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Fixing youth development in England: Tactics, Facilities, Quotas and tournaments – Part 2

Following on from my earlier points regarding the state of youth football development in the UK, even without a centre of excellence there are aspects of the youth setup that the FA could improve the way in which young players are developed and pushed through the youth systems.

Tactical naivety

The tactical and technical defficiencies of players in England was highlighted by Joe Cole recently. Upon his return from South Africa the ex-Chelsea midfielder was asked where it went wrong. His response was that “We don’t keep the ball as well as other countries; that’s not a secret.” Elaborating on this tactical chasm he gives us an interesting insight into his club career:

Almost every team I have played for – including England – always want to hit the front players as early as possible. You won’t get away with that at international level. It’s about technique, keeping control of the ball, passing and moving.

Despite boasting what might be considered by a certain Andy Gray and Martin Tyler as ‘the best league in the world™’, the only thing that is superior within the Premier League from my point of view is pace. This habit permeates into the England setup but also precipitates downward through academies and if kids are being taught to look to play the long ball first then how will they ever pick up the skills necessary to play through teams?

Facilities and structure of youth leagues

Once a few parents do manage to take a level 1 coaching course, a course that offers very little substance I hasten to add, they are then thrust into the world of mini soccer. From the age of 5-11 children are to play in non competitive leagues. The Under 8s I coach play 7v7, personally I have always thought that this was almost double the number of players that should be involved at this age group. I feel vindicated by recent comments from Raphael Honigstein on the path Germany has taken to create it’s currently successful group of youngsters.

Since 1999 in Germany kids play 4v4 up until 13 years of age, playing small sided games allows the players to get as many touches as possible. It helps them to become much more comfortable on the ball in tight areas when surrounded by many players and it teaches them how to solve real game based problems (e.g. passing your way out from your own corner flag).

During an 11-a-side game a winger will come up against his opposing full back, with the ball, on average 7 times if he plays a full 90 minutes. Seven opportunities to try and play the ball and make the correct decision does not give any player much chance to learn from his own errors. At elite levels it is suggested that 1,000 touches of the ball are required to improve a player’s first touch and control of the ball. If players are constantly playing 11-a-side football it is difficult to ensure that players get these touches.

Once players do graduate upto 11-a-side football, or as some parents and coaches would like to call it “the mans’ game“, there is a distinct lack of appropriate facilities. I have seen countless games played by Under-12 sides on full size pitches and, more worryingly, with full sized-goals! Martin Samuel puts this into perspective for us adults, here is what this would be like for the average adult man:

The goals were to be 3.057metres (10.029ft) high and 9.174m (30.098ft) wide; the length of the pitch was to be 150.4m (165 yards) and the width 112.80m (124 yards), making the total playing surface 16,800m sq; the penalty area alone would stretch for 20.68m (23 yards). Despite the increased dimensions, the teams would remain 11-a-side.

In case you are unable to grasp the scale of such sizes, they’re huge! Standard sized goalposts are 8 yards (7.32m) wide by 8 feet (2.44m) tall, with the average 10 year old boy being approximately 1.5m tall they have little chance of covering the full area of the goal. Without enough appropriately sized pitches the same tactical battering rams will be used by coaches who are more interested in winning leagues to satisfy their own ambitions instead of developing their players. No mention of pitch or team sizes has been made in Trevor Brooking’s vision for the future of youth football.

How many kids will want to take part in games where they are being tonked 10-4 because their keeper, despite any amount of reflex and agility, is just far too small to reach any shots which are vaguely on target.

Quota rules

At the elite level there has been much debate over the influence of foreign footballers in the Premier League, most of it focusing on its detrimental effect on the national side. I would propose that the complete opposite is in fact the case. In 1992 the Premier League boasted a mere 12 foreign footballers and England finished bottom of their group at Euro 1992 and failed to qualify for the 1994 World Cup. In the past decade, with the help of the Bosman ruling, the number of foreign players of all standards have swelled to levels as high as almost 400 making up around 60% of the league. England have acheived 3 quarter finals exits and one 2nd round exit, a slightly better record.

Simon Kuper argues in ‘Why England Lose’ that there are in fact too many English players playing in the Premier League, were a quota system to be introduced players would not have to perform against top quality foreigners but merely be better than any other sub standard english player. The English players that do play in the Premier league at the moment are getting into teams on merit, not merely on nationality or any other discriminatory factor. South African cricket fans will know all about such selection quandries.

International Youth Tournaments

Take youth tournaments seriously, England can’t win tournaments if they don’t field their best team against other top sides. Every year there are possibilities for England’s elite youngsters to represent their country at the top level within their continent. In a few weeks time the European under-19 championships will begin and England have qualified and would’ve had a decent chance to do well in the tournament.

