Tim Lees: coaching possession, youth development and the future

Tim Lees: coaching possession, youth development and the future

Tim Lees profile (from Soccer School UK)

Tim came through the academy system in England with both Bolton Wanderers and Everton as a youngster. He has over 300 appearances semi-professionally in England and in 2007 earned the highest scholarship awarded to an athlete at Maryland, USA. In 2006, he was chosen to represent the UK from 17,000 players for The Pepsi Max World Challenge, a global TV Series screened on Channel 4. Tim competed against the best semi-professional players from ten other countries in  2V2 tournament around the globe; working with Ronaldinho, David Beckham and Thierry Henry. In 2006, he was chosen by Jamie Redknapp to represent England semi-professional team at the FIFA World Cup finals in Germany.

He is also a football skills champion, finishing second in the World 2004 Nike Freestyle Championships and has performed choreographed and body doubled on dozens of commercials and advertisements around the world for the past ten years.

Tim was selected by Pepsi as a Technical Coach alongside David Beckham in Madrid and Ronaldinho in Camp Nou before being recruited by the Watford FC academy where he worked full time with 12-16s at the pioneering Harefield Project. This system saw over 50 players progress from the academy into the Championship first team squad. He was Youth Development Manager of 12-16s at Wigan Athletic, overseeing the coaching programme and philosophy at all age groups before managing the 13-14s philosophy at Liverpool’s academy. Tim was also seconded to coach in Spain by Roberto Martinez in the summer of 2013, holds a BSc Hons Degree in Sport Psychology, a UEFA A Licence and has been a guest speaker at several youth national coaching events.

What made you get into coaching?

“I first got into coaching when I was released from the professional academies and realised I was not going to reach the heights that I had dreamt of as a player. I was a skinny and small, technical deep-lying midfielder with no pace that kept dropping in to receive from centre backs – all they were being asked to do was hit the front players early. The philosophy in academies is very different now than it was in the 90s; the game has moved on so much and I was a very late developer. When I left school I was forced to take a session as part of my college course. I loved it. This is where I first started – and the session I put on was terrible.

“The reason I started was born from my own experiences. I had played under so many coaches and managers who had polar opposite beliefs to me and operated in ways that I felt was completely unacceptable. They would lie continually, were lazy in terms of preparation and applied no thought or creativity to their sessions. We went for three mile runs around the streets, we wouldn’t see the balls for 60 of the 90 minute sessions and we played conditioned games with absolutely no relevance to the game at all.

“I remember at Bolton, being put into a sprint race over 60 yards against the under-15 players and I was chronologically barely 13 with the biological age of 11. When I look back to some of the things I was asked to do I wonder how some of the coaches were even employed. Some people still use these methods and term them ‘making boys into men’ and all that alpha male rubbish that ‘did them no harm’, but what they don’t ask is how much better they could have been if they hadn’t wasted time on things that had no relevance.”

Fans and the media are becoming more privy to buzzwords for coaches such as ‘ideology’ and ‘philosophy’, can you explain what your philosophy as a coach is?

“Philosophy is a really difficult word to get across on a piece of paper or in an interview. My core philosophical values are to treat people with respect and to always be honest with others. In football, the higher you go the more bad people you find. Some of the dishonesty I have seen it truly staggering and due to this I am always open with my feelings with others around me.  I never want people to be unsure on what I am thinking whether that be good or bad. When people know you will tell them the truth 100% of the time then you have an environment where people are working towards a goal together. Trust is the most important principle to any philosophy yet it in football it is something that seems to be devoid in most clubs.

“My on field philosophy never changes but constantly evolves. If I was still coaching the same things that I was two years ago then I would not only be naive but also not adjusting to the demands of the modern game. Brendan Rodgers spoke about how the speed of the Premier league changes with each pre-season thus everyone has to evolve. If I don’t evolve and improve as a coach on a weekly basis then I will never reach the levels that I want to. I am not good enough to coach a Premier League first team now therefore I need to know the steps to get me there.

