Highbury Fields, Islington, N5

Matthew Syed: Coaching the mind as well as the feet is vital for England


Football, at its best, is a game of intelligence. I am thinking of the turn and take of Andrés Iniesta against Paris Saint-Germain last year, how the Spaniard not only had the dexterity to control a ball, but caressed it into his stride, head up, already scanning the field ahead, computing the possibilities, the ball now moving forward at his feet, his body encroaching on the halfway line.

Only when Neymar, his Barcelona team-mate, had moved into space, and Iniesta had drawn the other defenders, did he release the pass, yards from the area, allowing the Brazilian to execute the shot into the back of the net. In a matter of seconds, Iniesta had demonstrated perception, judgment, versatility and not an insignificant amount of guile.

“World-class players have time, not because they are faster, but because they are multi-taskers”

It is not just attacking players, of course. Think, too, of the skill revealed by the world’s greatest defenders and holding midfielders, how they patrol the space, constantly making probabilistic decisions about danger: how close they need to be to team-mates, how aware of the offside potential, while making interceptions and collisions, and, when the need arises, moving up field.

Anybody who supposes that footballers are not intelligent has not, to my mind, grasped the meaning of the word. Footballers may not be theoreticians. They do not solve, say, differential equations in any formal way. But they are practical problem-solvers. They make sophisticated calculations every minute of the every game. And they do so with crowds baying at them and opponents kicking at their ankles.

Nassim Nicholas Taleb, the philosopher and mathematician, has discussed the power of this kind of intelligence. He notes how the industrial revolution was inspired not by theoreticians but by often semi-literate ministers, trying to solve practical problems, patiently tweaking their machines through trial and error. Indeed, these machines were so marvellous that it was only afterwards that pure scientists were forced to come up with theories to explain how they worked. The laws of thermodynamics were inspired by the industrial revolution; not the other way round.

Or think of James Dyson, working his way through 5,126 prototypes for his cyclone vacuum cleaner, hand-writing the results into a notebook in his workshop. He was a practical problem-solver: testing, learning, adapting. By the end, his device could separate microscopic particles of dust from air at orders of magnitude way below those predicted by the theories of the day. The same pattern is found in cybernetics, derivatives, medicine and the development of the jet engine.

Footballers are problem-solvers in precisely this sense. They build skill and understanding via trial and error (also known as practice), developing implicit understanding of the laws of gravity, momentum, friction and inertia, while developing sophisticated pattern recognition and motor skills of the kind that, in the case of Tottenham’s Dele Alli against Crystal Palace on January 23, permitted him to control a moving projectile with a dab of his foot, before turning and firing into a net from 20-odd yards against Crystal Palace — Match of the Day’s goal of the season.

If you want to know how far artificial intelligence is from doing such things, google “robot football” (really do: it’s quite funny). You will see that machines currently play at about the level of three-year-olds. AI will do amazing things in the coming decades, not least through “temporal difference learning”: effectively, setting up machines to practice day and night, and constantly learn from mistakes (machines develop expertise through iteration too). But robots will not, any time soon, play football like Messi.

And this brings me to my point. Once we accept that football is a game of intelligence, the question becomes: how do we inculcate it? The hallmark of the finest players is not that they have discrete skills, but that they can deploy them simultaneously. They can dribble with their heads up; receive the ball while aware of where to run to receive the next pass; run off the ball to provide space for a team-mate while figuring out where to retreat to if possession is lost. World-class players have all the time in the world, not because they are faster than their rivals, but because they are multi-taskers. When a ball is hurtling towards Iniesta, for example, he is not just computing its speed and angle; he is also integrating information on the position of team-mates and defenders, and where to move next. His brain is projecting into the future even as it handles the present. Isn’t this what game intelligence, that elusive concept, ultimately means?

To put it another way, skill is gestalt. This is the notion that has already started to drive the training of high-velocity pilots, special operations soldiers and innovative surgical teams. They are placed in “decision-rich” environments, so that they are constantly challenged to solve complex problems under pressure of time.

The problem is that when I watch youth training, I see a lot of blocked drilling. Young people learning to dribble, for example, by running in a line across the pitch, eyes down. There is nothing wrong with this, up to a point. Drilling has its place. But there is a danger that, taken to extremes, it undermines the holistic conception of the game.

My hunch, too, is that players who develop skills in a discrete way are more likely to freeze in big competitions. Under pressure, they revert to focusing on one thing at a time, receiving the ball but struggling to pass, or executing a pass but not noticing a possible interception. I wonder if this is what has bedeviled England over the past two decades when blocked drilling was so popular with coaches. It would certainly explain why players have seemed so uncomfortable on the ball.

The key point, however, is that game intelligence is coachable. The brain is highly adaptable, and it develops ever more powerful and intricate connections when placed in the right context. Some will say, rightly, that coaching in this country has already moved in this direction, but the crucial point is that we need far more testing and trialing of different methods to see what works and what doesn’t. Coaches should not be focused on copying rival nations, but innovation and boldness.

England have always had the potential to win the World Cup. By positioning the game as “intelligent”, and by encouraging coaches to see it in this way (as they do in Germany), we are far more likely to develop intelligent players. This is where the future lies. Youth coaching used to be about finding big, burly players who were good with their heads. It should always have been about developing players to become adept with their minds.