Brooking is one of the wiser figures in English football, perhaps its wisest. It seems certain that people pay attention to him, yet for some reason his ideas never get implemented. He has been arguing that English youngsters need better technique, less pressure to win and more time on the ball for years.
This is something the rest of English football is slowly realising and starting to accept. The days of kick and rush are over. Parents need to be prevented from pushing pressure onto their children to win, rather than to enjoy the game. This is something which you could have worked out about 15 years ago by going and watching a game at youth level in England. Not much has changed in amateur football, though professional clubs have made changes. For the rest of the football world though, it required being slapped in the face by failure to qualify for the European Championships in 2008 and the dire failure of the 2010 World Cup to make them accept that the English style is backwards and belonging to the past.
And a distant past at that. The Premier League are about to bring in rules which enable clubs to sign players outside of their catchment areas, meaning they have a bigger pool of talent from which to choose players. It also will mean they can train their youngsters for longer during their teenage years, giving them more time on the ball to develop.
Something radical is clearly needed. Such reforms mean clubs will improve at developing young players, but is this really the root of the problem?
No. The root of the problem is one of mentality, and this does not change so quickly. The English default position is to react to a team passing the ball endlessly by deciding to go in with a particularly hefty challenge. Football is war in England. As Xavi observed, in England players are applauded for a crunching tackle or putting the ball out for a throw. This would never happen anywhere but in England. Not even in Wales, Ireland or Scotland. And in England at youth level, players are lambasted and sidelined if they deviate from the game plan – “get stuck in” – or ignore tactical instructions – usually a cry of “get rid of it!”
All of which makes it highly unsurprising that England has such problems at grassroots level. Players who prefer to take a touch or two on the ball and who prefer to stay on their feet are systematically sieved out of the talent pool. Is it any surprise that those few players of genuine class and skill on the ball, such as Wayne Rooney or Jack Wilshere, have often been seen to fly into a challenge with reckless abandon? If they hadn’t done this at a young age, they’d never have been in the talent pool.
Their dedication is admirable, their willingness to engage in the ugly side of the game against their nature a sign of their determination to make it as a professional. Yet their technical skills were developed at Everton and Arsenal respectively. Look at other clubs and actually, there are a number with a reputation for developing committed but technically and tactically astute players. West Ham are the most prominent, and over the years have been the most consistent supplier of top class talent to England. Manchester United, Middlesbrough and Manchester City have also made significant contributions in recent years. Charlton Athletic too. Further down the pyramid, Crewe Alexandra are a notable contributor to fine, talented young players (and also have a passing philosophy ingrained into them by their legendary former manager Dario Gradi).
So whilst these reforms will help clubs to develop quality young English talent, they don’t really address the core problem in our game. Clearly they will help, but a fundamental overhaul of the way the game is played at every level, not just professional level, is needed. In England, youth teams are primarily and solely concerned with ‘winning.’ To win the league they are in, to win a cup. Anything. In all my days playing football when I was a youngster, I never once heard anyone ever mention that it might be about helping young players develop. It’s simply a case of ‘will this player go and put in a few crunching challenges for me today?’ If you take more than a second on the ball, you’re instantly discarded as simply an obstacle to a team’s success. Not that there is much point taking a touch on the ball in youth football; players aren’t taught to move. Watch a youth game. On those rare occasions when a player dares to take two touches and look up before releasing the ball, players simply don’t move – they are static, as though being marked automatically means they have nothing more to contribute to the game until something happens.
Of course a player looking to make a pass cannot do so if everyone is marked, unless someone moves, as movement changes the dynamic of the pitch, and only through players making runs, even if they are marked, will a space be created which another player may be able to take advantage of. This very, very basic tactical revelation is never taught to young players in this country. As a result, most English players are tactically inept. And naturally, when a player takes a touch and then can’t pass to anyone because none of his team mates move, he is faced with two options. Run with the ball and probably get tackled. Or attempt a pass which will probably fail. And then that player who tried to construct something through design rather than fortune, will be blamed for the breakdown of that particular move. It is the cycle which afflicts any aspirant footballer of average height, slight physique but abundant skill.
And it has precisely nothing to do with whether Chelsea can build a school on the site of their training centre. Increasing the time a player can spend on the training pitch always helps, but it will only help so much for as long as the talent pool from which clubs can choose from is limited, and generally free of small, technical but slight midfielders. To solve this problem requires a complete change of mentality across every level of youth football. That could take a generation.