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.