The ability of coaches to properly identify ‘great players’ is considered either a “widespread” strength or an “epidemic” of weakness...

If it hasn’t already gotten to where you are, then it’s on its way and trust me; this will be a bad-time to not know what you’re looking for. The need to be a great footballer and a great football team is right around the corner; that is, if it hasn't already appeared on your block. The ability of coaches to properly identify ‘great players’ is considered either a “widespread” strength or an “epidemic” of weakness, all dependent upon whether or not coaches can find these great players that are hiding in the fold.

Characteristics of a Great Football Player

 Now that the wave of football that demands the highest-level of play has reached your doorstep, what can you do to increase the chances of contributing to an ever growing and improving pool of talent? Here are the characteristics of what constitutes a “great footballer:”

Physical

First, before anything else, the physical attributes of a player must be evaluated. This ‘not-so-simple’ act is the first and foremost way to begin separating the GREAT PLAYERS from the good.

Contrary to popular belief, identifying the physical attributes that makes a player great is the most difficult part of the identification process.

When looking for the physical elements of a player’s game, be sure to separate them from all other aspects of their game and do not compare the player to others. The importance of isolating the player’s strengths cannot be stated enough.

Now, let’s begin by taking a look at the attributes that make up a great footballer. We can start with what is the most obvious of all the physical attributes; Speed.

Under the umbrella of “speed” are a plethora of more detailed pieces to the ‘speed’ puzzle. For most players and coaches, speed itself is enough. However, great players also display a large range of ability to Change Their Pace. Never-the-less, change of pace can also be broken down into even smaller parts. The understanding of these smaller and smaller sub-pieces of a general concept such as speed, are extremely critical to not only understanding how “speed” is important, but in also being able to properly identify how it plays into the recipe of a great player.What is a player’s

Quickness?” In other words, do they have the ability to create space for themselves and others? Even more specifically, how Explosive are they? Do they possess the ability to free themselves from tight marking?

When looking at their explosiveness, you need to determine whether they show a great or dramatic change of pace. In conjunction, when looking at a player’s quickness, you should be determining whether or not they create problems for the opposition when they are without the ball.
Another element of speed is Athleticism. This is how fluid a player’s movement is. How agile are they? When looking at the athletic ability of a player, it is VERY important to be able to discern whether a player “uses” their athletic ability or are they solely dependent upon it? A player who ‘uses’ their athleticism is a player whom has a much higher ceiling for growth than one who simply relies on their athletic ability for their success. Remember, there will always be someone who is faster, stronger, smarter and better on any given day…but, not always smarter or better prepared.

Besides speed, there are other physical attributes that make up a great player. Another one of these is “Strength.” A player’s size is becoming more and more of an issue as the game continues to develop and grow. There are definitely several others ways that a player can impress themselves upon the opposition, but in relation to how strong they are, it is important to look at whether they have the ability to impose their will on others. This is something that a team will want their individual players to do if the team wants to impose their will on the opposition

Another piece of a player’s physical prowess is their overall Fitness and respectively, their level of Endurance to maintain a high work-rate for the length of the match. Probably the single-most important piece of a player’s game and one that I have seen compensate for large deficits in skill and experience, is a player’s Work-Rate. Player’s MUST display the highest possible high work-rate on a consistent basis, regardless of what is happening.

Thus, it is usually the not-so-obvious aspects of Strength and Endurance that lends itself to the true direction a player’s physical attributes will lead.

Mental Toughness

Second, only to a player’s physical attributes, comes the mental side of their game, how Mentally Tough they are.

The mental toughness in great footballers stretches a wide gamut of even more specific sub-sets. One of these subsets which sets the stage for not only a player’s current level of play, but also how much potential they have to become even greater is what kind of a Competitor are they?

The basic foundation of this game is 1 vs. 1. That’s what it breaks down to in its simplistic, most primitive form. Great players win as many of the 1 vs. 1 duels as possible and they are so competitive, that they yearn for the 1 vs. 1 battle. In addition to seeking out and never shying away from a 1 vs. 1 due, great players display a high-level of Confidence in their ability to not only attack and win the individual battles, but also in their ability to defend them.

