Sorry, but we are experiencing technical difficulties

According to the Italians recently appointed by the FA, England's best footballers – the ones who earn millions of pounds a year playing in the world's most powerful league – are not good enough at the moment to succeed at international football. Can this be so? Glenn Moore reports
Click to follow
The Independent Online

"We need more technical skill. We have to practise, practise, practise. We are trying to play more with the ball because the English culture is after two, three horizontal passes, the crowd is asking for the ball [gestures through the air, as if indicating the long punt forward]." - Franco Baldini, England's assistant manager.

This withering dismissal of the technical shortcomings of England's best footballers was made in the aftermath of the national team's victory over Switzerland last month, their first game under Baldini's boss and fellow Italian Fabio Capello. It did not receive a huge amount of attention but posed fundamental questions about the competence of England's most famous players. How is it, England fans could be forgiven for wondering, that footballers who have often been guided to the top from an early age, and now earn phenomenal sums, are lacking some basic skills in the game, such as keeping possession?

In fact, though Baldini's comment may have been an unwelcome shock to the public, it was old news to anyone who has followed the English game closely. A conversation with three of the wisest heads in the game, Arsène Wenger, Sir Alex Ferguson and Trevor Brooking, would soon appraise Baldini and Capello, of the inadequacy of their inheritance.

They would have said that the deficiencies of the seniors are symptomatic of the game as a whole, not just a one-off, leaden generation. They would have added that the malaise starts with the kids, and is as much cultural as personal.

Wenger has been so unimpressed with the standard of young English footballers he has for years been scouring Europe, and beyond, for teenage talent, a practice followed by Liverpool, Manchester United and Chelsea, and a factor in West Ham's recruitment of Gianluca Nani. "It's a fundamental problem of quality," said Wenger last October. "The kid coming from South Africa or Brazil is better than those here."

Ferguson has looked to improve young native players, both by hiring the Dutch skills expert Rene Meulensteen and by backing his academy staff's decision to cut down competitive matches against rivals in favour of playing small-sided games (four players v four) among themselves. Meanwhile Brooking, the Football Association's director of football development, has been engaged in a struggle against vested interests to overhaul the national coaching system from five-years-old and upwards.

The good news is that, after much frustration, the former England and West Ham midfielder is making progress. A share of the £220m investment in grass-roots football announced last week will be directed into youth development. By 2010 one million five- to 11-year-olds will be trained by one of 66 "Tesco skills coaches". Courses are being developed to train coaches in age-specific techniques – "You would not teach chemistry the same way to six-year-olds as 14-year-olds, it is the same with football," said Lord Triesman, the FA chairman. Small-sided football is to be encouraged. Facilities are to be improved.

It is a start, but it is not enough. The skills programmecovers only a fraction of the population. A French village Wenger recently visited had four under-16 coaches, paid for by central government. Brooking, asked to make a wish, said he would like to multiply those 66 coaches to 600 "to give every youngster the opportunity to work with quality coaches".

But hold on a minute. Have we not just been given a football lesson by Croatia, a country not long emerged from war which is not exactly overflowing with skills coaches and Astroturf pitches with nice shower blocks? Does not a Brazilian starlet burst from the impoverished, crime-ridden favela shanties every week? Did Cristiano Ronaldo not grow up in a barrio in Madeira, kicking around a ball made of socks?

It seems affluence has its drawbacks when it comes to creating professional sportsman. It is not just the fast-food diet. There is the rise of Playstation and its ilk, and the associated demise of unstructured play. When Wayne Rooney emerged he was, said the Everton manager, David Moyes, "one of the last of the street footballers, part of a dying breed". Stuart Pearce, England's Under-21 coach, remembered of his north London childhood: "Everyone played in the streets, or over the park. It was the main thing to do. You got together with a group of mates and played football."

Kids no longer hone their skills by playing these unofficial small-sided games. They are inside on the games console, often kept off the streets by watchful parents. This manifests itself not just in an alarming lack of fitness – "at some coaching sessions half the kids are out of breath in five minutes," said Brooking – but a shortage of skills.

Another problem is the climate. In The Italian Job, their book comparing football in England and Italy, Gianluca Vialli and Gabriele Marcotti note that the English weather, especially the wind, is not conducive to standing around practising skills. "It is a downside of the country," admitted the fiercely patriotic Pearce. "I watched Chelsea train the other day and came home like a drowned rat. At the end of the session Drogba was doing a shooting session and he could barely run against the wind." With a shortage of suitable indoor facilities, the FA are considering scheduling courses in the summer.

Then there is the winning mentality of English footballers, vital as a professional, less so when learning. Last July, Richard Lewis, the executive chairman of the Rugby Football League, published a review on the development of footballers. Like many such reports it gathered dust until England's defeat to Croatia provided Brooking with the necessary impetus to push through many of the recommendations. Among them is "a change in ethos in age groups 5-11 so that much more emphasis is given to skill development and acquisition. An over-emphasis on results leads to a climate of fear."

It is this focus on results which leads to the disgusting sight of parents screaming abuse at their own children, as well as other children and officials, at youth matches, as young as under-eights, up and down the country. The exceptions are the better academies, where parents are told to be silent, or cause their son to be ejected from the academy. "When we played some teams [in Premier League eight-a-side football] it was like World War Three," said Les Kershaw, the retired director of Manchester United's academy. "We played Man City and had to frogmarch a City parent from the training ground. He was effing and blinding, telling the referee he's an effing cheat."

