Brendan Crossan: Long live Khvicha Kvaratskhelia and down with the coaching conservatives

One-v-one situations are an anathema to so many wide players in modern game

Brendan Crossan

Brendan Crossan

Brendan is a sports reporter at The Irish News. He has worked at the media outlet since January 1999 and specialises in GAA, soccer and boxing. He has been the Republic of Ireland soccer correspondent since 2001 and has covered the 2002 and 2006 World Cup finals and the 2012 European Championships

Georgia will face Spain in the last 16
Georgia’s Khvicha Kvaratskhelia celebrates scoring against Portugal (Bradley Collyer/PA)

OVER-COACHING is a recurring theme in my head. It never really goes away. I’m convinced it exists and that it’s not good for us. Any sports person I interview, I pose the same question.

Denise O’Sullivan is one of the cleverest footballers among the Republic of Ireland women’s team. She still practises the dying art of dribbling and is the one player supporters look to for inspiration if Ireland need a goal.

“I still love to be coached,” she said at a press day last November.

“I can always learn, can always grow and always get better as a player. I have that natural instinct of being able to do what I can do on the pitch.

“I think other players need coaching all the time. It just depends on the player.

“I am being coached every day and being given really good points… little things I may not see myself, and I think I will only grow from that.”

Gaelic football has come in for plenty of criticism where every coach seems to be working off the same template.

I sat down with Oisin McConville last week. Oisin was a brilliant footballer, one of the best-ever, whose single greatest strength was always turning up in big games. He’s now coaching the Wicklow senior footballers.

Oisin prefers to give his players “ideas” of what to do in situations on the field of play.

“I don’t over-coach our forwards,” he said.

“We spend a lot of time coaching how we break a team down, but as individuals I don’t over-coach them. A lot of the guys that you see at inter-county level have this natural ability; I don’t want to be over-coaching them.

“They have to be given licence to express that, and if they’re not given the licence then you’re in real bother because some day you’ll find that you need somebody to think outside the box and you don’t have that person.”

Euro 2024 is following the trend of many recent major tournaments: great games, great excitement but the tournament itself seems devoid of great players.

Patterns of play among the competing teams are very similar where the ball goes from side to side between the central defenders before it methodically reaches the wide players.

But they’re not wide players in the truest sense; they’re usually converted defenders or midfielders who can’t be trusted in central areas.

For a lot of these wide players, one-v-one situations are an anathema to them, and so they recycle the ball, and it goes to the other side of the pitch and back again.

It’s rinse and repeat.

At the end of the game, their possession stats are impressive. But they rarely affect the game in any meaningful way.

Whatever angle you look at the modern game, the prevailing coaching practices of the day are risk averse. The constant recycling of the ball is de-skilling an attacking area of the pitch.

Right now, we can’t escape England’s woes at Euro 2024. As they limp from one bad performance to another, the most incisive comment came from a player who should be starting against Slovakia on Sunday.

Anthony Gordon, the Newcastle winger, said: “I think we’re controlling games, but [we need to be] direct and just going for teams is probably what we’re missing and you saw towards the end [against Slovenia] we created a really good chance just by going for it and not worrying about losing the ball.”

I’ve been in Tbilisi on several occasions over the past two decades as the Republic of Ireland always seem to draw Georgia in every other qualification campaign.

On each occasion, the Georgians have outplayed the Irish but could never quite pull off a win.

They’ve an established tradition of producing technically gifted footballers and it’s heartening to see this style of play being rewarded with a place in the knock-out stages of Euro 2024.

Their progress is an important victory, not only for the football-mad nation but the game itself because of the mere presence and elevation of a player like Khvicha Kvaratskhelia of Napoli.

Kvaratskhelia is a refreshing throwback to a time when wingers were not seen as luxuries but match-winners.

How many Kvaratskhelias have been purged from the game in other nations because they didn’t quite fit the coaching practices of the day, where the wide player is taught to run a mile from one-v-one situations, or play the percentages and wait for an over-load?

Coaches must ask themselves at all levels of the game are they nurturing or discouraging the dribbling instincts of young footballers?

After all, these are the players who, if they’re allowed to grow, will make the difference.

They are the kinds of players Oisin McConville refers to as those that “think outside the box”.

The evidence so far at Euro 2024 is that there are fewer of them around. It’s not because they never existed, but rather they’ve been coached out of the game.

It’s impossible to reach any other conclusion.

Spain’s Alvaro Morata and Lamine Yamal (left) celebrate after Italy’s Riccardo Calafiori’s own goal
Lamine Yamal (left) has been outstanding on Spain's right flank (Nick Potts/PA)

The wisest thing Anthony Gordon said in that snap interview after England’s scoreless draw with Slovenia was don’t be afraid of losing the ball.

Ousmane Dembele of France loses the ball plenty of times down their right side and is rough-edged in his play. But he is still essential to French hopes because he will always open up opposing defences.

Spain, it seems, have escaped their own narcissism at these Euros by deploying two wingers – Nico Williams and Lamine Yamal – who are intent on getting behind opposing defences rather than playing in front of them.

Germany have a real chance with Jamal Musiala.

There are still a few match winners at Euro 2024. The problem is some coaches are blinded by their own conservatism and just can’t see them.