Where footballers are made

street football

Football every corner. Photo by Zlatko Vickovic, http://www.flickr.com

Identifying talent at a young age is a very difficult thing to do. Even when it is spotted successfully, it is often dulled rather than nurtured, resulting in many talented youngsters leaving their sports, burn-out and disillusioned. This argument is eloquently elaborated by Ed Smith in his latest piece in the NewStatesman: http://www.newstatesman.com/politics/sport/2017/03/praise-late-developer

A former England cricketer, Smith is a consistently thoughtful and thought-provoking columnist, connecting an insider’s sporting perspective to broader themes beyond the field of play. ‘In praise of the late developer’ he calls into question a culture in the UK that fast-tracks those who display the most obvious strengths from an early age.

Often, ‘strength’ is the key word. The biggest, strongest and quickest kids commandeer attention (presumably explaining the career of Carlton Palmer); if you’re small, then it helps to be as good as Messi or Xavi.

Smith notes that ‘children don’t develop in a linear way,’ including physically, and early judgements may thus turn out to be erroneous ones. He also points to the ‘value of having transferable skills rather than a single focus from a young age. ’ A great illustration of this point is provided by the Murray brothers.

Both were encouraged to participate in many different sports as kids – Andy is an excellent footballer and was invited to train with Rangers; Jamie apparently has a single figure handicap in golf. Eventually they focused almost exclusively on tennis but the range of skills they developed from other sports undoubtedly provided a transferable benefit onto the court.

Judy Murray has an excellent initiative Set4Sport, which draws upon her experiences of making up games for her children to play in the garden, designed to develop their motor skills and coordination.

I presume that Andy and Jamie had regular and intensive tennis lessons but they also appear to have spent a lot of time ‘playing’ (in the broadest sense of that term) in a relatively unstructured and unsupervised way.

British, and especially Scottish, footballers are less skilled today than they once were. This seems strange given the fact that they spend more time under the supervision of better qualified coaches than previous generations did. So why have skill levels deteriorated rather than improved?

I think Johan Cryuff had the answer worked out a long time ago: “when I was young, I trained a few hours a week at Ajax, but I played a few hours everyday on the street, so where do you think I learned to play?”

The streets taught the legendary Cryuff more than Ajax did; just as they have long proved to be a better academy than that of Arsenal, Liverpool, Chelsea, Celtic or Rangers. Even, class of ’92 included, than Manchester United.

However much money clubs spend on facilities, coaches, sports scientists and data analysis, they have so far been unable to replicate the conditions of the street. Academies, in general, do not produce what we might call street footballers.

It is not only a question of time spent in contact with a ball, although that’s surely a huge factor. It’s also playing 15-a-side in cramped spaces, on uneven surfaces, with a ball that’s long ceased to perform anything resembling a bounce.

There has been huge investment in sports facilities in recent years, and it’s a worthy use of money, but there’s little evidence to suggest that a lack of such facilities hampers the skills development of British footballers or other athletes.

Of course the biggest change, and perhaps the biggest problem, since even my youth is that kids have been forced to surrender the streets. I live in the centre of a large city and my kids have never played anything on a street or road, nor are they likely to.

Street football didn’t come with coaches. There were certainly no refs. It was learning by tinkering, trial and error, and attempts to emulate the abilities of older children. Street football tended to have a wide age-range participating in any particular game. Age-levels don’t matter so much when you’re simply trying to find enough players for a viable game. 3 v 3 is a tough shift.

Late bloomers, Smith suggests, tend to retain ‘the naturalness that is often lost “in the system”.’ The same is true of those who honed their craft in the unforgiving environment of the streets. The only data analysis that was conducted then was a most cursory effort at keeping score; that effort generally proved too great once it got into double figures and all games were eventually settled by the “next goal wins” criterion anyway.

Again, Cryuff foresaw the dangers: “I find it terrible when talents are rejected based on computer stats. Based on the criteria at Ajax now I would have been rejected. When I was 15, I couldn’t kick a ball 15 meters with my left and maybe 20 with my right. My qualities of technique and vision are not detectable by a computer.”

I’m not arguing that there’s no value in data analysis, it can surely complement the judgements and observations that scouts make with the naked eye. But as with any system of measurement, much gets left out. The important thing is not to make height and weight measurements crucial to determining the prospects of youngsters. Above all, retain, as Smith does, a judicious distrust of ‘the system.’

‘Shoehorning all young players into rigid, quasi-professional systems long before they are ready comes with risks. First, we seldom hear from the child prodigies who faded away (often damaged psychologically). Many players who are pushed too hard miss their natural learning arc; the narrative of their ambition, or the ambition imposed on them by parents, is often out of step with their physical and psychological growth. Second, systems have a habit of overestimating their contribution: they become blind to outsiders.’

