Where are England going wrong when it comes to youth development?

Andrew Gaffney

This week has seen Manchester City receive praise for making changes to how their academy system works. I imagine this vision was started by their director of football Txiki Begiristain ahead of Pep Guardiola’s appointment as they look to offer long-term stability to the City project.  It makes sense to ask around Europe’s top academies and see what they are doing and in turn find out the errors which were previously in place.  There’s no doubt the current system, used by most clubs, fails a lot of talented players in the country.

When I visited the FC Porto Football School I was amazed by the level of detail put into the training sessions as well as the facilities on hand for youngsters to take full advantage of. The kids are treated as if they are professionals, educated on the game and given feedback on how to improve their own development. No one is deemed a lost cause as the objective is to become the best you can, not promise you a future in football. Only that if it does become a reality, you’ll be prepared.

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I asked Joao Teixeira, the head of FC Porto’s school, the million dollar question: Where are England getting it wrong when it comes to youth development? “Honestly, it’s the coaching. The mentality and the football is different to here but in my opinion, and I’ve worked with a top side in England, there is still a strong emphasis on creating a show as opposed to a tactically astute game plan.”

Does this mean that the fame which comes with the Premier League, it’s brand of exciting football, has in turn caused itself long-term damage?  The debate as to what league is the best will never end, almost like the Messi vs Ronaldo battle, but there’s no question in terms of quality that the Premier League lags way behind LaLiga.  As a show, as a one-off spectacle, it can have you on the edge of your seat for 90 minutes but we’ve seen that when English clubs come up against an organised, experienced European side they are often exposed for that openness.

“In Spain, Portugal and Italy the priority is on organisation and the tactical side of things.  In England they enjoy the chaos.”  And while people will say that’s enjoyable to the spectator we’re also talking about telling our kids its better to produce moments of magic than it is to be tactically aware and organised throughout 90 minutes. Would a Sergio Busquets type be equally as admired had he come through say Stoke City’s youth system? Do we admire the less ‘fancy’ side of the game?

When Joao told me the problem was the coaching it seemed almost so obvious that I should know this already.  We’ve seen in previous years how the number of qualified football coaches in Spain dwarfs those that exist in Great Britain.  A greater talent pool is at England’s disposal but with less people there to guide them it sounds like a recipe for disaster. I was keen to find out what Joao thought were the main issues England, in general, needed to address in order to solve the problem.

“First, it’s the selection of the players. You pick players based on certain criteria. If your criteria is centred around size and weight you’re going to have great athletes but not [great] footballers.” How many times have we heard about players being turned away because they weren’t tall enough? Or in your school team, how many headless chicken wingers did you have that weren’t very good at the game but were fast as lightning?

“At a young age it’s very easy to confuse a good talent for football with a good athlete. That’s because at this stage an athlete can overcome a good footballer, especially if they’re playing against smaller, thinner opponents. You’re focus is on the bigger, stronger player who dominates the match.”

“What we try to do here is look at the other ones who play with their eyes on the game, whose positioning is always related to where the ball, teammates or rivals are. Also on their technique and movement and whether they can open up the play. We analyse the solutions available to the player, even if they get it wrong sometimes, but the fact they’re looking for different solutions is important.”

And what about those bigger, stronger athletes who dominate matches at youth level? “Normally the stronger and faster guys choose the same solution because they can run past, or power past their opponents and score lots of goals. But that image is a falsehood. When they grow up and they’ve only learnt that way of playing, when the physical side evens itself out and they don’t have that advantage, they don’t stand out anymore.”

Of course, this leads us on perfectly to Joao’s other issue with England at youth level. “The coaching and how you develop the talent in football. If you just pick strong and fast players it’ll be harder to develop more intelligent players as they’ll focus primarily on the physical side. If you get players who are technically better, who look for more solutions, who look to keep hold of the ball and have a good understanding with teammates, you’ll develop a better side.”

At Porto they have a methodology which starts from the youngest teams right up to the senior squad, focusing on the technical side fused with their idea of how to play the game. It isn’t a static formation but more a fluid one which changes depending on whether you’re attacking or defending, or if you need to cover for someone who is out of position for example.

It’s an expressive, open system which is constantly adapting to what’s happening in the match.  It’s about being intelligent with and without the ball, controlling the rhythm of the game or possession. “If you have the ball you have control of the game,” is something I heard a lot while I was watching the training sessions.  The idea that you don’t need to charge around when you have control of possession, wasting energy, but instead make your opponents work as hard as possible to regain possession. “We also think that if you play a beautiful, attractive game they’ll learn more than from ‘rush’ football.”

That’s not to say learning football the right way is easy, especially for those who have learnt traits elsewhere. That’s why good coaching is crucial from the beginning as if you teach them inadequately it will be difficult for them to shake off those bad habits when presented with a different way of playing. “Some of the older boys are afraid to think for themselves because they’ve had a coach shouting and screaming at them from the bench.  If you offer them alternatives they find it difficult as they’ve become used to listening to orders and never developing their own footballing brain.“

Another priority is making sure the children enjoy the training sessions. They are there to learn, to develop their skills but the focus above everything else is that they enjoy playing the game. “If they’re smiling they’re in a good mood to learn. It’s easier to develop and learn with a positive feeling.  Even the coaches recognise this so they too enjoy the experience.”

Parents are also key to their children’s development but they need to remember to be parents first, not experts.  We all want the best for our kids but believe it or not, the coach knows more than you or I do. Even if your son is playing in defence when he’s been the top scorer for the last two seasons, trust their judgment and don’t create conflict or tell your children the coach has got it wrong. It’s crucial everyone pulls in the same direction.

“With youth you can’t expect results in the short-term and you maybe need to wait five years or more to see them.”  This is another issue with English football and notably in the Premier League, as so many managerial and set-up overhauls means a system is stopped before it’s even given the time to come to fruition.  Research as much as possible and implement a strategy which you feel gives you the best chance of developing youngsters and stick with it, let it grow and reach its potential.

As Joao himself says, there’s no magical formula when it comes to football but a clear vision and goal is absolutely necessary to give yourself the best chance possible.  In England we’re wasting a lot of talent due to inadequate coaching and hopefully more teams will begin to take City and Tottenham’s lead when it comes to making the academy the backbone of the club.

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