There were some very telling statistics from England’s quarter-final defeat to Italy on Sunday; they had just 37% possession and only eight shots to Italy’s 31, Andrea Pirlo completed more successful passes than England’s three most accurate passers combined, and most shockingly, Joe Hart touched the ball more than any other Englishman.
England are not quite as bad as those facts suggest. They played relatively well for the opening half hour but they were simply exhausted. Their inability to retain possession in the group stages left them tired, both physically and mentally, evidenced by Steven Gerrard suffering from cramp after just 70 minutes.
The limitations of this England side are the same we have seen many times over. Poor technique in comparison to the leading European sides leads to an inability to retain possession, whilst tactically the English national team has always been relatively rigid.
The next generation of English players suffer from the same deficiencies – apparent in the last Under 21 World Cup when England took on Spain and were thoroughly outplayed. There are some exceptions but these are one offs and a result of individual talent or specific circumstances. Jack Wilshere, for example, is a much more technically driven player but he has been schooled under Arsène Wenger’s regime since a young boy.
Ultimately it comes down to education. Just as in any other sector, the early stages of development define the end product – it’s why we place so much value on a child’s school education before the age of 11. In the football world, England are the equivalent of a failing private school – it has all the funding and resources required yet is reactive rather than proactive, remaining several steps behind the best at all times. Recently the English FA belatedly voted in favour of changes to youth football, in an attempt to emulate their Spanish counterparts. The new proposal is for a mandatory five-a-side format up to the age of nine, before progressing to nine-a-side until the age of 14 when the transition to full sized pitches will be made.
I have been advocating big changes to the structure of youth football in England for many years. Having children below the age of 14 playing on a full sized pitch with full sized goals simply encourages the wrong ‘skills’. Invariably, the team with the strongest and quickest players will win since there is so much open space on the pitch to play with. Meanwhile players are encouraged to ‘get rid’ in defence and ‘aim over the top’ for their quick striker to run onto. Winning is everything and technique is an afterthought for most youth coaches.
If FIFA announced tomorrow that the next World Cup will be played on pitches three times their current size, the reaction would be one of shock and outrage. The quality would obviously be diminished and the game would become farcical, yet this has somehow been seen as reasonable for youth football in England until now.
Consider the impacts of playing in smaller formats and the advantages are clear. It encourages technique and movement as the primary skills rather than strength and pace, leading to players feeling more comfortable in possession and being able to operate in tighter spaces. The ‘positional’ play learnt on a full sized pitch at that age is false as players tend to bunch together and follow the ball. However, the positional understanding (such as where you should be in relation to your teammates, how to occupy the correct space defensively and how to create space offensively) will be developed at a significantly more rapid rate on smaller pitches. Focusing on these skills at such an early age will create a tactical understanding and flexibility that can be transferred to larger formats of the game at a later age.
Although late, the changes imposed by the English FA are the first step towards progression, but they must be accompanied by a change in culture and mentality. England’s next generation must be taught that technique is vital and possession is king, rather than be swayed by the traditional ideals of English football. Winning should not be considered everything, rather, gaining the skills to win at a later age should be the goal. Only then will England eventually develop a national side capable of competing with the very best.