AUTHOR: – Bricki
Following England Under 21s dismal exit at the hands of the Czech Republic at the Euro Championships in Denmark, the debate has again turned to the youth development of players in this country and what is going wrong.
In the team that was defeated by the Czechs on Sunday were 4 Man Utd players (Smalling, Welbeck, Cleverley and Jones). Producing youth players has been an important part of the fabric of United since the days of Busby and Murphy with most of the generations since producing at least 1/2 players of genuine class. It was the appointment of Sir Alex Ferguson though that saw the Academy given an importance again in the club and the development of our own players was placed at the heart of everything the club did.
So what does the future hold for the junior players of today and how do we look to improve and develop them to become a force at International Level again?
I am currently a Referee at Junior and Open-Age levels, officiating games most Saturdays and Sundays during the season. I have also managed and coached youth teams from 11 years of age all the way through to 17 years gaining an FA Level 2 Coaching Badge. My Sister was fortunate enough to be a very good player and played for the United Girls/Women’s teams when the funding was there allowing me access to see the United model of Coaching/Playing. So i have seen from several different angles what goes into coaching and development in the areas of the game the media doesn’t report about except to mock or deride.
So the last time we went out of an Under 21s competition, beaten 4-0 by Germany in 2009 the media started to grasp at excuses as to why this had happened and what we could do to change. Lots of pundits called for us to copy the Germans and the way they coached youth players. Then the dominance of Barcelona at European Level and Spain at the Full International stage has had pundits now clamouring for us to copy their approach, yet is this the right way to go?
From the very early days of football in this country it was always a working class game and was played by the big men who worked in factories all week. As expected then the early players in these isles, including Scotland and England as the founders of the game, it was big, strapping men who played the game. Whilst the coffee shops of places like Hungary, Austria and Central Europe debated the game in detail and looked at the development of technique, Britain was still seeing football as ‘working class’ and played as a game for the masses. The British worked on the premise that as inventors of the game we would define how it evolved and the best way to play. The fact that Britain is an island has helped to isolate the Home Nations in terms of football and its growth. Whilst philosophers of the game were able to move easily between nations such as Austria, Germany, Holland and Hungary, the British only had Wales, England and Scotland to navigate. This ease of movement did much to allow the exchange and discussion of different styles of play and ways to play the game. The same situation occurred with the travellers that exported the game to South America, the movement of people between the countries and the way that people adopted the game led to new styles of play. The styles in Scotland and England however, were defined by each other and only saw minimal innovation going forward. This is not the place however to go into masses of detail regarding the evolution of the game, two superb pieces by Jonathan Wilson (Inverting The Pyramid) and David Goldblatt (The Ball Is Round) describe and detail the development of football and tactics much better than i ever could.
The first true epiphany for English football came in 1953 at Wembley when the great Hungary team of Puskas, Hidekguti and Kocsis tore England apart in a master class of tactical play from the Hungarian players and manager, Gusztáv Sebes. In their expansive 4-2-4 formation the Hungarians were able to easily contain the English in their standard WM formation which they had used in one form or another since the inception of International football. The use of Nándor Hidegkuti in a roaming role between midfield and attack was something England were unable to handle, a precursor to the Number 10 role today of a creative player ‘in the hole’. The English were unable to recover the ball and the Hungarians exploited the space left by the English attempting to close them down. The 6-3 score line failed to do justice to the dominance that the Hungarians showed and it was only in the return 12 months later in Hungary that England’s 7-1 hammering showed off just how out of touch the English approach was at the time.
We find ourselves in a very similar situation now as we did then, the English style of play is looking woefully inadequate and United themselves have had 2 cases of being soundly beaten by a Barcelona team playing football that is proving extremely difficult to counter. This is being taken into the International arena through the Spanish national side that is beating all before them at almost every level.
So how do the English approach this situation?
The results against Hungary caused a cultural revolution in the English game that saw the benefits of regular European competition and the influence of foreign ideas and styles vital in the development of their own game. In the aftermath of Barcelona’s’ convincing Champions League win and the Spanish Under 21s total dominance at the Euro Under 21s Championship the call has gone out to many that the Spanish way is the way forward, all hail the Spanish Revolution and Viva Espana.
