Aston Villa first-team coach Michael Beale’s Coaches’ Voice webinar on implementing a playing style provided fascinating insight from a coach with significant recent success in doing just that. Making up the senior coaching staff alongside former Liverpool midfielders Steven Gerrard and Gary McAllister, Beale helped guide his former club Rangers to their 55th league title in 2020/21, and their first in a decade. Having led Rangers to second place in his first two seasons at Ibrox, Gerrard and co denied Celtic a record tenth successive title by winning the league in his third.
Beale joined the Rangers first team with Gerrard in 2018 and followed him south to Aston Villa in November 2021. He is an ideal coach to turn to for first-hand experience of successfully implementing a playing style with a new team, having played a key role in Rangers’ transformation from also-rans into title winners.
Here, we give a rundown of some of the key takeaways from his expert webinar, which you can watch on demand in full here.
The club itself plays a part
When a new manager or management team arrives at a new club, they are likely to come with a strong idea of how they like their football to be played. However, their own opinion and beliefs are far from the only consideration when implementing a playing style. The culture and history of a club are always going to play a part. Take, for example, Tottenham chairman Daniel Levy’s assertion ahead of the appointment of Nuno Espiríto Santo in the summer of 2021 that he wanted a manager “whose values reflect those of our club and [who would oversee a] return to playing football with the style for which we are known”. Clubs often intend on maintaining some consistency in terms of style of play.
However, it is also important to consider that a new set of staff will often come in at a low moment in the club’s history, usually following a poor run of results and a sacking. Instant results and a shift in some regard from what came before will therefore be required, and that might affect the kind of playing style that is implemented.
There are several questions that need answering early on when looking to decide on the vision to be implemented. First of all, what type of club is it? Are they a survivor or a big club? Are they punching up or looking to dominate? Second, do you want to recruit or develop players? Third, how can you make your ideas personal, so that everyone involved feels like they are part of something?
Alignment between everyone at the club – the hierarchy, coaches, players and supporters – is key. If you have everyone on board, it will be easier to make changes when they are needed.
Consideration needs to be given to in-possession approach, out-of-possession approach and transitions, as well as what Beale calls the “what if?” situations. What if your team is 1-0 down and chasing the game? What if we are playing a first leg away from home in Europe? What if we are holding out for a win? You need to know how you want your team to approach each of these scenarios, and many more.
All of these factors will affect the decision on what kind of playing style to adopt.
“Own the pitch”
Beale says that, when it comes to an out-of-possession approach – defending, counter-defending and defensive restarts – he wants his team to “own the pitch”. Defensive success is intrinsically linked to attacking.
He strongly believes that better defensive organisation will mean more possession of the ball. If your team is organised, you will run less, there will be less stress on the players, and they will be more ready to attack when the chance arises.
Whatever the out-of-possession approach – be it a high press, a mid-press or a low press – teams must have the ability to “turn the dial to maximum”. By this, Beale means there must be a collectively known approach through which the team can crank up the pressure on the opposition. This would be most important if the team is a goal down and chasing an equaliser, for example.
Most importantly, a clear defensive approach and commitment to playing that way will create more opportunities to do the things players and fans love most: attacking.
“Own the ball”
Beale highlights the fact that a match is almost always 11 players against 11 players, so the game is always about trying to find ways to give your team a numerical advantage.
Most important is doing so in the final third, which means you have to be completely obsessed with overloading and disrupting the opposition’s defence. You therefore need players who have the ability to eliminate their opponent through a run, a dribble or combination play.
Something that needs deciding is how you want to get past the opposition’s last line: by playing through, over or around them? That should help form the basis of your in-possession approach.
The formation you choose is not all that important. Whatever the on-paper formation, the players can form different shapes in game, and the freedom to rotate is key to making this happen. The ability to be flexible and unpredictable is key in the modern game.
Developing on a daily basis
When it comes to training, the coach first needs to ascertain the values they expect the players to uphold. What are your non-negotiables?
At the same time, it is important to note what you think the players will want from you. For Beale, integrity, honesty, clarity, a vision and leadership are vital. So, too, is variety on the training ground to keep the players interested.
Next, what footballing qualities do you want from your players? Technical ability, tactical understanding, athletic ability, alite mentality and regular availability are crucial.
Pushing the players on the training ground is of the utmost importance. There is a collective effort that needs to be worked together as a team, but players need to have an individual focus within team sessions. They need to know that you are working to improve them: improve the players and you’ll improve the team.
Players who are engaged, challenged, supported and provoked in training every day will respond to their coach. They will also have greater belief in the project they are part of, which fits perfectly with the aforementioned point on alignment.
This gives a summary of some of the key points made to the CV Academy during this webinar, but there is far more to implementing a style of play successfully. To watch Michael’s webinar in full and learn exactly what it takes to implement a style of play successfully, visit the Coaches’ Voice Academy, here. If you are a coach looking to improve and learn from the very best in the game, this is the place for you.