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Sergio Gargelli on futsal’s relationship with football player development and positional play

Sergio Gargelli, the Italian head coach of the Norwegian national futsal team, thinks futsal should be used as a way of developing better football players. He also believes there’s a clear relationship between futsal and positional play in football. Photo: Private


Sergio Gargelli is a 43 years old futsal coach from the city of Firenze in Italy, who now is in charge of the Norwegian national futsal team – a job he’s had for about a year now. Despite still being a relatively young coach, Sergio has had the pleasure of working in many countries, such as China, Japan, Vietnam and of course Italy, to name a few. He has won both the Chinese league and the Japanese cup, as well as other merits, including his Vietnam side becoming the first Asian team in history to beat Brazil in an official game.

Even though he’s still working day and night to increase futsal’s status as a sport, battling the tough competition from football, he still is a firm believer that futsal could be – and should be – used as a mean to develop football players. He and his assistant coach at the Norwegian national team, Kai Bardal (who we interviewed a couple of months back), held a presentation about this intriguing topic at the Norwegian cup final seminar. We’ve now had a chat with Sergio about futsal as a football development-tool, as well as a couple of other topics. Like futsal’s connection with positional play and his hour-long coffee chat with no other than Pep Guardiola himself.

Sergio Gargelli met Pep Guardiola in Doha and even had coffee with him. Futsal concepts has been a major influence on Guardiola’s magnificent teams. Guardiola is the guy to the left in the picture.  Photo: Private


 Anders Johansson (AJ): To start off with, maybe you could tell us a little about yourself and your footballing – or should we say “futsaling” – journey? How did you end up as the Norwegian futsal team’s head coach?


Sergio Gargelli (SG): I started to play football at five years old, and got some experience in Napoli Young teams, before I then moved on to play futsal. I started to coach football (formation age) at the age of 24, before I started coaching futsal. I have already worked in many different countries (especially in Asia) Italy, Japan, Vietnam, Indonesia, Qatar, China and Norway, and I currently speak four languages: Italian, English, Spanish and Japanese.

I have already worked for four different football federations: for the Japanese as assistant coach and goal keeper coach of the national team and instructor of coaches, for the Vietnamese as head coach of the national team and as technical director of the project for young team, for the Indonesian as coach instructor, and for the Norwegian as head coach of the national team.

I could be defined as the globetrotting futsal coach. Only Zego, the creator of 4-0 methodology, the system that inspired Guardiola to play without center forward, and one of my/the masters, has worked in more countries than me.

Now it’s been 10 years that I have been out of Italy. In 2007 I was contacted by a Japanese futsal club to make stage with all categories of the team. I accepted with pleasure; I’d never been to Japan and thought it would have been a great experience.

I stayed two weeks in Tokyo, and had the possibility to train teams all the way from top senior teams to the under 6 years old, touching in on all the categories in the middle. During that time, I was in a thinking period; I was very tired of Italian futsal, due especially to the fact of the “Brazilianisation” of the Italian futsal league and national team. At the World cup of Brazil in 2008 the Italian National Team was composed of 14 players with double passport, and the way of planning and thinking by the Italian federation was not understandable to me.

After this stage Fuchu Athletic made me an offer and at the age of 32 with a great passion for Asia and with two important targets to reach, to beat Brazil and have my team playing in the World cup, I moved to Japan.

“Every detail was manically observed and attended to, and the physical and mental intensity he required of his players were more similar to a futsal training than a football practice.” – Sergio Gargelli on Pep Guardiola during a training session

AJ: What do you feel you have gained from coaching in different nations? What will other coaches get out of it, if they want to do the same? Could you maybe also tell us how you know that Guardiola was inspired by Zego?


SG: Since my first experience abroad in Japan in 2007, I immediately understood that I could not copy and paste what I did in Italy. All countries are different by language, culture, climate, food, history and tradition, so a coach must adapt his way of working, way of motivating, and his way of explaining, to the country where he works. I am a curious person by nature and this fact stimulated my curiosity even more.

This brought me to observe other coaches working, and not only observe their ideas or philosophy, but their pedagogy or way of working and way of teaching. This has influenced me a lot, of course, and now I can tell you that I am Sergio 11.0 (my 11th year of working abroad), a version that is influenced from other coaches and other ways of working. I’ve kept my vision and my futsal philosophy, of an attractive way of playing, dedicated especially to attack, but I’m now different when it comes to teaching and explaining.