Is it right though? Should we follow the Spanish/Barcelona lead totally?
The Barcelona ‘model’ was established to a large degree through Johan Cruyff and the influence he brought of the Dutch ‘Total Football’ style of play which won Holland the admiration of the entire game but ultimately no World Cups. The current Spanish model by comparison is a result of the heartbeat of the team being from Barcelona and the squad containing several World Class players in other areas. The fact that it took Barcelona until 1991-92 to win its first European Cup and then the next three have come in a six year stretch from 2005-2011 is enough to suggest that whilst the club is currently enjoying success, it is down to the players in the system they play rather than the system itself. The same argument can be given to the Spanish national side when it comes to their success, the current mix of players is highly talented and compliments each other well.
So it could be fair to say that its not a case of tactics being the issue but rather the technique and ability of players coming through the ranks at English clubs and academies.
Take a look at the players that are considered the heart of their teams at International level.
• David Villa
• Mesut Ozil
• Thomas Muller
• Bastian Schweinsteiger
• Cristiano Ronaldo
• João Moutinho
• Fábio Coentrão
• Javier Hernández
• Giovani dos Santos
• Pablo Barrera
Now take a look at the players that are considered the top of the tree for England…
• Wayne Rooney
• Steven Gerrard
• John Terry
The first thing you can identify is that every other nation has players that are totally comfortable on the ball and have confidence in what they want to do with it. Ok, so on their day Rooney and Gerrard can use the ball delightfully but the fact remains that at International level both have failed to deliver on their undoubted talents.
I would implore anybody if you have not yet seen it to watch the Gold Cup Final between USA and Mexico. Despite having control of the ball and the game from the very start the Mexicans found themselves two goals down in the opening stages of the first half. They did not panic or neglect the style of play they use, they continued to pass and move the ball in the way they were brought up and gained control of the game before running out comfortable 4-2 victors. Two of the players that stood out in the final and performed well in the game and tournament in general were Giovanni Dos Santos and Pablo Barrera, both players are contracted to English clubs but have failed to make the impact you would expect of players who are heavily involved in a ‘successful’ International team. Both players however have been involved in International competition for Mexico at Youth level, be it Under 17 or Under 20 which has shown to be a benefit to developing an International ‘mentality’. So how is it that Dos Santos has had to go on loan to Championship clubs and Barrera has only appeared in 14 games for West Ham in a season where they desperately needed quality in order to battle against relegation?
When the media or commentators discuss the English game and the Premier League in general what sort of words do we hear?
We hear about the Passion, Belief and Speed of the Premier League, how it is the best in the World and showcases the greatest talents. Now I’m not saying we don’t have some fantastic players in this league such as Rooney, Tevez, and Modric but we are also guilty of inflating the ability and potential of players that show a degree of promise. Players such as Gareth Bale, Jordan Henderson and Theo Walcott have been described as the new great hopes in the Premier League. After Bales notable performances at the start of the season and his late hat trick against Inter Milan in the San Siro he became the best thing since sliced bread with bids of £40m+ expected from the big European teams. Why? On the idea of a good first half of the season we were now talking about him being worth the same as what a Spanish World Cup winning striker moved for in the summer (David Villa to Barcelona). Here in lies another issue that British players and particularly English players must deal with. After a few good performances its highly likely that the press whip up a storm about how great you are and the shining light for the national team in the future. Is it any wonder then that players such as Gascoigne, Owen and too an extent Rooney have failed in the eyes of the nation at International level?
The same thing is currently being experienced by Arsenals’ Jack Wilshire, a delightful player with the ball at his feet yet at 19 he is being touted as the future of the England team. Such is the hype surrounding the lad that England’s Trevor Brooking, in his role as Director of Football Development has suggested the England team needs a ’11 Wilshire’s’. This just adds to the level of expectation on a player who has yet to complete 2 full seasons as a Premier League footballer and is now expected to be the leader in waiting of both England and Arsenal.
