Ever since the Champions League Final between Barcelona and Manchester United, and considering the recent rise of Barcelona with a lot of young players coming through their system, people have been talking about the differences between the Academy systems in Spain and England and the style of football in both leagues. Indeed the Premier League has recently produced a very detailed document (the Elite Player Performance Plan EPPP) that is a further attempt to modify the Academy system in England.
England have won no youth trophies at World Cup level. They won the UEFA European Under-17 Championship in 2010 but this was their only trophy since winning the UEFA European Under-18 Championship in 1993, 18 years ago. This can certainly be improved.
Why hasn’t all the money spent on Academies produced better results in the lower age groups?
What is the difference in Spain for example who have won about 12 titles at youth level in the same period?
After many years in the ranks of Real Madrid as a coach and with my experience of the Liverpool Academy, the first conclusion I have drawn is that you must have a clear line of work and a person responsible for technical supervision (at Liverpool I brought Pep Segura to co-ordinate this plan). It is necessary to devise a plan to be followed and that all resources are geared to faithfully following that model.
Whether at club or national level, first you have to select coaches who want to teach, train and win in that order.
You then need to teach them what style of play and what systems are to be used and how to coach this playing style. It is essential to train them how to coach what the Club (through the selected Technical Director’s leadership) wants to teach the players.
In addition to this, coaching courses run by the FA must have an up to date modern programme, helping forward-thinking coaches who should work at good clubs, and then the club itself should stamp its own trademark on the coaching.
The EPPP is introducing a ‘performance clock’ which should benefit each boy’s progression as this will enable the boy to move but take his ‘clock’ with him to ensure continuous development.
This is not the problem. British youth players do have quality, demonstrated at U17 and U21 recently and, indeed few weeks ago at first team level, against Spain, which proved that, individually, players can have a great future.
A possible drawback to the development of grassroots football in England has been the rules for recruiting players. With the aim of protecting the smaller clubs, they merely limited something that is allowed at the professional level and this is the ability to move between teams. A professional player who wants to switch teams can force a situation with his club and, after suitable figure is paid, can have a transfer; however a boy who wanted to go to another team has in the past been restricted by geographical limitations or maybe the club with most resources to improve this player was not allowed to sign him until he reached a certain age and only after many problems between the two clubs had been resolved. I note from the recent Premier League EPPP document that there are proposed changes to be made in the recruitment rules and this is something I have been advocating for several years. This should be an improvement on the previous system and the sooner it is implemented the better.
When I worked with the youth teams of Real Madrid, we used to trial hundreds of players each year, mainly coming from Madrid, but also from all over Spain and from other countries after they reached a certain age. Moreover, the scouts were looking for players throughout the whole country. As Pep Segura, Technical Director of the Liverpool Academy, says, we must gather the talent. If the most talented players cannot work with others of their level or higher, they will not progress and many well end up being missed.
In trying to protect the smaller teams, development of the players becomes difficult and competition amongst the clubs to improve the quality of teaching is not stimulated. The better you work, the more players you will produce and the more players will come to your club to learn. Some players will go to other clubs and you will be compensated, but you will continue to attract players for the quality of your work, not just because they live nearby and have no choice.
As well, in Spain for example, 3 times a year at 5 different venues, regional teams meet to compete and there is a rule that prevents the Federation selecting more than 4 players from the same club, allowing other players from smaller clubs to take part. This is where the work of the Federation’s selection for the national teams starts.
Another important aspect that stands out, as the former Technical Director of the Spanish Federation, Fernando Hierro (the famous former player of Real Madrid who knows the English structure from his time at Bolton) has noted, is the system of competition. In Spain the players compete every week and do so at the appropriate level. In England, at age 19, if they are not quite at the required level, they are not good enough to play in the Premier League so have to go to other lower clubs where the level and style of football may not help them improve their basic skills - yes they would have to have aggression and competitiveness, but not necessarily the basic techniques that will help them grow in the future. Those who are better but still not quite good enough sit on the first team bench and may be there for years until they get fed up with it or they are a ‘super class’ and play regularly. Once again I hope that the proposed changes to competition contained in the Premier League EPPP document provide a solution to this issue that concerned me greatly during my time at Liverpool.
Change the structure of competition by creating a U21 League.
In the absence of the subsidiary teams of the club being able to compete in other divisions as happens in Spain, the only way to provide matches for these young players is through the Reserve League. From my point of view, this should be an U21 national competition with permission to select a limited number of first team players for them to keep pace with competition or recover from injury.
Investment in coaching and facilities
Invest in basic training of coaches, not just through facilities but also by training those coaches who spend most time with the youth players at the critical stage of learning.
