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The Pipeline Problem: U21 failings a worry for English football

With the recent conclusion of the Euro U21 Championship, the England U21 side failed to produce anything worthwhile which continued a trend of worry and concern for English football in general. Stuart Reid provides his take on the missing pieces to the English football puzzle.

As England U21s finished bottom of their group at the recent U21 European Championship, questions will again be raised about the future of the English national team. Most people have their reasons as to why England’s (male) teams are perennial underachievers, however I feel it boils down to a number of reasons in which I’ll be discussing in-depth during the article. My belief is that are 4 key points as to why England players (both senior and at youth levels) are failing at the international level.

Minutes played

The Premier League is good; that’s not a secret, neither is the fact that the amount of money that the clubs in the league have can attract the best players from the world over. This obviously hurts the domestic youngsters’ playing time, which in turn hinders their development. For instance if we look at England’s last group game against Italy; the entire English starting 11, played a combined 10972 minutes of top flight (aka Premier League) football. That works out at 121 full length matches, or an average of 11 matches per player. In contrast, the Italian starting 11 that comfortably dispatched England played a combined total of 19020 minutes, or 211 full-length games for an average of 19 games per player.

Something that also caught my eye was the fact that 7 out of the Italian starting 11 were on loan; 6 to clubs in the top division. Whilst loans are commonplace in English football, the youngsters are often loaned out to Championship or League 1 clubs rather than the other teams in their league. These are players that are mostly 21/22, and I believe that if you’re not playing top-flight football at that age, you more than likely won’t make the cut in future. The money available to teams in the Premier League is also probably a factor. Since clubs have so much money, they simply don’t need to loan players from other teams in the league – they can just buy a new player instead, whether it be a starter or a back-up player. The huge wages that the youth players are on will also deter them, especially if they can get a foreign player of equal or greater talent for less money than they’d pay a rival.

A potential solution for this would be for youngsters to be more open to moves abroad – with co-ownership now abolished in Italy, it would be a perfect place for more foreign youngsters to practise their trade. Likewise, some of the other talent-breeding grounds such as Germany, Portugal or Holland could also be ideal. The only potential snag in this plan is the wages that the English youngsters are on; Nathaniel Chalobah for instance is believed to be on around £30,000 a week at Chelsea, despite never playing a senior game for them. After his breakthrough season with Watford in the 12/13 season, Chelsea demanded that his wages were paid in full by the loaning club. This meant he couldn’t have another season at Watford, and instead went on underwhelming spells at Nottingham Forest and Middlesbrough – this is detrimental to players’ development in most cases. If Premier League clubs relaxed on demanding the wages being paid, then perhaps more foreign top flight teams would be interested in loaning some of our youngsters.

Summary: Youth players need to play more minutes at a higher level, whether that be abroad or not, but clubs need to be realistic with wages.

Progression to senior team

It’s well publicised now that 6 of the players who represented Germany in their 4-0 triumph over England at the 2009 U21 Euro Championship were in the German squad that triumphed in last year’s World Cup winning team. This simply doesn’t happen in England – friendlies aren’t used as a means to trial youth players, or slowly blend youth players into the senior team to let them acclimatise to the pressure of international football. Instead a practically full strength senior English team is played in every friendly, with an atmosphere of pressure surrounding every game. The emphasis is on winning, not developing. Using friendlies as development games should hopefully lead to winning games in the future. This isn’t helped by the fans’ demanding nature, nor the press who build up every game and seemingly cannot wait until England lose so they can “have a go” at the system. This leads into a vicious cycle that helps nobody.

This is again proven in the details; out of England’s 23 man squad for the 2013 U21 Euros in Israel, 3 of the players were called up for this season’s tournament (Butland, Redmond and Chalobah), so what’s happened to the other 20? Have they been moved up to the senior team as expected? The answer, sadly, is no – only 6 from the 23 man squad made senior appearances for England, with only 33 caps between them (Henderson has 22 out of the 33 caps!). Spain ran out eventual winners of the 2013 Euros, and the progression between their U21 and senior teams looks to be well controlled, with 14 out of their 23 man squad playing for the senior team (with 6 of those called up to Spain’s last international game, compared to just Henderson for England!).

This is prevalent throughout a majority of the age-groups of the English national team. Using the England 2011 U20 World Cup team as an example, you’d expect most of the players to have played at U21 level, however only 4 players made the step-up (20%), with just Jack Butland earning a single cap for the seniors from that group of players. Spain were one the furthest reaching European teams in the 2011 U20 World Cup. The progression to their senior team is clear, with 15 players making the step up to the U21 team (71%) and 5 making the senior team later down the line.

