When will our nation learn what makes the ‘beautiful game’ beautiful? It is an argument that seems to have come and gone. In fact, people seem to have given up on the very notion that England ever could become one of the world’s best national teams. But I think it’s time everyone sat up and at least discussed how the nation can begin to create true footballers rather than athletes.
How can we do this? I believe there to be three main possibilities to achieving that goal.
End the ‘Big Tackle’ culture
The whole of Britain comes together in awe when we see someone make a big tackle. It is something we love to see, more for the aesthetically pleasing purpose, rather than the effectiveness it has on a game. Everyone loves to see it, including me. But what does it truly bring to a game of football?
Don’t get me wrong, tackling shouldn’t be abandoned – there is a time and place for it. However, we (players, coaches, fans, media) are almost exclusively looking out for that moment where our centre midfielder takes ‘man and ball’. This shouldn’t be happening. As Xabi Alonso says; “Tackling is not really a quality, it’s more something you are forced to resort to when you don’t have the ball”. He’s right. If you look at the best central players in the world (Kroos, Pirlo, Xavi, Toure), their game is not based on their tackling ability. They control games through intelligence, ball control and awareness of what’s around them. Very rarely (if ever) do you see any of them dive into a challenge.
Why is this? It is because their coaches have taught them from the youngest possible age that it’s much more important to retain possession of the ball than to have to win it back. This myth is what is behind our footballers being bred as athletes, instead of footballers. Go to any youth game where players are 14 and under. The kids playing are very often either bigger and more developed or much faster for their age than the average in their year group. Why is this? Because the scouts are not looking for the best people to develop; they are looking for the kids in that age category that will win matches in that category.
This is the worst attitude you can have. And this is why there are huge numbers of young footballers who are released by the time they are 16; they no longer have the physical upper hand on opponents and without that, they don’t have much else.
We need to begin coaching footballers to play football instead of letting them believe that physicality is all it takes. Only then will we start to see players develop their technical ability instead of their physical ability. In Spain, youngsters are taught how to play football. In England, they’re taught how to win, and this is the mistake that’s holding our national team back.
Find the trends of other nations
Why aren’t we taking notes from other nations? Or rather: why aren’t we seeing what’s working best in each country, and applying all the best bits to ourselves?
In the 2002 World Cup, Brazil had a truly special team. A front 3 of Rivaldo, Ronaldo and Ronaldinho became unstoppable no matter who they played. From 2008-2012 Spain (aided largely by Barcelona) were the dominant force in the world, with a whole host of small magicians doing what they do best, and knowing that they need to keep up their form because a long line of youngsters were waiting to take their place. Now, it’s Germany who have dominance, and they have combined Spain’s technical game with more powerful players, allowing them to change style if need be.
And where are England? Still playing the rigid game we’ve played all along. In The Secret Footballer’s new book, he asks why Hodgson would play four defenders against a team as poor as San Marino? I remember thinking the same thing. Perhaps not everyone agrees with Guardiola’s style of play, but you can’t deny his forward thinking attitude. Namely: why have someone who struggles to play out of defence? Instead, let’s put a midfielder (Mascherano, Alaba, Lahm, Martinez) there who is much more comfortable bringing the ball out from that back. Why play the ball into a tall target man’s feet, when we can put Fabregas or Gotze there who have a much better touch than most 6 foot 4 players.
It’s this type of thinking that managers should begin looking towards, rather than the culture where everyone sticks to their position. Guardiola has stated in the past that his perfect squad would have no more than 21 players, most of whom can play in at least 3 positions. The logic behind this makes sense and it is what we should be doing with younger players.
Let’s say there is a 15 year old who is good at dribbling, is quick, great touch, good stamina and fantastic passing. Why pigeon-hole him to a position? Why not make him play at full-back, central midfield, wing or just behind the striker? All of these could help develop him and give him the opportunity to excel in somewhere unexpected, as well as giving him a better tactical understanding of the game.
There are a very select few managers who are doing this in the Premier League. One of them is Brendan Rodgers. Look at how many positions Raheem Sterling has played this season: right wingback, right wing, attacking midfield, striker, left wing, left wingback. And still only 20, he now has a fantastic understanding of a number of positions on the pitch, which can only help him going forward.
A friend of mine plays in one of the Premier League academies, and has been on loan at a lower league club this season. He plays centre-back and told me this: “We are told never to play a short ball into midfield or out to the full backs. I have been slaughtered for it numerous times, even if the opposition doesn’t win it in those positions. I am told to get it as far up the field as possible, as soon as possible”. How can this be coached into young players now? It needs to change.
Many people may disagree with me, but I find myself completely unsurprised with the amount of young players who lose their way and become disillusioned in their life.
Let’s say that you start football at an academy when you’re 10 years old and go through your whole schooling life without knowing any other way. When the club deem you not good enough to play full time for them, what do you do next? Having put all your eggs in the footballing career basket, it leaves you at square one in the world, a long way behind the competition.
And again, what if you inverted that, and you do make it into the top level of football? You spend your career doing very few hours in the day, spending a lot of time outside of your working environment. I would struggle to find many people who wouldn’t become bored living that lifestyle, no matter what money you’re being paid.
With so much free time on your hands – and all your friends at 9-5 jobs – what do you do? This is why so many players develop gambling problems. To be between 16-20 and having more money than sense, I would struggle to find many people who would use this time wisely at a young age.
The clubs and PFA must introduce a way to mentor young players in how to best use their time. The clubs especially should be doing this, especially when you think about how many players have mysteriously lost their way for unknown (or very publicly known (think Adrian Mutu)) reasons.
Not only is it important for the player himself, it should be thought of as an investment by the club he plays for. Why let someone with so much potential waste it through sloppy player management? It seems logical.
These three points are not likely to win us a world cup in the near future, but it is a good starting point. Great talent are turned away from a young age due to their smaller frames, unable to outmuscle kids more developed than them. If they do make it, they are poorly trained tactically. And finally, once they’ve made it and have some money, coupled with too much time on their hands, they can make poor life decisions.
England can be a successful nation again, it just takes a willingness to change, along with a humbleness to admit that the current youth system is highly flawed.