Ose Aibangee tells a story from his time working in the academy set up at Arsenal under the current Assistant Manager, Steve Bould. A young 16 year old by the name of Cesc Fàbregas joined the club from Barcelona’s famed La Masia academy.
Within weeks he was in the first team squad, and Aibangee queried as to why Fàbregas had advanced so quickly in front of other youngsters. Bould’s forthright response was that the young Spaniard “never gives the ball away and always makes the right decision”.
Another great influence in his time in youth development is the former Manchester United coach Eric Harrison, the man responsible for bringing through the so called “Class of ’92” – David Beckham, Ryan Giggs, Gary and Phil Neville, Paul Scholes and Nicky Butt. Harrison had told him the he worked with his players on their awareness and decision making on a daily basis.”The majority of football is played by what you see”, quoted Aibangee, adding that players need to be very strong technically to enable them to play with their heads up and not be fixated on the ball. Before the session, the observing coaches were asked what players need to be aware of when making decisions in the game – the answers included team-mates, opposition players, the ball and space on the pitch. Others were then suggested, including body language and similar visual cues. The Barcelona and Spain player, Xavi Hernández was suggested as an example of a player who looks for such cues before making the correct decision.
In his time working with at the academy set-ups at Arsenal, Tottenham Hotspur, Leyton Orient, and Watford, Aibangee has worked with fine English talent, including Harry Kane, Andros Townsend and Jack Wilshere. When asked as to how he spots potential in a young player, he comments that often the late physical developers are more advanced in their decision making and awareness as they have to work harder on these skills to cope with playing against stronger opponents.
For this particular London Football Coaches Association session, Aibangee was working with a talented group from Arsenal’s Football in the Community scheme. He briefed beforehand that he would demonstrate a selection of exercises that the watching coaches could use, add to or amend to work on various technical or positional aspects while also improving the players’ decision making and awareness. He also suggested that from experience, going back to basics and asking the players to play in complete silence would improve their performance as they had to concentrate harder – this was demonstrated in the session that followed and having tried it out with a group I coach, it certainly raises the level of performance.
The current Brentford Academy Director had prepared a series of eight exercises, all of which were very simple in terms of set up, requiring relatively small spaces and little more than bibs, balls and cones. The initial exercises used only three or four players, whereas some were demonstrated with the full complement of the ten players he was working with, but in reality could be run with as many as fourteen or fifteen. Although each exercise worked on different techniques and were perhaps relevant to different positions on the pitch, the overall coaching focus was on awareness and decision making, with Aibangee encouraging the players to make good decisions, asking relevant questions to see how aware they were of what was happening in the exercise, and challenging them to make the right decision. There was an interesting moment where one player was embarrassed to let the ball run under his foot when trying to control it, but was praised by the coach as it was the result of the player keeping his head up and looking ahead for a possible passing option. Similarly, in exercises where a team could score a point by playing a particular pass, the coach would pick up on players not taking the opportunity to score, even if the option presented itself at the last minute. “The best players change their mind at the last moment…show me you’re looking”.
As with many sessions observed, Aibangee developed an excellent rapport with the players, despite it being the first time he had worked with them. The final exercise challenged the players to make the correct decision in terms of passing and moving using two touches at a quick tempo. The coach bravely offered a reward of ten pounds to every player if they managed to complete twenty seconds of the exercise with no errors. Fortunately for him there were no emergency visits to the cashpoint, but he did admit afterwards that he has paid out previously when working with elite players, but in those circumstances keeps the cash stakes to about 50p! Despite the exercises generally involving quick play in a small area, the Brentford coach suggested that there would be occasions when this wouldn’t necessarily help a player’s development, as they are forced into making a decision, (for example, two touch so either the first or second touch must be a pass). Give the players a situation where they have time on the ball and space to play, how do they use this and do they make the right decision? Aibangee believes in allowing players to make their own decisions in such situations and learn from the results.
One of Ose Aibangee’s favourite analogies when describing a player’s awareness is that it’s like crossing a road – you are aware of how far away the approaching car is and how fast it’s travelling, so you know if you have time to get across. Similarly, a good player will be aware of what is going on around them and enable them to make the correct decision. It is a question of ensuring the players develop the skills and techniques as second nature therefore allowing them to be aware of everything happening around them – opponents, team-mates, space and time. Even using simple exercises such as these, challenging the players in the right way will increase their awareness and improve their decision making as a result. One of Aibangee’s coaching mentors produced an England player, described by Xavi as the most complete central midfielder he has seen. A few more players like Paul Scholes coming through would go a long way to improving the English game.