Can It Continue?

By John Cartwright

We have just seen our English junior international teams win two World Cups and enjoy success in several other European competitions.  This fantastic achievement must not be given a short-term herald and then forgotten, it must be recognised for what it was and the reasons for the success must be carefully analysed in order that this situation is not just a one-off but a more regular occurrence.


In my opinion, there are 3 specific reasons for this spectacular rise in our international success; 1. A large number of our professional clubs, at all levels, have employed foreign Managers, Coaches and players over the past decade. This has changed the playing mentality of the game here considerably in almost all aspects of the game. 2. The influx of foreign players has produced both a negative effect on our game as well as a positive outcome. The negative effect has been the lack of senior playing time for our young talent – the positive effect has been that clubs are more prepared to release their best young talent for international duties during the season which did not happen in the past. 3 Our development process throughout all age levels has been more aligned to physical competitiveness and league structures than the teaching of game skills and understanding. This is the reverse of development in most football nations abroad where game skills and tactical awareness have primary consideration whilst physical aspects are allowed to develop as maturity occurs. This conjoining of game qualities and physical aspects at a later stage provides foreign nations with players at the senior level with a more complete playing ability than the players here who remain somewhat weaker in skills and game understanding.

Our long-term problem in the past, that may continue if we are not careful, is the preference of winning over learning throughout football’s foundation years — a correct teaching and learning formula must provide the appropriate work at the appropriate time.  Our junior international teams have always been relatively successful over the years, but it has been at the senior end of the game that the malaise in our playing quality has been so obvious time after time — we’re fit, fast and furious, but we’re not skilled and studied for success at the top.

It will be interesting to follow how this present group of young players will fair over the coming years. Will they hit the top or will success be a fleeting dream as it has been for so many others in the past.


21 thoughts on “Can It Continue?

  1. I think that the loan system needs looking at with regard to young players’ development. A number of years ago West Ham used this system well when they had highly promising young players, such as Ferdinand, Lampard and Defoe, having progressed through the academy system in the club’s various age group teams, but were just short at first team level in terms of physicality and intensity that first team football demands. So West Ham sent them to clubs such as Bournemouth, at that time in the lower divisions, where they got regular playing time in first team football and at that club the coaching during the week was also constructive and purposeful. When they came back to West Ham after several months of first team football at Bournemouth, they quickly established themselves in West Ham’s first team and went on to have good careers in both club and international football.
    But I have noticed that in recent years the loan system has often seen promising young players from many clubs get stuck in the lower leagues for several years and many stay down at that level for the rest of their careers. Many of the England youth players who have achieved success this year in the various under age international tournaments, are now now out on loan. It is important, I feel, that their loan period at the lower level is not excessive and, of course, the quality of coaching they receive at their temporary club is also very important at this vital time in their careers.
    This all comes back to making openings for promising young players in the clubs’ first teams and so the problem is not going to be easily solved when the importance of results, due to the financial implications which consume everything, are so critical.

  2. I couldn’t agree more with the principle of young players being told to win as opposed to being taught to play. I remember a documentary where Mourinho was interviewed (this was back when he was Madrid’s manager), and a question came up about the secret to Spain’s international success. He said, ‘it starts when players are young. In Spain, they are taught to play, in England they are taught to win.’

    Teach a team to play and victory has a higher chance of occurring – too much emphasis on victory could add to unnecessary, unneeded pressure. Great post.

  3. Hi all. It was interesting watching the recent games against Germany and Brazil. In the game against Germany, there was a general lack of individualism in both teams. In the Brazil match there was an obvious difference in playing quality with the Brazilians.
    I am not sure as to whether both of the opposition teams were without senior players for these games, as in fact we were. However, although we defended solidly we still lacked sufficient individualism in both games from players who can produce ‘game-changing’ ability.
    Our penetrative opportunities were not exploited and negative ball possession tended to prevail too often leaving our front players as ‘front defenders’ in the main.
    Our young players introduced into these games looked ok but none, even Cheek, seemed to possess that extra panache that thrills crowds and wins games. We looked organised and physically strong as usual, but producing players with that extra playing quality to ‘be different’ still seems a step too far.