This confidence is not just restricted to 1 vs. 1 situations, but great players will show an aura of confidence that becomes contagious to their teammates. However, it is the characteristics displayed in the various 1 vs. 1 match scenarios that will show the tell-tale signs of how much a player wants to continue to Learn, their Coachability and their underlying Commitment to being the best they can be.

It’s that individual commitment to being the best player they can be that will have a direct correlation to their overall level of Commitment to your Program.

A player’s established Leadership qualities and /or their potential to lead is best discovered when they are forced to Deal with Adversity. The leadership of great players will manifest itself in their Maturity and Ability to Concentrate when things aren’t going well.

Do they maintain a Positive Outlook? How do they react when opponents attempt to intimidate them or play dirty?What about their reaction to losing? Are they still able to concentrate? Do their Leadership skills change in any way?

Emotional Toughness

While we’re talking about the psyche of great players, let’s branch-off a little and discuss the characteristics of a great player in relation to their Emotional Toughness. How do they reaction to losing? Are they still able to concentrate? Do their Leadership skills change in any way?

Of course, there are cross-overs that entertain both the mental and emotional strength of a player. Maturity and a players Ability to deal with Adversity are two that come to mind. Another is that great players have the ability to continue Fighting for 90 minutes regardless of what happens.

Yet, we can’t overlook the inane and even ironic trait that all great players hold; Coachability. How does this player deal with criticism? I mean they are “great,” are they not? If they are so ‘great,’ then why should they be open to criticism from anyone whom is not as great as they are? That is one of the things that makes them so great: their ability to Cope with Criticism.

Lifestyle

Finally, in wrapping this piece of the blog up, we would be remised if we didn’t mention the Lifestyle attributes of a great player’s personality.

A great player is a player that you don’t have to be concerned about what they eat, what time they go to bed, how they’re doing in the classes and what they’re doing in their spare-time. Great players take pride in proper nutrition, getting proper rest, succeeding in the classroom as well as on the pitch and they will have their priorities in order and represent themselves, their team, the program and all of the work they have put in up by being a quality citizen. You see, great players place extreme value on the work they have put in, are putting in and will continue to put in and do not want to do anything that will have a negative effect on them.

Technical

Now that we’ve gotten past the sometimes vague, but always obvious physical characteristics of a great football player, we next need to move onto the Technical characteristics of a great player. So, without further ado, let’s begin by taking a look at a player’s First-Touch.

The term “first-touch” is actually rather broad when used in this discussion about what makes a great player. Never-the-less, the outlying layers need to be pulled back so its innards can be exposed.

It takes a great player to develop the ability to Receive Balls on the Move; which would require the player to have tight control of the ball and a sensitive first-touch.

Once the player does receive the ball can they keep it? Great players will not only be able to maintain possession, but will also be able to keep the ball at their feet and move on the dribble. This Ability to Dribble will show itself in due-time, as we are looking for players whom can Dribble at Speed and in a manner where they can Beat Players.

However, we all know that there is so much more to technique than just a player’s first-touch. While being able to Receive the Ball on the Move is a valuable skill to have, unfortunately there are not enough players who can play a properly weighted, textured and paced pass with the Inside of their Foot. I’m not kidding; the simple act of Passing with accuracy and efficiency is something that should be considered of extreme value for those players who can actually do it.

In this same mindset, great players will be able to play quality, heavy and accurate Driven Balls. I’ve noticed that there are not enough players at the collegiate and even pro-level that possess this ability. A player whom can strike a well-driven ball is a player who possesses one of the valuable characteristics of a great player.

Not every characteristic of a great player is excusive to the general platform upon which it sits. Shielding the ball is a perfect example. It requires quality and confident technical ability, but also the strength that was discussed under the aura of Physical characteristics.

Let’s move on and look at some other technical strengths that great players' possess.

Great players have the courage, fearlessness and ability to win the ball in the air. This doesn’t include just “winning” the ball, but also winning it with a purpose. These types of players are consistent threats to win the ball anywhere on the pitch, especially in the boxes; defensively to clear and offensively to score.

