Sunday, 23 January 2011

Insight into the FA

The FA produces a quarterly magazine for members of its coaching association (FACA) called 'Insight'. It contains a number of good articles on the technical and developmental aspects of the game. It is generally well written and certainly ticks all those FA buzzwords: developing people as well as players, age appropriate coaching, and long term player development. Tube journeys are improved massively by its existence.

For a magazine aimed at regular coaches (many of whom will be earning an income from the game), it falls short in its willingness to take risks. It is a considerably safe journal. All great footballing movements share a common environment. From that in Austria and Hungary in the early part of the 20th Century, the Brazil sides of the 60s and 70s, the total football in Holland in the 70s, and to the stylish approach to developing youngsters at Barcelona's academy in the 90s, there is one thing that they have in common: the primacy of sharing new ideas. That willingness to question and invent does not exist at the FA. There is no sense of sailing into the unknown.

The FA is gripped by fear. Fear paralyses. It stifles creativity. It encourages a "play safe" attitude. But playing safe is no longer an option for a body which has played mediocre for so many years. Its much heralded national development centre at Burton is a welcome move but one 20 years behind France. It is not that it is a bad idea - it is a very good one - but that such an idea will at most bring the country on an even keel with others. And whilst the English FA will have had 10 years of learning, France will have had 30. Good ideas are not the name of the game. Competition is. It is not enough to be good at sport: but to be the best.

And sport, as with art, relies on gales of creativity sweeping relentlessly over all that stands now, so that tomorrow the landscape may look very different. This relies not simply on the good execution of established principles (although it certainly means that as well). It means suggesting ideas that are new. Ideas that are positively crazy, stupid, ridiculous, nonsensical and finally brilliant. The line between genius and insanity is well acknowledged to be as fine as that between success and failure.

An FA National Coach has written a piece for the Autumn edition of Insight (the Winter edition has yet to be released) entitled, "Destroyers or Playmakers?". The interesting idea in said piece is that holding players are now multifunctional. Rather than just mopping up in front of the defence they now need a number of skills in their armoury. Citing players such as De Rossi, Pirlo, Vieira, Xabi Alonso (and many more...) he suggests they now be called 'front sweepers'. Now this in itself is not a bad point to make. It's certainly true that deep lying playmakers with responsibilities in distributing play have become important. But such a role is hardly a new one. The trend started with Liberos and evolved into the player we see today. Consider Mathias Sammer's role for Dortmund and Germany: originally a midfielder who was moved back to a sweeper role where he was responsible for mobilising the transition phases from defence to attack. Didier Deschamps was nicknamed 'the water carrier' for his simple distribution of play from in front of the defence.

Even if we ignore famous historical examples the rise of the deep lying playmaker is not breaking news. That the FA's leading coaching journal is beginning to question the role in late 2010 in 8 short paragraphs shows how far off the mark it is when it comes to new ideas. The article itself is hugely descriptive (of past sides - none of them English), and is frustratingly short of any insight whatsoever. This would be idle pedantry if it weren't symptomatic of the FA's approach to the game more generally.

If the FA's journal is going to educate coaches then it needs to be cutting edge. In late 2010 an article on the creative responsibilities of the centre back with comment on Lucio and Pique's transitional duties would have been more worthy. And this failure to tackle truly interesting shifts in the game is a problem for the FA. But more than that, the FA sets the tone for its coaches. The least bad outcome is that the FA's journal is a waste of money which doesn't stretch its coaches to learn more. The worst outcome is that, plus a reflection of the FA and its member coaches' complete degenerative state.

The biggest impact on English football since the introduction of the Premier League 20 years ago have arguably come from a Scot, a Frenchman and a Portuguese man in a smart grey coat. The only English manager of note in the self-styled "world's greatest league" is Harry Redknapp. One out of twenty.

Further, the only English managers at all in the Premier League are as follows: Mick McCarthy of Wolves, Ian Holloway or Blackpool, Alan Pardew of Newcastle (all three clubs have been in the second tier in the past three seasons), Steve Bruce of Sunderland and Redknapp of Tottenham. 5 out of 20. Scotland and Wales (combined population 8 million), fare better with: Alex Ferguson, Steve Kean, Owen Coyle, Tony Pulis, David Moyes, Mark Hughes, and Alex McLeish. That's 7. Embarrassing.

The top four at the time of writing are headed by two Italians, a Frenchman and a Scot. Compare that with Italy where Mourinho often complained he was the only non-Italian coach in Serie A (now there are two: his successor Leonardo, and newly appointed Diego Simeone from Argentina... yes, the guy who Beckham impetuously lashed out at during the World Cup in 1998). In Spain, Pocchettino is Argentinian, Pelligrini is Chilean, Laudrup is Danish, Mourinho is Portuguese, and Javier Aguirre is Mexican. There are as many foreign coaches in La Liga as there are English coaches in the Premier League.

The FA should understand one thing, and hear it loud and clear: the future of the English game hinges not on politiking and buzzwords but on having worldclass coaches in every top tier club, developing the stars of tomorrow. There is no reason to believe England is a genetic blackhole, a place not beaten by God's footballing magic stick. There is plenty of reason to believe talent is squandered through poor coaching.

