Play Free.

As an Englishman who is currently in my twenties, I have never (up until now) seen my country go further than the quarter finals of a major international tournament. As a result I pretty much accepted that supporting England is sort of like betting on a mouse going up against a lion in a fight. You shouldn't expect much of a return on your investment.

So you may be wondering (or maybe not) am I proud of how England did this summer at the 2018 World Cup in Russia? Absolutely. The same way a father would be proud of his son finishing fourth in his school's talent show. But can I truthfully say that I'm proud of the style of play that got them all the way to the Semi-Finals? For small moments, yes, but for the other 98% of the time, no. 

It still seems that English style of play is so far behind that of the other nations who advanced in this tournament. From my observations (which aren't expert) it just looks like we're still so much holding on to the old school route one style of play, just knocking the ball long and hoping one of our big strong, or small and fast strikers gets on the end of it. Don't get me wrong, it's much better than it used to be. At times there has been pockets of magic in possession. Jesse Lingard's goal for example, not only was the execution in the finish sublime, but the build up play was delightful. But like I said, for the majority of the tournament the team played with such a lack of creativity and free of risk. I have never seen so many pass backs to the goalie in one game than I saw the England squad giving the ball to Pickford in their clash against Croatia. Were they told to play that way? Maybe, probably, as I heard many times Southgate say how effective their Number One's distribution is, and it is decent to be fair, but when you start giving your goalie the ball the same amount of times Croatia give Luka Modric, Argentina give Messi, Belgium give Debruyne the ball, you have to question the creativity of the outfield players of the England national team. 

I've been fortunate to play around the world, and although not at the absolute top level, I've been able to play professionally in other cultures and open my eyes to new styles of play. Growing up in the English football system, taking risks and expressing yourself with the ball was always discouraged. "Play the easy ball. Don't take more than two touches. Use the inside of your foot to pass the ball. Simple is genius." These are all to common phrases I would regular hear from my youth coaches. Basically, simplicity with the ball was adored, and any kind of self expression or less traditional way of controlling or passing the ball was looked down upon as showing off. On the other hand, I had the opportunity to play overseas playing with, and under international players and coaches from Brazil, Argentina, Spain, France, and something that I learnt from them is that risk should be encouraged. Out of risk, magic is born. One of the biggest compliments I would get when playing overseas is "You don't play like a typical Englishman". Whether they were actually complimenting me or not I don't know, but I knew it had a lot to do with the risks I took to make things happen in a match.

Now, risks are called risks for a reason, because they don't always pay off. The word risk is used a lot in investing money. High risk and low risk. High risk means you will likely either win a lot of money, or lose a lot of money. Low risk means you are less likely to lose a lot of money, but unlikely to win much either, you'll just sort of do okay. England is definitely a low risk team. They do okay, rely mostly on set plays to scrape past teams but don't win big. Team's like Brazil and France, are high risk teams. They go for it, they pull out their big guns and it either destroys teams, or backfires. For France, this time around, it paid off. They injected speed, flair and intricacy into their squad, and although looked unconvincing in their first game, it went on to win the World Cup, very convincingly.

So what's the point I'm trying to make?  

Although my main experience of being discouraged to be creative with the ball was in England, I know there are many other coaches out there doing the exact same thing with their players, and maybe your coach is one of them. If you ever find yourself being snapped at for trying something out of the ordinary, then this message is for you.

Don't limit yourself and play it safe. You were made with unique abilities designed to be expressed, so express them. And that doesn't just apply to football, it applies to life. So often we put imaginary shackles on our feet and build walls around us to keep us controlled and predictable because it's safe. Don't be a prisoner to imaginary limitations, or be restricted by someone else's opinion because THEY weren't creative when they played. Think or yourself like an artist. If you painted the same thing as everyone else, how would you ever stand out? The pitch is your canvas, and your feet are the paint brushes, go and create your masterpiece.

If you see an opening where you can backheel the ball to advance up the pitch do it. If you believe your in a position where shooting with the outside of your foot might catch the goalie of guard rather than taking a couple of more seconds to get the ball onto your instep, go for it. It seems more so these days that playing it safe wins matches, but taking risks wins trophies. And risks don't always look like risks either, a through ball is a risk, playing the ball out of defense instead of clearing the ball is a risk, so take risks in whatever way applies to you, if the moment seems right. Sometimes the simple pass is necessary, but that's for you to figure out as you gain more experience in the game. But remember this:

"The biggest mistake you can make is being afraid to make one."

Play Free.