FA Youth Reforms Part One: The Background
It’s been a long time coming. For years, there has been a growing awareness that ‘the English way’ was not the best way to maximise the potential of England’s young footballers. The FA have stubbornly refused to recognise it for as long as they could. With the phenomenal success of Spain and Barcelona in recent years however, the pressure on them has increased as more and more people became aware of how vital youth development is – with the results of educating youngsters successfully in those footballing philosophies all too evident on the pitch. And, finally, English football’s governing body has voted in favour of new plans to improve the development of young players, with an 87% majority.
But what are these changes? I hear you ask. And what impact will they have? And is it enough? Hopefully, you will have the answers to all of these questions by the end of this article.
Before we get into that, we first need to identify the problem which the reforms are trying to address. In a nutshell, the problem is an over-reliance on tactics and physicality which restricts the development of technique and creativity. For all their strength and speed, English players are all-too-often lacking in the technical ability needed to succeed at the highest level (namely in international competitions). One of the reasons England don’t produce players like much-vaunted Barcelona stars such as Xavi, Iniesta, Ronaldinho, Messi – in short, players who are able to roam and use their vision and technique to inspire millions – is because as youngsters, footballers are coached heavily in tactics and rely on developing speed and power over creativity ad skill. Even Joe Cole, arguably the most skilled and ‘continental’ footballer to emerge from the English set-up in many years, has never shone on the international stage as successive coaches did not deploy a system which accommodated his creativity (Cole often played on the left wing and then was criticised for making the team lop-sided when he inevitably wandered infield).
Even defenders need to be technically proficient in the modern game, as the margins between victory and defeat are so small that a defender with the ability to add to possession can improve a team’s success substantially.
Going back to Spain again (the de facto reference point as current world champions), the Barcelona centre backs Carles Puyol and Gerard Piqué are both significantly more comfortable with the ball than their English counterparts. They are not weak by any means and certainly know how to tackle and compete for headers – that is something critics of change often mistakenly think will be lost – but are also capable of creating and scoring ‘good’ goals (think back to Puyol’s swashbuckling assist for Torres’ goal against Ukraine in World Cup 2006 or Piqué’s goal in the Champions League semi-final against Mourinho’s Inter a few years ago). More importantly, they can hold onto possession and are comfortable passing short under pressure whereas English defenders too often resort to long balls or panicked clearances. The FA reforms will seek to resolve this issue.
Think of the greats of British (and Irish, depending on your view) football, the players who captured the imagination of fans: Matthews, Charlton, Best, Keegan, Dalglish, Gascoigne etc. All had fantastic technique and the ability to produce something from nothing. Alan Shearer, for all his physicality, had the technical ability to score from pretty much anywhere (particularly in his title-winning time at Blackburn) – just think of all his volleys and long-range goals. Similarly, the likes of Rooney, Gerrard, Lampard and Beckham – England’s most consistent attacking threats of the last decade or so – all possess exceptional technical skills.
But what commentators and many fans often appreciate more is their work-rate: all of them cover a lot of ground and Gerrard in particular has built his game around being a box-to-box midfielder, which sometimes overshadows just how many technically excellent goals he has scored for club and country. Likewise, Rooney is often praised for the amount of tracking back and defending he does; he is though without a doubt the best technical British player of his generation. The fact that all these players’ games rely heavily on physicality reveals the national obsession with playing ‘the English way’: a hustling, bustling, direct style epitomised by Bryan Robson.
This philosophy which developed throughout the first half of the 20th Century (brilliantly explored by Jonathan Wilson in Inverting the Pyramid and Why England Lose) was successful in 1966; unfortunately, the English game has adapted little since and we have been left behind on the international stage. This curious insistence on retaining the qualities that achieved success once has been perpetuated by both the media and the FA, whose former coaching director Charles Hughes, relying on the flawed ‘statistical analysis’ Charles Reep performed, arguably held the game back most of all. Reep (and therefore Hughes) believed, amongst other things, that most goals were scored in moves consisting of five passes or less and that therefore direct football was most effective. This of course has not proven to be the case. Hughes and Reep’s influence on Graham Taylor was colossal; Taylor may have helped introduce pressing to the British game with his Watford teams, a vital tactical innovation which other countries were employing, but the footage of him forlornly crying ‘Send it long Carlton!’ as his side struggled against Norway tells you exactly how successful his approach was internationally.
Simply put, England’s humiliation by the great Hungarian side at Wembley in 1953 somehow did not bring about the realisation that greater focus on technical proficiency was needed. Ramsey’s ’66 side papered over the cracks but in doing so hid the lesson that needed to be learned, with the likes of Reep and Hughes firmly in denial and in control of England’s footballing philosophy. That lesson is only now being recognised fully by the FA.
Hughes’ FA tactical and coaching handbook was the go-to text for most English coaches until recently, which tells its own story. Having belatedly recognised the need for change however, the FA are acting. Coaching excellence needs to be at the forefront of this. The Netherlands has a population of just 16m but have fared better in the last 40 years or so than England and continue to do so despite the weakness of their domestic league. The Premier League’s excellence (and it is a truly great league, let’s not forget that) has not been a guarantee of success for the national team. Even an influx of foreign players and coaches has failed to bring about the required shift in mentality until now. To put it bluntly, English coaches are not being developed to the highest level. There were four English coaches managing in the Premier League at the end of last season; next year it will increase to seven with the three promoted teams. Famously, the FA have turned to two esteemed foreign coaches in the last decade. with the ‘return to English’ appointment of Steve McClaren a disaster. The FA needs to work from the grassroots up on making English coaches superb so that the players they develop can maximise their potential.
Part of the problem is sheer numbers: 2008 figures show there were just 2,796 UEFA licensed coaches in England, compared with 34,970 in Germany, 29,240 in Italy and 23,995 in Spain. The situation is improving but there is a very long way to go. The FA are making steps in the right direction in this department but more central funding needs to be funnelled into these channels. Few would argue with some of the vast wealth of the Premier League being redistributed to fund more youth coaches. The introduction of more varied and youth-appropriate coaching qualifications is also a positive step. What has been lacking though is a coherent philosophy.
The German and Spanish systems, widely regarded as being successful, both have a definite philosophy in place throughout their coaching infrastructure. Two problems present themselves in the English case: first, overcoming the persistence of the philosophy outlined above which has held us back for so long; and second, ensuring that this philosophy is successfully communicated at all levels. The new reforms, as we will see in part two, go some way towards this. Improving coaching standards will help this too.
In Part Two tomorrow, we will see how the FA is trying to address these problems with their new measures. As we have seen, wide-ranging changes are needed at all levels if England is to produce players capable of reaching the levels of technical excellence which have allowed teams like Spain, Holland, Italy and Germany to excel on the world stage. More and better trained coaches are needed, who are taught a single playing philosophy that they are able to clearly communicate. But there are other factors which need addressing; thankfully, the FA reforms go some way to correcting these problems, as we shall see.