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Style Over Stamina: Why it’s time British children had a ball at their feet

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England’s failure to qualify for Euro 2008 has had fans, officials and journalists alike busily arguing over the state of the English national game.

It’s not exactly all going swimmingly. Steve McClaren’s appointment was as much a symptom as it was a cause, but the first signs that Brian Barwick actually intends to remedy the game’s ills are beginning to drag themselves into sharp focus.

The national set-up is, supposedly, taking a long hard look at itself. The association has appointed the right man for the job at long last, bringing in Fabio Capello to deliver a swift boot to the rears of England’s prima-donna megastars and remind them that ‘you might be famous, but I’m your manager and you’ll do as I say’. And, if reports are to be believed, that’s exactly what’s happened.

In a strange time of reflection for English football, though, most of the sport’s fans and officials are aware that the rot runs deep. We are, at last, stoically refusing to be swept away by the tide of optimism, preferring instead to wish Capello well and give him our backing, but take seriously the fight to fix football.

England’s international footballers find themselves exposed against foreign opposition, including those of lesser reputation. I’m not in the business of naming names. England as a team amount to much less than the sum of their parts on the international stage. Why?

Of course poor coaching and management plays a role. Sven-Goran Eriksson’s favouritism and lack of adventure, and McClaren’s total lack of ability at that level were depressing, but perhaps we should be thanking Capello’s predecessors for making England’s problems starkly obvious.

The problem? 4-4-2. Not the fact that we play it, but the fact that it is so natural to us that reliance thereupon is never coached out of our youngsters. 4-4-2 is the England way, but it’s also the English disease. That’s not to say it is worse than any other formation currently in popular use but, for the English, rigidly sticking to what we think is our best strategy has become the enemy of flexibility. That flexibility is the very thing our opponents are becoming better and better at.

England are caught out when playing 4-4-2. It’s predictable, easy to contain and, crucially, we don’t really have the strikers for it. It’s also been proven beyond doubt that ill-prepared experiments into the English unknown — the diamond formation, five across the middle, the ‘Chelsea’ wide front three — also result in disappointment. And that points to serious issues at the grass roots.

English football, from top to bottom and from bottom to top, is obsessed with fitness and athleticism. These attributes are revered above all, and players are now expected to be beefy man-mountains first and foremost.

Skill is dying out in England because we coach fitness, not football. Meanwhile, Europe and the world continues to approach football in a far more insular way, and yet a way in which foreign football is allowed to expand its horizons.

There are perhaps four nations which are widely considered to be ‘natural‘ football nations: Argentina, Brazil, Italy and the Netherlands. Granted, the first three do have a certain natural swagger in their footballing outlook. But all four have one thing in particular in common, and that is that their footballers start young, and for the most part they grow up with a ball at their feet.

And it is that approach which must form the backbone of English football’s rehabilitation.

Sadly, I believe we can forget about catching up with the rest of the world — notwithstanding Capello’s genius — for years to come. But future generations are far from lost causes, if — and that’s a huge if — English football is ready to become something new.

So here’s a radical suggestion (or not): English kids should be brought through their training lives — from five years old to 35 — with a football in their possession at all times, wherever possible. Young players lacking comfort on the ball leads to too much focus on ball control, which should eventually come naturally. As a consequence, there is less adaptability — that’s why we’re stuck in this 4-4-2 malaise.

A brilliant piece on children’s football in February’s FourFourTwo highlighted my next suggestion: kids should spend a good part of their practice sessions passing the ball to one another along the marked lines of a football pitch. It’s so simple, yet so effective. Young players learn to pass the ball crisply, and to receive a pass. It’s a little more vital than running laps.

Thirdly — and it pains me to say this as I’m something of a traditionalist — children should be encouraged to play small sided games until 12 years of age. Futsal, as it’s become known, is not the answer. It works abroad, that much is clear. But for me it bears too little resemblance to the real sport, and let’s not forget we’re playing catch-up here.

Six-a-side and then eight-a-side should be the precursors to full-blooded football as children emerge as teenagers. There would be more (useful) space, more time and more self-expression. Why should these children waste half a match racing around simply trying to cover the ground of a full-size pitch?

As mentioned, the more natural ball control becomes, the more time we have to teach our young players about tactics — and tactical flexibility is the only way English football is going to combat its current quagmire. So let’s use that time. Let’s teach long ball, and total football, and 4-4-2 and 4-5-1. Let’s give these young football brains the food they require to succeed.

Finally, and perhaps most unlikely to come to fruition, there needs to be a great deal of societal-level change in the way football is provided for. We need improved facilities, safer places to play which are better equipped. We need parents to remain quiet and respectful while watching their children play football. The aforementioned piece in FourFourTwo outlines horrific behaviour by parents, and the decline in the number of kids playing football as they grow out of the embarrassment of it all.

And we need to forget the winning-at-all-costs mentality which blights youth football at its younger reaches. Six-year-olds should be learning, not winning. Winning develops passion, but we have proven time and again that the English bulldog spirit isn’t enough when facing the tactically astute Europeans or the naturals of South America.

If English football is to succeed in the long term, it needs to do its best to mirror both of those attributes. The only way that can happen is if this country’s youth football infrastructure is set up in the right way. My way may not be the right one, but there is no doubt that root-and-branch change is the order of the day.

Written by Chris Nee – Independent Football Blogger

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