As a 10-year-old learning the art of football, I can remember making a tactical error that led to a teacher stopping a match midway through to launch a personal rebuke. That terrible mistake was to play a pass from the centre of midfield to a full-back with time and space to start an attack. An angry shrill of the whistle was followed by a furious personal blast: “Never ever, play a pass like that,” he fumed. “Get it forward.”
Occasionally, I think of the 'wisdom' of that teacher when I watch the adventurous, technically excellent and tactically brave young footballers coming out of English academies, pushing for starts at the best teams in the Premier League and drawing scouts from Germany and throughout Europe at an early age.
Last season alone at Manchester City it was astonishing to watch the quality of the players in the under-23s, whether it’s the skill and touch of attacking midfielders like Cole Palmer and James McAtee, the intelligence and spatial awareness of Romeo Lavia (now a Southampton player bought for £10.5 million after just two first-team appearances), or the confidence of a centre-back like Luke Mbete.
But how different is the coaching they receive to the instruction I was given on a wind-lashed, muddy, sloping pitch far too long ago? And could I have been a contender had I learned the secrets of playing Pep Guardiola football from a very early age?
The second question is the easiest to answer: if you don’t’ have the technique, then the best coaching in the world isn’t going to help, meaning that I, sadly, was always destined to be watching from the stands.
What was surprising, however, is that PE teacher wasn’t quite as archaic in his thinking as I imagined.
Invited to take part in a training session as part of launch for City’s partnership with OKX that sees the cryptocurrency exchange platform become the club’s new training kit sponsor, I was offered the opportunity to take a look at what goes on inside the Etihad Campus.
And while the tactics are far more sophisticated from my schoolboy days, the definitive message is somewhat similar: to look to get the ball forward as quickly as possible.
It might fly in the face of the perception of Pep Guardiola’s City, a passing machine that wear teams down. But the Catalan has been quoted as saying he hates the term tika-taka – the tag attached to his particular brand of passing football.
New signing Erling Haaland used it at his City unveiling when he described not touching the ball for 25 minutes during Borussia Dortmund’s Champions League at the Etihad Stadium. But from his first training sessions this week, he will be told that there should always be a purpose to passing.
“Tiki-taka means passing the ball for the sake of it, with no clear intention. And it's pointless,” Guardiola said in Marti Perenau’s book on his first season at Bayern Munich. He has also said putting the ball in the back of the net is the hardest thing in football, which is why so much attention is drawn to attacking.
Early in our two-hour session, there is a four versus four game where players can score in either goal – firmly putting the emphasis on shooting. Balls are fired in from the sidelines and the first thought is to either get a shot away or find a team-mate in a better position who can quickly do the same. It sharpens the instincts and takes away the impulse to pass sideways – creating chances is at the forefront of the mind of every player on the pitch.
But there’s joined-up thinking throughout the pitch. Of course, defence is important but tackling and blocking shots are fundamentals of the game that don’t need high-end coaching. More important is pressing to get the ball back quickly, closing down opponents and working as a team.
Small-sided Rondos are important for improving awareness and movement as well as technique. They are often the part of first-team sessions that are open to the public – due to their simplicity and the potential of seeing a superstar humiliated by a nutmeg from a team-mate.
From the attacking side the emphasis is again on playing a killer pass rather than knocking it sideways around the circle. Everything is related to an in-match scenario, and splitting pressers can quickly get City teams on the front foot.
Guardiola’s first philosophy on defending is pretty straightforward: the further the ball is away from your own goal, the harder it is for the opponent to score. That means transitioning from defence to attack as quickly as possible, whether it’s Ederson slamming the ball more than 80 yards to a forward or playing a precision pass through pressing forwards for Rodri to start an attack.
To emphasise the importance, midway through a nine-sided game during the training session, a rule is introduced that there can be no passing backwards. Players are encouraged to be always thinking about attacking.
It sounds simple but it’s high-risk and high-reward so much of the education is done away from the pitch to give an understanding of what each player’s role is within the team.
Diagrams of first team set-ups shows the positions and passing lanes of each player, where to move and where their team-mates will be.
Triangles are important, always giving options to the person and the ball with the best choice one that gets the team moving.
Full-backs and wingers are encouraged to get high and wide giving angles for passes to and from central players. Long passes stretch narrow teams and open pockets of space for players to attack.
It’s not a big secret – Erik Ten Haag was heard drilling into his new Manchester United players at an opening training session on their pre-season tour about triangles – but it’s something that should become second nature. It already is at City.
Feeling comfortable and confident on the ball and enjoying the game is all-important and it is visible throughout the age groups at the club all the way up to the first team.
It’s why players such as Phil Foden and Jadon Sancho have made built on their natural ability to succeed at the very top of the game.
Football’s a simple game but even Guardiola says he’s still learning. Even a short training session offered incredible insight into what has made City so successful over the past few years.