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A League Cup, four FA Cups, two Premier League titles and one invincible season. Campbell has had a hugely successful career. 

Here, the former Three Lions star reflects on what helped him get to the top and offers advice to aspiring players. 

 

Being comfortable on the ball under pressure from an opponent is an important skill for every player. For Campbell, who didn’t receive much training until he was a teenager, playing wherever and whenever he could, helped him develop this ability.  

“There was a particular school I used to go to all the time. Really, that’s where my coaching experiences started because there were maybe 10, 12, 15 boys; some were older, some were younger, and some were better skill-wise as well.  

“But it’s mainly on the floor. It’s getting out of a tight area to score, getting out of tight areas to find a teammate. At the same time, your fitness levels are going to go through the roof because you’re there every day. And it’s actually high-quality football, so you learn. 

“I was playing there, on the streets as well, or maybe over the park or in a block of flats.  

“I think for me, playing in tight areas, you improve your skill. In a block of flats, you’ve got two lifts – a small goal to shoot at – and at the same time, you’ve got all sorts of obstacles. You’ve got people walking past, and you’ve got to stop and start. You’ve got your mates on the side waiting for the next game to start, someone scores a goal, and then you’re off, a little bit like a Wembley scenario – 1v1s. So, you learn a lot like that. It’s good. A lot of tight areas.”  

 

Playing other sports in your training sessions can be a helpful way of developing your players. For example, rugby can introduce the idea of sidestepping opponents and using disguise to hide intentions on the ball. For Campbell, playing tennis developed his footwork, which, along with other attributes, was important for him as a centre-back.  

“I think for me, there was pace and strength, but also the ability to change pace and to slow down. I had that maybe because I played a lot of tennis, so my footwork was, for a big guy, very good. So, that was key for me. As I got bigger, I kind of relied on that so I wouldn’t get outfoxed by smaller, quicker forwards.  

“And you know, just playing it simple, good passes, being conscientious and working out the space as well. I was very good at moving my feet and body into a position that I could zip the ball out wide or into midfield and create space and overloads from a centre-half position. So, I was good at working things out.”  

 

Developing good perception skills is key to being a skilful player. Having the ability to scan the pitch and read the game helped Campbell pick up good positions, which was helpful for when he entered the latter part of his playing career.  

“My positional sense as a young lad really came into its own now because you’re not as quick as at 25, but you’re still half decent. You can still keep up with people, but you’re not 25, and you’ve really got to get the positional sense. That means that when you need to really turn the turbo boost on, you’re there. And also, you save your legs. If you get in the right positions, you don’t run as much.  

“I’d rather use my brain to get into positions and then, if I need to, use my pace to execute an attack or whatever. Just use your voice, use your experience to get in positions, and then when you really need it, turn on the turbos and get out of trouble. But really, for me, that experience kicked in massively as I got older.”

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Triggers and cues

Assessing opponents in the game

To further help his positioning, the Premier League winner used his perception skills to understand what the opposition liked to do. Figuring out how his opponents wanted to play by looking for certain cues was something Campbell had to do quickly.  

“Like from a goal kick or when the winger has the ball – how do they play it in? Do they like clipping it over your head because he’s a bit nippy so he wants to get on the other side of you? Does he do a one-two and get behind? Does he love the one-two to come short to suck the defender in? All that kind of stuff.  

“I might have got away with a little pace, but sometimes you might not be in the right position, and he gets away a bit. So, then you had to work out within ten minutes [what they play like]. [For example], I’ll allow you to have it to feet, but you’re not having it behind because I know you like that movement already. So, you’re not getting that all day. You get in front of me, and then I close you down.  

“Now it’s different. They’ve got all these people helping them out and sussing out individual players, but back then, you had to work out a player very quickly.”  

 

Running off the ball

Campbell, who won 73 caps for England, was a key part of the Arsenal side that went a whole season unbeaten on their way to clinching the title in 2003/04. When the former centre-back was asked what players should work on if they also aspire to play in the heart of defence, he had this to say.  

“The first thing is running off the ball. To keep on moving. No good centre-forward just stays still. Yeah, they sometimes stand still in the box if it’s cut back, but in that last third, that’s the zone that you’ve got to be really aware. Sometimes you have to do a couple of dummy runs before the centre-forward makes that vital run because they’re gambling, and, in their head, they can gamble when they want to, but you’ve got to mark them.  

“You’ve got to mark their fake runs, and then you’ve got to get back into position because they’re deciding when to go. And you’ve just got to accept that. But for me, running off the ball [and having] awareness of the player travelling around you [is important]. You’ve got to track those runners or make sure your defenders are tracking them.”  

 

Modern-day centre-backs

As the game evolves, it’s becoming increasingly important for players in all positions to be composed on the ball. But as well as this, Campbell believes the modern centre-back needs to be able to tackle and then have the ability to pick out the right pass.  

“Centre-halves now are more about building up the play. I think tackling is still there. I think that’s going nowhere. You need good tacklers on the pitch... the best [centre-backs] can tackle, close down, intercept or do all three.  

“In those vital moments when you need to make a tackle, and with the timing of the tackle, you can change the game and change the mentality. But then once you get the ball, you’ve got to be able to pass. You can’t just tackle all day. You’ve got to tackle, slow your mind down and make that right pass. And that’s what it’s all about. The balance of tackling and cooling yourself down and passing as well.  

“If you can mix intelligence with good tackling and passing, you’ve got a good chance in a game.”  

For more from Sol Campbell, check out the full interview on our YouTube channel.