FA Youth Reforms Part Two: The Nitty Gritty
As we saw in Part One, there are a number of problems which the FA needs to address in order to return the national team to the top table of international football. In this instalment we will turn our attention to what they have actually decided to do about it and whether anything else needs to be done.
As previously stated, the FA is increasing the numbers of coaches and improving their education, although much more investment is needed in this area. We also spoke of the need for a single footballing philosophy which emphasises technique and skill over physicality and speed. That’s not to say that those qualities aren’t important – but how many 8-10 year old lads who like football do you know who need to practice running around and improving how much energy they have? In other words, kids have boundless energy and physical attributes are best developed in the mid-to late-teens anyway, so focussing on technique as early as possible is a much more sensible approach. The FA have finally recognised this and, in addition to building a National Football Centre in Burton-Upon-Trent, are introducing reforms with two main measures at their heart.
The first major theme is a big increase in the number of small-sided games being played. At under-7 and under-8 level, teams will only be able to play in five-a-side games. Under-9 and under-10 teams will play seven-a-side, progressing to nine-a-side at under-11 and under-12 level. Accordingly, the FA believes this move will lead to youngsters playing on appropriately sized pitches for their age, with smaller goals too. The logic behind this move is simple: the smaller the pitch, the more touches a player is likely to get and the less time they spend running around, which means more chances to improve technique. As one of the main criticisms levelled against the current system is a failure to adequately develop technique, this is a welcome step. For comparison, Spanish kids do not play on a full-size pitch until they are 14 – and having worked in a Spanish school, I can tell you that your average 13 and 14 year old in Spain has a much better first touch than they did on my school playground.
Small-sided games aren’t just important because kids touch the ball more often though; they also teach children how to operate in smaller spaces, how to defend against short passing, reading the game for interceptions, how to shield the ball under pressure and crucially give them the confidence to pass to a team-mate who has a defender nearby. In the modern game this ability has become increasingly important and as no less a figure than Rio Ferdinand stated on Twitter, this deficiency has left England unable to retain possession as successfully as their opponents on the international stage.
Centre backs like Rio perhaps have the most to gain from becoming more proficient at keeping possession under pressure. Ultimately, reforming grassroots football has the objective of improving the national team: this measure should certainly do that. One final positive aspect is that, in smaller nets, players will need to be very accurate with their finishing to score. Young goalkeepers will similarly find themselves saving a lot more shots and needing to improve their reflexes.
Secondly, the proposals will bring an end to the typical eight month slog which has hitherto made up youth competition. Rather than being modelled on the adult game, less emphasis will be placed on competition – which will be broken up into smaller blocks rather than one long season. This is just as important a step as small-sided games in my opinion. Some argue that in doing so, the next generation will lack ‘competitive spirit’ or fail to learn how to deal with the pressure that comes with competition.
Around the world, successful systems in various sports have little or no competition for younger age groups, with the focus instead being on building technique and developing the player. This is the root of the entire reform program. Developing players needs to be about just that: developing them. It doesn’t matter if a player wins a county tournament at 10; it matters that he possesses the skills needed to successfully compete when he reaches 16-18 and is potentially knocking on the door of the first team. Far too much emphasis is placed on the immediate competition at stake and indeed many parents are guilty of being overly competitive (more on this later), which ends up having a detrimental effect on young players. Allow me to deviate slightly to explore this point further.
The outstanding sports book of 2011 was Ronald Reng’s biography of Robert Enke, the German national goalkeeper who committed suicide in 2009. One of the most striking features is the enormous impact errors whilst a teenager had on Enke’s mental health. He wasn’t able to cope with having failed under pressure and was unhappy as a result – without realising it, he was much happier for the six months afterwards when he was dropped for making a couple of clangers at 18. Enke is an extreme example, of course, but one with strong correlation to young players everywhere: a child’s confidence is often a fragile thing.
The system must seek to enhance their confidence along with their abilities. The aim then should be to improve technique, skills and self-belief rather than simply to find the most effective way to score goals and win games. Now I am not for a moment suggesting that players lose sight of the ultimate purpose of football, but the latter will come with skill development. Technique will drive success, not the other way around.
Additionally, the reforms highlight a facet of sports coaching which is very under appreciated – that identifying ‘the best’ at youth level is often simply a case of identifying the oldest. Malcolm Gladwell, in his excellent Outliers, demonstrates that a disproportionate majority of players in successful youth sports teams were born in the first six months of the year which they are selected from (ie in English footballing terms, a September – August school year). This, he says, shows that outstanding performance at youth level is often the result of being bigger, stronger, or having had more time to practice than contemporaries – even though these things tend to even out in later years. This is because when these players are noticed at a young age and then given better coaching and more game time (through schools of excellence/Academies etc.) the effect is amplified.
When we take into account the cumulative effect of years of increased practice and being coached to a higher standard, the difference is staggering. Yet we are potentially missing out on half of the potential footballers in England; those born in the last six months of the year may develop later and thus miss opportunities their slightly older peers receive. For this reason, reduced competition leads to exceptional results. But it isn’t enough.