As I’ve written before, don’t be that Dad. Let the kids play. Keeping them out of the system may ultimately keep them in the game.

Eventually, if they are to make it, they will need to be coached, analysed, and monitored. But before then, let them find their own way, while making their own mistakes, with enough guidance to keep them from going too far astray.

The artificial grass of the academies produces a true bounce all year round, but it can also produce an artificial development; the difference between players who have been taught how to play football and those who learned how to be footballers.

Front and Centre


Suarez, 9. Photo by Marc Puig i Perez http://www.flickr.com

Football, like many other things in life, is subject to shifting fashions, and I’m not just referring to the design of the multiple kits that teams deem necessary these days. There are tactical fashions too, many of which have been shaped by Barcelona over the last decade or so.

The Barcelona side built around Xavi and Messi set the template for fluid attacking football that has been much imitated but with rather sporadic success since those doing the imitating have been attempting to do so without the aforementioned superstars.

One consequence of the fashion to play tiki-taka has been a reduced influence for what we might call the traditional centre forward.

With Messi playing as a ‘false 9’ (something that Totti was already doing at Roma incidentally), Barcelona became one of the greatest sides of all time without much need for a true 9 – just ask Ibrahimovic.

But when Barcelona signed Suarez in 2014, it signified the end of the tiki-taka era and the introduction of a more direct style at the Camp Nou to take advantage of the fearsome Messi-Suarez-Neymar (MSN) frontline. Messi and Neymar would float around as fluidly as ever, while Suarez would be exactly where you would expect a number 9 to be: front and centre.

I’ve written before that Barcelona have shifted the focus of their game to the forward trio rather than the midfield trio, which (when led by Xavi) used to create the “passing carousel” that caused such anguish to Sir Alex.

The Catalans may not be quite as dominant as a few years ago but where they lead others remain inclined to follow. Look at the top of the Premier League: Chelsea (Costa), Tottenham (Kane), and Manchester City (Aguero). Number 9s (even if that’s not always the number on their back) are enjoying a renaissance.

Interestingly, the fourth placed team in the Premier League remain tactically closer to a tiki-taka style of play. Roberto Firmino is many things but he is not a centre forward. Nevertheless, he has played as the focal point of Liverpool’s attack (in a false-ish 9 position) for most of the season.

Sturridge has been a combination of injured (as usual) or out of form and in any case is not in the same class as Costa, Kane and Aguero. The best that can be said of Origi is that he remains a work in progress with unfulfilled potential.

It’s unclear as to whether Klopp does not sufficiently trust his centre forwards to play them regularly or if his preferred tactical set-up has little need for them. Firmino, Coutinho and Mane (plus Lallana to a lesser extent) are tasked with bringing both creativity and cutting edge to Liverpool’s attack.

They’ve done so very erratically – Liverpool have struggled to break down lesser teams but are still currently the highest scoring side in the league. The main problem at Anfield is not the particular style favoured by Klopp but the lack of variability and adaptability on days when it’s not proving effective.

The absence of a true 9 in many games has hampered Liverpool’s ability to play more directly and pose a different sort of challenge to defences that are both packed and deep. The Liverpool boss should prioritise the signing of a centre forward in the summer, especially with Sturridge seemingly poised to leave.

Further down the league, the role of world-class strikers cannot be understated. Most of the progress made by Manchester United under Mourinho is due to the signing of Ibrahimovic, he who Barcelona struggled to fit into their tiki-taka rhythm.

Similarly, where would Everton be without Lukaku? At the other end of the table, Sunderland would be in considerably more trouble without Defoe. Arsenal have laboured for years now without a truly exceptional number 9 (and a few other missing numbers); Giroud is unfairly scapegoated on occasion but he’s no Costa or Kane.

Barcelona’s tiki-taka influenced the game defensively as well as in an attacking sense. Many teams sought more defensive cover and rigidity to guard against the shape-shifting nature of Barca’s movement. Strikers were primarily tasked with being the first line of defence and one was judged to suffice for such a mission.

4-5-1 thus became a common formation – sometimes of a more attacking disposition, often less so. It could be subtle, even at times sophisticated, but it was rarely swashbuckling. It tended to be dull though, particularly when 4-5-1 lined up against 4-5-1.

There is, no doubt, an art to defending (really there is PSG) but the artistry in football is primarily to be found at the other end of the pitch. A player such as Mascherano can paint in broad brushes but those with the talent of Messi and Neymar produce the masterpieces.

As in art, fashions change and usually they hark back to something that’s come before. The return to fashion of the centre forward is worth celebrating; welcome back number 9, may you cease to be false.