Going back to our roots

November 11, 2013
Performance Comms

As we go into another international break, Sam Brandon looks at the Grass Roots system that has left the national team one step behind.

The performance of the England national team is one of the biggest talking points before and after every international break but for me, it’s no coincidence that they continue to disappoint at major international competitions. Campaign after campaign has been filled with hope and quickly drowned out by despair and disappointment. There’s no denying that England have had some of the best players in the world over the last 20 years who play in what is largely considered the greatest and most competitive league in football. So why is it that the team continue to fall short of their capabilities? The answer lies within the most simple of conclusions – it’s where football starts for every player, grass roots.

It is no coincidence that England have failed to make the final of any international competition since their World Cup win in 1966. In fact, since 1996 when England made the European Championship semi-finals England have won just 13 of 29 matches in World Cup or Euro competitions. This lack of success has proved that despite England’s world class Premier League structure, there are still underlying problems in the way players grow up within the English game.

Spain’s dominance over world football over the past five years, followed closely by the likes of Germany, Holland and Italy, proves that European football is the new force in international football. The South Americans have fallen away and although footballing nations from Asia and Africa continue to show promise, there is just no sign of anyone competing with the top European sides. What is it that makes Spain and the others so different to England? What are they doing right? It comes down to the playing style of the players, how they are brought up to play football. From the very beginning flair is something that is nurtured and developed, alongside technical abilities, to ensure that football is played to match its slogan as ‘the beautiful game’

Now take English footballers. They are taught the basics and the ins and outs of every position and skill necessary to play the game. They are guided into positions that are suitable and learn those skills down to a tee. This lack of freedom and restriction of natural abilities can stop a number of young players, who are still only halfway to achieving their full potential, from becoming free-flowing footballers with exceptional ability to do the unthinkable.

I’m a goalkeeper and when I was 11, I got made to play on a full size pitch with full size goals, something that not only affected my development as a player, but also affected my confidence. I couldn’t kick past the edge of the penalty area and was getting beaten by shots that were a meter or two wide of me.

This was standard for kids up until U16 level to play on full size pitches up until recently when all of the under age group level coaching was restructured whereby the younger age groups now play in smaller games (eg 7v7 or 9v9) on smaller pitches with smaller goals. This doesn’t just increase skill levels of the players but it also enhances their development no end.

At the moment, England has 1,161 coaches at Uefa ‘A’ level compared with 12,720 in Spain and 5,500 in Germany. At pro licence level, England has 203 coaches, Spain 2,140 and Germany more than 1,000. This is another thing that needs to change if we are to see a development in the National side’s results at major tournaments at the top of the game.

So many times we see foreign players do amazing things in front of goal. Take Kasami’s  goal against Palace or Robin van Persie’s volley against Aston Villa,  as an example. You could think of dozens of foreign players that could pull of the sublime in the Premier League, now think of British players. Wayne Rooney’s bicycle kick, Crouch’s volley, Beckham’s goal from the halfway line way back and numerous Gerrard thunderbolts. Then think of the number of wonder goals for England in recent years. Beckham’s free kick versus Greece and Owen’s unbelievable goal as an 18 year old in the 1998 World Cup are the only two that stick out, and although there may be more, they are few and far between

At the moment, stats released last week showed that just 30% of Englishmen make up Premier League teams, a stat, in my mind that is unacceptable.

One player that has come through the system with his own playing style and looks set to be a key figure in the England set up for many years to come is Jack Wilshere, despite his recent controversy. Although prone to injury, when fit he can be one of the most influential players on the field, and at the age of 22 there is still a lot more to come. There is no point likening him to other great midfielders around the world because that’s not what England need. England need a one of a kind midfielder, not another Gerrard or Lampard, who are great players in their own right but have never managed to produce their best form for their country when it’s mattered.

Wilshere proved against Brazil, earlier in the years, against Barcelona for Arsenal in the Champions League, and against Man United this weekend that he has what it takes to control an international fixture against one of the best sides in the world. However, one player is not going to win trophies, so who else do England have that could make the difference in the future?

Immediately you think of the likes of Tom Ince and Wilfred Zaha who have set the Championship alight in recent years. They both will hope to be playing regular Premier League football next season and there is no doubting their chances of playing regularly for England in the future. Raheem Stirling is perhaps the biggest talent of them all but is still raw when it comes to finding consistency – his progression may well depend on the success of Liverpool over this coming season.

Henri Lansbury has the makings of a future star having been brought up under the guidance of the Arsenal academy, like Wilshere. He is a proven goalscoring midfielder having found the net on numerous occasions this season. If Nottingham Forest find themselves in the Premier League next season he may well produce his finest season yet, cementing himself as a candidate to partner Wilshere once Gerrard has called it a day, or possibly before.

Looking at the U21 part of the game, Spain’s U21 European Championship victory in 2011 showed England exactly what they were missing and what they will continue to lack at international level if the way in which we produce players isn’t altered. There will be no rest when Iniesta and Xavi call it a day as shown by the incredible rise to the top by Juan Mata, Isco, Cazorla etc who was were all part of the U21 squad in 2011.

The fact there is even talk about England capturing Man United’s startlet Adnan Januzaj is just ridiculous. He’s only 18, and although he’s clearly gifted, surely the FA and England fans should be wanting to produce their own Januzaj’s who have been brought through the ranks? Whether or not foreign players should be able to play for England is a different matter completely. Yes, the FA have made a start in trying to develop the game at grassroots level, but it may well be too little too late.

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