For years now we’ve heard phrases like “we give the ball away to easily”, “our players aren’t technical enough”, and my personal favourite “there are too many foreigners in our Premier League” with regard to England’s failure at international level – the latter being the case as a result of the previous two. The truth is, most foreign players are better than the young English talent available to Premier League clubs, and unsurprisingly as a result English players made up only 42.9% of the Premier League last season.
Even more worrying is the discovery that just over 2.5% of the Premier League’s players were English players under the age of twenty one. Take Josh McEachran for example, a talented English under-twenty one international who has made just two appearances for Chelsea in the past two seasons. Why? Because Chelsea now have Oscar and Mata – two outstanding creative midfielders whose talents are far superior to McEachran. Oscar is only one year older than McEachran, yet has already developed into Brazil’s key midfielder, and as we saw against England, prompted tremendous boos towards his manager following Scolari’s decision to substitute him with the score level. McEachran on the other hand has been in and out of Pearce’s under-21 side, often forced to play on the left wing, as Pearce has struggled to find a style of play which would grant McEachran the freedom to score and create goals in the way Oscar does for club and country.
A player like Josh McEachran needs other players similar to him in his team. While Pearce’s side started games with the likes of Jordan Henderson and Jonjo Shelvey in central midfield – the latter proceeding to take wasteful long shots rather than look for a pass – Spain were able to surround creative players like Isco with other skilful players, and unsurprisingly won the tournament with relative ease. In reserve, Spain still had Iker Muniain and Sergio Canales, who some would argue have better technique than the entirety of England’s squad – including McEachran. This abundance of technically excellent Spanish players – from De Gea in goal to Morata up front – stems not from first-team development and experience between the ages 17-21 (for the likes of Montoya, Tello and Morata played far less regularly for their clubs than Clyne, Ince and Sordell last season), but from coaching between the ages 10-16, where they are taught to keep, and enjoy possession. As a result, a player like Isco is able to get on the ball far more often – therefore gaining the opportunity to shine the way he did during the recent Under-21 Championships in Israel – for he is surrounded by other technicians who can get the ball to him while under pressure, and not shoot from distance in the manner Shelvey resorted to.
Part of this upbringing is through the game Futsal, a five-a-side variant of football played within an indoor arena, using a smaller and heavier football. With the pitch being smaller, and the ball heavier, players are encouraged to keep the ball on the ground, and break through the opposition using skill, as opposed to long balls over the top. Players spend far more time with the ball at their feet, while the ball itself spends far more time in play (24% more than 11-a-side football) as play is quickly restarted using kick-ins if the ball goes out of touch. Somewhat unsurprisingly, three of the greatest ever footballers in Pele, Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo played far more Futsal than 11-a-side football during their youth development – granting them the opportunity to constantly develop their footwork throughout matches, rather than the sporadic opportunity a young player would get on a full size pitch. Originally invented in South America as a solution to the lack of available football pitches, Futsal has made clear the fact that football need not be played on a field until far later in a player’s development. After growing up playing a smaller version of the sport – Futsal players go on to dominate upon a full-size pitch, for they possess the confidence to receive the ball in any situation.
Much of Spain’s success comes through their patient use of the football. Through receiving, controlling, and then releasing the ball whilst under pressure, a player is able to take the players marking him completely out of the game. Futsal teaches players to draw markers in, for when the ball is passed by the player under pressure, the recipient will have fewer defenders blocking his route to goal. The game becomes essentially a constant series of one-twos, whereby players play the ball around the opposition – creating space not through their movement, but the manipulation of their opposition’s positioning. In England, players have been taught to move into space, which is why the 4-4-2 formation has dominated English football for so long. English players move the ball out wide for it is where most space has been left by the defending team; Spain on the other hand often play very narrow, but create clusters of space within the middle channel of the field through drawing defenders away. The English 4-4-2 applauds wing-play, despite the fact that far less goals are scored from crosses into the box than through balls. To cross a ball and find a striker requires the ball’s pathway to evade usually three defenders within the box – all marking one or two strikers – however by attacking the goal through the central channel of the pitch, a player has the option of feeding the ball through to a striker, or finding another attacking midfielder while drawing defenders to himself in the meantime. Wingers are only marked by their opposition full-back, whereas a player in possession of the ball ten yards outside the penalty area will draw pressure from the entirety of the defence – therefore resulting in more space for others.
When you consider that Futsal has been around since the 1930s, yet England, the ‘founders of football’ are yet to even qualify for a major Futsal tournament, it becomes clear just how far behind English football is to the rest of the world’s elite international sides. Only this season have we been able to see the result of a Futsal upbringing within an English talent, through Derby County’s Will Hughes, who at the age of just seventeen made thirty five appearances last season for his club. His assist for Conor Sammon’s goal against Leeds last December, where he drew both centre-backs towards the ball before producing a perfectly disguised through ball, exemplifies perfectly the qualities Futsal offers a developing player. Hughes, having played Futsal as a youth player, is comfortable on the ball, and wants it whenever possible. Unlike most English players he does not fear receiving the ball under pressure, for he has become confident in his ability during his development. Unfortunately, Hughes’ opportunity to shine will be hampered by the football being played around him – for most of his teammates will have been brought up through the the tried and tested traditional mould, which thus far has had no success in producing gifted technical footballers. Sure, he’s no Iniesta yet, but were Hughes to be given the opportunity to further his development in a set up similar to that of Barcelona, his role in the national side could be the catalyst for England to launch a set up focused around maintaining possession, and forcing the opposition to change their shape – rather than forcing attempts at goal with long-shots and hopeful crosses.
The beauty of Futsal is that anybody can play it, which makes England 85th place ranking (78 behind Iran) all the more astonishing. Being an in-door sport, the game is far easier for schools without access to their own playing fields (most primary schools in England) to play, while it is also non-dependent on weather conditions. Furthermore, given the tight spaces of the pitch, every player will get the opportunity to learn, and development their skill – rather than on a larger pitch where the more physical and skilful players tend to dominate the game. The FA have already begun attempts to establish Futsal as “part of the footballing landscape in this country”, however we are still a long way away from matching the talent-pool available to the countries who have employed Futsal for a number of years, most notably Brazil, Spain, Italy who have are all currently playing in the Confederations Cup – a tournament England have never qualified for.
All things considered, it seems clear that an increase in the popularity of Futsal would certainly do no harm to our national team, and would most likely improve our younger footballers’ technique and confidence immensely. Between now and then, without doubt there will be a few English anomalies who develop into top players without the need for Futsal; however until we see a team of players – all raised using the Futsal mentality of receiving the ball, and creating space rather than finding it – England will continue to be the old-man of the footballing world, too stubborn to adapt to the modern age, struggling to impress anybody with its out-dated ethos, while its neighbours succeed in finding new ways to play.