England are out (again) and the inquest has begun (again).
So do we blame the manager for his tactics or the players for lacking ‘passion’ or skill? Do we blame the media for pressuring the team? Or should we just blame the Germans for being better than us?
Whilst searching for answers let’s consider whether there might be a more fundamental reason for England’s repeated failure to succeed at the highest level for 44 years (and counting).
I suggest that a number of elements in England’s youth development system are having irrevocably negative consequences on the senior side.
England’s rightful place?
But in any discussion about failure, we have to start by asking, why – besides fanatical nationalism – do we expect England to win tournaments in the first place? Is it realistic to believe that England ought to do better than 1 semi-final in 40 years?
By any measure, I believe we should be competitive with our more successful European counterparts Germany, France, Italy and Holland:
If we start with the crudest measure of ‘raw material’, England’s population is around 51 million. Germany’s at 82 million, France’s at 65 million and Italy at 60 million are all significantly higher so perhaps this offers a straightforward explanation for their apparent ability to consistently find more quality players.
Indeed Germany has almost four times as many football players than either England, France or Italy:
England | 4,164,110
Germany | 16,308,946
France | 4,190,040
Italy | 4,980,296
But sheer player numbers cannot adequately explain the relative success of the European nations. And if population was the sole deciding factor, China (26m players) and India (20m players) would be world forces. In fact, of the world’s 3 largest populations only USA (24m players) consistently qualify for the World Cup.
The Netherlands has only 1.7m footballers (from a population of just 16m) but since 1974 they have progressed to two World Cup finals, a further semi-final, four European Championships semi-finals and won the Euros. In the same timeframe England have only reached 1 semi-final in either competition.
France and Italy, countries with almost identical numbers of players to England have both won the World Cup once and been losing finalists once in the last 5 tournaments.
These countries have similar climate, similar genetics, similar culture, similar wealth and even similar football league structures to England. So what are the differences that propel their national sides deep into tournaments where England flounder?
There is a huge developmental window of opportunity from the ages of 2-12 during which time 95% of a brain’s movement patterns will have been imprinted. It’s possible to learn new skills after this stage, but the time to internalise them gets ever longer.
It’s therefore obvious that to develop footballers with great touch it would be advantageous to train them properly from the earliest possible age and ingrain the correct ball-caressing technique before they get to secondary school.
Unfortunately the responsibility for coaching at this most critical stage falls upon the least qualified of coaches, those at grassroots clubs.
I’m a grassroots coach myself and there are, undoubtedly, a host of noble people who volunteer there time to train their players and organise matches. But the truth is, the majority of grassroots coaching in England is abysmal.
Any grassroots coach who earns their Level 2 Certificate in Coaching Football is in the tiny majority – the (vast, vast) majority, sadly, are still unqualified parents. Head out to any playing field on a weekend morning and you’ll spot these coaching oafs; truly believing that an U7’s win record is indicative of coach quality and mindlessly repeating retarded TV pundit tactical analysis after their mini-soccer games.
The dearth of top coaches in England is terrifying. According to UEFA, “there are only 2,769 English coaches holding Uefa’s B, A and Pro badges, its top qualifications.” In comparison “Spain has produced 23,995, Italy 29,420, Germany 34,970 and France 17,588.” Source: The Guardian
The consequence of this dramatic difference isn’t felt at Academy level, where the UEFA ‘B’ licence is generally the minimum standard for even a part-time coach. The shortfall is felt at grassroots where parents and players may have no other choice but to follow instruction from a coach who has barely kicked a ball in his life.
In France the municipal government funds professional football coaches to work with all the junior clubs in their local area. In Spain every town and village has a centrally-funded deportivo (literally, sports club) where young people can play football, basketball, tennis, volleyball and more under the supervision of highly trained coaches.
In England kids get changed in the back of their Dad’s muddy car and run onto a bobbly pitch where somebody else’s Dad shouts at them for an hour.
It’s little surprise that without ready access to expert coaches, millions of players are passing through their developmental window without being shown how to properly pass, receive, dribble or strike a football.
I’ve recently spoken to George Burley, Iain Dowie, Graham Taylor and Peter Taylor who’ve lamented that young footballers don’t play in the streets of England anymore. Instead it has become the coaches’ responsibility to provide an environment in which players can get quality time with a ball, have the freedom to experiment and to practice their skills.
Grassroots coach education needs to see a massive increase in funding. When you raise the base of a pyramid the peak gets higher too. But, unfortunately, without incentives to get qualified, very few grassroots coaches are willing to fork out their own money and take time off work to get their coaching badges.
Rising from the mini-soccer maelstrom, the most talented players in the English grassroots game are invited to train at a local professional club’s Academy or Centre of Excellence.
This is great if you’re a young footballer lucky enough to live in London (where you can go to Arsenal, Chelsea, Tottenham, West Ham, Fulham, Watford et al) or the North West (Manchester United, Manchester City, Liverpool, Everton, Bolton, Blackburn, Burnley etc) but it’s not so inspiring if you happen to live in the South-West (erm, none).
It’s also not that great if you actually enjoy football. Once you’re in an academy there won’t be much playing it.
It seems an obvious truism to say that the time spent practicing something is directly correlated to how good at that thing somebody will be, but in most cases players will see a dramatic reduction in their training time as soon as they join an academy.
Between the ages of 8-14 – remember the development window? – academies average 2-4 hours of contact time a week, and most require that their players avoid also playing for their grassroots clubs or school teams as a precaution against… actually I don’t know if it’s injury, conflicting training styles or something else. A huge fear of ‘overtraining’ is prevalent throughout our elite youth development institutions.
