One foot wonders

Ever wondered how someone on £100,000 a week can have a “wrong” foot? Tom Green investigates the case for everything being all right with the left, as well as with the other one…

In an age of ProZone and FIFA coaching badges, one significant aspect of football technique appears to be overlooked: for some reason, right up to the very highest level, it seems acceptable to be one-footed.

Pundits and managers will criticise players for just about anything, but when they screw the ball wide from ten yards because it was “on their weaker foot” no blame is attached. Is there really nothing that players and their clubs can do to address such a basic weakness?

Steve Burns, assistant director of Aston Villa’s highly rated academy, plays down the problem. “Less talented players might need to practise with their weaker foot,” he says, “but if a player can do everything with one foot then why bother with the other?” He concedes that they have worked with some players, including Gabriel Agbonlahor, on their weaker foot, but argues that the best simply don’t need it. “When Paul Merson came to Villa,” he explains, “he hit everything with his right foot and everything went in. We could hardly tell him to go away and practise with his left.”

This seems a strange argument. Surely, however good a player is with one foot they will be even better if they can use the other one as well?

Simon Clifford, who has brought Brazilian coaching techniques to soccer schools in the UK, agrees. “To be two-footed is, of course, a huge advantage,” he says. “That’s simple to understand. Yet there are very few players around who are equally confident on both sides when it comes to shooting or long passing.” Clifford, who made an abortive attempt to introduce his own methods at Southampton under Clive Woodward, thinks that coaching is to blame for the lack of two-footedness, or bilateralism.

“From what I’ve seen,” he says, “conventional coaching plays at training players to use both feet, in the same way that it plays at teaching skill and technique. It’s not a serious approach, it’s more something a coach will throw in to freshen up a session rather than a long-term strategy to develop complete footballers.” Why should this be the case? “Laziness and lack of knowledge,” argues Clifford. “Players here don’t train nearly enough and when they do the focus is too often on the wrong things. It’s the same at youth level and also at top ­professional level.”

Clifford’s views chime with a growing consensus that coaching in this country simply isn’t up to scratch. Even the FA seem to be recognising the problem and looking at new ways to develop young players.

Craig Simmons, player development adviser at the FA, argues that there are a number of factors influencing bilateralism (or the lack of it) and is confident that coaching at an early age can help. “Within the new coaching plans being developed by the FA and Sport England there is a major programme to teach children to develop bilaterally,” he explains. “Movement is the key. If you take your first step from a starting position with your left foot then you’re likely to kick with your right.” So, the FA is working with primary schools on gymnastics and movement to help make ­children equally comfortable starting to move with either foot. It’s not sport-specific, but it will certainly benefit budding footballers, ­Simmons argues.

The other key issue, according to Simmons, is moving away from the highly structured approach to coaching that is traditionally favoured in the UK. “In places like Brazil, Holland and across Africa,” he says, “there’s an emphasis on players making decisions for themselves in games. If coaching is too regimented then, under pressure, players will revert to type and won’t, for example, risk using a weaker foot.”

Simon Clifford agrees that the best way to develop two-footedness is to start when players are young. “The focus from that early age needs to be on the repetition of basic skills with both feet so that imbalances don’t develop,” he insists. “In my Socatots programme we have children starting ball skills with both feet and all parts of their feet before they are even walking.”

Clifford’s Brazilian-influenced approach appears to make a lot of sense. Yet Brazilian and other overseas players, though technically superior to our players, don’t appear to be any more two-footed. “The emphasis on technique in other countries can actually mask the deficiency in two-footed players,” Clifford explains. “In some countries, for example, they actually encourage players to focus solely on their stronger foot. For me, though, that is the wrong approach. You want players to develop fully in every area – technically, physically, psychologically and tactically. Getting players to perform passing and receiving of the ball with both feet accurately should be key in any ­development programme.”

Even if the best approach is starting young, couldn’t today’s top players still improve their weaker foot? Peter Taylor is one manager who thinks so. “When I was coaching the England players, prior to the friendly with Spain at Aston Villa’s ground,” he told Patrick Murphy in an interview in 2001, “I worked on their weaker feet just to impress upon them the importance of continuing to develop their all-round skills.”

The implication is that this approach was new to many of them. As, perhaps was Taylor’s attitude as a whole. “As a player,” he continued, “I did practise what I now preach. I am naturally left-footed, but by the end of my playing career I was as strong on my right. I tried to work on both strengths and weaknesses.”

In other sports, top performers work relentlessly on their weaknesses. Roger Federer doesn’t ignore his forehand if it’s functioning less well than his backhand. Tiger Woods heads for the practice green or driving range straight after a round if necessary. The lack of two-footed players suggests footballers might do well to follow their example and spend less time with their PlayStations and more on the training ground.

From WSC 241 March 2007. What was happening this month