Another aspect to consider, if you want to increase the quantity and quality of the sessions, there is the possibility of using modern artificial pitches in some age groups to improve technique and increase the number of hours of practice.
Local Regional teams
Create regional teams with a limited number of players per club to avoid prejudicing the daily work of the clubs, and with competitions between them a few times a year to start producing local players. These teams could be county based or regional based (as in Spain) following the regional set up of the FA and local county FAs.
Common guidelines to impose a particular agreed style of play and coaching for all these young local and regional teams. All coaches would be responsible for following this philosophy which should be devised by the Technical Department of the Federation
Obviously this is a personal view based on 10 years working in grassroots football and my experience at the professional level, but at least the ideas are there on the table for those who want to discuss them. I also hope to see the proposed Premier League EPP Plan implemented quickly and effectively so that it can come to fruition.
With any luck its price will be discounted if i ever get on my PGCE :)
Hello Michael, sorry I don't know more coaching courses in England
I'm interested in your thoughts on an U21 league to replace the reserve league. The changes you suggest don't seem particularly huge. Do you think they would have a significant impact or would you ideally prefer a system more akin to the one in Spain. I seem to recall from your time at Liverpool that you wanted to see the reserve teams competing in the league much like in Spain. Have you changed your stance in that regard?
Hello Wes, I was trying to give some ideas. The U'21 league, as you say it is not difficult to put in practice, they need more games, more competition. The reserve teams could be competing in the league, but this option could be an alternative in the meantime.
I'd also be interested in your opinion as to whether the home grown rules already in place have made an impact upon improving player development.
Hello Matt, the U'21 league allows players to compete, to play every week, they can stay more time in theirs clubs because this, but still the big clubs will have an advantage.
I heard there are some differences in rules for coaching youth players in England and Spain. Something like Spanish clubs can coach them for more time in a week where English clubs have time limit. What is the exact limitation and why? And it is really that big differentiation factor?
PS: The idea of U21 league is really good.
Hello Vishal, the FA is changing the rule of distance to sign players, I think it will be better in a future.
What do you think of the current setup that Pep Segura has at Liverpool? They are playing the youth team instead of reserves, so they get consistent playing time. But they are also playing against players older and much more experienced than themselves and it might not be so good for their self-confidence sometimes.
And what is your opinion on the NextGen series. Is it helpful or a determent to players progress?
Hello Ali, the problem with the Reserve League is some senior players are coming back from injuries and they can't play at a high tempo or they are not motivated to play these games.
Interesting read, insightful as always. I coach at U12's and U8's for a small village team so many of the things you talk about here are a step beyond our level. However, there are certain things that hinder kids progress at mini-league level and even below. Far too many coaches and parents place huge emphasis on winning to the detriment of skill and ability. The big kid who has physical presence gets picked ahead of the little kid with great ball control because the big kid scores more goals. The little kid gets fed up of being sub, finds something else he can participate in regularly and is lost to football.
To be fair to the FA they are looking at changing the year cut off for eligibility to have a 6 month cross over with schools which will help to some extent. But as you mentioned the teaching has to be more important than the winning and that is a very difficult obstacle to overcome when it is endemically the other way.
How do you think attitudes could be changed?
Hello Will, everybody has to send the same message and keep talking about formation at this age, it is the only way and still it will be very difficult.
One more point about kids being lost to football at an early age is that many coaches ignore the fact that kids progress at different ages. Kids who may not be great footballers at 6 years old may improve their game dramatically in a few years with decent coaching. The problem is that because the kid isn't very good initially they get left out and disheartened by the experience.
Point in hand for my U12's is that a lad who was one of the teams weakest players 2 years ago is now one of the teams best. It's hugely gratifying to see his improvement and to know that whilst he wouldn't have played for any of the bigger clubs in the area back then, he now gives their players a torrid time and scores against them!
Sometimes this issue can be down to kids growing into their bodies and gaining better control and coordination over there limbs and balance. The important thing is that kids aren't ignored because they aren't as good as their peers. They should instead be encouraged.
While Liverpool, Arsenal and probably a few more, obviously have top quality academy coaches, this is not universally the case.
The same argument would go for introducing reserve teams into the football league.
I'd completely agree that 18-21 there is a gulf in how players progress and maintain the momentum of individual development but I'm not sure this is the answer.
The english football league is unique in its depth, indeed the championship is amongst the most popular leagues in europe. This approach is predicated on the need to concentrate top talent, is that the only way this can improve or does that simply persist the current power structure and allow the gap to widen between rich and poor?
How about a league cup re-arranged into groups to guarantee more football and spread wealth around?
Hello, tanks for your comments. I was saying that the U'21 league could be a solution, noting else. There is an open debate and I agree with you 100% the gap between the 18-21 years old is crucial to produce players.