The title of Trevor Brookings role spells out something which is distinctly lacking in the English football system, development. Every single country that plays football has the ability to produce a World Class player; this is because the greatest players are born to shine such as Maradona, Pele, Best and others. The difference that marks out the successful nations from those that are not is in the coaching and development of the players just below these truly elite stars. The players who have a certain amount of ability or potential are trained better and the skills they have are honed and improved on in order to bring the best possible performances from them.
The influence of foreign input into the English game has coincided with the evolution of the Premier League and the large injections of cash also coming in. Players such as Gianfranco Zola, Dennis Bergkamp and Eric Cantona have arrived in England and brought a new idea to role of a professional footballer including a dedication to training and a new idea in nutrition that doesn’t include 10 pints and a kebab on a Saturday night. Many of the English players that came through at United such as the Nevilles’, Beckham and Scholes credit Cantona with helping to instil an attitude of constant improvement and development as Bergkamp is credited with much the same impact at Arsenal.
The influx of foreign managers has also helped to develop newer ways of training and playing. Arsene Wenger has totally redeveloped the style and coaching of Arsenal, taking it from the ’1-0 to the Arsenal’ days to being an expansive and open footballing team who have gained many fans for their willingness to play in the way that suits them. A history of being an exciting and attacking team has been honed during Fergusons’ time as United manager, creating several teams during his reign who have right to be called the Greatest United team of all time. In this time though Ferguson has had several assistants such as Carlos Queiroz, Steve McClaren and Mike Phelan and other coaches from abroad who have influenced the changes in style and formation that have redefined his teams each season. Jose Mourinho had success at Chelsea with a specific style in 4-3-3 that became used in several different ways by teams of differing abilities once he left for Inter Milan.
So where is the missing piece in the development of our own talent?
So we have the foreign players, managers and coaches in the league system yet we are still unable to produce players of our own to compete with the players being brought in.
As an FA qualified coach and fortunate enough to have a talented sister who was able to develop her game at a ‘professional’ club i have seen the sort of coaching youngsters get in this country. It is widely acknowledged that any young players that stand out between 8 and 12 years of age tend to get picked up very quickly by professional clubs but what about the late developers? The players who do not get the ball due to these ‘special’ players?
On a personal level I coached a group of boys from Under 11s through to Under 16s for my local club where I grew up playing as a child. Fresh from getting my FA Level One coaching certificate I had big plans for what I wanted to achieve with these kids and how I wanted my team to play. I went into the role imagining myself as the next big thing; I would turn the team around and have them flying high before the season was out. I was the typical coach you see at youth level who thought he was still playing Football Manager. Developing drills that were intended for older players i tried to make the players into something they were not, adults. This is where most coaches of local youth teams make the first major error in a players development, it becomes about winning and not enjoyment or development. The fact that as a youth team coach you will have the greatest influence on the players’ path going forward makes the training and games you play vital if we are to develop better players.
I’m ashamed to admit that in the first 6 months coaching the team I treated them like an adult team. I conjured up complicated training sessions and stamina or fitness drills to make them an elite team who would set the league alight and knock the local rivals off their perch (this is genuine as well as I’d basically started coaching at the Manchester City of the junior league, with my local rivals winning everything). You can guess the result of these sessions, players not understanding what I wanted, me losing my temper and glances from the parents of ‘Why isn’t he making them win?’ After each training session or match I would return home totally demoralised and unable to understand why these players were not able to do what I asked of them. I looked at my training plans, my match day tactics and couldn’t figure it out, what was the problem? It was a trip to watch Manchester United Girls that opened my eyes to what i was doing wrong. As I sat on the balcony overlooking the indoor training pitch at The Cliff the girls jogged out onto the pitch ready to warm up and train. The first thing that caught my eye was the amount of balls available to the players, every player had a ball. Simple but completely mind blowing, I had had to deal with only having a ball between 3 players if i was lucky. The session lasted 90 mins and not once did a drill or activity not involve the players using the ball, be it at their feet or in their hands. The ‘match’ at the end was a 7 against 7 game in a smaller space with reduced nets. The ball zipped about the pitch and every player seemed heavily involved with no player in just one position. The girls training were the same age as my team, producing football that i dreamed my boys could play.
