With the Chelsea squad picking up plenty of wins as they become familiar with Maurizio Sarri’s style of play and football tactics in general a big topic of interest, we look this weekend at the subject of footballers learning new ways to play.
How managers set their teams out is being analysed like never before, with the Premier League in particular an excellent exponent of differing footballing philosophies right now. But what goes into dealing with such changes? How quickly are they introduced? And what must a player do to make them successful?
We enlisted the help of current and past players to find out…
‘We moved the ball very quick: one touch, maximum two touches, and we arrived on goal so easily. This is my football.’
Those were Maurizio Sarri’s words after watching his team string together 31 passes in the build-up to Alvaro Morata’s late strike at St Mary’s on Sunday afternoon. Every outfield player was involved in the move, which lasted longer than a minute and got the conclusion it deserved, capping a fine away victory.
The change in our playing style since Sarri’s arrival in the summer has been well documented, and it follows in a long line of structural differences we have witnessed Chelsea teams adhering to in the past few decades. It has most often been the case that fresh footballing philosophies have been implemented at Stamford Bridge when incoming managers have arrived, and understandably so. There is no more obvious time to start anew.
But what about from a player’s perspective? After all, they are the ones required to put what they learn on the training pitch into practice. To find out more about the process of adapting to new playing styles, we spoke to Gary Cahill, our former midfielder Eddie Newton and the club’s sports science and psychology staff.
Cahill is the longest-serving member of the current squad. Since joining Chelsea from Bolton in January 2012, he has played under seven different bosses (Andre Villas-Boas, Roberto Di Matteo, Rafa Benitez, Jose Mourinho, Guus Hiddink, Antonio Conte and now Sarri), racked up almost 300 appearances, and won seven major trophies. It is safe to say the defender has dealt pretty well with the alterations and adjustments that have been asked of him. So when from his perspective does the task of adapting begin?
‘When a new manager starts,’ Cahill replies. ‘He brings his own ideas, the way he sees football and the way he wants to play.
‘You start learning that in training almost immediately. It is down to us as players to adapt in those situations, and learn the way the manager wants the team to play and the way you have to play in your specific position.
‘When you have been playing in the professional game for a long time and it’s all you know, it’s quite easy to adapt I think,’ adds Cahill, citing experiences earlier in his career and on the international stage.
‘It depends on what profession you are in. We’re in the profession of being a footballer and being a sportsman, and players at this level are so good at what they do because they know how to adapt, and they know how to learn very quickly.
‘It’s a matter of weeks from when the new manager comes in that you get to grips with how he wants to play.’
Newton spent the vast majority of his career at Chelsea in the 1990s. It was a period of transformation for the club, initiated by Glenn Hoddle’s commitment to passing football, helped by star signings from abroad, and rewarded with the trophies picked up under Ruud Gullit and Gianluca Vialli.
Now a technical coach for our loan players, Newton agrees with Cahill that ‘top players adjust very quickly to a new system’. It is one of the elements that sets elite footballers apart from those lower down the pyramid.
‘As long as it is properly explained in training, top players need to be shown only about three times and they’ve got it,’ Newton thinks. ‘If they can’t then they should not be at a top club.’
For the sports science and psychology staff at Cobham, what stands out is the speed players they have worked with transition from being 'consciously incompetent' to 'unconsciously competent'. That is, knowing they can’t do something, to being able to do it without having to think about it.
It is akin to playing jazz music, they say by means of a comparison. To get the right tune, a knowledge of the melody is needed, but not of every single note.
On the pitch, adapting to change seamlessly and quickly requires a high level of human psychological intelligence and robustness, especially as the circumstances can often be testing.
In his time at Chelsea alone Cahill has played in a back four, a back three, high up the pitch, closer to his own box, working to different tactical strategies for certain games, sometimes within days of each other. It is a challenge he continues to relish.
‘I think with anything in life there are certain times when routine is good, and certain times when freshness is good. To learn something new not just in football but in general can be refreshing. It’s something to get your teeth stuck into.
Some things you will agree, some you won’t, but ultimately it’s down to you to put a manager’s ideas into practice.
— Gary Cahill
‘In an ideal world, you will have time with a new manager in pre-season, you can work on shape in games that aren’t as important, and then you can start the season up and running. But in football, that doesn’t always happen. You don’t know what is around the corner, and so to be successful you need to adapt very quickly in all different circumstances and situations.’
In part two, we look at how hard it is to stay true to new playing philosophies when things go wrong, and analyse the impact work off the pitch has…