England’s youth development has long been seen as lagging behind the rest of the top European countries. It seems as if every nation goes through a rut with their youth set-ups at some point, so what exactly can we learn from those successful nations, who have managed to turn their failing youth set-ups around?
There are many improvements that could be made to the English youth set-up by implementing some of the positive aspects employed by other nations. Other European country’s have coordinated national coaching systems which put them miles ahead of the UK. Nations like Spain and France have over ten times of the amount of qualified coaches with the UEFA pro-license than the UK has, which is obviously going to have an impact on youth development on a wide scale.
In Europe young players are given a fair shot, and clubs seem to get the transition right between the youth and senior team. European players tend to make their first team debut around age 21-22, but in England young players are often not given the chance, or they are judged upon Carling Cup and substitute appearances. Young players are given no time to mature, as instant results are demanded from fans and the media, and this lack of patience seems to be inherent in our footballing philosophy in this country. We need to get the important transition between the ages of 18-21 right, or we risk losing huge amounts of talent in the system.
In other countries many smaller and lower league teams have proper world class academies. In the UK very few, outside of the likes of Leeds, Watford and Southampton from the lower tiers could claim to be genuinely world class. There is significantly less money thrown at the grass-roots in the UK, and that obviously is going to have a negative effect, compared to nations who are spending much larger amounts developing youth prospects.
If we look at other countries like Germany and Spain, they also tend to have more of a collective mentality. Clubs, instead of focusing on themselves, focus together on a common goal, to invest in the future of the national team. In Holland, clubs all train the same way focusing on technique and tactics, in a country wide method of education. Young players also have much more contact time than their English counterparts. They also have exceptional facilities and clubs are the beacons of their local community. In Holland there is also much more emphasis on fun in the game, something which seems to have been lost somewhere along the way in the English game, where winning takes preference.
All nations go through a rut at some point, but it is important to make changes to enable youth development to progress. About a decade ago Germany looked into how they could improve the game in their country. They put in place a strong structure between governing bodies-something distinctly lacking from the British game-and made significant changes to the game. There was a huge investment in German football, as well as improvements in stadia and facilities. It became a requirement for all Bundesliga, and Bundesliga 2 clubs to have youth academies which met certain strict criteria. The youth game in Germany now focuses on small sided games, prioritizing touch and technique and individual skills-just about the antithesis of the way the game is taught in the UK. In the UK players have been trained in a way that favours the physical, with power, size and strength dominating the English youth set-up, whilst technical play is simply neglected. Germany now have a thriving domestic league, with the core of its players coming from the German youth system, the changes and serious financial investment in the youth game, have clearly had a positive effect.
In some European nations there is also a tendency for youth academies to play in the lower leagues. In Spain, Barcelona and Real Madrid’s youth academies, or B teams, are filled with youngsters who play against senior teams at a much higher level than reserve team football. It is a highly competitive method of development, and is a great way for young footballers to gain experience, as well as improve their level and understanding of the game. When they are ready they then progress to the first team, and it is not such a big jump for a young player. They play against tough, experienced opponents in front of big crowds, and deal with media pressure on a regular basis, this helps them to adjust better to the game at the highest level. English players play fewer competitive games, in front of sparse crowds, and rarely get the chance to impress, especially at the big clubs. A system like the Spanish one is unlikely to be given the go-ahead by the FA, and it does pose problems with regard to wiping out the identity of lower league football in this country. However, it would certainly improve standards of young footballers, and make the transition to senior football easier for them. Spanish football was in a rut before its recent glorious period, and it has taken them 20 years for the changes they made to their youth system to pay off. By making changes they have ensured that youngsters have adopted a style of play to suit their level of skill and technique, and this fits in with the nations footballing philosophy as a whole.
In other successful European nations players tend to play on smaller pitches at younger ages, which seems to be very beneficial. In the UK children move to full size pitches far too early, which puts the emphasis on an athletic based game, favouring the physically gifted over the technically gifted smaller players. Under 11’s playing 11 a side on a full size pitch, with full size goals is frankly ridiculous, the players get little time on the ball, and it is often discouraging for a lot of youngsters. In Spain, Italy and France, they don’t move to full size pitches until around the age of 14, and by learning the game on a smaller scale players acquire the skills which have put them at the forefront of world football.
It is the whole structure and philosophy that needs to be overhauled if we are to improve youth standards in this country. We need to change our whole attitude to football from the grass-roots up, with a system of education that improves on our technical deficiencies, teaching these skills at an early age. Our desperation for results and immediate investment-in mostly foreign players-has forced spending on youth development down the priority list and this needs to change if we are to see improvements in this country. It is difficult to say that what works in one country will work in another, but clearly there are some changes and positives that we can take from other countries, which would do nothing to further harm the state that English youth football is already in.
Do you think we should take on board some of the methods of other nations? Let me know your thoughts by commenting below or following me on Twitter @LaurenRutter for more comment and debate.