While watching England at the U20s World Cup, as well as the U21s’ dismal European Championship recently, I keep hearing our coaches shout ‘keep the ball, keep the ball’ at the players.
I think that football has actually moved on from ‘keep the ball’ already. I understand that many people wanted to emulate Barcelona’s approach but that can only work if you have the best players for that approach.
Regardless of which exact style template a team plays to, it is important to have a cutting edge. Whether it is tiki-taka or route one, a team can be successful if they are creating chances often enough and quickly enough via that particular approach.
With the exception of Spain and Barcelona, many successful sides – Borussia Dortmund as a good example – attack with speed, get a final ball in, have a dig at goal and then quickly get back into position.
I think England’s current failings have a lot to do with that lack of cutting edge, and the type of players we produce.
You have to have players who think and act very quickly to pull this off. Unfortunately I do not see many of them at any age level of our game at the moment.
England as a country have always produced a certain type of player. First and foremost they must be physically-strong players because the league is physically-demanding, and as a result we do not really produce the quick, technical type of player who wins games.
Take Germany and Belgium for example. They have decided to change the DNA of their football squads and develop a certain type of player – an attacking player. You see each country producing a lot of number 10-types, strikers, attacking midfielders… all goal-scorers.
They start this at the age of five or six, and I believe a player establishes their general understanding of the game around the age of 11 or 12.
For England to be able to put out a dominating side, they must change and modernise exactly what they look for in a footballer at these ages.
Some have predicted that this would not happen for at least 30 years, and perhaps that is accurate. But I understand the hopes of England fans with each tournament, senior and youth, that they will go all the way and win a tournament.
Of course that will always be possible. Greece proved in 2004 and Denmark proved in 1992 just how arrogant the predictions of the masses can seem sometimes, and England certainly have enough talent to combine with a spot of luck for that big win sooner than 30 years’ time.
Still, a lot of the criticisms aimed at the way England produce players are very easy to understand. There is a lack of a cutting edge and unfortunately it does not begin at senior ranks. It begins with the youths and continues from there.
Of course, not helping England is that consistent bar of expectation that follows them around, no matter how many years pass with them not coming anywhere near to those expectations. It’s unfortunate to see that this negativity is just as intense for the youth squads as it is the seniors.
Think of it this way: you could never expect England to not qualify for a string of major tournaments and spend that time working on the problems in the overall game. They would be vilified even more for not reaching those tournaments!
The pressure comes if they qualify, the pressure comes if they fail to qualify, and throughout all of this enough has not been done to address the problems.
There is too much of a spotlight on England’s international adventures (or mis-adventures), with no let-up at all. It’s one thing when this is the case for the senior side, but seeing the same thing intensify on the under-20s and under-21s – squads designed half for development, half for results – makes it even more difficult to see a change in player development on the horizon.