Speaking of scoring; great players are always a Shooting Threat anywhere around the box and even from range. The technical proficiency, mental toughness, emotional fortitude and physical prowess of these types of players make them such unpredictable and dangerous weapons on the offensive end.

Moving further into the technical characteristics of a great player, we can’t overlook these player’s inane ability to play with such a level of Deception that they are not only hard to defend when you have an idea of how to defend them, but they are almost impossible to defend when they possess the ability to deceive the opposition with their play.

I know it seems that we’ve spent a lot of time talking about the strength of great players as it pertains to them as individuals, but as we continue on, we’ll see how great players are “great” not only because of their individual skill-set, but also in how much better they make those around them. It’s this Ability to Combine with Others that really make great players – great!

Tactical

The great Sir Alex Ferguson, the current Manager of Manchester United and a retired footballer who saw time in 317 matches and scoring 170 goals over the course of 17 years in both the English Premier League and the Scottish League, refers to the concept of how great players make the players around them better, as “cocooning.” Cocooning is when a great player takes their phenomenal individual skills and brings them into the team construct giving their teammates only two options: rise to meet them or fall by the wayside.

Great players have developed an uncanny sense of seeing things happen before they actually do. This comes from years of experience and experience playing not at the highest-level possible; which many would recommend and expect, but rather the level of play that will put them under the most intense pressure.

Playing under such high-pressure on a consistent basis helps the player to begin to consistently make Good Decisions. Great players have an almost supernatural-type of Field Vision that allows them the Ability to Read Situations and Identify What is Needed. These types of players possess a great Positional Awareness and they Understand not only their Role on the Team, but also their role within the team’s system of play.

When evaluating this level of players, you should pay very close attention to their Communication, both verbal and non-verbal. You will find that the quality of communication coming from and even between great players is such that it allows them to Work Well without the Ball.

Functional Characteristics of Great Players

We’ve covered the physical, mental, emotional, technical and tactical characteristics that make up a great player. Next, we’re going to take it a step-further and look at the attributes that great players possess in relation to the position they play. This is extremely important to understand, as players can and should be expected to play anywhere on the pitch at any given time. However, when dealing with a great player, many times it is in the best interest of your team to play them in a position that will allow their greatness the best opportunity to shine.

FRONT-RUNNERS

You are probably expecting me to open-up this section with the goal-scoring and attacking strengths?!?!?...however, I’m going to approach it from the opposite side, as strikers are, have always been and always will be; a team’s initial point of defense.

Defending

Defending takes very little effort to explain, yet it requires more effort than anything else in the game to be successful at. Great players understand this and make defending as much a part of their overall game as anything else. Never-the-less, the specific attributes that will show in great player’s defending will vary dependent upon where the player is on the pitch.

Just as strikers need to be able to attack 1 vs. 1, they also need to be able to defend in a 1 vs. 1 situation, just as well. Great players will show an intense and focused Commitment to Defend until Possession of the Ball is Regained. Their Work-Rate will be through the roof and their ability to Win the Ball either off an opponent’s foot, by intercepting a pass or taking control of a 50/50 ball makes their defending just as dangerous as the attacking skills that have them this high up the park in the first-pace.

Yet, that is just one, individual player. As we have already discussed, great players will not only make the players around them better, but they will also connect with them. This is where their individual and unit Positioning allows them to Shepherd the opposition where they want them to go.

Attacking

This is quite obviously a skill set that forwards need to possess, but there are many sub-skills that the great ones master.

First and foremost, as the cornerstone of the game, is their ability to beat a defender in a 1 vs. 1 situation. However, regardless of how good a player is, there will always be someone who is better than them and in these situations where breaking down an opponent 1 vs. 1 is not an option or a possibility, the striker needs to have the Ability to Hold the Ball Under Pressure while looking for opportunities to Combine with Teammates to penetrate.

Great players will constantly Create Danger for the Opposition and are always a Threat to Shoot on goal. Scoring themselves, however, is not all great players can do. Their technical acumen allows them to serve quality, heavy driven balls when needed or to lighten the service in order to place the ball exactly where it needs to be for a teammate to finish.

