Play to your strengths – or your philosophy?

You know the scenario. You have just taken on a new team as coach or manager and the first thing you want to do is implement your philosophy, your style, your way of playing.

How do I want my team to play? It’s the big question. Answer that and you can then plan all your sessions – in possession, out of possession and transition.

I remember deciding that I favoured 3-5-2 with the variations of 5-3-2 and 3-4-3. Either way, it meant I needed wing-backs.

That requires a lot of athletic ability, speed, high energy and, of course, technical ability to have an end product. It also requires three centre backs, one preferably left footed.

That is already a number of requirements that many teams don’t possess, especially in grassroots football.

I struck lucky with my first team though. In my girls’ under 15s, I had four players who could run up and down all day and were technically sound. When they were available, I could substitute them in and out easily.

I also had three players capable of playing centre back – and, yes, you’ve guessed it, one of them was left footed. I additionally had the bonus of a brilliant defensive midfielder, who sat just in front of the back three, broke play up and got it wide quickly. We won the league, going unbeaten – it was perfection!

Knowing whether to adapt your tactics to suit your players, or make your players adapt to your philosophy, is a key question facing coaches when they first take over a new team

The next opportunity to test out my philosophy came unexpectedly – and at a much higher level.

I was asked to step in as caretaker- manager a club in England’s second tier, the FA Women’s Championship. Taking over a team who had lost seven in a row, and with one training session before the next game, I reverted to what I knew – 3-5-2.

I knew the players we had and believed I could make it work. We drew that first game 1-1 and stopped the losing streak.

We had some success, including an away win, and also some disappointments – but they were at least much closer games.

The best performance came in a narrow defeat to Manchester United. Yes, it was still a loss, but United had been winning easily, with double-figure scores on occasion, while we were short of confidence.

They couldn’t break us down though and it was goalless at half time. The improvement was because the players had bought in to the system and were capable of delivering it.

I knew, though, that I didn’t have the same perfect balance as before and I was making my life easier by going to my comfort zone.


“The improvement was because the players had bought into the system…”


I had sessions I could deliver quickly and easily for that formation.

Could we have made even greater strides with a different system, perhaps even better suited to the players?

Fast forward three years and I find myself coaching back in grassroots at the bottom of the women’s pyramid, starting a brand new team. The aim? To win the league, against established teams.

I defaulted initially to 3-5-2. Well, why wouldn’t I? The trouble was I didn’t have two wing-backs, let alone four!

I had wingers, too may really. I had defensive midfielders and I had centre- backs. I knew the best bet was to change the system to fit what I had.

After some deliberation, I had a lightbulb moment and ended up creating a brand new system that fits my players.

It is working well. We currently sit third in the league and have kept seven clean

sheets. We have lost some games when key components of the puzzle have been missing or, in the case of the first two defeats, before I moved one of our players to a position that really suited her.

All of this has been to pose the question – are you playing to your preferred system or are you utilising the strengths of your players to get the best from them?

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