The two non-British managers I alluded to earlier were Mourinho and Wenger. Before they came to England they had had experience between them of coaching and learning in Scotland, France, Germany, Portugal, Spain, Italy, Argentina and Japan. There are some diverse cultural experiences to bring to the role there. Their success isn't because of this breadth of experience: success is more complicated than that. But a desire to hunt down lessons from a wide range of sources, shows an open mindedness and thirst for knowledge which does not exist in the English mindset. The latent xenophobia which pervades a certain strand of English culture is prevalent in the English game. We do our thing: them krauts/frogs/diving cheating latin types do theirs.

Paul Merton tells a joke about the English: hear about the English man with an inferiority complex? He thought he was the same as everyone else.

Pride comes before a fall, but the only fool here is the English game. The joke, it seems, is on us.


  1. Although, I don't know a thing about the FA's journal, it's pretty easy to take a look at the web (zonalmarking, etc. etc.) and you will find a lot of information about todays tactical development.
    The question is: Do the editorial staff know about the web?

    When i take a look at the Bundesliga and Germany.
    First, I have to say that the media (TV and press) didn't care about tactical explanation. That changed over the last years, but (of course) the latest tactical development is not part of media coverage.
    the other point are the managers and coaches in Germany. Clubs and the German FA realised that they need good young players and modern and well-trained coaches. Not only in the Bundesliga, but also in the youth academies.
    Ten years ago the German FA changed the youth development system. And it took nearly ten years, a whole generation, to see the difference.
    Within this time, young German managers found their way into pro-football. Of course not all managers are under 40 years old. But most of the older managers are good tacticians and have a lot of experience, and a good hand with young players. (Heynckes, van Gaal, Magath, maybe Bremen's Schaaf and Hamburg's Veh are two of the older managers)
    From 18 managers in the first Bundesliga only 2 are not German (or 3, don't know about Hoffenheim's new manager, but I think he's German). This foreign managers are Luis van Gaal and Steve McClaren.

  2. Interesting about the German League. One of the coaches I worked with at Tottenham told me that 10 years ago the Bundesliga and the German FA (DFB) got together and gave each German club a pot of money to invest in young German talent. They had to demonstrate that they were investing it wisely: failure to do so would mean expulsion from the league. So of course every club did it. And the first generation is that coming through now.

    Similarly the first generation to come through Clairefontaine in France won the world cup. Incidentally the French league has 17 French managers out of 20.

    So Italy has 18, France 17, Spain 15, and Germany 18 domestic managers. England has 5. I don't need to rehash the classic stats about the number of coaches with A and B licences in each country. Needless to say England comes bottom.

    My problem isn't that there isn't information out there. I was talking to Michael @ Zonal marking about the delights of Rui Costa and Bobo Vieri the best part of a decade ago. There are enthusiasts out there. The issue is the FA's tinpot "jobs for the boys" approach to football. It is incredibly insular and still lags way behind most nations.

    Fortunately few coaches at pro clubs I've met have much time for those muppets.

  3. As an aside it's interesting that Portugal's golden generation of a decade ago were schooled by a group of coaches who had no official coaching pathway of their own to follow (the portuguese FA lagged behind much of Europe). Coaches as recent as Mourinho had to go abroad to attend official courses and so the exposure to many footballing cultures created an open-minded, experimental group of coaches. And a Portuguese side that had a lot of success 2000-2006.

    The inherent distrust of other countries that infects that very same section of society that seems to hold management positions in the FA, has held our sport back. Shame.

  4. I don't know exactly what the German FA did ten years ago, but. as far as I know every Bundesliga and second Bundesliga club has to maintain a youth academy. Maybe I'm wrong but I think all clubs spend around €20 Mio. each year for that. And for younger kids (around 10 years old) the FA has 366 'Stützpunkte' distributed over Germany where talented kids are developed. That's of course not full time education, but the DFB knows the talents from a young age.
    the web page of the FA explains something, but I'm afraid it's only in German.
    I don't know the structure of the English FA, but in Germany exist regional FAs (that is normal in Germany), they do a lot of the amateur work. Maybe that is an advantage to be close to the base.

    Maybe German managers will join the big European clubs someday (like the Dutch or Italians).

    Why is there no profit from foreign managers for the coaching education in England?

  5. Okay. Yesterday, I wrote a reply, but that got lost. Maybe I pushed the wrong button in a hurry.

    I try to sum up.

    First I have o say that I don't know if the German FA gave money to the clubs. But as far as I know the German Bundesliga clubs (first and second devision) spend around €20 mil. each year for their youth development.
    But an other point are the 366 'Stützpunkte' (base camps) distributed over the country. Here talented kids are educated (not full time) in addition to their training in the local youth (amateur) clubs. The FA knows the talents from a young age, even before they join the youth academy of a pro football club.

    You can read this on
    At least you can read German.

  6. Well that's strange.
    now, after I re-wrote the comment, the original appears.

  7. Ah... there is an automatic spam filter and for some reason it confused your first effort for spam.

    Your insight into the DFB is very interesting and it's no wonder Germany is starting to have success once more both at club level and with the National team.