A practical example: Spain’s Euro 2012 squad is made up of 14 players born in the first five months of the year, five of which were born in January; just one, Santi Cazorla, was born in December. The Spanish school system works on the basis that you begin school in September of the year you turn three; the likes of Xavi and David Silva, both January children, thus had 11 months of practice over their peers born in December. The advantage this gave them was multiplied exponentially as they then received better training and more game time over their youth careers – and neither of them is exactly physically impressive, which demonstrates the importance of technique work. Obviously, there are many other factors involved in making a top footballer but less competition and later selection of ‘top’ young players will certainly help. With increased coaching standards, more players should be able to level the playing field and make up for being younger too.
Of course, moving in this direction requires coaches and clubs to be pretty selfless. Ultimately we are asking them to perhaps sacrifice their own results for the good of the players they are developing (although one would hope that improved skills and awareness would lead to good results). This is a complete change of mindset. English football revolves around winning, at all levels. It is not just coaches who will have to change their mindset though. Parents will have to move away from stressing the importance of winning and revelling in their results and focus more on their improvements. Too many parents – although not all of course – are overly harsh on their children too, picking up on any mistakes and shouting from the sidelines; a practice which of course stems from an innocent desire to see them succeed and win. Moving away from this perspective will not be easy (and being realistic, will not happen in many cases) but the more encouragement there is from the sidelines and the less kids are made to feel under pressure and have their mistakes amplified and publicised, the better. With less competition this should be easier to achieve.
For the vast majority of children, playing sport is simply something to enjoy. A tiny minority will play at a high enough level to make it their job but most are simply playing football because they like playing football. The shift in attitude which the reforms need to bring with them should mean more children are allowed to just enjoy their football rather than focus on winning or not making mistakes. The FA needs to work very hard for this to happen and the aforementioned investment in coaches is crucial to this. The National Football Centre in Burton should also help communicate this new focus from the top down and, as the national coaches all need to be singing from the same hymn sheet through all youth levels, the new Centre’s approach may be very significant.
This need for consistency though is where the FA have fallen down once again. As positive as the steps taken are, it is telling that they chose Roy Hodgson for the England job in part because he would help them develop a long-term strategy and work closely with the team at Burton to establish the new ideology. I have written previously on this site on why I feel that Hodgson is a bad choice for England boss but in this regard, he is even worse.
As detailed in that article, Hodgson’s methods are hugely prescriptive, relying on tactical discipline and hard work to overcome potential technical deficiencies. Sounds remarkably like ‘the English way’ propounded by figures such as Charles Hughes doesn’t it? Obviously his methods have sometimes found success at ‘lesser’ clubs without ‘star’ players but he seems to meet resistance when dealing with big-name players who possess a lot of self-belief and want the freedom to express their creativity. In short, Hodgson is very good at papering over the cracks of less than stellar technique by extensively drilling his players on where to be and what to do in any situation, rather than relying on their creativity and skill to beat more rigid systems.
Having Roy heavily involved at the very top of national youth development (as he is in his duties in Burton) is therefore a bad idea. He belongs loosely to the same school as Reep, Hughes and Taylor – the legacy which the FA supposedly wants to leave behind. As an example, he allegedly insists on only using full-sided games in training, which he stops frequently to correct players positioning – hardly a way to develop technique and creative vision. It was a badly-kept secret that his removal of the much loved five-a-side, one or two touch games Blackburn’s title winning side favoured in training was the first step in the breakdown of his relationship with the players there, club captain Tim Sherwood’s (alleged) raising of the squad’s sadness at losing their favourite part of training apparently met with an angry and authoritative refusal from Hodgson.
On the one hand the FA are trying to bring in small-sided games and on the other their most influential coach puts no faith in that method and espouses more pragmatic, short-term methods.
The FA’s faith in Hodgson as the man to help transform the footballing psyche seem misplaced. And unfortunately, for all the good work and well-thought-out reforms they are bringing in, this may prevent the effects being felt by the national team – ultimately, the whole project’s aim. That said, this is a long-term project. Changing a footballing culture won’t happen overnight. The German youth reforms took around ten years to have a effect in such striking fashion at the last World Cup; Spain and Barcelona’s successes in recent years are the culmination of years of work, which in Barcelona’s case were set in motion in the early 90s when Johann Cruyff was in charge.
As Graham Hunter details in his superb book on that team (Barcelona: The making of the greatest team in the world), such success required years of hard work married with a sustained commitment to the project from all the club’s top brass. The FA need to commit to this project and commit fully. It may involve some change at the top, as the culture in the FA boardroom is famously resistant to change and the success of this project may well rest on how committed the FA are to their vision. What is certain is that the steps being taken are definitely in the right direction. With the additions I have outlined here and with the reforms brought in successfully, we might not be so devoid of hope at major tournaments for much longer.