“The core principles I believe in never waver in any circumstances, regardless how extreme or difficult the situation may seem. If you don’t stand for something then you’ll fall for nothing. It’s an easy principle to have as a core value yet one that many abandon when the chips are down. Roberto [Martínez] once said to me ‘never move from your principles, many people will come along who don’t believe in it but you cannot be influenced – if it was easy then everyone would be doing it’.

“In a short sentence, I believe in dominating possession of the football to be in control of what happens. When asked about my philosophy I could detail principles like how many receiving lines I like to use, the number of vertical columns I like to play on, about how to create specific overloads in certain areas of the pitch or how to change the amount of pressure behind 1v1’s in a game from 81% to 30-40% so you are facing the goal in space but it is all irrelevant without the player profiles in front of you. The reality is that you see things in individuals that they need which may give them short term failure but you know long term it’s best for them. You identify things in games which tactically need your input for the benefit of both the team and the individual but it’s extremely hard to document these principles without having two teams on a pitch in front of you. Instead, I will explain from, start to finish,  what I would like from any team that I coach and hopefully this will provide a more relevant answer to your question. I want my team to have the ball for several reasons:

  • Most importantly from a youth perspective, the returns technically are paramount. The obvious passing repetition and myelin built cognitively from a high frequency, repetitive process is imperative. Players receive with pressure behind 80% of the four 1v1 situations so the more times we create this, the more opportunities the players get to dominate players. Champions League players have over 2700 receiving situations per season therefore we need to get as close to this as possible. To get these technical returns, we need the ball.
  • From a tactical point of view, if we want to dominate the ball then we have to have control of the opposition in terms of their block and their defensive movements. If they show us into specific areas setting traps and working off pressing triggers then we are playing into their strengths. We have to dictate to them what is happening in the match, not the other way around. To hurt teams we need 1v1 situations higher up the pitch where we can outplay opponents but we also need the spaces. Thus, to control the spaces we need to get the opposition’s players in areas on the pitch where we want them; we need the ball most of the time.  To have the ball more than the opposition would mean that statistically, in black and white terms, we need to have the ball 51% of the game. However, this is not enough so I aim for my teams to have the ball for a minimum of 65% possession (average of Barcelona and Bayern last season). This is reflected in every possession practice and training session. So, for the above reasons, the first objective target is to have the ball 65% of the time. Although it is not the sole objective, the possession percentage is not just a meaningless statistic, it has specific returns at 65%.
  • If we have 65% of the ball then I do not want a large proportion of this to be in our own half. You see this where teams dominate possession but never hurt the opposition. To get our best attacking players on the ball in areas where they can hurt the opposition, they need to be receiving in the block and not in front of it. When teams focus too much on playing from the back then game-changing players begin to drop deeper to get on the ball as the game progresses. There is nothing more frustrating than seeing players like Hazard, Sánchez or Coutinho dropping in front of the midfield block and looking up at two lines ahead.
  • The players who change the game need to be receiving within 35m of the opposition’s goal and ideally in the spaces in between the lines. To do this, we need the opposition closer to their goal and in a low block. Therefore the idea of playing out from the back should be to progress the opposition’s block up the pitch where they are sitting in front of their own goal as opposed to allowing them to press us 25m from our goal. Playing out from the back is imperative to getting the opposition just in front of their goal, however it is not only naive but dangerous to solely focus on this philosophy. There are specific movements, rotations and actions required to progress a philosophy from playing from the back to getting the opposition defending in their own half. The difference is huge.
  • Once we have got the opposition defending deep, we will automatically now have a lot of the ball and most of the time will achieve the 65% domination. If the opposition are in a low block sitting in front of their own goal then this is physically and mentally very demanding to do for long periods. It saps their energy, it drains their concentration and they give up on trying to even have the ball because they are so far from our goal when they regain. If we are in this position then they are 80-90m from our goal. If we focus on playing from the back and bouncing midfielders for long periods then not only are we more open to counters but we are now 25m from our goal.
  • Once we can get the opposition to a point where their striker is detached from the midfield and defensive line then their only option on the turnover is to go long to a sole player. At this point several things are vital in order to retain the philosophy. On the turnover of possession, the five second press is imperative to keep them deep. Players must close the net quickly and get pressure on the ball, centre-backs must engage and double up on their striker and not allow the opposition to get comfortable possession. Again, there are specific movements and actions required depending on the system employed.
  • Once we regain possession, we need to quickly shift it out of the pressure zone and to a spare player. Guardiola works off a simple principle which was influenced by Cruyff; the player who has pressed the ball has focused all his energy on regaining the ball therefore he has the worst ‘map’ of the pitch. He has no idea on our positional slots or shape therefore his only focus should be to offload the ball as fast as possible to anybody. The second pass out of the press should be focused on shifting the ball out of the pressure zone and to find the space on the pitch. Whilst these two passes are happening, on the third pass our shape should now be one with width and depth again. The cycle now begins again where we circulate the ball, show patience in possession and keep the opposition in front of their goal.