Naturally as I have been influenced by other coaches, many coaches have been influenced by me. I have already worked in many countries, from coaching clinics to managing clubs, as well as being national team coach in four separate countries. As a result, a lot of coaches got to know my way of working, and many have remained in contact with me, asking for advice and my opinions on their ways of working.

What I am particularly proud of, is to stimulate a lot my staff and my collaborators, to become an excellence in what they are doing; to never be satisfied and even after a victory analysing their own job and own game – as after a defeat.

I don’t know if Guardiola has been influenced by Zego, but surely by what Zego has created. Zego has created the attacking system called “4-0” with no target player to play in attack. Without a vertical reference point to exploit the space at the back of the defence, you can create many possible solutions both in elaboration (build up) and in finishing. I also want to develop another important concept, in that regard: The proximity, to go to play near opponent and then after a pass gain his back and create doubts in the defence. Guardiola has been influenced a lot by futsal concepts, as well as futsal’s way of play and way of training. His phrase “my center forward is the space” is the philosophy of the 4-0-system adapted to football. His revolution, the way he used players like Messi or David Villa as dropping centre forwards, is the real application of this concept.

AJ: How has it been working with the Norwegian national team? How do you personally think the team has been developing?


SG: Well, personally I am very satisfied with the job we’ve done with the Norwegian national team. The target was very ambitious: To change the way of playing to a more modern style, in a country where futsal is played only four months a year, where there aren’t futsal academies, and where there are very few educational opportunities for futsal coaches. I have done less than 30 training sessions and the player who participated in most of them, has done 22 trainings. This due to job, injuries or other problems which has hindered the training sessions for the players.

The players played in a very static way, with almost no movement without the ball. So the solution to the problem of exit from pressing was: When you are pressed, play a high ball to the pivot (in footballing terms the pivot can be understood as the lone striker) and get the back of opponent. This system can be very good in the beginning, especially if you can use very good and physically strong football players, but it cannot guarantee a good development in the long term. Practically the solution of a tactical problem as exiting from pressing, was to kick a long high ball, and if pivot can control, our team will be out from pressing; if not, there’s no need to worry because the team will remain with 3 players behind ball line with few risks of dangerous counter attacks.

Sergio Gargelli during a match with the Norwegian futsal national team. Photo: Private

I wanted to change this, change this way of thinking, and rather teach them to not be scared to play the ball. The learning process will derive from mistakes, so they should be aware that trying to play will lead to losing some balls and receive some counters – for a period. I also wanted to change the way of playing, and get more movement without ball, synchronization between 2 players (duality) and then between 3 players. This requires time, of course, and especially for players that don’t have the basic knowledge of futsal. So even with this little amount of time, we saw in the last Nordic cup a team who played completely different, who escaped from pressing situations against Finland – the strongest team of Nordic area, where the previous year we were not able to do 3 consecutive passes, and did so without kicking the ball long. We only lost to them because of silly individual mistakes, and therefore it was, for me, a great success. This change of mentality, this change of playing style represent a great milestone for Norwegian futsal, which I wish will be further developed in future by my staff (Kay Bardal, Simen Johansen, Magnar Nordtun) and my players when they go back to their clubs.

I thought it was really interesting that many of the players asked me for information and ways of training the attacking movements to play the new style. What I am not satisfied about is the coaching education. I have only done one course, in Tromsø, and another one in Trondheim for Nordic cup. I think it would be very useful for football academy coaches to see futsal as a tool to create better and more “modern” football players. With more commitment from local federations and more involvement of coaches, we could surely have better results. I hope that soon the futsal coaches association will be started, in order to guarantee the coaches education, seminars, activities, and opportunities for exchange of opinions and information.

“Norwegians have a lot of passion for football, but – unfortunately – the period of Solskjær, Riise, Flo, Bjørnebye have passed, while the Norwegian way of playing is still the same.”

AJ: As we both know, it’s futsal’s connection with football and the development of football players that are the main topics of our conversation. You and your assistant coach, Kai Bardal – whom we interviewed a couple of months back – did a presentation about futsal at the Cup final seminar in November. Maybe you could fill us – the one’s who weren’t there – in on what you two talked about at the seminar?


