Over the weekend after our disappointing loss to Shrewsbury, we got hold of a presentation document that Lee Johnson, our Head Coach, and Nathan Winder, our Head of Club Sport Science, gave at a recent Science & Football Conference. So, now we’ve all seen the philosophy documents, took the piss out of them and they’ve left some of us in the corridor of confusion. However, Dr Joe Handsaker attended the presentation and below he explains that there is more to it than meets the eye.
Earlier this year I was one of thousands of delegates who attended the Science and Football conference at St Georges Park. Whilst I attended the conference with the intention to focus mainly on the science based presentations, several of the keynote lectures were given by coaches, managers and scouts; including the Barnsley head coach, Lee Johnson.
At the time, I had no knowledge of Lee Johnson, or how well Barnsley were doing that season, so sat down with no expectations or assumptions of the man. The presenter at the conference, David Jones from Saturday Night Football, introduced Lee and explained how he had rejuvenated a struggling Barnsley FC that season, consequently earning himself a nomination for manager of the month the following month. He began by outlining his philosophy, the philosophy by which he expected all of his players to play the game. A style that appeared more Champions League than League One, but aspirational none the less. He explained the importance of this statement, in getting all the players on the same page, all knowing how football is expected to be played at Barnsley FC. Whilst this philosophy has appeared on Twitter, the slides that followed these, have not. He then went on to break this philosophy into more distinct areas, turning what may appear to be an abstract, idealistic philosophy, into distinct, achievable patterns of play that his players could look to create. Expecting players to ‘use speed down the flanks and forward areas to exploit space and create 2v1’s’ in possession (amongst 16 other points), and ‘squeeze and suffocate opposition by hunting in packs’ when not (amongst a further 16). I personally found his attention to detail impressive, and, as previously mentioned, his ambition to play attractive, attacking football really caught my attention.
He continued on to show the slide which has caught the eye of many Barnsley fans, his zonal diagram of the pitch. With zones such as the corridor of confusion and bomb alley, it may appear to be unprofessional, and quite Sunday league, but for me, this is obviously the way that he talks to his players. Football isn’t like other businesses where a certain level of professionalism must be upheld at all times, this is an industry in which a group of around twenty men in their twenties and thirties spend their days kicking a ball around. The fact that terms such as ‘spin and slide zone’ are used, I therefore don’t think should be too surprising. We’ve all heard ex-footballers use slang terms to describe certain technical and tactical facets of the game; including my pet-hate of recent years, in which footballers are said to have put ‘swazz’ on the ball (which apparently means spin, or ‘whip ‘n’ dip’ as I’d call it). So, for managers to use these slang terms was fully expected, for me at least. Similarly to the philosophy, he went on to explain what he meant by each of these zones, and how they translated into actual play, with videos of the tactics in action from the previous weeks. These videos really demonstrated how these potentially meaningless words could actually be translated into positive play, and ultimately three points.
After his tactical description of his expectations of a Barnsley team, he then handed over to his head of sport science, Nathan Winder. Whilst Nathan presented how sport science had, amongst other things, helped Barnsley to reduce injury rates by 46% from the following year, Lee (or ‘the gaffer’, as Nathan referred to him as) interjected occasionally to back up the work being done; really showing himself to be a knowledgeable manager who was open to try new things for the good of the team.
I left the talk very impressed with Lee as a manager, as did the rest of the delegates at the conference, as far as I could tell from others there that I spoke to. I felt that as a young manager with grandiose expectations and ambitions for the team, Barnsley would improve further this term. Whilst it may not be going so well this season, I saw a bright young manager that day, who I expect will have a good career ahead of him. I expect that if Barnsley fans had seen his presentation that day, they would’ve been excited and fully supportive of Lee and his plans for the team. Fingers crossed that he can turn it around and start putting into practice everything that he had meticulously planned.
Dr Joseph Handsaker
Research Associate in Sports Biomechanics, Loughborough University