out through a narrow trapdoor and eliminates Rick Parry. Rafa Benitez is Keyzer Soze.
- Just Football blog: The Curious Beast that is Football 28 Feb 2009