The below is largely a bit of stream of consciousness. I naturally have my own opinions on what I think makes top level players but am always open to hearing others opinions. The views expressed are my own and have nothing to do with my employer.
Despite having lived in England for quite some time, I'm still a big fan of US Youth Soccer and our entire national team programs in general. I'm always interested in hearing what new coaches or technical directors bring to the table when they are hired and more often than not, they are asked about the style of play they plan on imposing on their pool of players. While I'm a big proponent of tactics and establishing a system that can be adhered to from the youngest of players to the guys representing our country at the international stage, it all starts with building a strong technical foundation that ensures our players are confident and comfortable on the ball, regardless of the setting and regardless of the opposition.
I often get asked what it is exactly that scouts look for when watching players to either recommend signing or bringing in on trial. Though the answer can likely differ for various scouts, managers, coaches, etc, I have been watching the game as a scout for a long enough time - and was lucky enough to scout players for Arsene Wenger for an equally long time - to have an opinion on what I think it takes to make it at the highest level. Of course it isn’t a perfect science and scouts do their best to assess all aspects of a player - from ability to personality to intelligence to environment and more- but several core characteristics are consistently debated, discussed, and analyzed in a subjective manner.
A Bit of Background
I want to begin with the technical side of the game because it is an area that, as an American who moved to England and Arsenal specifically as a 17 year old, I was surprised about. I moved over as a striker and eventually settled in at left back, but I quickly realized how despite my thoughts on my technical standard being at a high level, just how far off I was. At the highest level, technique can separate average players from good players and good players from great players. This skillset goes hand in hand with confidence and belief and most importantly the ability to execute in dynamic situations that present themselves throughout the course of any game.
Technique is established at a young age and tuned as a player develops and matures into his/her senior career. Some players are naturally more comfortable on the ball while others may have to work a bit harder to achieve the same amount of comfort in similar situations.
As a kid I used to put cones down in my backyard and dribble through them for hours. Right foot only. Then left only. Then both feet. Then the outside of my right foot only. Repeat on the left. Then a little sequence that would see me use the inside of my right foot to the outside of my left foot only to bring it back with the inside of my left foot to the outside of my right foot. Repeat. Repeat. I did this because I innately enjoyed being outside with a ball at my feet either in the sweltering humidity and heat combination of Roanoke, Virginia’s summers or the cold winter days that would sometimes freeze the ground and make my backyard feel more like an ice rink and less like an actual pitch.
I’d also spend a bit of time juggling a ball - trying to get 100 first, then 500, then 1000. At 1000 I felt as though I had obtained a level of technical strength as well as a level of concentration that made me feel like I could hit 5000 or 10,000 if I tried. By the time you hit 1000 juggles, you’re generally sweating because you’ve been focused for so long. The technical repetition nearly goes into auto-pilot and it becomes a test of how long you can actually stay focused.
In the video above Zidane - arguably my favorite player - demonstrates remarkable technique, athleticism, and awareness to bring down the ball and evade his defender. I can assure you no team he ever played for set up situations where he would have been forced to twirl around, control the ball with his chest, then use the outside of his foot to rid himself of his marker. The above is a perfect example of ball mastery, belief, and creativity which is a by product of repetition.
Never in a game was I required to juggle a ball 1000 times. In fact, I don’t think I was ever tasked or required to keep the ball up 10 times in a row. However, the repetition lead to a strong understanding between my mind and my feet, the spatial recognition of myself with relation to the ball and the area around me, and of course that increased ability to focus for longer periods of time. It also established a form of goal-setting that prompted me to push myself further and further - a process I still use to this day as a 34 year old sat at a computer here in London.
Further to the point above, the repetition leads to being confident and comfortable in possession or whenever the ball is near. I may never have juggled a ball 1000 times in a game, but if a ball fell to me from the air, I was confident and comfortable in my own ability to safely bring it down and ultimately keep the ball moving. Similarly, though I certainly wish I’d managed to dribble around 8 defenders in a row during my career, I never did, but the movement and general muscle memory I’d acquired through repetition would contribute to me dodging a tackle or two here and there throughout the game without having to think about it.
Of course soccer is much more than just being able to juggle and dribble. When speaking to parents, coaches, and agents it is often observed that at its highest level, the sport actually looks quite slow. While this can be the case during lulls in possession or situationally in a match, this observed pace is often due to a combination of awareness and technical ability. Players who bring the ball away from pressure and into space naturally seem to have more time on the ball. Those who struggle with their first touch make the game look frantic, fast, and out of control. Those who rush passes because their first touch puts them in an uncomfortable position or on the wrong foot equally speed up play when it doesn’t need to be sped up.
Again, at the highest level, players possess an elite understanding and awareness of the game AND are able to combine their technical prowess alongside it. This is what makes the best players in the world who they are. I’ve seen all sorts of players during my twelve years scouting - some players will be remarkably gifted from a technical standpoint but fail to understand the game or execute this technique when pressure is present. Others understand the game and what should and needs to happen next but lack the ability or quality to actually make it happen.