SG: The premise of this was that all the best football players come from futsal, like Messi, Ronaldo, Iniesta, Marcelo, Higuain … I, as many other futsal coaches, have the conviction that futsal can be a great tool for football; one can use futsal as an instrument to create better football player. This was the key concept for the seminar.

When I worked together with Miguel Rodrigo for the Japanese Football Association, one of the targets was to persuade professional football clubs to invest in futsal. It was our chance, a way to demonstrate what we thought. For this reason we created a methodology from futsal to football, adapting exercises, time, spaces, but without losing the futsal DNA. To sum up a big course like the one I had last December in few words is very complicated, and I think we surely would miss some important points. Anyway, I will analyse 10 points, only considering futsal DNA:

1 Finishing (scoring goals – assists – shots)

This stage of the game requires the most creativity and speed. In general, players make poor delayed decisions in front of the goal with the exception of a few top players.

In futsal:

  • Area of play is reduced.
  • Smaller goals mean goalkeepers can occupy more space.
  • Higher frequency of scoring opportunities per minute.

These conditions force players to be more creative and adaptable, creating a mental “processor” which is quicker and more effective in this stage of the game.

Assists and combination plays close to and within the final third:

In futsal it’s common to look for your teammates at the back post, while in football players most often shoot on goal directly.

The shot (small goals versus larger goals):

Gonzalo Higuain’s testimony: Playing in smaller spaces with smaller goals and more pressure from the defense means players have less time to make decisions. As a result, they feel much more comfortable when playing on a larger field, with more space, more time to make decisions, larger goals, and less pressure from the defense. The only aspects players found inconvenient were the playing surface and the offside rules.

2 System of attack

Football is played as a series of small-sided games in different zones on the pitch, such games are similar to the 4 v 4 situations found in futsal.

Important and mandatory aspects in futsal:

– passing and movement.

– moving without the ball.

– playing together, in close proximity.

3 Reading the game

Reading the game of attack and defense and quickly making decisions anticipating the game is extremely important in futsal.

  • Anticipate the “timeline” of the game.

4 Decision making

The reduced space and the proximity of the defense forces players to anticipate their decisions. Futsal players must have great vision/perception and decision-making skills.

In football players have more time and more space, so …

5 – Concentration

Concentration for 40 minutes in futsal versus 90 minutes in football.

In futsal, because the risk of scoring in every play is so high, players have to make an extra effort to be focused, which can be carried over to football to eliminate goals considered “preventable”.

6 – The feeling of risk

The feeling of risk is high in futsal, because of the high pressure on the ball and the close proximity of the defenders and the goal. Any mistake can result in a goal opportunity or even a goal. As a result, that feeling of risk becomes a natural part of the game for players.

In football this application could help players keep the ball in key moments of the game.

7 – Technique

In futsal, one is applying fast-paced technique at the highest levels of competition. Once again, because futsal players train and compete in a smaller area, they are required to possess the ball with technical accuracy, speed, and execution.

Futsal can help football player’s technical ability improve.

 8 – 1 vs.1

Dribbling (1 vs. 1). Down the middle in small spaces or down the sidelines.

  • In futsal it’s important for players to have a variety of moves at their disposal and to be able to adapt them to every situation of the game at high speeds. 1v1 is a necessary skill in futsal which can have a great impact in football. We can see this with top players like Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo, Marcelo, Ronaldinho, Ronaldo, Iniesta, Coutinho, Deco, Kaká… the list goes on.

9 – Formation age – talent extraction

Daniel Coyle (author of the book called the Talent code): The ball contact per player is six times higher in a futsal game than in a football game.

  • In countries where futsal is played there is a higher probability of producing top players, e.g. Spain (where it’s called futbol sala), Brazil, Portugal, Argentina (futebol salao). That’s because playing futsal leads to more neuromuscular stimulation during “the golden age” (6-12 years old).
  • Training and competing in small spaces (futsal) promotes quick decision-making and a better environment for changing mentally between attacking and defending quickly.
  • Contact with the ball is a source of motivation for players, and motivation is a key element to learning of any kind, in this case learning technique and tactics.
  • Therefore, playing futsal in the golden age of learning (6-12 years old) when the number of neurons in the brain is growing (after 12 years old neurons begin to be destroyed), can be vital as the first step before football.