I sought the coach out at the end of the session and asked about his session…
Why did he run the session that way?
What sort of results did it produce?
Was it a personal preference or a club wide philosophy?
It was clear the players enjoyed the sessions and the smiling faces as they trained and left were the biggest positive the coach could get. He told me ‘If a player is smiling and enjoying the session they will always learn more than a player being pushed to an extreme with no understanding why.’ I was about to ask what he meant when it hit me like a Paul Scholes tackle. If the players’ didn’t understand or like the sessions I was running, how could I expect them to reap the benefits or enjoy them?
It’s a simple concept but one that is forgotten in lots of youth teams across the country, its about the players enjoying and learning, not about the coaches, parents or anyone else.
There was one big difference however in why the coach delivered the sessions in such a way and then ended them a 7 a side game. At this point girls’ football played 7 a side still while my team was now already playing 11 a side on pitches for players up to under 15s.
The difference between boys at 10/11 years of age and 15 years is mammoth, to expect them to play on pitches of the same size is already handing a disadvantage to the slow physical developers. Should they be punished for not being big strapping lads?
It goes back to the values and ideals of when the game was first developed in England and Scotland, strength, power and brute force. The players who were important through the centre of the pitch, Half Backs, Inside Forwards and Centre Forward were big strapping players who wouldn’t lose the ball easily. If a player was in the way then he was blasted to the side as men fought for possession.
The attitude of the English that this was the correct way to play, plus the concept of ‘long ball’ play developed by Charles Reep in the 1950s and reinforced by Charles Hughes in the 90s as FA Head of Coaching led to a one dimensional way of approaching the game. If the heads of the game are promoting such a method of play being correct this will no doubt filter through the different county structures, with new coaches going through the learning process being influenced to treat long ball/route one as the preferred style of play. Players that have gone through the coaching process at youth clubs between 1990-2004 will have had the method of direct play taught to them as the method of play. A generation of players and coaches brought up on what is widely acknowledged to be a 1 dimensional, flawed style of play.
Breaking such a cycle of flawed learning will take time and it is only now we are seeing the changes coming through in players 18/19 years of age. This is as a result of better coaching and the introduction of coaching styles from the foreign coaches/managers arriving due to the cash and popularity of the Premier League. More needs to be done but it requires a prolonged and consistent effort from the FA downwards.
As you should be aware the Women’s FIFA World Cup has just begun in Germany and England’s improvement in the Women’s game continues to show. The Women’s form of the game has developed massively since the FA started to show more willing to invest in the format during the mid to late 90s. Whilst countries such as Brazil, USA, and Germany have performed well consistently the English team have had to play catch up and look to increase the number of teams, players and coaches quickly.
Whilst watching the Man United Girls team play and train the one big issue that stood out was the lack of the big, strong players that defined British Men’s football. If the very reason why England had developed its ‘route one’ style of play wasn’t available, how would the coaching methods be affected?
The answer appeared in the training sessions that I witnessed at The Cliff and implemented into my Boys team using the ‘Coerver’ coaching method. This was a method that the United coaches had researched and adapted to suit the style of play that they were required to develop. The method is based around a pyramid development of players’ skills.
The main points around the method were to make each player comfortable with the ball at their feet. It is not a case of assigning players into positions but instead developing each player’s abilities to the point that they could function effectively in any area of the park. The focus was on 1 player, 1 ball and repetition of control drills with both feet, once mastered it then progresses to promote creative passing and build up play based in 1v1 or small sided situations. Even in 11 a side games the match will turn on what happens in 1v1, 2v2 or 3v3 situations where one team takes advantage of the moment.
The system has been backed by people such as Franz Beckenbauer, Sir Alex Ferguson and Rivelino, suggesting that the ideas and philosophy of Coerver have major relevance in the footballing World. In 1998, Bolo Zenden became the first graduate of Coerver to appear in a World Cup. Clubs such as Man United, Arsenal, AC Milan and Bayern Munich have all implemented Coerver into their coaching of the youth players they have.
The ideals of Coerver are clear in the two outstanding teams of the current time, Spain and Barcelona. The ability to use either foot comfortably, creative passing and control and the 1v1, 2v2 and 3v3 triangles that have defined their play come from the very heart of what Coerver is about.
