Deeper than all styles of football discussed is something more fundamental. A spectrum of intensity vs control. Think for a second about where you would place the positional play displayed by Guardiola’s Manchester City or the heavy metal football by Klopp’s peak Liverpool.
One represents total control and the other intensity. Combining both is anyone’s dream, and both have come close at times where they have performed at their best for a prolonged period. But, this article is not about them – it is about how we can use this concept of intensity vs control to see football in a new light and improve our coaching actions.
Imagine a 4v2 practice in a relatively small area, chaos, if the area increases it will likely look like an intensive practice. However, with rules it becomes a rondo – in which you can clearly see the structure and teach movements to create controlled penetration. A coach whose preference is intensity will often train with equal numbers and coach moments of transitions. Think of the behaviours players will develop by playing 4v4-7v7, they are likely to defend man-man, be ball-oriented in the (counter)press and be direct on the ball because that is where the spaces are.
Peers favouring control on the other hand will integrate numerical overloads frequently and teach structures and movements in set situations, these principles might overlap some with patterns. When playing exercises such as 4v4+3, which is a well-known positional play practice, the player on the ball will often have an overload near which means they will actively look for solutions close first. Simultaneously the defenders know that they’re underloaded so they will adopt a different method to pressing, they are more likely to do so but cutting off passing lines, making play predictable and this way controlling the oppositions options. In this way they develop playing with control in all moments of the game.
This is valuable for coaches to consider when planning series of, and individual, trainings. Within a week it is common to have a day to expose players to different area sizes, from a physiological point of view the reason is to overload different muscles/functions and from a tactical/technical we create variation in the situations our players experience and the actions they execute to solve them. If we only play in small areas, we might not get much exposure to long passing or heading, by playing in only large areas we probably won’t be prepared for the quick thinking or duel strength required in tight match situations. An idea is to integrate the concept of intensity vs control into a weekly plan, for instance:
However, this is only one way we can train both control and intensity. Another method is through our fixtures. By playing equal/better teams we are likely to adopt an intensive style, where we have to play in transitions or chase the game a lot, by playing weaker teams we can set up to prepare to control the game much more. Again, the key is in the balance between the two. A player who only plays against better teams are unlikely to develop superior ability on the ball (because they won’t have enough game repetition), however a player only playing weaker teams are unlikely to develop superior ability to defend spaces or moving off the ball to receive, for the same reason. Typically, you can tell which your group needs exposure to by watching their primary intentions on the ball or to get on the ball, do they seek space near the ball or far away. If they seek space near it is often because they want control, if they frequently launch it as far as they can they are encouraging intensity.
The difference between the methods is as stark as the difference between chess or ping-pong. One is played with the heart and one with the brain. Neither is bad, and neither is better. The best players are often able to master both, but you could argue it would be more of a challenge for Messi for an intensity-oriented team, or for Henderson to shine in a team seeking control.
Perhaps utopia is a team who is able to play with more control and more intensity than the opposition – but that is no easy thing to train or to achieve.