    In England there are 47 regional counties which take charge of administration and investing in grass roots football. They are not responsible for developing players but they are responsible for developing coaches.
    There is something we can learn from the German system.

    As for the impact of foreign managers: there has been. Houllier and Wenger have been hugely influential in the way we treat young players and in professionalising the game e.g. diet and fitness. Ferguson before that changed attitudes through the success he had with young players.

    However the effect has been tapered because of the amount of money involved in the Premier LEague. Because so much is at stake there is a draw towards short term results which discourages sensible investment. Take Chelsea. Managers such as Mourinho and Ancelotti have been able to spend big money on big players to achieve immediate success. Others like Hiddink and Scolari only spent half a season, which isn't long enough to leave an imprint on the club.

    In Euro 2000 England and Germany were in the same group. Both sides got knocked out. Germany effectively invested in youth. England expanded its Premier League brand. As such the EPL is the best - or at least the richest - in the world. The pressure to achieve success immediately in this environment means that risk is minimised and so the best players are simply bought, complete.

  8. Yes, the money. In 2000 the Germans took a look at the Bundesliga and saw a lot of players from the eastern of Europe. Of course most of them not big stars. The Bundesliga was (and is) not as powerful as the Premier League and when there is one thing the Germans are good at than making a plan and stick to it. (I've learned that from a famous movie, and famous actor. make a guess who.)

    Of course the DFB is not the only football FA in Germany. We have regional FAs (Germany is a federal state and has a long history of decentralised structures, but that's history/politics class ...)

    If you take a look at the German Wikipedia entry of the DFB (ßball-Bund#Regionalverb.C3.A4nde_und_ihre_Landesverb.C3.A4nde ),
    you will find five regional organisations with each of them including three to six "province" FAs.
    The regional FAs had their own championships in the past (until the introduction of the Bundesliga in 1963). Of course the regional champions competed for the German Championship (and you'll find the names of the champions on the 'Salatschüssel').But there was no professional football, and no nationwide first league, until 1963.
    Today, the regional/province FAs still have regional Cup competitions, and a Club winning (or reaching the semifinal / don't know the exact rules) will join the German FA Cup (DFB Pokal) the next season.
    But the main work of the regional FAs is the amateur football (regional leagues for U-18 etc. and amateur women and amateur male football).
    The league hierarchy in Germany goes from
    First Bundesliga
    Second Bundesliga
    Third League
    3 regional leagues (north, west, and south)
    multiple Oberliga (don't know how to translate)
    countless Landesliga

    But, sometimes the structure changes.
    e.g. the Oberliga was the highest league from 1945 to 63. And the champions of this regional Ober-leagues competed for the German Meisterschaft. After the start of the Bundesliga the Oberliga disappeared, came back as third league in 1974, later fourth, now fifth league.

    The story of the East German Oberliga is totally differnt, but actually I wanted to write about something else. I messed that up.

    To sum up: I messed up and the German FA is composed of over 25,000 clubs (over 170,000 teams) with over 6 million members. nearly every 13th person living in Germany is member of a DFB joined club (not all pure football clubs).

  9. Maybe I should add two points.

    the first is directly connected to the young German palyers. Mesut Özil and the young lady Fatmire Bajramaj (who was third in the latest vote for female world footballer Ball on d'Or what ever formaly known as Prince), both said that the youth development in Germany was important, but they learned to play football in the "Affenkäfig"/ monkey cage in the neighbourhood. they played football in a cage with all kids and only one ball. you had to be tough, smart and skilful if you're smaller (or a girl).
    I think players like Messi or Zidane (or Rooney...) tell you similar storys about how they started.

    the second point I want to mention is more general. It is always important to invest into the youth, educate the children, and so on.
    The money you spend today, the grown-up kids will pay back ten times in the future. every Euro/ Dollar/ Pound you take away from schools, universitys, Kindergartens, other projects will cost you multiple in the future. I hope a positician reads this.

  10. Yes I agree that investing in youth - so seeing the medium/long term - is advisable. This is because the alternative is only possible for any particular league if a) it guarantees success and b) it is sustainable. The former is not true and the latter was not true in Italy at the turn of the millennium and is not true in England today. This is partly because it is dependant on other countries for its players (as it buys in the finished product instead of "manufacturing" it itself) and so is at the mercy of foreign clubs, who can command practically whatever fee they like. Clubs like Chelsea and Man City have both been inflationary.

    Secondly, I think the "jumpers for goalposts" mentality that you speak of and Trevor Brooking (FA Director of Youth Development) has spoken of recently too, is misguided. Yes players should enjoy the game and play it as often as they can. But no this cannot anywhere near suffice. Wenger has said that players need to have shown their potential to a club by the time they are 12. Only good coaching can bring out that potential. This is why we must invest in youth and more imminently, coaches.

  11. Maybe the good manufacturing of coaches is one reason for the success of Dutch players?

    Film: Humphrey Bogart in 'African Queen'. Good movie, but you'll find even better ones with Bogart.