The FA is seeking to crack down on such behaviour but, even if the parents can be controlled, weaning children away from result-driven football is difficult. Kids like to play matches, because their heroes do, and there are plenty of adults keen to indulge them as it facilitates their own "tin god" status. This is not to decry the majority of well-motivated youth team managers, few of whom receive payment, but, said Brooking, "the emphasis on winning is at too young an age group. We are not allowing kids to make mistakes."

In Italy, where parents have long been corralled away from the touchline, children play small-sided games until they are 13, graduating from five-a-side at the age of six to nine-a-side at 11. Games are won and lost, but no league tables published. If one team gets five goals ahead the losing side are allowed to bring on an extra player until the gap is reduced to three goals.

An additional side-effect of a focus on results is that size becomes all-important to the detriment of youngsters who have talent, but are late developers physically. Even national selections have been guilty of this. It is not a coincidence that there is a disproportionate number of internationals whose birthdays fall between September and December, the first few months of the school year, meaning that these are often the bigger kids.

It is not all doom and gloom. The tricks demonstrated on the skill school on Sky's Soccer AM prove some of our young men are budding Ronaldinhos. But, added Brooking: "It is all right having the party tricks, but you need to know how to use them in a team."

This is a real issue. It is not just the technical aspect which has been overlooked; we are not creating tactically aware players either. Rafael Benitez is reluctant to play Steven Gerrard in central midfield because his desire to dictate play leads him to neglect his positioning. As Arrigo Sacchi, the former Milan and Italy coach said recently, "Strength, passion, technique, athleticism, all these are very important but they are a means to an end, not an end in itself. Gerrard is a great footballer, but perhaps not a great player."

The problem is many English players do not appreciate the value of tactics, which must be a shock to Capello, given the concentration on them in his home country. Marcello Lippi told The Independent last week he believed Italians, players and coaches, were the most tactically sophisticated footballers in Europe. Terry Venables said Paul Gascoigne only realised the value of tactics after he moved to Lazio. Speaking of his time managing Nottingham Forest and Sampdoria, David Platt said: "If I don't do a single tactical session over the course of an entire week the English player either wouldn't notice or wouldn't care. The thought of a whole week without any kind of tactical work would terrify the Italian. If he hasn't prepared tactically, he does not feel prepared on the pitch."

"The English game is all about heart, ours [Italy, Portugal] is all about brains," Jose Mourinho told Vialli. "Football played only with the brain is not beautiful, but football played only with the heart is not successful."

The weather is again a problem, Vialli noting that standing around in training having tactics explained in excruciating detail is just about bearable under the Italian sun, but in an English winter...

So, we move training to the summer, we enforce small-sided matches, we silence the pushy parent, we get the chalkboard out, we study the Ronaldo stepover videos, and we win the World Cup.

Not quite. We also have to upgrade the status of the educators, the youth coaches. "We have a system where the least qualified, least experienced, lowest-paid, work with the youngest," Brooking said. "We should turn it on its head."

Jason Cundy, the former Spurs and Chelsea defender, knows this from his own experience. He coached Chelsea's youngsters for more than three years but wages of just £50 to £60 for an evening's work meant he had to reconsider. He now works in the media.

"You do not go into it for the money, you do it to stay in football," he said, "but there comes a point when the money matters and it's crap. Everyone says, 'Why do ex-pros not get involved in coaching kids?' The reason is there's no money in it. It's enjoyable, but it is time-consuming. There is so much paperwork. There is all this money sloshing around in football, but it does not filter down. Overseas youth coaches are much more highly regarded and better paid."

Brooking said: "I do not care how good a coach is; if he gets a child at 16 who has not got the technical ability he will not be able to turn him into a player. The Premier League have talent identification and scouts all over the globe, so a 16-year-old English boy is competing with best in the world."

Brooking hopes the FA's reforms will eventually reverse the trend of clubs looking overseas for academy recruits, but creating a winning England team will require more than a production line of raw talent. Pearce makes the point that failure pervades all levels. "The facts are stark," he said. "England at senior level have not won anything since 1966, the younger age groups have not won in 20-odd years. Do we have to start winning something at the top end, or do we start at the lower end, so when they end up at a European Championship or World Cup they have had that experience of winning something? The Italians who have just won the World Cup, seven of them had won the Under-21 tournament. I know when I managed the Under-21s last summer a lot of the things I was feeding down to the players I only knew from experiencing tournaments myself."

There are signs of promise. Wenger raves about the 16-year-old Englishmen at Arsenal's academy. England Under-17s reached the final of last year's Uefa Championship, and the quarter-finals in the world championship. It was, though, the first time England had ever qualified for the latter competition, which has been running biennially since 1985.

The gifted French team England face tomorrow is at the apex of a coaching structure that was overhauled long ago. Earlier this season Wenger noted that while the French federation "pumped money in" to fill the vacuum left by the decline of school sports the English FA did not. In the last decade France have won World titles at senior and U-17 level, European championships at senior, U-19 and U-17. England have won nothing because, said Wenger, they have "not dedicated enough time for football education."

Capello cannot possibly cure English football overnight. Given luck with injuries, referees and penalty shoot-outs he may carve himself a place in folklore, but sustained success will be achieved only if Brooking and his supporters can transform a national culture.

Comments