  4. Hi John…I agree that even with the influx of talented youngsters who showed promise, the recent England international matches against Germany and Brazil did not produce many performances that suggest we are any nearer in developing a player who can really be described as a game-changer. I watched Loftus-Cheek closely against Germany and it was clear how his awareness and vision have been worked on by the way in which his eyes were constantly checking around his shoulders towards all sides of the pitch, in and out of possession. He looked the one with the most outstanding talent but it is vital that his potential is fully developed at his club, whether that be either Chelsea or Crystal Palace. He could become a top player, I feel, but it all depends on his future development. I was impressed by Pickford in the Germany match, when, after catching the ball, he sized up the situation very quickly and volleyed an excellent kick into space intended for Abraham behind the German defence but the young striker did not quite have the pace to get clear. Will his new club, Everton, work on him as a true keeper-sweeper? That’s the big question but he looks to have the potential, confidence and know-how. So, with promise also shown by Gomez and Maguire, together with young players, Rashford, Stones and Lingard already in the squad, then there could be a brighter future in store for England but, of course, we have thought that before.
    However, it was rather depressing to hear an item on the news today that there are now more youngsters playing football games on computer screens than the real thing out on the grass.

  5. Chris Waddle has been lamenting the shortage of clever dribblers in British football. Even foreign players who have come to play in our League have suffered. In a piece under his name in the Daily Mail, the former England forward stated: “So why is there no room for a luxury player? We don’t tolerate them here. Adnan Januzaj looked as if it was coached out of him. Eden Hazard seemed to down tools when he was asked to play like a full back. Anthony Martial doesn’t get to play unless he works his socks off.”
    To be fair in the criticism of British coaching, each of those players mentioned has ‘suffered’ at the hands of a foreign coach working in the Premier League, so perhaps this is a wider problem than just a British one. But the development of junior and youth players is very much something that we can and must control. We have seen, in the success of the various England age group teams during this year, that we do have talented young players coming through the system and the ones who got their chance in the recent internationals at Wembley acquitted themselves well. But is there the real stamp of individualism on them? The Brazilians have that extra class which shows itself in the skill, imagination and invention which they displayed against England. As ever, it is our fighting spirit and doggedness which keeps us in the game when we play them.
    Waddle went on to say: “I never worked with a coach who told me to play with two touches. Arthur Cox, no. Jack Charlton would say do what you want, in certain areas. Trevor Francis said go and play. At Marseille they said: ‘Don’t run back’, the best three words anyone’s ever said to me.”
    Waddle was undoubtedly a talented player and it is easy for him now to criticise from the side lines. But he always makes good points and it is the duty of every coach of young players to do everything possible to develop their individualism and dribbling ability. Many youngsters, from day one, are ordered to pass the ball whenever they receive it and so they are denied the opportunity to experiment and try out their own ideas of beating an opponent. This, as Waddle states, cannot be right and these young players are being denied the real enjoyment and pleasure that can be gained from the game.

  6. From being a player frequently derided on away grounds, Man City’s Raheem Sterling is now seen as an integral member of the England team and potentially a key player if England are to have a better World Cup in Russia than they have had for at least the last twenty years.
    Most of the media are crediting Pep Guardiola’s coaching being mainly responsible for Sterling’s improvement. The experts have pointed out how Sterling now prepares himself with the correct body shape when about to receive a pass and creates space for himself by taking his marker away from where he is and then checking back to receive a pass to feet in the yard of space that he has created. Either that or running towards the team mater in possession, sucking his marker towards the ball and then sprinting away to receive the ball in space behind the opposition.
    This improvement, and these added technical skills, are clearly visible in Sterling’s play. But did it need a coach of Guardiola’s undoubted brilliance, but considerable cost, to develop them? I can recall seeing English coaches at English clubs working on their attacking players in this way almost fifty years ago. There was football in this country before the introduction of the Premier League in 1992. The coaching that Guardiola is apparently now giving Sterling was being done by at least a number of clubs up and down the country.
    For some reason, we seemed to stop doing it and so we introduced what we pretended was a new League at a cost of billions, when we could have saved the money and proceeded along our own development path. Manchester City play some great football but this could have been possible with all English players under an English coach.

  7. Steve your first point is correct obviously re half-turn position and subsequent movement being something that Guardiola’s coached…surely Sterling was coached this before at QPR and Liverpool…is it something that’s taken him years to understand???? !!! God forbid if it has????