In the past there have been many club and country arguments over whether or not clubs were willing to release players and in some cases (David Bentley) the players have pulled out themselves. This time however on the back of the under-17 win in May, Trevor Brooking has lobbied to get as many of the top names as possible to join up with the squad.

The significance of the youth tournaments is evident once you look at the record of England’s neighbours in these tournaments and how they have fared at the top tables. England in the past 20 years have only won two tournaments, U-19 Euro 1993 and this years U-17 Euro championships. There record at the World level is abysmal, never having made any kind of impact.

Spain, Italy and Germany take these tournaments very seriously and the results are evident for all to see over the past decade. Taking Italy as an example, they have won the European Under 21 championships in 1996, 2000 and 2004 among a number of other occasions. The squads for those three titles helped nurture and bring on the following players:

  • Buffon, Cannavaro, Nesta, Totti (1996)
  • Pirlo, Gattuso, Perrotta (2000)
  • Barzagli, Gilardino, De Rossi, Zaccardo (2004)

These players all played a part in Italy’s 2006 World Cup victory; especially Cannavaro, Totti, Pirlo and Gattuso. The experience of playing tournament football away from home against other elite players helped them to build the mental strength required to negotiate a 6 week tournament such as the World Cup.

Graham Taylor has often bemoaned the lack of players who are able to play “tournament football” the only way to develop such players, is to get the future stars of the England team to play in tournaments regularly. Once they have played in a youth tournaments they will be able to adjust to similar situations later in their careers.

Ghana’s quarter final squad at the 2010 World Cup is testament to a country with a fantastic infrastructure for youth football and willing to trust it’s best young players at the senior level in both the African Cup of Nations and this World Cup. These acheivements are all on the back of a World U-20 crown in October 2009.

Conclusion

While many England fans will fear that the future is bleak, what with the ‘Golden Generation’ reaching the end of their careers and there being few signs of any superstar youngsters coming through. Germany are showing that it is a star team rather than a team of stars that will win you big matches and take you further in competitions.

England’s infrastructure is currently being put to shame by nations such as Ghana who have a fraction of the funds that the FA have but have been able to produce a team that has won the World Cup at the under-20 level and a number of those players represented the senior side at the African cup of nations in January 2010 as well as at the World Cup. If the infamous St George’s park is ever built it will have some significant catching up to do, along with the entire youth setup.

  • http://twitter.com/threeandin threeandin

    Here's an interesting one. I lived in Spain for a few years and played in a football league there. There were lots of ex-pat English/Irish/Northern Europeans.

    They combined really well with the Spanish but it was noticeable how much more the Spanis had in terms of technique and movement.

    My theory is that it was down to the type of pitch we were playing on. At that time nearly all of them were hard, dirt pitches, meaning you had to get the ball under control quickly, you had to stay on your feet when making a tackle and it encouraged players to improve their technique.

    In England, for example, pitches lend themselves to a high pace game where you can charge around, be overly physical, slide into tackles and it's a more forgiving surface.

    I've seen Spanish kids the same age as the ones you talk about in the UK playing on full sized pitches. The difference is they're more aware of what's required from them. Control, pass and move is drilled into them. Their technique is miles ahead of kids here, they all want the ball, they don't have the same fear of losing it. We're not taught how to keep possession, we're instilled with a fear not to let the opposition have it, and if that means hoofing it to make sure they don't have it close to our goal then so be it.

    Another small thing – the money in the English game is a deterrent to players going abroad. How many foreign players have improved in Europe and on the international scene because they've experienced different kinds of football? How many English players have gone abroad in recent seasons? The typical English footballer's desire to earn as much as possible comes at the expense of making himself a better player.

  • http://www.betterfootball.co.uk Pavl Williams

    Two really good articles, pulling together the myriad reasons we don't seem to be producing truly skillful players.

    As you rightly bring into focus, there's got to be a concerted effort to improve the quality of coaching and facilities in the grassroots game.

    This is the stockpile of raw material that Academies build from. So the higher the quality of players in grassroots football, the more competitive and productive Academies will become.

    A major obstacle to coaches who wish to work outside the mini-soccer / 11-a-side league system is the prevailing attitude of many parents who, unfortunately, consider league position the ultimate indicator of a player's/team's/coach's quality.

  • http://www.betterfootball.co.uk Pavl Williams

    Two really good articles, pulling together the myriad reasons we don't seem to be producing truly skillful players.

    As you rightly bring into focus, there's got to be a concerted effort to improve the quality of coaching and facilities in the grassroots game.

    This is the stockpile of raw material that Academies build from. So the higher the quality of players in grassroots football, the more competitive and productive Academies will become.

