Attacking coach, England, 2017-2021
As the ball went out of play in second-half stoppage time, I got up from the dugout.
I walked past Gareth Southgate and shouted at the players to revert to the ‘bus stop’.
You might have heard it called the ‘love train’. That’s what it became known as, I think after a commentator called it that on TV.
This was the 2018 World Cup; I was there as England’s attacking coach. In England’s group-stage opener against Tunisia, it was 1-1 with minutes left in time added on.
Then, we won a corner.
We’d put a few balls in from corners and weren’t getting any results, so I shouted for them to use the bus stop.
The players knew what they were doing with that move. You can probably remember the image – the players lined up close together in the penalty area (above). Everyone knew where they had to make their runs to, and it becomes very difficult to mark.
Making that call was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made.
Harry Kane knew to attack the back post, and Harry Maguire flicked the ball on in his direction. Kane was there to head it home.
It was up there as one of the most important set-piece goals England had scored.
"I was never coached the intricacies of what it takes to be a top striker"
It was the first game at the World Cup. If we’d started that group off with a draw, we would have been up against it with two group games to go.
On top of that, the result was crucial for morale in the camp. On a personal level, it was huge to have won thanks to a set-piece, which was part of my remit with England.
It was vindication for my work as an attacking coach.
But even better was yet to come.
I’d put a lot of time, effort and thought into being an attacking coach, but I wasn’t a known name at that point.
I’d had an average career as a forward. I played professional football for 18 years, but I never got to the highest level, and the standard of coaching I received reflected that. I was never coached the intricacies of what it takes to be a top striker.
There were plenty of coaches who I learned a lot from, but also many of my coaches taught me what not to do. I learned a lot from bad coaches about how not to coach.
"I had a basic set-up by today’s standards, but in football at that point it was cutting-edge"
I learned from the quality of coaches I had as a player that it’s often up to the individuals to take charge of their career.
Once, when I came back from a cruciate injury, I was at a club that trained on AstroTurf part of the week. I refused to train on it in order to prolong my career, so I’d take 20 balls and go off to train on my own. I had to be creative with what I did.
I’d throw a ball up in the air, get a shot off with another ball, bring the first ball down and shoot with that one. It was the start of me discovering the creativity I needed as an attacking coach.
As I came towards the end of my playing days, I started to think more and more about coaching. I thought about the years I’d spent as a player without ever being told how exactly I could improve my game. About the time I’d spent improving my own game.
I began my own coaching programme, with a focus on strikers, but I had no intention of creating a niche. I knew I wanted to work with the world’s best players, and I knew how I would make that happen.
At that stage, I was 33 and playing in California. I had to make a decision between quitting and focusing fully on the coaching programme, or carrying on playing and leaving the door open for someone else to make their mark as a specialist.
"My profile started to grow. I started to get requests from top players all over the world"
It was a risk I wasn’t willing to take, so I decided to hang up my boots and go full-time as a coach.
I worked with players in the local area in the US, and put some of the content up online. It was 2011, and I had a very basic set-up by today’s standards: iPads around the pitch, recording the sessions. However, in football at that point, it was cutting-edge.
I used the footage to instantly feed back to the player on where they could improve. Was it a hip rotation, or a poor ball contact, or an issue with focus, or even belief? It meant I could give my players real clarity on where they were going wrong. They immediately had something specific to work on, and were able to see the improvements as they worked on that issue.
At that point, nobody in football was doing anything like what I was doing. As a result, it got a lot of interest on social media.
I lived on the beach in Newport, California, so life was good. But, after six or seven months of working with MLS players, I knew I needed to come back to the UK. I needed to be closer to the world’s best players.
I got introduced to Andre Gray soon after getting back, and he signed up straight away. He was at Burnley at the time, and trained every week with me from October 2015 right through to the last week of the season. Burnley won the Championship that season; Andre was the league’s top scorer, with 23 goals.
"Set-plays are a neglected area in football, but Gareth wanted to make them a focus"
My profile started to grow, and I started to get requests from top players from all over the world.
I ended up working with Eder, who scored the winner in the Euro 2016 final; Martin Braithwaite when he was at Toulouse, Aleksandar Mitrovic when he was at Newcastle; Divock Origi, Danny Welbeck, Wilfred Zaha, and plenty of others.
Word was spreading about my work.
Shortly after Gareth got the England job as interim manager in September 2016, I got the opportunity to present some of my work to him, and how I thought it could help the team.
He actually then went and presented it to the players. When he got the job on a permanent basis, he brought me in on a short-term contract.
I came in for a couple of camps in early 2017, doing individual training and some work with the whole attacking unit. It went well, and Gareth asked me to stay on for the 2018 World Cup. He wanted me to take charge of the set-plays and work with the attacking players.
England went into that tournament having failed to score from their previous 72 corners at major tournaments, stretching back to 2010.
"We were the highest-scoring England team at a World Cup, and 75 per cent of our goals came from set-pieces"
Set-plays are a somewhat neglected area in football, but they are particularly important in tournament football. Gareth wanted to make them a focus.
In the lead-up to the World Cup, we started working on target areas and timing of runs. I had my delivery guys who put in ball after ball. We worked incredibly hard on their delivery.
When we started off, we were hitting the target areas around 30 per cent of the time. By the end of the World Cup, we’d got that up to 88 per cent.
We aligned that accuracy with the desired angle and height of the delivery and well-timed movements in the box. On top of that, we did a lot of research into our opponents – and the stats at the World Cup ended up speaking for themselves.
