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Thinking Shakespeare

• Posted in Football • By JoeBaker

It didn’t matter if you weren’t a football fan – any lover of sport was inspired by the incredible underdog journey that Leicester City went on last season. From near relegation the year before to Premier League Champions, the entire world of sport knew of their story and were stirred by what Claudio Ranieri’s men achieved.

It was why so many were so shocked when the Italian was ruthlessly fired by the club’s owners earlier this year, only 9 months since the greatest moment in the club’s history, with his side utterly out of form, lacking motivation and in serious threat of a stunning fall into relegation.

However, there is something quite poetic about the way in which the amptly named and relatively unknown Craig Shakespeare, previously assistant coach, has stepped into his old master’s shoes. He has steered his team away from the threat of relegation and took them through to the quarter-finals of the Champions League, where they were eventually knocked out by an impressive Athletico Madrid side.

In his first full-time managerial job, Shakespeare won all of his first six games in charge, becoming the first in Premier League history to see his side score three or more goals in each of his first three games. They are now looking forward to a top half of the table finish rather than looking behind them to the drop-zone.

If you’re a young, aspiring coach you should be watching Shakespeare with interest. There is a lot that you can be learning from the way he has stablised the club.

In short, Shakespeare has taken them back to basics. He has returned to the tried and trusted and it has worked. Ask what the crucial ingredient is to succeed as a coach and you’ll receive a range of answers. The most crucial is often to keep your game plan simple. The man who has spent 7 of the last 8 seasons as part of Leicester’s coaching team has nailed this down to a tee. He makes his side sit deep and play with pace on the counter-attack, giving more space for his forwards to run into and less space for the opposition to work in behind his defence. They now cede possession more than earlier in the season, letting opponents come onto them. And it is paying off. Different tactics work for different teams but the crucial point remains – frequently it is better to use tactics that complement the players you’ve got, rather than trying to force them into a certain system or way of playing that simply doesn’t.

Entwined with this is the fact that Shakespeare understands the strengths and weaknesses of his players. This is crucial in coaching, allowing you to form the most appropriate tactics. Shakespeare appreciated that his central defensive pairing lack pace but are strong in the air, that his central midfield are combative and good on the ball but need help from a deep-lying and hard-working forward, and that his principal striker is at his best running onto balls rather than having to hold them up. To use another example, the avid Premier League followers out there will be aware of how Chelsea’s table-topping form was originally catalysed by their Italian manager Antonio Conte assessing the players he has at his disposal and reverting to a new 3-5-3 formation.

This leads us to the next crucial factor – communication. Having an obvious game plan and responsibilities for your players helps with instructing and motivating them. Making sure you can communicate directly and clearly is imperative if a coach is to form the deep understanding needed between players on the pitch, as well as ultimately getting them to trust their manager’s judgements. You sense that Leicester’s upturn in form has in part been due to the clarity in which their leader has been able to succinctly communicate his ideas to them. Avoiding unnecessary overcomplication can enhance training sessions and player development.

Now, not every football coach works in the Premier League and is able to take his players away for a break in Dubai, something that Shakespeare was able to do with his side before the famous home Champions League win against Sevilla. Nevertheless, ambitious coaches should acknowledge the importance of ensuring a togetherness in their team off the pitch as well as on it. In the aftermath of the Ranieri sacking, and all the media scrutiny and criticism, Shakespeare realised the need to take his group out of the spotlight start building the team unity that was a pivotal part of their success last season. It’s not just on the training field or by the side of the pitch that a coach can have a profound impact.

You don’t always have to be challenging for trophies or titles to prove you’re a good coach. They may not be replicating their exploits from last season, but in the closing stages of this season you’d be wise to keep track of the exploits and techniques of Leicester City’s new boss.  

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