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Education Is The Key For England’s Future Hopes

by Marc Braterman
7 September 2012 2 Comments

Despite Stevie G's "faith" England aren't going to win the next World Cup. The key to success lies with schooling the kids...


There were some very telling statistics from England’s Euro 2012 quarter-final defeat to Italy; they had just 37% possession and only eight shots to Italy’s 31, Andrea Pirlo completed more successful passes than England’s three most accurate passers combined, and most shockingly, Joe Hart touched the ball more than any other Englishman.

England are not quite as bad as those facts suggest. They played relatively well for the opening half hour but were simply exhausted. Their inability to retain possession in the group stages left them tired, both physically and mentally, evidenced by Steven Gerrard suffering from cramp after just 70 minutes.

The limitations of this England side are the same we have seen many times over. Poor technique in comparison to the leading European sides results in an inability to retain possession, whilst tactically the English national team has always been relatively rigid.

The next generation of English players suffer from the same deficiencies – apparent in the last Under 21 World Cup when England took on Spain and were thoroughly outplayed. There are some exceptions but these are one offs and a result of individual talent or specific circumstances. Jack Wilshere, for example, is a much more technically driven player but he has been schooled under Arsène Wenger’s regime since a young boy.

Ultimately it comes down to education. Just as in any other sector, the early stages of development define the end product – it’s why we place so much value on a child’s school education before the age of 11. In the football world, England are the equivalent of a failing private school – it has all the funding and resources required yet is reactive rather than proactive, remaining several steps behind the best at all times. Recently the English FA belatedly voted in favour of changes to youth football, in an attempt to emulate their Spanish counterparts. The new proposal is for a mandatory five-a-side format up to the age of nine, before progressing to nine-a-side until the age of 14 when the transition to full sized pitches will be made.

I have been advocating big changes to the structure of youth football in England for many years. Having children below the age of 14 playing on a full sized pitch with full sized goals simply encourages the wrong ‘skills’. Invariably, the team with the strongest and quickest players will win since there is so much open space on the pitch to play with. Meanwhile players are encouraged to ‘get rid’ in defence and ‘aim over the top’ for their quick striker to run onto. Winning is everything and technique is an afterthought for most youth coaches.

Consider the impacts of playing in smaller formats and the advantages are clear. It encourages technique and movement as the primary skills rather than strength and pace, leading to players feeling more comfortable in possession and being able to operate in tighter spaces.

If FIFA announced tomorrow that the next World Cup will be played on pitches three times their current size, the reaction would be one of shock and outrage. The quality would obviously be diminished and the game would become farcical, yet this has somehow been seen as reasonable for youth football in England until now.

Consider the impacts of playing in smaller formats and the advantages are clear. It encourages technique and movement as the primary skills rather than strength and pace, leading to players feeling more comfortable in possession and being able to operate in tighter spaces. The ‘positional’ play learnt on a full sized pitch at that age is false as players tend to bunch together and follow the ball. However, the positional understanding (such as where you should be in relation to your teammates, how to occupy the correct space defensively and how to create space offensively) will be developed at a significantly more rapid rate on smaller pitches. Focusing on these skills at such an early age will create a tactical understanding and flexibility that can be transferred to larger formats of the game at a later age. This is the approach that Spain have taken and the rewards are clear for all to see.

Although late, the changes imposed by the English FA are the first step towards progression, but they must be accompanied by a change in culture and mentality. England’s next generation must be taught that technique is vital and possession is king, rather than be swayed by the traditional ideals of English football. Winning should not be considered everything, rather, gaining the skills to win at a later age should be the goal. Only then will England eventually develop a national side capable of competing with the very best.

Other articles you might like:

Manchester United’s Danny Welbeck Should Replace Rooney For England

Gazza, Wazza, Owen & Ox: Pray Arsenal’s Star Is Ready To Be England’s Next Wildcard

Arsenal’s Jack Wilshere Will Become England’s Pirlo

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Neil 6:30 pm, 7-Sep-2012

Possession ISN'T king. Goals are king, possession is a means to getting them, but if you're not controlling how the other team moves, it's not that useful (see the Chelsea Barcelona game where Chelsea held their positions brilliantly leaving Barca taping the ball sideways until they lost it to a full-back). As for the next generation "must be taught...", they already are at several clubs and have been for ages. The recent Euro u19 Tournament had several games where England controlled possession as they sought to be the first ever team to win corresponding u17 and u19 titles. They lost in the semi-finals to a Greece side that sat back, defended and got a goal on the counter. The problems aren't so much about knowing how to develop players, just that in light of the huge revenues clubs get, they can get away with buying kids in at later ages, but still young enough to be considered 'home-grown'. I'm not convinced the new FA approach will achieve anything as the TV money will still mean that players can be bought in easily. It would be better if the Premier League made it a 5 or 6 year period prior to the age of 21 for a player to become home-grown so that a club would have to produce at least some of it's own players, and not end up with the rather bizarre situation where Fabregas was a home-grown Arsenal player by the technicalities of the law. We are tactically deficient though, too many managers are very limited in their thinking relying on simple formations and motivating players. I don't think the FA changes will affect that in the short term either

Brett 5:39 pm, 3-Jul-2013

Englands problems run huge in my opinion, as a country we've been masking over it for 40 odd years. Every tournament in that period we've under performed seriously and been made to look mediocre by just about every side we have come up against in the knock-out stages only to blame a handball, missed penalty or more recently a ball being over the line. For all this time we've been blinded by the all conquering premier league into thinking our footballers are "world class". How many times have you seen our captain Steven Gerrard thunder about all over the pitch like roy of the rovers hitting passes as hard as he can and storming about with his head down in the belief that the best way towards goal is the quickest? hes a dinosaur in the modern game but we idolise him because of his never say die attitude... that wont win a world cup! We likewise idolise Rooney.. an overweight has been who thinks that one good tournament(euro04) gives him a god given right to stay in any future England side no matter how poor he plays or how bad his attitude is. The last world cup was Rooneys wake up call that he's not up there with messi/ronaldo ect but instead of putting that to right in the last euros he hid and barely touched the ball.. any sign of him being dropped?... not a chance. The list of bad players goes on from Gareth Barry (how can you play if you cant run!) to James milner (works hard..........thats it!). But this is just the tip of the iceberg as far as its concerned the faults run deeper than just our can't teach an old dog new tricks senior side, our under 21's should see playing in that side as a much needed step on the ladder but instead their either on a beach with their entourage thinking that they have nothing left to prove or with the senior squad playing meaningless friendlies against Brazil that because of a draw instilled a new stupid self belief in that we could actually win the world cup next year. The real problem though lies in the tutoring of our kids, outdated coaches with dinosaur like beliefs in pace and power are what produced the likes of Emile Heskeys and Andy Carrols. Making them run around on full size pitches encourages them to kick the ball as hard as possible just to reach a team mate or goal. Without doubt playing on smaller pitches would instill better touch, passing and speed of thought... something our millionaire superstars struggle with.

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