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.
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.
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.
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.