    Regarding the last sentence… not quite sure I buy this..can you explain your thinking please.

  8. Hi Brazil94….I distinctly remember watching a coaching session at the Crystal Palace National Sports Centre in 1971, put on by George Petchey who had just become Manager/Coach of Leyton Orient and he was working with a group of their first team players. He was working along exactly the same lines as I have described with the Raheem Sterling example – creating space by either moving away or towards the team mate in possession, i.e. seeking a pass opposite to the initial run (“go long if you want it short, come short if you want it long”).
    I am not sure whether Orient were in the second or third division at the time, but they were certainly not in the top tier. But it was an era of new ideas and experimentation in the English game and it was not considered necessary to import either foreign players or foreign coaches to aid the development.

  9. Steve

    I am sure you have seen many others: Greenwood, Lyall, Venables, Cartwright and so on… I agree…too much stupidity by people who should know better about Guardiola coaching Sterling…sycophants…

  10. There have been a number of instances recently of players diving and simulating fouls in order to win penalties and free kicks, resulting in opponents receiving yellow and red cards.
    This is an unsatisfactory situation and I agree that it needs stamping out. However, I feel that many critics and commentators miss the real point when they draw attention to this practice. Of course, it is cheating and therefore abhorrent, but in this country we have not always been clear when coaching players, about balls which can be won with a tackle and those which cannot. Basically, if players always stayed on their feet when making a tackle then it would drastically reduce the number of instances of players lunging into tackles when the chances of connecting with the opponent as well as the ball are so much greater. Also, if players understood that if you can’t see the ball then you can’t make a tackle, then they would concentrate on jockeying and staying touch-tight to their opponent, whilst working themselves into a position where they can see the ball and therefore make a tackle without committing a foul.
    I think that of even greater importance to the future of the English game and, in particular, the chances of success n the World Cup next year, is the over-indulgent refereeing we see on an almost weekly basis. In the Man City-Tottenham match last Saturday, there should have been at last three red cards. Alli and Kane of Tottenham were guilty of extremely bad challenges. In Kame’s case it was out of character, but no less serious because of that. Alli is gaining a reputation for going in over the top of the ball and late and, as a very promising player, despite what is said in some quarters about the need for a ‘nasty streak’, I don’t think it adds anything positive to his game. Otamendi, admittedly an Argentinian, was the third player who should have seen red for a foot raised dangerously high to an opponent.
    In each of these three cases, only a yellow card was shown, We can be sure that in Russia next summer the card will be red for such challenges. The task ahead of England will be hard enough if they keep eleven players on the field. A numerical disadvantage will almost certainly make that task impossible.

  11. Newcastle United have come in for quite a bit of criticism in the media for their approach to the match against Man City last night. Despite being the home team, Newcastle played a heavily defensive line up and at the slightest hint of danger they pulled all eleven players back behind the ball. It was not until the closing minutes that they seriously attempted to score an equalising goal and ironically they came close on a couple of occasions.
    I believe that Newcastle will adopt similar tactics, both home and away, on future occasions. Everyone knows the money that is to be made just from membership of the Premier League and relegation means losing this wealth, even if it is for just one season. I think that we have reached a similar position to that of Italian clubs in the late fifties/early sixties. The top clubs in Italy at this time possessed the financial strength to tempt some of the best players in the world on to their playing staffs. Most of the lesser clubs could not compete either on financial terms or in comparative playing ability. But the smaller clubs found that if they adopted stifling defensive tactics, then they could get results even against the likes of the top clubs from cities such as Milan and Turin.
    Italian football suffered from this defensive malaise for many years, even though some of the world’s best players turned out each week in their League. Many teams played with these strangling tactics both at home and away, just as Newcastle did at St. James’s Park last night.
    Having turned our Premier League into a vast money making machine, we should not be surprised that struggling members of that League, like Newcastle, will go to any lengths to preserve their status, alongside the giants from Manchester, Liverpool and London. The money men have been allowed to take over and dictate how this League should run and I can foresee more matches of attrition we saw last night, being played.