10 – Pressing and counter pressing

Futsal equals: an organized pressing defense, winning possession as close to the opposing goal as possible, transitions into quick counter attacks, and making it difficult for the ball to come out of the opposing team’s defense.

Pep Guardiola uses the “the 4 seconds” rule for applying heavy pressure on the opponent and winning the ball back after the ball is lost. In futsal we use “the 2 seconds rule”.

This is only a resume of the resume of the resume of the conference that have had incredible success in Japan; it’s been part of the Project Futsal for Football made by the Italian Federation, and we have introduced it in other Asian federations too, with China being the last one to adopt this project.

AJ: I watched a session you had with the national team at the Norwegian school of sport science. Then you worked on movement without the ball, and in relation to the ball carrier’s choices with it. Are those two examples of something football should but a bigger emphasis on?


SG: One of the concepts in attack is the following: The players must move in function to what happens to the player with the ball. This means:

– If the ball is pressed the movement must be in terms of going rapid towards the ball.

– If the ball is not pressed the players without ball can move far from the ball to exploit the space in width and depth looking for longer ways of dismarking* too.

*Dismarking is best understood as the way a player frees himself from his defender. This could be done by changing the direction and speed while running without the ball. The aim is ultimately to get the space to play with the ball. Judah Davies wrote a great piece on dismarking for, that I highly recommend and which you can read by clicking here.

This is the same concept that was used by Barcelona of Guardiola too. All the players without the ball have to keep their head and eyes towards the ball while moving. All movement in futsal are synchronized following this main criteria.

The second concept is to move into free spaces, avoiding that two players go to the same space. Therefore players have to use their peripheric vision and selective attention, keeping their head up high.

The third concept is the proximity: Go to play near the opponent to “gain his back”, making him lose cover and create doubts and hesitation in the defence. Another concept, as I mentioned before, used by Guardiola.

The last concept is to keep the balance in attack, to avoid counter attacks.


AJ: Related to the previous question: Do you believe that footballers should play futsal instead of football, for some period? How long? The whole winter, for countries like Norway? As well as up to which age?


SG: I believe that futsal is good to play in the formation age, but it can also improve top elite players. Football and futsal are like two brothers who grow up together and take different paths. When they are 14 years old, considering what I told you before, futsal can continue to be a great complemental tool to improve top elite football players.

My recommendation is to play futsal until the player is nine years old, and start with football at seven, nine or eleven.

But until one’s 14 year old, the player should continue to train futsal at least one or two times a week. At this age, teams can continue to play futsal adapted to football to improve some concepts practicing some exercises during their weekly training menu. In a country like Norway, in the winter break, it would be very useful if players would practice futsal during this period. They could get great improvements on their technique and individual tactical skills, as well as improving their rapid thinking also could be achieved.

Sergio is a firm believer that young football players could learn a whole lot by playing futsal.


AJ: Do you not run the risk of losing the “specificity principle” in football training at some point? If so, when does that point occur, in your opinion?


SG: In my opinion, including futsal concepts in exercises in the weekly schedule or practice futsal during the winter break can only improve Norwegian players, and football players in general. Norwegian football still likes long balls played towards the center forward. In this case, futsal cannot help a lot, but it can surely help things like the body orientation of midfielders, finishing skills for attackers, dismarking, feinting and rapid thinking. So, in my opinion, playing futsal can only be an added value for football players.


AJ: I’ve heard rumours that you’ve had coffee with Pep Guardiola himself once, during Bayern Munich’s training camp. Could you tell us a little about that experience?


SG: Yes. I met him in Doha during Bayern Munich winter camp. We talked a lot about how futsal concepts have influenced his team’s way of playing football. It was an amazing talk I had with him; his passion, his love for football, his enormous knowledge, and his determination “shot out” from every word he told, from every gesture of his body. I’ve also had the opportunity to assist at least 15 of his training sessions.

Every detail was manically observed and attended to, and the physical and mental intensity he required of his players were more similar to a futsal training than a football practice. The concentration he had leading every training seemed to bring him into a trance-like state of mind. It was a priceless experience! I love my job, and I have a great passion for what I do, but after I met him and saw him working, a new energy, and new passion rose in me.

