For an introduction to the world of Premier League management, Chris Ramsey could hardly have asked for a bigger or more unforgiving challenge than taking the reins at Queens Park Rangers in early 2015. Following Harry Redknapp’s sudden resignation, Ramsey who had only joined QPR as Academy Manager a few months earlier was given the unenviable task of trying to save the club from what had seemed an inevitable relegation. Despite the club falling into the Championship, Ramsey was given a three-year contract as Head Coach in an attempt to guide the club back to the promised land of the Premier League, however he lasted only a few months before being relieved of his role last November. There were obviously no hard feelings as Ramsey has since rejoined the club as Technical Director.
Ramsey’s coaching career to this point had generally been focused on developing younger players. Despite admitting to being an Arsenal fan, he spent ten years as Head of Player Development for the Reserves and Academy at Tottenham Hotspur prior to stepping up to assist Tim Sherwood at first team level, and has also had spells managing the England under-20s and as Assistant Coach to the under-17s. The session he demonstrated here for the London Football Coaches Association, using youngsters from Arsenal’s Football in the Community scheme, he would be happy to use with younger players or with established professionals. He emphasised the importance of even the best players regularly working on even the most basic elements of their game, and gave an amusing example from his time managing at QPR, when the Brazilian midfielder Sandro was faced with a counter attack in which he was outnumbered by the opposition. Rather than following the coaches textbook solution of dropping off and delaying the attack while his team-mates recovered, the current West Bromwich Albion loanee flew into an unsuccessful tackle, allowing the opposition even more space to break away and subsequently score.
Well travelled, having played and coached in both Malta and the United States, Ramsey comes across as a very affable person, but although he carries this persona into his sessions, he demands that players give the maximum at all times. In the session debrief, he was keen to to emphasise the need for coaching sessions to develop players from start to finish, and gave the example within this practice, where he was working on a defensive topic, that because there was pressure on the ball from the defenders, their opponents were being forced to play quicker which was demanding for them technically and psychologically. There was a moment in the warm up where Ramsey picked up on a player, who more through switching off was technically incorrect in his method of closing down. Later on, in an exercise where players were required to turn quickly and close an opponent down, he would stop the play if they ambled out. It was a real lesson in the requirement for players to train as hard as they play.
The session itself was focused on the subject of closing down which Ramsey said was based on two fundamentals – timing and support. By timing, he was referring to whether the player closing down could affect the ball. Could the ball be won, or if not, could the player make the opponent’s play predictable, such as forcing in one direction? By support, is the player going to close down the ball given verbal support by team-mates, instructing which way to show the opponent, and is the closing player communicating non-verbally with supporting team-mates by adopting a body shape to show the direction the opponent will go, allowing the team-mate to cover the space. Of course, the decision as to when to press and how high up the pitch is based on the team’s tactics as devised by the coach, and Ramsey insisted this should be based on the personnel within the squad of players and their technical ability. He again used the example of Queens Park Rangers, where as head coach he felt that they were not strong enough defensively when facing Premier League attackers in and around their penalty area, so therefore the strategy was to press high up the pitch and keep the opposition as far away from their goal as possible. He added that the environment in which the game was being played should also play a part in the planning – is it a particularly warm day for example, which may inhibit the players’ ability to press for long periods? Here, a “wave” strategy may be in order, where the tactics are to press high for a short period before dropping off.
The coaching session on closing down, from the warm-up to the final small sided game, was a succession of progressions which demonstrated how a well planned practice can enable the players to learn one step at a time. Even from a simple warm-up, players were added in positions relevant to a real match scenario, as the former Tottenham coach emphasised the need for as much realism as possible to allow players to transmit what they learn into a game. As more players were added, the situations became more and more game related, finishing with an overload game with small gates as goals. Ramsey also mixed up the scenarios, from defending against a team that would try and play through the team, to one where the opponents were looking for a long pass over the top. Defenders had to react to the non-verbal communication from the opponents – whether they were looking to play longer, and also the verbal communication from their own team – could they put pressure on the ball and where they should show the opponent.
A former defender himself, a full-back with experience at both Swindon Town and Brighton & Hove Albion, featuring for the latter in the 1983 FA Cup Final, Ramsey’s attention to detail was very sharp, from the basics of the correct body position when closing down an opponent to ensuring the teams were working as a unit. The QPR director suggested follow on session could involve tracking or working on recovery runs as a coach looks to build an overall defensive strategy. Despite the session being restricted on both time and space, there were plenty of ideas for the Arsenal youngsters involved to take on board and for the watching coaches, at all levels of the game to take away and work with at their own clubs.
What strategy does your team use for closing down? Do you have the players to aggressively press high and put the opposition under pressure straight away, or are you confident enough to drop off and defend in your own half and hit the opposition on the counter-attack? Let us know in the comments section below, or on Twitter.