Grass roots; the term used by many to describe the beginning stages of football at the early years of life. Sounds so fresh, almost as if the next Lionel Messi is underneath our feet ready to spring out and bless us with their talents. This would be a common trait in Spain, a talented youngster brought through the academy at a young age taught football in almost a robotic manner; pass and move, pass and move. Perhaps in Brazil, the next Samba star aged 16 who can balance the ball on his head whilst shaking up cocktails on Co cabaña beach! Even Germany, many stereotypes that the Germans play boring, long ball tactics but the likes of Mario Gotze, Toni Kroos, and Bastian Schweinsteiger would beg to differ.
England? Not a misconception I am afraid, in recent years the talent pool of young English players hasn’t exactly got me leaping out my chair and replaced my false hopes with real optimism that England will lift a cup and lift one soon. So where has it gone wrong? Why are we, England, the founders of the beautiful game now playing catch up to our rivals, and not just our rivals but emerging countries that would have been swept aside without breaking sweat? My thoughts below are exactly that, my thoughts, I am not a professional footballer, a retiree who once played in elite football or even got a pro contract but to any with any football knowledge it is plain to see that the philosophy of football we breed and educate at grass roots just isn’t cutting it in the pinnacle years of their careers.
Sir Trevor Brooking claimed earlier this year that young, emerging talent are well, to be blunt, not all that talented and the tone was almost one of playing a waiting game for the next Steven Gerrard, Wayne Rooney or Frank Lampard. Let’s start with the players I have just mentioned. World class players at some of the largest clubs in world football, agreed. Gerrard can pick a pass out from 40 or more yards and place it right on the feet of a winger in full flow. Frank Lampard has an unrivalled knack of rocketing in 30 yarders and Rooney has a unique talent of combining presence with scoring goals and on almost every game with swivel away from a player and change the tempo of the game. Why then are the ever present English fans pessimistic about the way we play football?
I could write a whole new post on media hype and how the tabloids love to build up a team or individuals only to marvel in their fall from grace. The simple and harsh truth is that although these players have got the ability to change a game, be a match winner, they are not as skilled, technically as players from Spain, Germany or Brazil to name a few. They have it in them to play integral little passes, split open a defence Iniesta esque but they don’t do on a consistent basis. The EPL is different to any other league, true; it’s more physically demanding and closer than any other, true but internationally was failing.
It’s hard to point your finger on why, many say! I don’t see how it’s difficult at all. My first view on where it’s all going wrong starts at the beginning, no not grass roots but the origin of what football is. Football was invented as a sport, an entertainment, the same as the games at the Coliseum were back in Rome. Now though, through the years, the “entertainment” gets bigger, and more coverage this leads to more viewers which in turn leads to money! More money in the game has now completely transformed the beautiful game into a huge Business enterprise where every game is a battle of survival, to make money. This means the cost of winning is now at an all time importance, it is vital. An example can be seen by glancing at the Championship league table on the final day of the season last year, a tiny gap between despair and ecstasy, the ticket into to the big boy’s game.
So how does this effect grass roots? Well, firstly I will say that I do feel for chairmans and staff at the club, they need to make money to survive in a business sense and simultaneously keep fans happy i.e. Arsenal. Youngsters in England are taught to win, at any cost. In Spain they are taught to play football the technical, skilled way, hence the difference between Barca and United. A team such as Stoke, West Ham or any team managed by Sam Allaydyce know exactly what I mean, boot the ball to our tallest player, wait for the knock down and boom, 1-0. Why not play this philosophy in international football? Because the likes of Spain will have a field day where every player is constantly moving, off the ball they are like wolves hunting down the prey until they get what they want.
Once they got it, pass and move, pass and move, almost teasing their prey until they smell the blood, a player follows the striker and hey presto there’s the gap, cut them open and the midfielder is through and scores. If you look at the national team now, our whole team is made up of athletically gifted players who are strong and aggressive but they are done by the small trickery of the wizards of such teams like Spain. You can look into tactics all you want, line up a different formation, put 11 men behind the wall, it doesn’t matter it all boils down to the fact that the Spaniards can pass, and pass quickly and effectively. They go for the jugular, always looking for the chink in the armour, where is the gap, attacking in numbers.
Spaniards are taught nearly at the same time as they learn to walk and talk that possession football at a high tempo will win you games. Okay I do admit that from time to time there will be an upset but please lets look at averages here, as Brendan Rodgers claimed very recently, that if you out score your opposition on the possession stats then a good 79% of the time you will win. Obviously the critics will argue that passing doesn’t win you games, scoring does. This is naturally true, but when do you ever see a striker getting the ball and doing everything himself, literally from the back to up front.
You could argue Bale and Messi but to that I would say why have 10 more players on the pitch if they can do it all themselves? These players need a tempo and they need to be fed the ball constantly to enable them to do anything with it. I am not a statistical person but just by purely watching Messi play I can see that he needs the likes of Xavi and Iniesta to read what he is aiming to do, I highly doubt Messi will get a quick give and go around 5 players with Emile Heskey.
Coaching is the nucleus to football, players are born with talent true but the modern footballer is now more or an athlete than a footballer. The youngsters scouted now are based on such principles as physique, speed, strength rather than skill, understanding of the game and technique. Gone are the days of Gazza. The best analogy of the scouting range that I can give is that of a production line! Seem confused, well i will try to let you into my thoughts of this process.
A 13 year old lad is taller than most his age, his broad, his athletically strong and powerful when running, he’s not bad at football, he can shoot and head the ball, but he cant take players on with skill, off the ball his knowledge is poor and he cant pick a pass that opens the defence up. This player is then snapped up by an academy, trained with the most modern gadgets that could rival NASA. He is taught that because he is tall he will play CB or be a target man. He is then taught phases of play such as clearing the ball out of danger as a pass to another player outside your box is lethal and they will drop you and tear your contract up for even thinking about it.
Players need to be taught the simple of art of pass and move, off the ball, reading of the game, over lapping play, opening up teams, that by keeping the ball it not only increases your chances of winning but also is the best line of defence, you can dictate play, passing back wards and across the pitch is not always the worse thing in the world it gives you a chance to add another wave of attack on the team.
Football is more like basketball now, one team has the ball invites players forward and tries to score, the other team either concede or they themselves start a counter attack. At present the National team is playing Rugby, not basketball! Its slow, it’s awkward, it’s STOP START STOP START! There is no art in the way we play. Roy has the hardest job as he cannot re wire the mentality that these players have had embedded in their minds for so long. He can try a diamond formation, two wingers, yes excellent, finally were catching up with the tactics but we draw with Ukraine or just beat Montenegro. Why? Because we lack creativeness, we lack the mentality that these players should have been brought up with the philosophy of playing in their back gardens, enjoy the game, WANT the ball all the time, and move for one another!
There are certainly arguments against my case in some players for example Jack Wilshere seems to have the perfect blend of aggression and skill, Wilfred Zaha seems to be a player scouted at the favelas in Rio De Janeiro, but come on don’t tell me that as a whole we are not producing exciting talent. Man for man we are not as good as the likes of Spain, Germany, Brazil any many, many more.
Unless there is a change in mentality and philosophy in the educating of the game then we will always be Quarter finalists.
I am not a professional football, a retiree who once played in elite football or even got a pro contract but we all have eyes, we all have the our views, surely we can see that grass roots football in England is failing and failing miserably and without the changes above I will be asking myself again in 20 years; where did it all go wrong for the 3 lions?
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