Watching recent games between Barcelona and Manchester United in the Champions League and the England under 21s against their Spanish counterparts, it is obvious there is a big gulf in the style of play between English and Spanish football.
There has been a difference in how football is played in Britain and on the continent, with English football being more about strength, speed and playing the ball forward as quickly as possible, whereas in Spain football is much slower with an emphasis on controlling the ball and playing it to feet. It is much more focussed on possession of the ball than creating half chances.
The tide seems to have turned in favour of Spanish football, and the English game appears to have been left behind. We all enjoy watching Spanish football at the highest level, marvelling at the way their players are able to control the ball, pick out team mates with a measured and accurate pass and carve open teams with simple passing football.
The reason English football appears to be going backwards compared to other parts of Europe is not because they have better players, it’s due to their vision and how they are developing youth football.
Spanish football was in a rut, much like the English game has been for many years, and unlike England, who think the only way to solve it is to buy the most successful foreign coaches to bring success to the national team, Spain made a plan to improve youth football, and decided to make football for kids uniform across all of the game.
In the 70 years since Spain first entered the World Cup, they have only once gone past the quarter-final stage, before winning the competition in 2010. This persistent failure prompted the Association of Spanish Football to put a plan in place to improve the quality of football in Spain.
Unlike England who very much takes a top down approach; fix the England team and you fix English football. In Spain they have focussed their attention on youth and developing their game, ensuring their young players adopt a style of play that suits their level of skill and technique, and ensuring their coaches are trained to coach the techniques which are congruent to their footballing philosophy.
Watch any youth match in Spain today and you will see the teams playing the same style of football, (pass, control, move and receive), and this is not just the academy teams but also the local clubs too.
Jose Mourinho once said, “In England, you teach your kids how to win. In Portugal and Spain they teach their kids how to play.” Speaking on TALKsport radio, former Chelsea and Tottenham Hotspur player, Micky Hazard, now a youth team coach explained that during a recent FA Level 2 course he attended, he was instructed to teach the children to get the ball forward as early and as quickly as possible. This style of football belongs to the 1980’s where the ball was hoofed up field in the hope the striker would pick up on a defensive mistake, and doesn’t teach the young players the fundamental techniques of control, body shape, kicking technique, passing and possession.
The reason this style of football appears to be taught in FA coaching courses is because the FA doesn’t have a coherent and structured coaching philosophy and it allows its coaches to teach what they like.
If the FA does have a coaching policy their message is obviously not getting across to their coaches. This situation is further compounded when we compare the number of qualified coaches in England and the rest of Europe, and this is another area where English football is way behind that of its European neighbours. Not only is the quality of coaching poor in England, there are also too few coaches. There are 15 times more qualified coaches in Spain than in England holding the UEFA A and UEFA Pro licenses. There are just over 1,000 coaches in England and about 15,000 in Spain.
The disparity in the number of coaches further explains the two differing philosophies to coaching in the two countries, with Spain having a bottom up approach, teaching their coaches to train their kids in a certain way and making coaching much more accessible to the local clubs. In England they are looking to make the top right and hoping that the rest of football follows the national side.
In recent years Spanish football has shown England the right way to proceed. Coach the kids to play the right way and you will develop a much better standard of football.
Other European countries focus their coaching much more on small sided games, giving players more touches of the ball, with Futsal being at the forefront of their coaching methods. In England kids at 10 years of age play 11-a-side football on full adult pitches with full size goals; this does not happen in many other European countries.
Former Middlesbrough player and manager, Gareth Southgate has recently been appointed head of Elite Development at the FA, with the remit to implement the FA’s 25 point plan to improve coaching and youth development. However good this appointment is, Southgate must look to local football and developing its coaches. It is fine to improve the quality of football at the top level, the elite of the game, but you must ensure the children at the youngest ages are learning the game properly, and you can only do that by ensuring you have enough of the right quality coaches, teaching good football techniques.
Following the introduction of mini-soccer, children as young as 3, 4 and 5 are starting to learn to play football, and the coaching given to them at that age is not from the elite of football who Southgate will be focussing on, but local football coaches who may have been through a level 1 coaching course. To ensure English football is pulled up to the level of its neighbours, these local coaches must be taught to coach in the right way. The 5 year olds may one day become the elite players we watch on television and their coaching begins with local clubs on local parks, not to manicured training pitches at the likes of Chelsea’s Cobham training ground and being trained by professionals.
English football must take a lead from their continental neighbours and take a bottom up approach, developing and improving the lowest level of football.
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