New Zealand's national playing philosophy

By Sam Wilkinson

Like many coaches, I have found myself pouring through football content during the Covid lockdown. By week four of the lockdown I found myself on the New Zealand Football website reading through the national playing philosophy documents. Admittedly I haven’t spent too much time looking through these resources in the past, so it made for interesting reading. The following are my observations on our national playing style and some of my opinions on how it could be changed.

Update the website!

Before looking at the technical and philosophical aspects of our national playing style I have to comment on the website itself. It still references and quotes Rob Sherman as the National Technical Director. For those that don’t know, Rob left the role as Technical Director around three years ago and since he held the post with NZF has been appointed and then resigned as Technical Director of Australia – our direct rivals. This may seem trivial, but I think it shows a lack of attention to detail and with countless full-time staff at NZF currently stuck at home, it is almost inexcusable! How can we expect to take ourselves seriously as football nation when it takes three years to update key information on our national body website? - 28.4.20

Is it Kiwi?

In general terms, our national playing philosophy overview is relatively logically but it also doesn’t feel like it is truly unique to us as Kiwis. One of my great coaching mentors – John Cartwright has always preached the importance of developing a national playing style that is representative of the national culture. Imitating the approach of other nations does not create an identifiable playing style that the whole country can buy into, for example, New Zealand trying to recreate the rhythmic playing style of Brazil or the organised and structured style of Germany would not work. With this in mind, what immediately stands out about the current NZF playing philosophy is that is basically identical to Australia’s. I would go as far as saying that some elements of the two playing styles have literally been copied and pasted. Not only are Australia one of or direct rivals but they are also a country that have a completely different cultural landscape and national set up – to try and replicate their approach is illogical in my opinion. Our national playing philosophy should represent us as Kiwis and be developed around the strengths and challenges we have as a nation.

What is Kiwi?

Let me start by saying that to identify and create a truly unique way of playing for New Zealand, I believe a number of respected and experienced coaches and players should be involved in a collaborated process. But in the mean time I will obviously give my thoughts!

I am no social expert but from my experiences of growing up in New Zealand I believe these are two key areas of our Kiwi psyche that we could start to build our national playing style around.

Adaptable and flexible – we have a unique multi-cultural society. While we celebrate our own identity and always stay true to that, we also welcome and adapt to new cultures. Kiwis love to travel, we have a history of exploration and adapting to new environments.

Innovation and problem solving – Kiwi ingenuity and the "number eight wire" mentality. We have consistently punched above our weight as a nation and had a massive impact in many global industries despite the small size of our island. We have achieved this through innovative thinking and problem solving not by copying others!

What could this look like in a national playing style?

Adaptable and flexible

We should always aim to impose ourselves on any opponent, but I believe we must have flexibility in how we do this if we are to be successful on the world stage. Our playing style should involve attacking and defending in a multitude of ways. The demands and requirements of the game change from minute to minute, from game to game and from season to season. Success in the future international game will require highly skilled players with tactical and positional flexibility. We need to be just as competent dominating the ball through thirds as we are exploiting space in behind with longer passes, we need to be just as efficient pressing high up the field as we are defending in a deep block. Our national playing philosophy doesn’t have to be based around one very narrow aspect of the game, it can almost be a contradiction in terms…..a national style based around flexibility!

To achieve this, I would expose players in the early stage of the development pathway to a wider range of playing, tactical and positional experiences. The wider the range of skills our players possessed, the greater the range of tactical flexibility our national playing style would have. I don't think we should view flexibility and adaptability as a sign of inferiority, it should instead be embraced as a key component of our ability to punch above our weight on the world stage e.g Libby Cacace defending deep at left back in a 4-3-3 in one match, then pressing high as a wing back in a 3-5-2 in the next.

Innovation and problem solving

I think our aim should always be to produce players with high levels of game understanding and the ability to make their own decisions in the heat of a match. We should prioritise awareness and decision making at all stages of our player development pathway. On the world stage our players will face a multitude of playing and environmental challenges. They must be able to self-direct and find solutions to unique problems in fractions of a second. Rather than an overly structured approach, our national playing style could be unpredictable, disruptive and player lead. While it obviously must have some framework, it could allow and encourage players to improvise according to the demands of any game or situation. The point of difference in our national playing style could be that it constantly innovates and evolves. How great would it be if opponents on the international stage feared the unpredictability and innovation of New Zealand teams – one moment we are linking and combining through Ryan Thomas and Sarpreet Singh in central midfield, the next we are crossing from deep for Chris Wood to smash headers in at the far post!

It goes without out saying that developing players that can consistently deliver a playing style based around innovation and flexibility would not happen over night. It would involve developing players with an extremely well rounded base of skill and game understanding. To achieve these outcomes it would require an aligned approach to coach education and player education that started at the junior end of the game and went all the way through to the senior national teams. As a starting point, here are some simple changes that could help to develop a national playing style like this:

  • Play young players in a range of positions in training and games.

  • Encourage clubs and teams to play a range of formations.

  • Allow the young players to pick the team, formation and positions in selected matches.

  • Allow the young players to run the pre game, half time and post game team talks in selected matches.

  • Expose young players to a modified games programme. (see article on NZ youth football leagues)

  • Remove all unopposed drill-based practices from the national curriculum.

  • Ensure interference or opposition are present in every practice.

  • Remove all “superhero” themed games from the Junior curriculum and replace with football themed practices (still fun) that have a link back to the national playing style.

While I don’t see any massively flawed ideas or concepts in the current national playing philosophy, I do think it is overly generic and needs to made more Kiwi. We are still relatively young as a football nation and have a great opportunity to develop a style of play that is unique and organic to New Zealand. I would love to see NZF take up the challenge of creating a truly Kiwi style of play……..and also update their website.

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