Matt Whitehouse is an academy coach in England, he’s a prominent blogger with his excellent The Whitehouse Address and since a couple of years back also an author. He’s written two books, and has received widespread positive acclaim for these. Matt agreed to do an interview with Running The Show to answer questions on his second book, Universality, in particular and share his thoughts and ideas on the modern game.
What made you decide to write your two books, The Way Forward and Universality?
I started writing a blog discussing my thoughts on the game. My main focus being coaching, youth development and tactical analysis of elite football. The writing became a real passion of mine, putting my thoughts and ideas on to paper. The response was excellent and I wrote dozens of articles penning my beliefs on the game. After a few months I looked at the articles I had written and realised I had the makings of a book there. I put a draft together and contacted a publishing company who were big on coaching and football books. They loved the idea I had and the structure of my proposal. The first book was covering English football, notably why the nation had failed on the international stage for so long and why we seem to be struggling to develop a large quantity and quality of young players. The response to this book was just incredible, I believe it resonated with many readers own experiences and beliefs. The key to the book however was looking at solutions to the issues, as I wished to put out not just a critique but ideas to improve the situation. It is pleasing to see some of the solutions put out in the book now becoming spoken of and implemented. Universality came about with the tactical analysis and insight into the senior game, notably the top sides and nations in European football with a view to see where the future game was heading and importantly what was required. Again the purpose of the book was to give an insight into the present but importantly put down the requirements for the future players and teams, with a view to young coaches seeking to work on young players now to give them the tools required to succeed in the future. I didn’t set out to become an author, my passion is coaching, however I found the books have given me the chance to put my ideas and beliefs out to a great number of coaches and players across the globe.
Can you describe what you mean with ‘universal’ players?
When you ask the majority of fans or coaches about a player they will ask “where does he play” or “what is he?”. The responses will be “he’s a midfielder” “he’s a striker” etc. However I see the game moving towards a more universal type of footballer, a player who can anywhere on the pitch. These players have the skillset of a player who can play in many positions, instead of the positon specialist who has the skillset to do well in that one position. The best example of this specialist is Claude Makelele who ‘mastered’ the holding midfield role. However look the modern midfielder and you see a more ‘complete’ type player who can play holding, box-to-box or as a playmaker. This variability gives the player and team more options and poses more problems for the opposition. I believe we will see more of this type of player, especially with coaches like Pep Guardiola, Louis Van Gaal and Brendan Rodgers who seek ‘multi-functional’ players in their sides. These players can play in multiple positions and are very important for a more fluid style of football which requires interchanges of positions to create and exploit space. For me English football has preferred position specific players solely because it offers the rigidity and organised approach England has preferred. However the game is changing and fluid football will require more ‘all-round’ type players to succeed in the future. Importantly, my belief in Universality is that there are three units in the team; goalkeeper, a defensive unit and ahead of these a rotating midfield/forward unit. However importantly every player, whether keeper or outfield needs to have excellent technical and tactical skills, along with superb athleticism and a great mindset and intelligence.
Since you work as a coach, do you coach your players in this ‘universal’ philosophy? If so, how do you do that specifically?
I believe it is important to develop the skillset in young players which helps build a universal type player. From a young age you need to focus on the players skills and ball mastery and control. They need to be confident and creative in their play. The key for me is that a players technical skills need to be enhanced and developed, tactical education of roles and systems is important also, as well as the physical development of the player. Importantly I believe working on a players mindset and enhancing their game intelligence will help produce a smart and intelligent footballer, which is key for the future game. My work is on individual development yet making sure the individuals understand their role in the team.
I’ve visited clubs in Europe who insist on playing all players in different positions until they reach a certain age and level, is that something you’d agree with?
Absolutely until you say “until they reach a certain age and level” and then I’ll respond by asking “why?”. Why should they become position specialists when they become senior players? The game has become so intense, quick and technical that it necessitates the need for excellent footballers. So regardless of the position then you need to be a footballer first and foremost, and a good one at that. So while it is great academies across the world embrace multiple positions, I don’t agree that they need to then pigeon hole a player as he enters his late-teens.
My understanding from reading Universality is that there’s a big difference between versatile and universal players. Versatile players can ‘do a job’ in multiple positions while universal players have the required attributes and intelligence to excel in several positions. Is that a fair assessment on my part?
Precisely, a versatile player has become associated with a ‘jack of all trades, master of none” type player, which is somewhat unfair however that is the perception. As mentioned earlier, English football sees this type of player as inferior as “he can’t be that good if he doesn’t have a set position”. What I would also say regarding this is that the English game lacks the tactical intelligence and detail which the top European leagues and teams possess. If we look at Bayern and Barcelona, both heavily influenced by Pep Guardiola and Louis Van Gaal and thus the Ajax totalfootball philosophy, you see a higher level of player, a greater focus on tactics and positional play, and thus a fitting environment for the universal player. In this type of system a player can move freely and interchange and fit into the new roles with ease because of their technical skills but also the understanding of the tactical set up of the team. Guardiola gets more from the players he works with because he gives them more freedom and education. He does not restrict them but gives them a platform to express and be free. Right now we see Lionel Messi, for me the best player in the world and the most universal one at that, having much more freedom to roam and find space on the pitch. He is thriving because of this extra space and time he is finding. His skillset allied with his great game intelligence allows him to find space and not be so restricted by a positional role, thus making him very hard to mark and deadly to the opposition. Ultimately I feel we neglect intelligence in players in England, focusing too much on their physical attributes. Thus we get a very physical and athletic type game yet one which lacks the technical excellence and tactical intelligence required to compete with the very best teams and players.
We had a big article on why David Alaba is the most modern player in the world in November, is that a statement you’d agree with? If not, which other players could be regarded for that title?
David Alaba is wonderful example of the modern universal player. He really can play anywhere and as I say above, has a coach who allows him to roam and interchange. Others would play him as a left back and nothing else. How myopic? For me there are many players who can be ‘universal’ type players yet are restricted by rigid coaching. Guardiola is a great coach for players like Alaba and thus we have seen Alaba enhance his game since Guardiola arrived at Bayern. As for being the most modern player, there are few better than him who can play centre back, wing back, midfield or as a 10, and perhaps you may be right. Bayern have many similar. Imagine if Lahm had worked under Guardiola at a younger age? Pep says he is the most intelligent footballer he has ever worked with and his move to central midfield was genius. It just seems crazy to think of how many players are pigeon holed in a position and that’s that?! I think Ribery has more to his game than just being a winger, same too Robben. Thomas Muller is a very intelligent forward, and Mario Gotze reminds me of Messi as a universal type playmaker/forward. The list goes on and I am sure we will see more of these players because they have a coach who embraces this philosophy. Ultimately the pathway and journey of a player is heavily dependent on the ideas and beliefs of their coach, whether at 9 years old, 15, 18 or 30. Alaba has been fortunate to have some great coaches to work with, remember it was van Gaal who spotted his talent, any surprise?
If you were to choose an ‘All-star XI’ of all the players in the world at the moment to complete your ultimate team, who would be in it?
What a tough question. Okay, I would play a 3-4-3 formation
Pique / Thiago Silva / David Alaba
Sergio Busquets / Luka Modric / Toni Kroos / Lionel Messi
Robben / Luis Suarez / Neymar
We’d like to thank Matt for answering our questions and recommend to all our readers to check out his blog, follow him on twitter @The_W_Address and get yourself a copy each of The Way Forward and Universality. What an intriguing team Matt chose, what would be yours? Leave a comment below and follow us on twitter @RunTheShowBlog @DaveSelini