Football: Wilkinson's case for the defence

FA technical director's views on tactics are not necessarily those of the England management. Adam Szreter reports
THOSE OF you who still think football is a simple game were obviously not at the Second Annual Conference for Football Association Coaches that took place yesterday in Birmingham, where our national sport was dissected, examined and discussed in the kind of microscopic detail you would normally associate with an academic seminar - which in its way, of course, it was.

Coaches from all over the country, from parks teams to Premiership managers, were among the 900 or so delegates at the International Convention Centre who were addressed by speakers like Craig Brown, the Scotland coach, Andy Roxburgh, his predecessor and now Uefa's technical director, and the FA's own technical director, Howard Wilkinson. Glenn Hoddle, the national coach, was conspicuous by his absence although John Gorman, his assistant, was there.

Wilkinson, the manager of Leeds United when they became the last winners of the old First Division, had the unenviable task of making sense of a whole range of bewildering statistics arising from the World Cup, presented by two boffins from Liverpool John Moores University. Most goals were scored in the last 15 minutes, we were told, 10 per cent from outside the penalty area and 25 per cent from set plays. After that it all became very technical before the gentlemen concerned were ushered off bearing gifts - presumably Subbuteo sets - from the FA.

Wilkinson began with the premise that France 98 had been, in his opinion, "the most successful World Cup from a playing point of view". The new rules, he said, had encouraged more thoughtful play. "A coach has to have a vision which he turns into a philosophy," he added.

His illustration of the way in which Fabien Barthez, the French goalkeeper, and Edwin van der Sar, his Dutch counterpart, had adapted particularly well to the rule concerning back-passes to the goalkeeper was quite revealing, demonstrating as it did how their quick and decisive distribution often contributed to attacking moves.

But because of the same rule, he said, teams were now defending too deep and Wilkinson deferred to the statistics that told him a growing number of attacks were now coming from central areas of the pitch rather than the flanks. "There's an increasing requirement for straight passes for angled runs, angled passes for straight runs," and so on.

Much of what he said was digestible only by the connoisseurs and not designed for public consumption but he did raise a few eyebrows when talking about systems. "My particular preference, I have to say, is for four at the back." Which may have explained Mr Hoddle's absence. "I think the demands of the modern game, particularly in tournaments, make it extremely difficult for wing-backs to cover the ground they are supposed to.

"Obviously it's down to the players available, and sometimes the opponents you're playing, but I think a four is more compact, it allows players to get forward in greater variety and in a greater number." Brown later admitted that the only reason Scotland play with three at the back is because he lacks the wingers or wide midfield players needed to make 4- 4-2 work.

Wilkinson's discourse on defending was, thankfully, prefaced by an amusing anecdote courtesy of Derby County's manager, Jim Smith, who once related to Wilkinson an attempt to talk tactics with his Croatian defender, Igor Stimac. "He does this, he does that, he turns inside, when he's on his left foot he drops his right shoulder," Smith was telling Stimac. After about three minutes Stimac said: "That's enough, Jim. If he does that then I stop him. That's how it is. It's what I do."

Slightly more constructively, another player whom Wilkinson had signed from Nottingham Forest, when asked by Wilkinson for the secret of Brian Clough's success, said: "All he would ever say from the dug- out was either `pass it', `pass it forward', or, loudest of all, `turn with it'." Simple but effective.

It seems likely that all coaches are frustrated footballers, and the best ones are maybe those who can contain their desire to dictate everything that happens on the pitch. In their dreams they may have remote controllers for every player, but in reality only Subbuteo will ever fully satisfy their craving.

Almost inevitably, as many questions as answers came out of Wilkinson's speech, but the delegates themselves seemed happy enough. "There were one or two ideas there that I think I can take back and use," said one, a manager of a local Sunday team. "Nothing radical, but I don't think we were expecting that." No, but it might have been fun.