  12. Steve, interestingly as you’ll know, even a team like ‘La Grande Inter’ during the 60s era under the auspices of Helenio Herrera ( substitute Jose Mourinho in the modern era; and now at Man Utd) regularly – in the big games – pulled almost everyone back behind the ball and played on the counter at 1 nil up. Of course, if you can defend well, and attack on the break – if you know how – it can and does pay. Ironically, think of the excellent Vardy goal against Man Utd recently, in which he set up the 3rd Man movement and arrived in the box for the fed pass. I am sure that Mourinho would have appreciated the quality of the goal and its verticality.

    Perhaps and only a perhaps, Mourinho’s plan in the recent Manchester derby – of sitting off – required the presence of Pogba – due to his pronounced ability counter-attacking and his enforced absence ruined the Portuguese’s best laid plans.

    One can legitimise the attritional nature of the Premier League and the policy of keeping everyone back; in modern parlance ‘parking the bus’. We should expect the tactically alert who are influenced by this league to do something similar themselves. The secret – assuming there is one – is to be able to counter the possession game of opponents and do that well.

    Pep Guardiola is quoted as saying he won’t criticise the opposition’s tactics…he only considers the solution to the problem and we all presumably are captivated about how Man City operate against such tactics…A case of football for the brave!

  13. Hi Brazil94….The Premier League is a money-making machine, and everyone wants their share. It is affecting young player development because there is no such thing as a meaningless match any more, in terms of the result. In years gone by, clubs who had no chance of the League Title, promotion or relegation, gave first team opportunities to promising young players in the latter weeks of the season, because defeats at this stage were of little consequence. But because of the prize money now on offer, slipping just just one final League place can mean a difference of several million pounds when the prize money is handed out. This is affecting the chances of young players getting some much needed Premier League experience.
    Besides the negative tactics employed by Newcastle against Man City, we have also seen some struggling teams fielding a weak team against one of the top sides, believing that they have no chance of pulling off any sort of result. They want to save their best players for the next match, when it is against a team around their end of the table, against whom they believe they have a chance.
    Perhaps, ironically, we shall see promising young players eventually being given their chance when the opposition is considered too strong. But whatever comes to pass, the direction in which the Premier League is heading is not good.

  14. Pep Guardiola was full of praise for Bristol City after his Manchester City team had just scraped a 2-1 first leg win against them in the semi final of the League Cup on Tuesday. As Guardiola said, the Championship side had given Man City a harder game than most of the Premier League teams who have visited the Etihad Stadium this season.
    Bristol City played with courage, organisation and no little skill. Their pressing was superb and they took the game to their illustrious opponents whenever possible. Credit must go to their young manager, Lee Johnson. He has instilled great belief into his players. It is just as important that we develop good young coaches as well as good young players and if he can achieve promotion for his team this season, then it will be interesting to see how he faces the challenges of Premier League football next season.
    I think that Man City were surprised at the way in which Bristol City attempted to dictate terms from the opening minutes. The Premier League leaders are used to teams dropping back in numbers to defend their area at the slightest sign of trouble, but Bristol City hunted the ball down with high pressing. It was high risk when their players left their immediate opponent to support the first pressing player, but because they had clearly put in many hours of hard work on the training pitch, then the hard work almost reaped its reward in terms of a positive result. I think that Johnson had decided that if his team went to defend in numbers and behind the ball at all times, then they would be shot down like sitting ducks, as most teams are in the Premier League. So he took the brave option and full marks to him for that.
    As it is, being 1-2 behind with the home leg to come, is not an insurmountable deficit for Bristol City to recover from, particularly if they play as well as they did at the Etihad.

  15. Watching Junior Hoilett playing for Cardiff City against Manchester City yesterday in the FA Cup, brought back memories of when he was a promising young forward with Blackburn Rovers in the Premier League about ten years ago. Suffice to say, Hoilett has not had the career since then that he looked likely to have in those earlier times. He seems to have gone the way that is common for so many young players. Early promise, skill and youthful enthusiasm is taken over by work rate and the need for “getting a result”. Hoilett, like so many promising young players before him, is now a cog in the machine, when he should be a game-changer, producing bursts of brilliance and skill to change the course of a match.
    He is still capable of providing moments to savour, like when he cut in from the left, threatened the centre of the Man City defence and hit a shot which had Bravo completely beaten but flew just inches over the crossbar.
    This is the danger with all the young players who brought promise to English football last summer, with success in the various under age international tournaments. I have been personally disappointed that Ademola Lookman has failed to establish himself in the Everton first team, following his transfer from Charlton Athletic just over a year ago and his performances in the Under 20 World Cup, where he was one of England’s best players. Unusually for an English player, Lookman has the ability, when in possession of the ball, to make things happen with imagination and skill. I just hope that these qualities are not lost as he strives to break into the top level of senior football. I have read that Leeds United want to take him on loan as they strive to make the final promotion push into the Premier League during the second half of the season. I have noticed that dropping down divisions by going out on loan can either make or break a young player. Let’s hope, in Lookman’s case, it is the former.