The exchange of serve and shoot between a great striker and their attacking compradors is a thing of beauty. Besides playing in quality balls for their teammates to connect with, great players are just as deadly getting onto the end of services themselves. Whether it’s a Volley or getting up in the air and driving a ball towards goal with their Head, great attackers will find a way to find the ball more often than not.

Yet, it is a great player’s off the ball work that makes them the most dangerous. These types of players are quite adept at Making Space for Teammates to run or play into. Whether it is a Run to Receive the Ball Back or a Run to Receive the Ball in Behind the Defense, a great player who possess these characteristics in front of the goal will be very difficult to stop and a tremendous asset to any team.

CENTRAL MIDFIELDERS

Some of the greatest players in the history of the game have played in the middle of the park. Usually referred to as #10, this is the player that typically makes everything tick. A field general up to which everyone else looks for leadership, it’s no wonder that so many of the characteristics that define the #10 are one and the same with those that a great player possesses.

As we did with the front-runners, we’ll start off by looking at the defense attributes that great #10’s possess.

Defending

You’ll find this repetitious by the time I finish, but with it being the cornerstone of the game, it is a necessity no matter whom is player or where? #10’s, even more so than strikers, must be able to defend in 1 vs. 1 situations, as there is less space behind them and defending upon how high or deep they are in the middle of the park, if they are consistently losing the 1 vs. 1 duels in the midfield then they will quickly become a liability.

Great #10’s have such a high Work-Rate and an equally high-level of Commitment to defending until they either Win the Ball or their team Regains Possession.

Players who excel in the middle of the park have an adept grasp at the Concept of Providing Cover, as well as Providing Balance on the Weak side.

A combination of their position on the field; which allows them to see much of what is happening and their individual Positioning sets them up in pristine Tackling and Heading positions.

Attacking

What makes the center midfielder such a valuable and dangerous player is the simple fact that in order to be successful, they must be able to play both ways equally well.

Great Central Midfielders have the ability to Maintain Possession of the ball and Deliver it into Dangerous Positions. They also possess the know-with-all to Change the Point of Attack.

Because they have to play both ways and play across all sides of themselves, they must show the Ability to Cover Large Amounts of the Park both offensively and defensively. This also allows them to Really Combine with Teammates from so many different angles covering the expanse of the middle of the pitch. The space that is generated is exploited by the best either by Running at the Goal with the ball at their feet or stepping-up and showing how they are a Long Range Scoring Threat.

The greatest #10’s will use the open space in the center of the pitch to their advantage whenever possible. Whether it is to prepare to win a ball out of the air or supporting the play of the backs behind them or the forwards in front of them, the best center of the park players will use every single inch of open space to their advantage.

WIDE PLAYERS

Most times so much attention is given to strikers, players in the center of the park and backs that the players whom play out wide tend to be overlooked. On the flanks is where you can identify some great players, both “diamonds in the rough” and players whose strength is playing out wide.

Defending

As we did previously, we’ll first look at the characteristics of a great wing player from a defensive point of view.

With pressure only able to be applied from three sides combined with acres of open space to run into, winning the 1 vs. 1 duel is extremely important on the flanks. A great flank player has a high-level of Ball winning ability, Tackling ability and because they have basically 120 yards of the pitch to cover (from one end-line to the other), their Work-rate and Commitment to Apply Pressure and Defend until Possession is regained are several reasons why some of the best players on the pitch can be found playing out wide.

With their heels to the touchline, a flank player has one of the better views of what’s going on in the game, only to be rivaled by the view of the goalkeeper. It is from a horizontal perspective, but wide players do have the ability to see almost the entire field as they stretch back and wide. This vision affords them the ideal starting point when offering Cover or Providing Balance on the Weak side of the field. In addition, they can very easily turn their hips towards the goal they’re attacking which offers them a tremendous advantage when having to climb up and Win Balls out of the Air.

Wide midfielders have an advantage that other players on the field do not. Due to their proximity to the touch-line, it is much easier for them to gain proper Positioning for Tracking an Opponent and Staying Goal-Side.