Meanwhile, in Germany, Bayer Leverkusen are training their youth players for 18 hours a week. In Amsterdam, Ajax see their players every day. In Brazil, 3000 professionals live at their clubs, eating, sleeping, learning and – crucially – training with their teammates every day of the week.
Geoff Colvin’s ‘Talent Is Overrated’ (and subsequently Dan Coyle’s ‘The Talent Code’ and Malcolm Gladwell’s ‘Outliers’) highlights the recurring number of 10,000 hours which world-class performers seem to have clocked-up during their developmental years. Time and again, the amount of quality practice is seen to be more critical in distinguishing top performers than any other factor of wealth, genetics or ‘natural talent’.
It’s worth stating again; the key ingredient in creating great footballers is top quality practice and lots of it.
First Team Opportunities
An argument which has cropped up again and again is the ‘foreigners problem’. We are developing great young players but they aren’t getting the opportunity to finish their football education in the first team, because Premier League teams prefer to import players.
A simple look at the percentages of foreign players in the English Premier League (59%) and that in Germany (50%), Holland (39%), Spain (38%) France (34%) and Italy (30%) seems to bear this out. Soccer Europe
But these figures offer a snapshot of the English Premier League as the world’s wealthiest division, whose clubs can take their pick of the world’s talent. The question needs to be why are the foreign players being picked ahead of their English equivalents?
There’s little doubt that clubs would love to bring local players through their academies and into their first teams.
They invest millions of pounds in youth development every year with the hope that they will find the next Messi, Ronaldo or Rooney on their doorstep and save themselves a wad (or turn a nice profit). With questions of fan loyalty under foreign ownership, it is an added boon that playing local lads on a Saturday also reinforces the strained links to their hometown communities.
But there seems to be a repeated failure to graduate all but the most exceptional youth players, and there is good reason to believe that the limited options for 18-21 year old footballers is one reason for this.
Whilst the brain is almost completely developed by the end of high school, the body can continue to mature until 22 (or even older). Oftentimes skilful players dismissed for their stature at 17 and 18 will strengthen sufficiently in the following years to a level where they can compete with the earlier developers and even with the bigger, tougher professionals.
In fact these players will frequently have developed excellent ball control, balance and poise as coping mechanisms for playing with the stronger players around them. When they catch up physically they can be much more effective than the players who have always been able to bully their way around the football pitch.
Unfortunately an under-developed 18 year old has very few options at the end of his youth career. If he isn’t left to rot in the awful reserve league with the old and the lame, he might find himself shipped out to the awful lower leagues (with the old and the lame).
There, everything he’s been taught about ball retention, running at defenders and imaginative play will be kicked out of him by his resentful opponents or bullied out of him by his manager – panic-stricken at the thought of a relegation battle that could see his club go bust.
Perhaps, instead there’s a role for a dedicated U21 league (tied into University football so that the kids that don’t make it have something worthwhile to fall into?) or for clubs to operate full-fledged ‘B’ teams such as Real Madrid and Barcelona do in the Spanish second division.
In Brazil, scholars frequently sign small contracts which keeps them in the youth development system up to the age of 22 – and it’s no coincidence that many Brazilian superstars have break out seasons in their early-twenties, whilst so many English ‘wonder kids’ at 18 look distinctly average a few years later.
Time will tell, but a side-effect of this new austere age may well be that it becomes more affordable for clubs to retain talented prospects until 21, or older, than to import a ready made foreign player.
Now, it’s all very well complaining about something, but it’s only useful if alternatives are suggested. So here are a few ideas which might give us more reason to be optimistic about the future of English football.
The FA have just released ‘The Future Game’ document which lays out their vision for developing elite youth players over the next 10 years. It has been written after consultation with hundreds of academy coaches as well as physical and psychological development specialists.
‘The Future Game’ offers a clear view of what technical, physical and mental attributes we need to give young footballers if they are to perform at the top level and, ultimately, represent England in major tournaments.
For a long time self-interest has dominated the academy system and the national game has suffered as a result. But now the opportunity is there to sing from the same hymn sheet and create a consensus about the style of play, qualities of player and the training methods which will produce the best possible results in the future.
Another core element of The FA’s youth strategy is the much-delayed opening of a National Football Centre. Once this facility is completed it will be used to bring the most gifted players at every age group together for more intense competition and coaching. By combining players from different clubs in this way they will push each other further and when it comes to represent England the youngsters will already know each other’s strengths, weaknesses and playing style.
Both ‘The Future Game’ and the National Football Centre are, I believe, significant steps in the right direction. We should hope that, in the clamour to find scapegoats after England’s World Cup humiliation, we don’t throw out Trevor Brooking’s babies with the bath water. There is an acknowledgement at The FA that previous systems have not worked and a genuine attempt to modernise the youth development system is underway. Their new strategy will take time to produce results on the international stage.
However, heavy investment is urgently needed in grassroots facilities. At the very least every player should have a decent pitch to play on – this would end the excuses offered for long-ball football in a stroke – and reasonable changing facilities where they can adequately prepare and discuss their matches with their coach.
Even more critically, we need to invest in better coaching. I know hundreds of grassroots coaches who would sign-up for Level 2 and UEFA ‘B’ licence courses tomorrow if places were made available to them. By offering funding options, and running many more courses, The FA could rapidly create a broad base of UEFA-qualified coaches and disperse them amongst schools and junior clubs to pass on good practice.
Once good coaching was more accessible, The FA can also make coaching more difficult by requiring more stringent tests for Level 2 qualifications (and weed out the poor coaches) before awarding clubs Charter Standard status.
With more qualified coaches in more places, working to a central template of player development, there can be greater communication between players, parents, junior clubs, schools and academies (and less reason for academy coaches to object to players training elsewhere). This would increase the number of training hours and lift young footballers closer to the 10,000 hour target.
Pavl Williams, Better Football.