    A major obstacle to coaches who wish to work outside the mini-soccer / 11-a-side league system is the prevailing attitude of many parents who, unfortunately, consider league position the ultimate indicator of a player's/team's/coach's quality.

  • http://www.betterfootball.co.uk Pavl Williams

    Two really good articles, pulling together the myriad reasons we don't seem to be producing truly skillful players.

    As you rightly bring into focus, there's got to be a concerted effort to improve the quality of coaching and facilities in the grassroots game.

    This is the stockpile of raw material that Academies build from. So the higher the quality of players in grassroots football, the more competitive and productive Academies will become.

    A major obstacle to coaches who wish to work outside the mini-soccer / 11-a-side league system is the prevailing attitude of many parents who, unfortunately, consider league position the ultimate indicator of a player's/team's/coach's quality.

  • http://www.betterfootball.co.uk Pavl Williams

    Two really good articles, pulling together the myriad reasons we don't seem to be producing truly skillful players.

    As you rightly bring into focus, there's got to be a concerted effort to improve the quality of coaching and facilities in the grassroots game.

    This is the stockpile of raw material that Academies build from. So the higher the quality of players in grassroots football, the more competitive and productive Academies will become.

    A major obstacle to coaches who wish to work outside the mini-soccer / 11-a-side league system is the prevailing attitude of many parents who, unfortunately, consider league position the ultimate indicator of a player's/team's/coach's quality.

  • http://www.betterfootball.co.uk Pavl Williams

    Two really good articles, pulling together the myriad reasons we don't seem to be producing truly skillful players.

    As you rightly bring into focus, there's got to be a concerted effort to improve the quality of coaching and facilities in the grassroots game.

    This is the stockpile of raw material that Academies build from. So the higher the quality of players in grassroots football, the more competitive and productive Academies will become.

    A major obstacle to coaches who wish to work outside the mini-soccer / 11-a-side league system is the prevailing attitude of many parents who, unfortunately, consider league position the ultimate indicator of a player's/team's/coach's quality.

  • http://www.thefootballexpress.co.uk Rocco

    As you say the parents do care tremendously about leagues and goals scored by their kids. But alot of this is to do with them not being able to see the qualitative improvements their kids are making.

    I've found though that the kids are not always willing to play small sided games all the time. They always want to finish with a big match, mainly because the majority want to play up front!! Understandable I suppose? Although when I was 10, I wanted to be Alessandro Nesta.. never mind though.

    Like you say, the grass roots are the most important area. By the time they've reached the age of 10 most clubs have made their decision about whether or not a child will be able to stand a chance of making it. This leads to clubs stockpiling potential stars as well as also rans who will spend most of their young careers rotting in academies before falling out of love with the game.

  • http://www.thefootballexpress.co.uk Rocco

    First of all, thanks for commenting! Some very good points.

    The money issue is an interesting one, is it that the players aren't good enough to go and ply their trade in foreign leagues? Or are they just too lazy? I'm sure that there are some decent mid table players who could do some good things given their athleticism in Ligue 1 and Serie A but because they won't be paid as well they simply can't be bothered. A similar problem was highlighted in the Mexican league by Tim Vickery a while back, it pays too well apparently.

    Some really good comments about the surface type making a possible difference in the style of play. Having never played in Spain myself I cannot comment other than as an outsider looking in from far, far away.

    Playing on astro turf might make a difference given the need to pass to feet on such surfaces? There is a certain amount of selfishness required to attempt to produce players that have anywhere near the dribbling skill of Messi etc.

    Another area which differs from teams in the UK. Speaking to friends who have trained with adult semi pro sides in Italy, the first thing they have tended to mention is the vast amount of running and physical work that is done to prepare players.

  • http://www.thefootballexpress.co.uk Rocco

    First of all, thanks for commenting! Some very good points.

    The money issue is an interesting one, is it that the players aren't good enough to go and ply their trade in foreign leagues? Or are they just too lazy? I'm sure that there are some decent mid table players who could do some good things given their athleticism in Ligue 1 and Serie A but because they won't be paid as well they simply can't be bothered. A similar problem was highlighted in the Mexican league by Tim Vickery a while back, it pays too well apparently.

    Some really good comments about the surface type making a possible difference in the style of play. Having never played in Spain myself I cannot comment other than as an outsider looking in from far, far away.

    Playing on astro turf might make a difference given the need to pass to feet on such surfaces? There is a certain amount of selfishness required to attempt to produce players that have anywhere near the dribbling skill of Messi etc.

    Another area which differs from teams in the UK. Speaking to friends who have trained with adult semi pro sides in Italy, the first thing they have tended to mention is the vast amount of running and physical work that is done to prepare players.