These were the methods taught to the girls i watched train and play at Man United and also the methods that took the team i coached from bottom of the league to mid table in 18 months.
The ‘FA Model’ going forward
So what now for an FA that has been criticised and condemned in its approach to youth development?
The long awaited ‘National Football Centre’ at Burton needs finishing and opening as soon as possible. In the grounds of this centre needs to be a fundamental belief in the fact, that the ball is a friend to look after and not a bomb to launch toward the enemy goal.
It is not good enough however to only start teaching this method and style of coaching once players have been picked up at the ages of 13/14 by professional clubs. The FA needs a complete redesign in the philosophy and style of its coaching methods. Many Premier League clubs now employ foreign coaches in its academies alongside British coaches, teaching the newer ‘Coerver’ style of player development. At Manchester United, Sir Alex Ferguson has credited the recruitment of Rene Meulensteen as ‘Technical Skills Development Officer’ with the implementation of Coerver at Manchester United. He quickly rose through the ranks at the club due to the impact he was showing and became Reserve Team Coach in 2005 creating a fantastic style of play that saw the Reserves carving up teams at will. At the same time, Rene began to work with First Team players and his Coerver based structure was incorporated throughout the club. A potential management role at Brondby fell through and Meulensteen returned to the club again as Technical Skills Development before his consistent work with first teamers such as Ronaldo, Nani and Rooney saw him promoted to First Team Coach in 2008/09.
The recruitment of regional development officers like Meulensteen, who have experience of Coerver based coaching is an important step in creating an FA structure that places importance on ball control and technical skills. These coaches can then influence the people going through the FA Coaching programme to put technical skill and small sided games at the heart of the programme. The FA have redesigned the programme for coaches and it does concentrate on more technical skills and small sided games in training for youth players, this however also needs addressing in the league structure for youth players.
At present players graduate to 11 a side at the under 11s stage, still developing and physically not able to manage the demands of large pitches. As a result many junior games at this age become about who has the bigger, stronger players who can kick the furthest. This needs to be eliminated and replaced with a small sided game structure.
Youth players generally join local clubs at 6/7 years of age. At this point they should be involved in 5 a side games in non-competitive leagues, this allows competition but the onus is on participation and learning rather than trophies. As the players start to grow they can progress at 8/9 years to 6 a side and 7 a side at 10/11.
Instead of 11 a side though, we should look to progress to 8/9 a side up until 14 years of age. At this time players will then go to 11 a side having played up to 7 years of small sided football experiencing more time on the ball and playing time in general. As another positive of this you will be able to have more teams play as sides will only need a max of 11/12 players meaning you do not have players stood on the touchline losing their love for the game.
The FA currently awards ‘Charter Standard’ for clubs that have at least one FA qualified coach with each team. This should now become a rule for any club that want to run a team, if a person wants to run a team then they must have a basic Level 1 coaching certificate. To obtain a Level 1 grade takes two weekends and is a great introduction to coaching, if a person is unwilling to go through this process then they should not have the ability to coach players.
If the media and fans want to see England teams performing well at International Competitions then the foundations need to be set from the moment a child decides to join a local club. Make the experience about the child playing and learning with a ball and the skills a player will learn will increase, its a simple idea.
If the FA implement and enforce a commitment to small sided games and a ‘Coerver’ style of coaching where technique and skill is the heartbeat then we can create the players we currently dream about pulling an England shirt on like Messi, Xavi and Iniesta.
This starts at the very beginning though and it is up to the Saturday morning coach putting his players first and the FA backing them up by putting in place a coaching template and development structure that brings the very best out of players who are the future of the national team.
The processes I observed and noted down whilst watching the Man United Girls’ are the perfect example of what can be achieved with the youth players we have in the football system today. If a youth player can go to a professional club already equipped with the ability to control a ball with both feet and comfortable all over the pitch, it makes creating the players to win International tournaments just a little easier.
It’s not going to solve the problem over night and it’s certainly not the answer to all our domestic development issues but it gives us a solid footing to approach the future for our National game.
AUTHOR: – Bricki