  16. Barcelona drew the Catalan derby, away to Espanyol, on Sunday 1 – 1. This maintained their lead of 9 points at the top of La Liga with a record of played 22, won 18, drawn 4, lost nil.
    The match, however, was played in appalling conditions of driving rain throughout the ninety minutes, with the pitch being reduced to little more than a lake. How the referee ever deemed the pitch fit for play was a mystery. But the most remarkable fact was that Barcelona still attempted to play, whenever possible, their quick passing football, close control and clever, off the ball movement. And even in such diabolical conditions, their distinctive brand of football shone through.
    We are now used to seeing matches these days played on pristine pitches, resembling bowling greens, all the year round and even in lower divisions and leagues. I wondered what an English team would have made of those conditions. At this time of year during seasons in the past, it would have been commonplace for matches in this country to be played in either thick mud or pitches made rock hard by frost and ice. Of course, you had to adapt your play and approach to the conditions, but the good teams still went into the game with the objective of producing the football that they wished to develop. Good players still looked good players, like the Barcelona players on Sunday, whatever the conditions.
    At the elite level of the game, our young players seem to have the very best in terms of facilities and pitch quality throughout their development years. This is no doubt how it should be, but I just wonder if we have players who could meet the demands that Barcelona had to face on Sunday. Also, what would they make of the challenges of ground conditions faced by their British predecessors in seasons gone by?
    As it turned out, Barcelona maintained their unbeaten record with a British-type equaliser in the closing stages when Pique went up for a set piece and scored with a powerful header. Also, Espanyol adapted their play to suit the conditions and hit long passes over the flooded areas and it was often very effective. But it was an interesting study of the contrast in styles and how to approach challenging ground conditions.

  17. Last Friday I saw Millwall draw 1-1 with Cardiff City in a Championship fixture. The match was going into injury time when it seemed that Cardiff were about to score a last gasp winner. A Cardiff forward had broken clear of the central defenders into the Millwall box, although he was a little to the left of the goal. But the home side’s left back, James Meredith, saved the point for his team, having quickly got round on the cover with excellent anticipation and his intervention caused the Cardiff player to shoot wide.
    It was a good example of a full back getting round to cover his centre halves but it seems to me that these days many full backs fail to do this. Full backs are now often referred to as wing backs and although they are ideally placed to attack down the flanks, I find that their defensive responsibilities are often neglected. Many young full backs seem unaware of these defensive requirements in fact.
    The match was screened by Sky Sports but being at the game I do not know if the incident was discussed by the studio analysts. It would be interesting if there were any observations and what anyone else on this blog thinks about this issue.

  18. I think that Gareth Southgate deserves praise in attempting to set up an England team with the kind of tactics and approach which are used by the better international sides. It is almost impossible to see England progressing any further than the quarter finals in Russia, bearing in mind that their likeliest opponents at that stage are either Brazil or Germany, but first we must have a philosophy which is more in tune with modern thinking without losing the qualities which have always served English football well. We are fortunate that important players like Stones, Sterling and Walker are displaying the benefits of working under good foreign coaches and the improvements in their play and game understanding are clear to see. But strong aspects of our play from the past which now appear to be deteriorating, like crossing and attacking crosses, must be brought back into focus and additional quality work done in these and other areas.