“I believe that futsal is good to play in the formation age, but it can also improve top elite players.”

AJ: You’ve also done a couple of jobs for teams like Roma and Juventus. What kind of work did you do for them? 


SG: I have helped these two clubs to use futsal methodology in their academy, giving courses to their coaches, helping them to create exercises with futsal DNA applied to football. It was an amazing experience and a confirmation of how much football clubs believe in the importance of futsal in the formation of football players.


AJ: I don’t know if you watch a lot of Norwegian football. But if you do, can you see any skills “we lack” as a football nation, which could’ve been enhanced through playing more futsal?


SG: Norwegians have a lot of passion for football, but – unfortunately – the period of Solskjær, Riise, Flo, Bjørnebye have passed, while the Norwegian way of playing is still the same. As I’m not living in the country, I honestly haven’t had many possibilities to see how academies work and how the level of talent extraction and football development is here. The top division (Eliteserien) is still playing the same football as was played in the golden age of Norwegian football. I think that is a way of playing that’s a little bit out of date.

During an analysis that I did with my assistant coach, Kai Bardal, of body orientation of central midfielder that play between lines of the opponent defense… I can say that there is a lot of work to do. Often the orientation of the midfielders body is bad and he therefore cannot perceive optimally when they are pressed. The solution is usually a pass back to one of the central defenders with one touch. Or, if the direct defender is far away, the solution is turning with ball and start a rapid verticalization of attack. This is an example where maybe a new methodology of training can help to solve this individual tactical problem.


AJ: Kai has already told us about some of the relations between positional play and futsal. Among those things were the way you construct attacks; Looking for advantages, playing close to each other to attract opponents towards you then play deeper passes, and so on. Could you maybe expand on these topics, or give us your view on the matter; Which similarities can we find in futsal and positional play?  


SG: I can. I will now list seven elements which we both find in futsal and positional play:

  1. Vertical possession
  • Using possession of the ball to disrupt the organization of the defense.
  • Occupy dominant positions with the attacking team’s dominant players.
  • Attacking as a block, together with players both on and off the ball.

When the right moment is found, finish the attack.

      2. Patience during offensive build-ups

”Patience” is the word futsal coaches most often use. FC Barcelona made this aspect of the game very popular and widely valued in current football.

Keeping possession:

– allows players time to rest with the ball.

– useful to disarm the defense.

Possession is key in futsal and in modern-day football. In futsal possession is carried out in small spaces, as modern football, so maybe it could be a great tool to transfer to football training.

3) Support

  • Constant support and a variety of options for the player on the ball (triangles squares lines in dynamic way.).

5) Movement without the ball

Essential for:

  • Players in getting themselves unmarked
  • Possession of the ball (support).

6) Playing between defensive lines

  • Maintain possession of the ball
  • Keep possession vertically to create uncertainty and imbalance in the opposing defense (who have to mark the attacker between the lines)
  • This element is part of futsal DNA. It’s fundamental in the attack and is being applied more and more in modern-day football, i.e. in teams like FC Barcelona, Napoli, and Manchester City. It’s an important element of the game that can be applied to football to break the “packed and close defenses”

7) Changing the point of attack

Or, in other words, distinguishing between the open side (weak side) of the closed side (strong side) of the defense within the same possession-sequence of the ball.

AJ: Kai also told us that you’re videotaping every second of activity – be it training sessions or games – with the national team. Could you maybe tell us a bit how you use videos in your work?


SG: Yes, I use to record every training and every meeting as well. The targets of this are many:

1) To review and analyse myself: How I explain, my position during the execution of exercise (if allow me to see everything or not), my communication skills and so on.

2) To create a database of my work

3) To review the training and have some images to show players what I want by them

4) I have copied all to the Norwegian federation, so that the new coach can continue with my job or at least have a trace of what I have done and how I have worked, along with a database of players, games, our way of playing, et cetera. This material is also available for all Norwegian coaches who are interested to see how the national team has worked.


Author’s note: My first English piece wouldn’t be the same without my English friend, Ricky Spencer, looking through it and correcting my mistakes before publishing. So a huge thanks to him! By the way, you should follow him on Twitter: @RickySpencer92.


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