Attacking

Now, let’s take another step and look at the characteristics that a great wing player possesses when attacking. For the same reasons listed above when talking about defending 1 vs. 1, the ability of a wide player to break down the opposition 1 vs. 1 is crucial. More often than not, that is the type of battle a wide player finds themselves in; with just one opponent to beat.

However, we can’t forget the touch-line which for all intents and purposes serves as a second-defender and limits the space and options that a player can take when on the attack. This is where the intelligent winger will Combine with a teammate to Beat what is usually just one Wide Opponent. This act of Combining with Teammates to get in behind the opponent’s isolated winger and engage their outside back makes a great wing player a scoring threat anytime they have the ball.

What great players will do is Spin Away from Pressure to Possess the ball and make Quick, Decisive and Precise Decisions about whether to attack down the flank for a service or to turn inside and Attack Centrally. Once a quality wing player gets inside they can cause the opposition all, sorts of issues. By continuing inside and Running at Goal, they will activate more opponents than if they had stayed wide. If this wide player shows that they are a Long Range Shooting Threat, then they will draw even more attention as they turn towards the center of the park.

Like all great players, a great winger must have a high-level of fitness and endurance as they will be required to Cover a lot of Ground. This is especially true when they are able to get deep while wide, Maintain Possession of the ball and Deliver a Dangerous Serve into the box.

However, great players will show that the opposite is true, as well. When the ball is on the opposite side of the pitch and the opportunity arises, a great winger will make runs from deep and wide working to Get on the End of Crosses and are more than willing to get up and finish with their Heads, if need be.

A great outside midfielder also understands their role when in support of the play of their backs, their central midfielders and the strikers in front of them.

BACKS

Last, but not least and to some, arguably the most important position on the park (dependent on individual coaching philosophies), we’ll close-up this blog entry with a detailed look at the characteristics of a great player when they are playing as a defender.

We’ll stay with the same format that we’ve been using throughout this entire blog and look at the specific defensive aspects that we will find in all great backs.

Defending

Some of this will be quite obvious, common-sense and rather cut-n-dry; however, it is very important that we not forget to turn-over the rocks that can be seen and look for the flakes of gold that are often hidden out of first-sight by the common, obvious rocks.

Great defenders have what is sometimes an unexplainable knack for Marking up an Opponent, Denying the Ball and if necessary, Denying the Turn to Goal. These levels of players have mastered the art of Tackling cleanly as not to commit a foul in a dangerous area. It’s this Self-Control and Restraint when on Approach in closing-down an attacker that separates the great from the rest.

These elite-level defenders have such pristine positioning right from the start that winning Headers, Preventing Passes and Shots and just simply disrupting any attack that comes their way dictates such an Intimidating presence as a defender.

However, unlike the midfielders and strikers in front of them, there is very little space with which to work in, so great defenders will display a very high level of both verbal and non-verbal Communication. This communication is vital to their ability to work in conjunction with their teammates to know when they should Jockey an Opponent, offer Cover or Provide Balance on the Weak side.

Attacking

Finally, let’s take some time and look at the minute details that great defenders develop when attacking. Just as much an oxy-moron as discussing defending by strikers, great defenders are as skilled in attacking as they are in defending.

Due to their deep location on the pitch from an attacking perspective, the greatest defenders are not those who can lock down the opposition and seem to never be beaten, but rather the ones who can still do all of that and Play Penetrating Passes to Midfielders, Penetrating Balls Over the Top or slice forward with well-timed Supporting Runs.

Defenders with the Ability to Keep Possession of the Ball will, in turn, allow themselves the Ability to Attack; whether Running with the Ball, Serving Dangerous Balls In or showing the Ability to Shoot from Distance.

 Great Footballers are hard to come by. They are hard to find in the first-place…they are hard to identify if they are on the pitch…they are hard to evaluate if they are identified…and…to make things even more exclusive, we need more eyes watching more players in more detail than ever before, because while the “Need to be Great” may have already parked the bus in front of your house, there are still blocks where the Greatness bus has yet to visit – but, it is on the agenda and it will be coming around the corner very soon. For all the players, coaches, people, etc… whose veins this beautiful games course through; don’t you want to be ready to recognize Greatness when it starts rolling down your street?