Summary: Players should move between the age groups, to gradually blend them in and get them used to play at the senior level.

Team Ethic

Steven Gerrard recently launched a scathing attack on the St George’s Park complex saying “When you get to England, you want to have your lunch and go to bed and keep away from everyone because there’s a shyness.” Obviously this is not an ideal atmosphere. You need to be comfortable with your teammates; if you’re shy off the pitch, there’s a strong chance that this will reflect on the pitch as well, and watching some of the recent senior England teams performances I can see that happening. Players are tentative, afraid to take risks in-case a mistake is made. Often when clubs win a league or a trophy, a strong team spirit is often labelled as a catalyst of the success and the same can apply for international football. How can this be solved with the England team? Unfamiliarity is most likely the reason for the shyness rather than the personalities of the players (professional athletes tend to be mostly outgoing and have a certain amount of ego), this can be solved partly by the previous points. If the likelihood of players in the youth teams progressing to the next age group increases, then the more time they’ll be spending with their team-mates. The more time spent together (ideally as the grow up together) the more familiar and friendly they’ll be with each other, which in turn creates a good team spirit.

Regular training sessions would also be an ideal way to build a healthy team ethic, both on and off the pitch. I believe some countries already do this and there’s no real reason as to why this doesn’t happen in England. With the reluctance of English players to move abroad, it means that all the players are already in the same country so don’t have to travel large distances (especially with St George’s Park in a central location!). Changing the fixture dates for at least 3 or 4 sessions per season wouldn’t be too much to ask, however I imagine such sessions would be opposed by Sky and also Premier League managers not wanting to risk their players to injury. Nevertheless, it would be ideal to trial new players within the national team set-up, try new ideas and to build a “togetherness” that is currently missing from the national team.

Summary: A sense of togetherness and closeness needs to be formed, this can be done by gradually transitioning youth team players in via friendlies, or introducing semi-regular training sessions.

England DNA

The FA have recently started an initiative called “England DNA”, in which they underline the key aspects that they want to focus on the improve the future of England teams:
– Who We Are

– How We Play

– The Future England Player

– How We Coach

– How We Support

I’d like to highlight the “How We Play” aspect, about which the FA say the following: ‘How we play’ focuses on the playing style and philosophy, aimed at building possession domination”. England have never been a possession domination side, and in my eyes most likely never will be – somewhat ironically, it just isn’t in our DNA. This shows whenever England play – possession for possessions sake, without using it in a useful way. The defence keeping the ball and knocking it between themselves, before eventually getting bored and trying something overly ambitious, and then losing it. Using the most recent England game as an example, the England team made a total of 552 passes – a whopping 42.39% of those passes were done by England’s back 4.  I fully understand that they’re looking at Spain as the model for this, but there’s a variety of ways to be successful on the pitch, and trying to force possession football isn’t playing to our team’s strengths.

A coach on Twitter (@paulbrightcoach) recently posted the following:

“I attended a recent “England DNA” event hosted by the FA. The event was expertly delivered with slick videos, mottos and eye catching resources. When the candidates went outside to view a practical session a friend of mine who is not from England asked me:

“Why is the England DNA highlight possession based football, dominating possession, playing through the thirds? This is not your DNA!”

I asked him to elaborate and he said:

“A countries culture dictates how things are done and manifests itself everywhere. England is a fast paced country where lots of people are rushing to do things and can be impatient, yet the people are very tactile, resourceful and resolute in getting things done & being innovative. This is also what is expected of your football; ball forward quickly, counter attack at speed and with aggression, be prepared for lots of transitions of possession but determined and resolute enough to win the ball back and go again. This is your DNA and you have had success with this in the past (we discussed Man Utd in the 1990s/200s). The Spanish DNA is possession based build up play and this is also reflected in their culture. The English don’t do Siestas for this very reason; it’s not in your culture.”

I agree with every point he makes and it’s an interesting view on the different cultures relating to a footballing culture. The players we have currently do not suit possession football, whereas I can see us being more successful if we switch up the style of play to a more direct (not necessarily long-ball) counter attacking side.

Summary: Play to our strengths, not try to force a successful model from elsewhere, we’ll be better for it in the long run.

Written by Stuart Reid

Stuart Reid

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