  19. Manchester City, or more particularly, Pep Guardiola, appeared to be guilty of basic errors and poor decision making in the 3-0 1st leg Champions League quarter final defeat to Liverpool on Wednesday. It seems unbelievable to be saying this during the closing stages of a season in which City have provided a football education to everyone who has watched them play during the last nine months.
    The decision to omit Raheem Sterling, thereby allowing Andy Robertson, Liverpool’s attack-minded left back the freedom to make dangerous runs at every opportunity without the need to mark a direct opponent, seemed to be a mistake. By the time Guardiola introduced him in the second half, the damage had long since been done. By not making that substitution much earlier seemed an even bigger error than leaving the winger out in the first place.
    Kyle Walker should clearly have got into a covering position when Salah broke clear onto a well judged pass which led to the first goal. Trying to play offside against a player of Salah’s pace was a huge error which should have been apparent to an international defender who has been playing so well recently.
    On this occasion, Guardiola seems to have been outwitted by Jurgen Klopp, who had thought through his game plan more carefully and introduced tactics for a specific match. Guardiola, by contrast, appeared to think that his team could stamp their authority and control on the game in the manner they usually do without a particular plan of action and so they came seriously unstuck. In addition to the tactical considerations, Liverpool started off on the front foot and never released their grip on the match. They appeared more motivated by a belief in what they were doing. If City’s control of midfield can be broken then their defence looks extremely vulnerable and other teams will surely have taken notice.

  20. I thought that Fernandinho was outstanding for Manchester City last night in their 2nd leg, quarter final, Champions League tie against Liverpool, especially in the first half when they looked well capable of turning the three goal deficit around. He did far more than just screen the three man defence in his holding role. Fernandinho broke forward through midfield when opportunities arose and got into many attacking positions. He also filled in at the back for any City defender when they themselves broke forward.
    Developing these multi functional players, able to fulfil many different roles within one match, will become more and more important with the world’s leading teams. Fernandinho is clearly the product of Guardiola’s coaching and in fact we have had examples of these all-purpose players in English football in the past. Two who come to mind are Martin Peters, who was prominent in such a role for West Ham, Tottenham and England and Colin Bell of Man City and England. But they were at their peak forty to fifty years ago and since then football has been more and more dominated by specialists. Arrigo Sacchi has been very critical of this trend, particularly by what he saw during the last World Cup in Brazil, because his outstanding AC Milan team of the eighties contained a number of all round players who he had developed with his coaching.
    It will require coaches of the highest calibre to develop these players and who can also inspire and educate their players to take on these additional skills and full game know how. It was noticeable how Man City’s performance fell away in the second half last night after Guardiola had been sent to the stand by the referee after half time. Without his touchline presence City in general, and Fernandinho in particular, could not maintain their first half performance and the coaching staff left on the City bench could not provide the direction which was necessary.

  21. I believe that there are talented players in the squads of English clubs but the pathways to promotion and, therefore, first team game time, is much too limited.
    Last Friday I saw the Under 23 fixture between West Ham and Arsenal. The Gunners were much the superior side and their 3 – 1 victory confirmed them as Champions of that particular League, Premier League 2, Division 1. I was particularly impressed with Joe Willock, Eddie Nketiah and Reiss Nelson. I think they have had occasional matches, coming off the bench, in the League Cup and early rounds of the Europa League, but nothing very substantial. But against West Ham they looked talented and with good game understanding. The way they and others were breaking forward with well timed runs into space, showed evidence of good coaching.
    Arsene Wenger has finally been shown the door at the Emirates but most people who support Arsenal attribute the lack of progress at the club being down to poor transfer dealings and an unwillingness to spend money. However, from the evidence at the Olympic Stadium on Friday night, the talent looks to be already there at the club and just requires the courage and belief to put these young players into the first team and let them show what they can do. This used to be the way at many clubs in days gone by, but giving young players their chance seems seems to be a thing of the past in the current climate.
    A few weeks ago a 19 year old from Woolwich, Marcus McGuane, made his debut for Barcelona’s first team against Espanyol. He came through the Academy at Arsenal and played in a number of England under age teams. But frustrated by a lack of game time with the north London club, he accepted the offer to sign for Barca, who had scouted him closely. The famous Spanish club have admitted that they have their sights on a number of young English players who are finding their pathways to first team football blocked in the Premier League, as so many of these clubs attempt to achieve success by short termism with a cheque book.
    If we are now starting to produce a new generation of good young players it will be criminal if we don’t make full use of them, which can only be of benefit to the England senior team as well as the clubs.

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