  • http://www.betterfootball.co.uk Pavl Williams

    Yes fair play, the kids want to replicate what they see on TV and that means playing a big match. And there's no reason not to have one in your coaching session, particularly if you've already been developing a specific skill (through small-sided games or whatever works best for you) because it gives players an opportunity to relate their practice to a game.

    However the issue about 'big matches' is that they remain the focal point around which all junior football is organised and therefore results are still, inevitably, the measuring stick against which coaches and players are judged.

    If the governing bodies offered a strong coherent philosophy, emphatically supporting the primacy of player development, they could rapidly change attitudes towards coaching. But until this alternative criteria is offered, the coach's role will continue to be defined by league positions and trophies.

    For now, despite their stated desire to develop more technically-gifted players, The FA's priorities remain top-down; first and foremost is the league, clubs join in these different leagues and, if they're good enough, players might get to play for these clubs.

    It seems obvious that, to develop a large number of technically sound footballers, players must be the primary focus. Teams should be simply by-products of the players' need to test their skills against a range of opponents.

    For the most part, leagues are adult constructs designed to give junior football an unwarranted resemblance to the professional game. Left to their own devices, kids never lock themselves into the same teams or keep track of their scores over time.

    Where adult's football is serious and inflexible, kids' football is casual and fluid. Observe how kids self-regulate as soon as a score gets too lob-sided or a few players turn up/go home mid-game.

    In terms of developing world-class footballers; 11-a-side football is important and is what all coaching is ultimately working towards. But the vast majority of players would be better served playing in smaller sided games for longer, getting thousands of touches and learning good technique during the best window of opportunity they will have for developing lifelong physical literacy.

    If this strong foundation is in place, tactics, formations and positional play can be learnt at a later stage when the brain is much more suited to receiving this more abstract information (in their mid-teens).

    Sorry for such a long-winded reply! I'd be interested to hear any thoughts, particularly if my thinking is blatantly misguided. :-)

  • http://www.betterfootball.co.uk Pavl Williams

    Oh and, growing up, I was always Paolo Maldini (in my head) so we could have made a fairly decent centre-back pairing!

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  • http://twitter.com/threeandin threeandin

    I think there are plenty of English players good enough to go abroad but they don't. Firstly, because of the money – it's much better in the Premier League, probably because of the collective TV agreement.

    There was a great story about Alberto Luque when he signed for Newcastle from Deportivo. He was on about £8k a week in Spain, Newcastle were paying him £55k a week. He couldn't believe it.

    And aside from the money there's the fact that English players are far too parochial, unwilling to travel and learn about other cultures. Look at the amount of foreign players as pundits on English TV during this World Cup, how many English players could go on French/Spanish/German TV and talk with any fluency?

    They just don't travel.

    I think the playing surface is a factor but many of the old dirt pitches are being converted the new grassy astro. Whether that has any effect we'll wait and see but I suspect the training methods are ingrained so it shouldn't have any kind of detrimental affect.

    When you say 'vast amount of running/physical work' – do you mean English teams?

  • http://twitter.com/threeandin threeandin

    Agree that kids need to learn in smaller teams/pitches from a purely technical point of view.

    I do think they need to be playing 11-a-side and learning about positioning, tactics etc well before mid-teens though. I had stuff drilled into me as a 11/12 year old that I still remember as I hobble about pitches in my more advanced years!

  • http://www.betterfootball.co.uk Pavl Williams

    I take your point because I still hear my earliest coaches in the back of my head when I play!

    But I have seen senior players, with no previous experience or particular aptitude for the game, be taught the fundamentals of positional play and then apply them on the pitch.

    In the last twenty years Brazil have exported more players into top leagues than any other country. There the focus is on technique and touches on the ball (often in fast-paced futbol de salao games) until 13-14. Players aren't expected to know about positional play or principles of defence at this age because these can be taught relatively quickly.

    There's a great article about it in FourFourTwo (http://au.fourfourtwo.com/features.aspx?CIaFID=…) which is worth reading for an overview of their hugely competitive system.

  • http://twitter.com/threeandin threeandin

    Excellent, will have a look at that. Thanks.

    Even now when defending a corner and we get it clear the first thing I do is shout at people to get out of the box. Funny, it's just a learned habit.

    What I always thought was interesting was the way Ajax taught their players. You were never just a right back, you learned how to play in midfield or as a winger, which gives you an awareness of where you or your teammates should be when you do settle down into one position. Even from the simple point of organisation and telling players where they should be during a game it's a brilliant idea.

  • http://twitter.com/tomwfootball Tom Williams

    Brilliant article and some great stuff in the comments as well. Playing 11-a-side football on a full-size pitch at the age of 12 scarred me for life. Martin Samuel hits the nail squarely on the head. England's complacency is chilling.


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