“This is my philosophy as a simple structure. The actual system has to be built around the players that are in the squad. The system has two functions – to bring out the best in the best players whilst being setup to give them the best chance of achieving the above philosophy.”

Did any teams or coaches influence your philosophy?

“From the age of eight I was brought up watching a philosophy that was different to the one I was part of in this country. My dad bought me old video tapes of Brazil in the 70s and Barcelona with Cruyff pulling the strings. In Euro 96 when all my friends were cheering England, my dad sat me down watching Hierro playing from the back for Spain so this culture was built into me from very young. From a philosophy point of view, my main influences are obvious.

“Roberto inspired me so much at Wigan and I was fortunate enough to manage his camp in Catalonia for him. From an educational point of view, I developed lots working with Alex Inglethorpe, Pep Lljinders, and Mick Beale at Liverpool. My first job in coaching was given to me by Nick Cox at Watford – he took a chance on me when no one else would and he provided me with a great foundation. I am hugely influenced by Bielsa particularly with his intensity, attention to detail and the tactical flexibility that he constantly possesses. And lastly, Guardiola’s effective reinvention of the game is my biggest influence.”

Does your philosophy influence the type of player you look to recruit?

“Hugely. If I was recruiting from a first team point of view then I would recruit specific profiles that I need to achieve the above philosophy, not to suit a specific system. I know that for the philosophy to work I need very specific profiles – these would be completely different if I wanted my team to drop to a low block and counter. Recruitment of players is more important than any coaching session, idea or principle. And it’s not as simple as buying a game changer to hurt teams 1v1 in the block or finding a passer to sit in front of the back four and pull the strings.

“For example, I know that if I want to dominate the ball for 65% of the time then I need a centre-back who can stop turns on the transition and defend 1v1 – in order to keep the opposition in their half. I don’t necessarily need a centre back with pace or mobility if he can see danger early and prevents strikers turning on the transition. But then, he needs someone next to him who can defend the spaces in behind should we not press the ball quick enough.

“The recruitment of first team players for a specific function is different to that of youth players. In academies, you are looking for one thing: long-term potential. And this looks different in every player and position. We don’t care if we lose the game this Sunday 6-0 because the first team manager will want to know if a player can technically compete at the elite level at 19. When he breaks into the first team the manager isn’t going to ask him what score he won away at Burnley six years earlier. Therefore, coaches in youth football have to sacrifice their ego and ‘status’ for the long term gain of the players – this is easier said than done.”

During your time at Liverpool you would’ve worked alongside Pepijn Lijnders; as a highly regarded youth coach, what is he like to work with?

“There are lots of charlatans in the professional game who are in high profile positions because of who they know but Pep is the best coach I have ever worked with. His intensity, energy and passion is unparalleled and his knowledge both tactically and how to develop players from an individual point of view is incredible. I have no doubt he will manage one day in the Premier League and I feel fortunate to have worked side-by-side with him for a prolonged period. He’s a great guy off the field too.”

 Do you think set pieces are under-utilised in the modern game?

