An old debate briefly resurfaced on Twitter last Saturday morning. The night before, ex-Arsenal midfielder Patrick Vieira, one of the main exponents of the FA’s idea to introduce B teams to the English league system, had revisited this territory when discussing the Premier League’s low success rate in bringing through English youngsters. The idea is part of a plan to improve England’s standing on the international stage.
This sparked further comments on the shortcomings of the current under-21 system in developing home-grown youngsters. Danny Higginbotham and Trevor Sinclair both got involved, as did Troy Townsend — father to Newcastle’s new signing Andros. The former was in favour of reinstating traditional Reserve team football, suggesting the merits were greater for young players competing against senior professionals. Sinclair was more open to the B teams idea.
There are faults with the current set-up for sure, but the entire subject is a huge red herring to make the FA appear as if they’re doing something while avoiding the fundamental issue. And people are falling into the trap. Numerous impassioned debates as to the proposal’s pros and cons have taken place, but the main issue continues to escape everyone — England won’t produce a conveyor belt of talent until players receive better coaching.
It is akin to an awkward kid who doesn’t have many friends going out and buying a nice pair of shoes, thinking others will now like him. He did this because he saw a popular boy at school who wore them and was told how good they look. But the unpopular child remains the same person — he doesn’t start winning new friends, because his behaviour and personality are the same.
That’s the problem with us — wanting to replicate the leading nations’ structures, but failing to understand what at a fundamental level which make these structures so robust and successful. Creating an extra division to accommodate B teams in the professional leagues wouldn’t suddenly help produce the concentration of talent that Spain and Germany have. Similarly, Barcelona didn’t produce Messi, Xavi and Iniesta just because their B team plays in Spain’s Segunda División B.
Take Italy as an example of the contrary. They’ve managed to be OK at football and produce quality players without having B teams or even a Reserve league. Sure, they haven’t set the world alight of late but in the last 10 years they’ve managed a World Cup win and a European Championships final. England are miles away from achieving either.
If under-21 football isn’t giving young players the tools to make the grade, which is true to an extent, the same can be said for their day-to-day education. Just before Spain won Euro 2012, manager Vicente Del Bosque attributed their success to “the efficiency of its clubs’ soccer academies and high quality of coaching staff.” England has learned nothing from Spain’s period of dominance. Instead of finding out how to improve our academies, we’ve pretended to look useful by talking about structural reforms and overseas quotas.
How many times does it get said that England lacks a footballing identity? Rafael Benítez mentioned it after we exited the 2014 World Cup. Interestingly enough, he mentions Italy and Spain, who were also eliminated at the group stage, as having a brighter future than England despite these disappointments. In November last year, Del Bosque commented on the absence of any ‘authentic English style’ of football just days before the two countries met in a friendly. In said friendly, Spain outclassed England. Again.
Something like this can only be achieved by working with players from their formative years, explaining to them the basic principles of a certain style and practising them. This is why Barcelona, Bayern and Borussia Dortmund have turned over exceptional squads with homegrown talent. England would at least give themselves a chance of managing this by taking a similar path. Yet I don’t see our youngsters learning to play any particular way.
One of Higginbotham’s tweets read that players are over-coached and held back from expressing themselves, hence they lose interest in football at a crucial development phase. I get his point — depressingly, young players are still trained to play in one position rather than learn to be comfortable everywhere on the pitch. And they still get bollocked when they try to play out from the back and lose the ball.
But at the same time, they don’t learn enough about appreciating space or decision-making. Why do you think we’ve looked so ordinary when put up against the likes of Xavi, Iniesta, Pirlo, Özil, Schweinsteiger etc.? Senior football — at least at any decent level — is more detail-oriented than just stick the best 11 players on the pitch and hope for the best. And players who aren’t prepared for that won’t make it.
How is this relevant to the B team debate? Well, training and coaching is the most important part of a young player’s development. Of course he needs match experience too, but without quality training he won’t acquire the fundamental technique, intelligence and understanding of the game required at the highest level. Then he’ll be out of his depth when playing in the first team, whether he plays in a development squad, a B team or a Reserve team as a 19-year-old.
And this is what’s happening with England. We’re going wrong at a more basic level.
But if our shortcomings are so obvious — and they are, they show every time we come up against players who can keep the ball — why doesn’t the FA do something about it? I suppose it’s because they don’t know why it’s a problem. It’s extremely hard to tell the difference between genuinely good coaching and coaching that appears good but is just coaching for the sake of coaching. It’s much easier to look at the models of more successful countries and attempt to copy something.
It’s also easy to be impressed by someone who is knowledgeable and speaks convincingly when coaching players, who in turn enjoy being coached by him. But that doesn’t necessarily make him a good coach. The fact is that our foreign counterparts have moved ahead of us when it comes to player development and styles of play. And we are constantly playing catch-up. We have to look deeper into how players are brought up because of this.
We go on about how well our players do at junior level, but this counts for nothing. No player is the finished article as a teenager, and the step-up from playing with people your age to playing with 20 and 30-somethings is massive. And if players aren’t equipped with the tools by the time they reach this age, it’s very difficult to find them.
What we’re guilty of is looking at previous successful crops of players we’ve produced, and latching onto clichés such as ‘golden generation.’ This leads to the misguided optimism that one day a group of really good players will emerge, while repeating the things we do that have seen us fail. This debate is a symptom of that — thinking the players could do well but that the system is holding them back.
It isn’t good enough to think that we’ve had good teams in the past so another will come along. Football does work in cycles, yes, but there’s a reason for certain teams appearing at the peaks of these cycles more often than others.
Until the FA realises how deep the root of the problem lies with English football, we’ll see the same debate repeated every year.