A Quick Focused Look at Strikers
Positionally players tend to have a different type of technical skillset as well. Strikers require the ability to hold off defenders while simultaneously holding up the ball and bringing others into play. They need to be able to effectively take the sting out of a 40 yard driven ball into them with a strong defender on their back and angle their first time pass into the run of an oncoming midfielder ensuring that the weight of the ball allows for the midfielder to continue his run without breaking stride or direction. They also need to be able to check back into space and turn sharply on the ball when they’ve created enough space from their marker to do so. In this case, their first touch will be quite different than when they have a defender on their back. Their first touch will also differ if the team is under quite a bit of pressure and requires their striker to serve as an outlet and just hold onto the ball for a second or two to allow the rest of the team to join. In these cases, not only will the striker have a defender on his/her back, but they’ll likely have a trailing midfielder eager to close down in front of them. A composed first touch to bring the ball under control and potentially a second touch to get away from the oncoming defender will then be required.
This is just one aspect of one position on the pitch - and of course a small snippet of what makes this sport so fun, dynamic, and easy to play but difficult to master. The main job of a striker is to score goals and this requires being able to move the ball into good positions, getting into good positions, and being able to get the ball past the keeper and into the net. Being able to strike a ball properly is another very important skill, but I tend to again see far too many young players focus far too much on how to hit the perfect set piece or knuckled shot without actually being able to control a ball under pressure. I understand of course - it’s far more exciting to hit a shot from 25 yards that sails past the goalkeeper and into the net than being able to consistently control a ball with a strong defender breathing down your neck, but the opportunity to perform the former will never present itself unless you’re able to do the latter.
A Quick Story
I used to practice shooting in my background quite a bit when I was growing up and it lead to me being able to score quite a few goals with my travel team in Virginia. When I arrived in London for my trial, the first couple of days were so difficult for me because I never seemed to have the chance to actually shoot to show the coaches I was capable of scoring. I lacked the ability to consistently play with my back to goal and spin defenders or just be able to bring the ball under control with a big strong center back all over me.
While I was heavily regarded back in the States as being quite technical and comfortable in possession, some of the technique I had developed growing up barely had a chance to surface at the highest level. Back home, I was able to create space for myself and score because I was quick, I was smart in possession, and because I could generally do enough to dribble and create opportunities around the box. When all of those tools were removed because of the stronger, more intelligent defenders, I was forced to rely on other aspects of my game that I had just failed to develop properly.
Note: After 8 months at Arsenal, I was essentially deemed not good enough as a striker and moved to left back where I was able to use my skillset far more appropriately. I'd never defended in my life but I learned how to and eventually played for the first team several times as a left back and left midfielder.
It Really is all About the Basics
If you watch the Premier League and the world’s best players, you’ll see players like Sergio Aguero and Olivier Giroud holding players off, bringing others into play, and spinning their defenders. Aguero and Giroud play for Manchester City and Chelsea respectively, two teams that are capable of keeping the ball for long periods of time, playing through the lines, and ultimately creating opportunities. Those are the basics strikers need to have to make it at the top level - the best will have mastered those simple fundamentals - as well as a host of others - but from a technical standpoint, these are just a few pieces that will be of interest to a scout if a player is able to perform them consistently, effectively, and efficiently.
I’m aware I’ve only focused on several aspects of just one position, but I wanted to emphasize just how important mastering and improving the fundamentals of the sport is. Everyone dreams of being able to ping a ball the way Steven Gerrard used to for Liverpool, but if you watched him throughout the course of a season, or a match, it was the consistency of all of his passing that was equally impressive. Short, firm passes into strikers or other midfielders. Passes that were angled and weighted perfectly to the appropriate foot.
If Gerrard saw an opportunity to play between the lines, that pass was going to be fired into the striker and the striker would have to be able to deal with it. Good teams won’t let you just play between the lines, when you want, and more often than not, the pass is going to firm. The player playing the ball will want to ensure that his receiving teammate is capable of handling the pace of the ball as these passes can often lead to dangerous chances that result in goals. It’s one thing to get the ball from A to B, but the world’s best players aren’t content with this and neither should they be.
Dennis Bergkamp is up there with Zidane in my favorite players list and for good reason. He was strong, intelligent, creative, and a technical genius. He scored some incredible goals for Arsenal and the Netherlands, but he set up so many as well using fundamentally basic parts of the game that he had mastered. Many of his assists and passes in the video above are perfect examples of his incredible ability to time, weight, and angle a pass - more often than not with defenders trying to kick him into row Z.
I don’t want to delve too much into game intelligence just yet as I think there’s quite a bit that can be discussed on the topic, but the technical and tactical side go hand in hand often. Seeing a young midfielder or center back play the ball in front of a fullback or winger because there is ample space in front of him/her to explore is refreshing. While some players may think just getting the ball to the fullback or winger is enough because that is that the best choice, the best players will lead the player and do so in such a way that his/her teammate doesn’t have to worry about anything except what they are going to do with the ball next.
Young players looking to further improve themselves can and should focus on improving the very basic fundamentals of the game. Controlling a ball with time, controlling a ball under pressure, keeping the ball on the ground when passing if it makes sense to do so, playing to the appropriate foot of the intended target, weighting passes appropriately, ensuring the angle of the pass makes sense for the situation, and more.
Again, these are simply my observations and my observations alone. I was fortunate enough to be at Arsenal during the amazing Invincibles season and had the chance to train and play with some of my favorite players ever. Though injury put me out of the game at 22, I learned how to appreciate its intricacies in a different way as scout and again was fortunate enough to have some of the best teachers the world has ever seen.