“It is becoming harder to score from set pieces because teams are set up so well to not concede from them. Often teams have 11 players behind the ball and sacrifice trying to counter from them for fear of conceding. Personally, I like to control the opposition so I take risks from defending set pieces leaving lots of players out for the counter. If I am defending a set piece and I leave three players high – with relevant profiles to counter and poor profiles to defend aerially – then the opposition have no option than to leave a minimum of three back. If they do this, we now have less players to focus on defensively and our goalkeeper has more space to attack and claim (he has the highest aerial reach than any player therefore needs more space).

“I trust the players whose job it is to defend through a part zonal/man marking system and take out the players who would never defend properly anyway. From an attacking point of view, I think a lot of managers neglect the principles and philosophy and focus more on how to score from set pieces. I have been in team talks as a player where managers spend every minute of their pre match giving instructions on set pieces.”

You’ve been fortunate enough to work with both Roberto Martínez and Brendan Rodgers. Tell us about the experience of working with two highly-rated, young Premier League managers.

“I feel extremely fortunate to have worked in a managerial development capacity under both managers’ philosophies. I had to present the academy philosophy to Roberto and he was extremely specific about his ideas on how to develop players long term. The detail he goes into is forensic; people wouldn’t believe the level he goes into. Ironically, I used to travel the country to watch Swansea under Brendan and Wigan under Roberto.

“I loved the way Rodgers dominated the ball against bigger teams, playing from the back constantly with a very fluid and interchangeable 4-3-3. Watching Wigan under Roberto was incredible as they were the only team in the Premier League playing a back three and dominated opponents continually staying in the Premier League when they had no right to. One of my best moments in football was being at the FA Cup final when Wigan outclassed Man City as 10-1 underdogs. When you understand the tactics Roberto used to manage that game, you realise what level he really is at.”

What’s your long term goal?

“My long term goal is to manage at the highest level possible. At the moment I am learning continually and have specific areas I need to develop in order to reach my goals. I underachieved as a player and am determined to not do so as a coach. This is my driving force and motivation on a daily basis. I have worked with some of the best coaches in the world and it burns me inside that I don’t have their knowledge. You only know how much you don’t know when you see the best people operate, whatever your occupation is. People may read stuff online or watch Gary Neville on Monday nights and think they could do it but they don’t understand the complexities of the very elite level.”

 I’ve had the pleasure of reading your book, for those that haven’t why should they buy it?

“Since I started coaching at 16, I have a black box which I record every session I either saw or took part in as a player. Two years ago I sat down and pulled out all of the best ones and put them into a book which turned into Developing An Elite Coaching Philosophy In Possession. The book is for coaches who are working with good players and want some detail to use in sessions or when building their philosophy. The first section is the beginning of the theory as to why you want to create a specific philosophy with the second half being dozens of sessions to use with coaching points that I would personally highlight. The sessions that I have put in the book are ones that I have personally seen delivered by Premier League coaches. I received emails from people asking for specific ideas on sessions therefore I thought it would be good to release a book containing them.”

Finally, away from football what do you do to relax? People have an impression coaches just live for football.

“For years I lived for the game and would be working from 9am to 3am the next morning. At Wigan I was responsible for the whole academy therefore I was the last one to leave at 10pm. When I got home from sessions late at night, I would be editing the clips from the games/sessions to show the players what they needed. I would be downloading games that I had just seen on Sky to clip out a two second receiving clip that one of my players needed to see. I would be searching for Chile games under Bielsa or trying to find Ajax from the 90s to see if there was anything tactical that was different.

“Although this working pattern is extreme, I think you have to put those hours in to get to where you want to. All of the best coaches I have worked with are exactly the same. There are no shortcuts. As Floyd Mayweather says, ‘hard work and dedication’. Nowadays I try to switch off when I come home and forget about football. I have learned to do this as it drains your passion if you are not careful and you start counting the days down until May. Away from football I manage a business which I have to look after, I love good food, spend time with friends and family and have just bought a saxophone to learn.”

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Purchase Tim’s excellent book, Developing an Elite Coaching Philosophy: In Possession here

Follow him on Twitter @timlees10

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By Sam McGuire. Follow @SamMcGuire90

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