We were the highest-scoring England team at a World Cup, and 75 per cent of our goals came from set-pieces. We recorded England’s biggest ever margin of victory in a World Cup game, with the 6-1 win over Panama. Harry Kane won the golden boot.
I also worked with the players on penalties. We did loads of work on making them feel confident and comfortable during a shootout.
So, when the Colombia game in the round of 16 went to penalties, we were prepared.
It’s a long, lonely walk from the centre circle – and the line of comfort with their teammates – to the penalty spot, so we did lots of work on the psychology of that approach.
"when Dier scored the winning penalty, I felt sheer relief"
We also made sure Jordan Pickford gave the ball to each penalty taker, so they were receiving it from someone they were comfortable with.
We didn’t specifically work on what the players should think while they ran up to take their penalty. But we spent so much time working on their technique that they all trusted in their ability to do what they needed to when under pressure.
They had all practised their technique so many times in the month beforehand that they believed in themselves. In the training camp in Russia, when we went out to set up training each morning, the groundsman would be laying a new penalty spot because we’d worn out the others!
It meant they were confident going into that Colombia shootout (below).
Of course, the players had to step up and face the pressure of the situation. All eyes were on them and Gareth.
But that’s not to say I wasn’t nervous. I was the one who’d given Gareth the information.
The pressure was huge.
So, when Eric Dier scored the winning penalty, I felt sheer relief.
"That was when I realised how big it was. We’d done something really, genuinely huge"
Relief that we had done it; that all our hard work on penalties had paid off. I’d helped England get the penalty-shootout monkey off their back, and we won another shootout – in the Nations League third-place playoff – a year later.
I was immensely proud of the achievement against Colombia; of the players, for taking the penalties, and of the staff for giving them the belief to succeed.
I didn’t fully comprehend the enormity of the achievement at first.
But when I walked into the coaches’ room afterwards, Dan Ashworth, the FA’s technical director, was in there in tears.
That was when I realised how big it was. We’d done something really, genuinely huge.
Then, to take England all the way to the semis, with set-pieces such a big part of our success, was just incredible.
The players deserve massive credit for buying into the ideas, but Gareth and Steve Holland are the ones who put all the pieces together and were responsible for it.
Gareth and Steve put full trust in me to do what I thought I needed to improve England at set-plays and in attack. Not once at any point in the four, five years we worked together did they tell me to change what I was doing.
"I learned so much from Gareth on managing pressured situations, on self-awareness, emotional intelligence"
I got nothing but support from both of them. They were more relaxed because they didn’t have to worry about attacking set-plays.
There was the odd occasion when Steve may have felt slightly uneasy, because I committed seven players to the penalty area and he wanted another man behind the ball.
So far, though, through hundreds and hundreds of attacking set-pieces in the time I’ve been working on them, I’m yet to have a team concede a goal to a counter-attack.
In the World Cup semi final against Croatia, I insisted we only left two players back at attacking corners, even though our research told us Croatia always left two players up the pitch.
“They won’t leave two up,” I insisted.
When they saw how many players we sent up, they sent one of their attackers back. It’s a game of cat and mouse; sometimes, you have to call the opposition’s bluff.
I owe so much to Gareth and Steve (above) for the trust they put in me to make decisions like that on such a big stage. It really was an amazing experience, and one that has helped make me the coach I am today.
They’re both incredible coaches. Steve’s an absolute genius on the grass, so I learned a great deal from him.
"I’ve broadened my horizons and have a few options for the direction I go in next"
I also learned so much from Gareth on managing pressured situations, on self-awareness, emotional intelligence. Also, because he’s so good at all that stuff, people seem to forget – or miss – how good a coach he is. He’s just so tactically intelligent.
I built up great relationships with the players, too. Not only the attackers like Harry and Marcus Rashford, who I spent a lot of time with, but all of them.
Harry has since said some complimentary things about me and my work, which is obviously great to hear, but I’m just grateful for the buy-in players like him gave me. The England lads got fully behind what I was doing, and that made my job easier.
I try and keep in touch with players I’ve worked with. Whether that’s just a congratulatory text after a big goal, a little word of advice or asking them what they think of something I’ve noticed, I like to try and touch base with them every so often.
But having watched Gareth and Steve up close for such a long time, I decided I wanted a more rounded role next. I had been exposed to some of the very best for an extended period of time, working right at the top of the game.
So, I went to Aberdeen as assistant manager to Stephen Glass, who I’d played with in North Carolina, in March 2021.
When we went in, Aberdeen had only scored one goal in 10 games.
They were kind of a long-ball team, and out of possession they were man-referenced – a bit like Marcelo Bielsa’s Leeds. They also weren’t scoring from set-pieces. We went in and changed everything.
"Eventually I see myself as a head coach. When that is and where that is, I don't know"
We played out from the back and we scored a lot of goals, with 40 per cent of those coming from set-plays. We became the best team in Scotland at set-pieces.
Our time was cut short in February 2022, but in our 11 months there we put in a lot of good processes. I felt the players learned an awful lot.
It was exactly what I needed at that stage of my career. It means I’ve broadened my horizons and have a few options for the direction I go in next.
A few Premier League clubs have been in touch, and I’ve spoken to a few international federations with the World Cup in Qatar around the corner. That’s all for attacking coach work.
Eventually, though, I see myself as a head coach. When that is and where that is, I don’t know. I’ll let that happen naturally.
I was lucky enough to have Gareth Southgate put his belief in me. He saw the value in having an attacking coach, and the players repaid his faith.
I’ll always be thankful to have had that opportunity to show what I can do.
And, hopefully, the game is changing so that more players receive the kind of individual coaching I never got.
Author: Ali Tweedale