Becoming a skilful player: Ashley Cole

All Ages

Ever wanted to be a world-class defender? Former England left-back, Ashley Cole, reflects on what it took to master the position.

Now coaching the Blues of the future, the ex-Chelsea and Arsenal star chatted us through some simple attributes that made him a skilful player.
Willingness to learn and compete
Having the right character is important. Being kind, willing to listen and determined to improve can get you far in life – and it’s the same for football. Letting those qualities shine through, along with his ability, meant Arsenal signed Cole as a youngster.

“I think they [Arsenal] saw someone that was coachable and saw me as a good kid. I think first and foremost you want nice people in the club. They saw that in me, and then they saw the talent.

“I tried to take on board everything the coaches and players said to me. But of course, they must have seen that raw talent – someone willing to get up and down, not wanting to be beaten 1v1. Someone who can probably get you from A to B in that defensive area, have the speed and agility to beat players in defensive areas, and then have the ability to find passes and score goals.”

Being adaptable No one knows for sure what position a player will end up in. While some attributes might stand out, it’s important not to pigeonhole players into one place – early specialisation can halt development. In Cole’s case, he adapted to position changes and used the skills and experience he gained to make a new role his own.

“I was slight in build, but I was very quick, agile and sharp. So, I was a striker when I first started at Puma FC – probably up until the age of 15. Then, playing for the likes of the schoolboys of Arsenal, at times they didn't have a left winger, so I might get put there. But my out and out position was centre-forward. I was good at running the channels. I would never give up balls - I’d make a bad ball into a good one. I had an eye for goal, even though I wasn't too great with my right foot.

“Then I think they started to see my position as more of a left winger or left-back - I think we had big physical, strong strikers who could probably shoot off both feet. I didn't complain about it. I was just happy to be putting on an Arsenal shirt and playing.

“In the youth team, I got pushed back into the left-back position because one of the players in the year above got injured. I got kind of chucked in the deep end. I didn't really understand that position in terms of playing from deeper, playing from behind. I was always used to running in behind and not attacking from behind the ball. It was daunting. But I was just happy to be wearing a shirt and to get a chance to be playing up a year. And I didn't look back from there.

“At the start, I was uncomfortable in my positioning, game understanding and playing from deeper. But I think I really took on board what the coaches were saying. I started to feel that maybe I could play this position a little bit more attacking, more advanced - but I felt comfortable in that position, even as a 16 or 17-year-old.”

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Ashley Cole: 1v1 defending

Learning through relationships Developing an understanding with teammates will help you to be successful on the pitch. After all, everyone being on the same wavelength will bring out the best in your side. No matter where he played, Cole, who made 107 appearances for England, forged strong partnerships with his teammates.

“I learned a lot just by playing. Playing with Tony Adams, he said, ‘don't leave my side’. So, there was never a ball that went between us because I was always in a covering position. I had the licence to bomb on, but, ultimately, I needed to be next to him. I always found myself in that position where I was really tucked in – I was ready to get out and press with intensity and not just to make them play back. I was always looking to win that ball; I wanted that ball to start the next attack.

“After he left, we had Sol Campbell and Kolo Toure – with Patrick Vieira and Gilberto Silva at times or Edu and Ray Parlour centrally as well. That gave me the licence to bomb on a little bit more. With Robert Pires tucking inside and Sol having the pace, if the ball did get played in the channel, they could get out and fill in for me. So, I was a little bit more adventurous because of that.

“And then with John Terry, I think we had a very good understanding of each other and the players in front of us. I knew exactly what he was going to do before he probably even knew - and vice versa. As soon as the ball was in the air, I made a deeper angle because I knew he had the quality and bravery to find me with a header or flick it back to the keeper.

“People have also mentioned how good I was at 1v1 defending, but it’s the teammates I had around me that helped me and made me good at it.”

Developing an understanding and being aware
Having a mutual understanding with teammates can help you develop your game, but it’s just as important to understand the opposition. Having the ability to see the bigger picture and analyse what’s going on is something Cole wants his players to develop.

“What makes the top players is their ability to not just understand their roles and responsibilities, but also knowing their teammates’ roles and responsibilities – and their strengths and weaknesses. If I did attack at Arsenal, my recovery run used to be very quick, in a straight line, to get up against my direct opponent. Whereas playing with Sol Campbell, I knew my recovery run might be central because he had the legs to get out and was good in 1v1 situations, even in wide areas.

“But it’s also about knowing the opposition's strengths and weaknesses and what makes them tick. [For young players now] it's very important going into games that they understand their opponent. Can they find out who they're up against: what’s the strength and weakness of their direct opponent? Can they start understanding the game? Can they figure it out? Can they pass that information on to their teammate?

“If it's an opposition winger always running in behind me, as a full-back, I'm telling my winger - are you watching behind? They like to run behind me – can you spot that? Can you help me? Can you recover?"


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