When praising our kids’ European glory, everyone has a different opinion about how to develop young potential into first team quality. Players can be – and are – products of coaching. You can coach more rounded players, or you can focus on the players’ key attributes; this may all sound very FM13 to you young (and old, and me…) geeks on computers. But, it came from somewhere.

Coaching Tactics: The Good, The Bad, and Martin O’Neil

Two examples for rounded and focused coaching are Alex Ferguson, and Martin O’Neill, respectively; one is still going strong and reinventing teams, whilst the other stuck in the ’80s, daydreaming of red cheeks in the dressing room.Ferguson’s had the chance to work with some fine players, but he’s helped improved most. “Helped ” being the key word; of course the player has to be motivated  – although his handsome pay should do that – to put the extra work in, but the manager/coach sets the direction of training. Andy Cole, for instance, was a pure poacher when he arrived at Old Trafford; by the time he left, he was a much better, rounded player.

Our great MoN: a manager who spots a player who suits his system and drills the attribute set required into him – with the players’ hard work, of course – due to the love of his job. Is it a coincidence that we’re seeing one still going strong and one waning? MoN’s reasons for failing is that it is impossible to carry on reinventing yourself as bigger and better ego, whilst being stubborn about his football. In 5 words: Defend, Tackle, Get Ball Forward.

Brendan Rodgers is another; he has a system and a style. He beats his players with this “Big Technique and System” stick. What happens? Suarez ignores him, takes on everyone, and scores/dives/is a racist. Liverpool win games. This is where I feel the biggest miss is today for our young elite. The difference between Wenger, Rodgers, Mourinho; and Ferguson, Cruyff, and I believe Lambert could be, is the idea of passing on football knowledge. The idea that “clever players” and “intelligent footballers” are two slightly different things.

Techniques and Tactics

There are players at youth level you will see taking up positions on a football pitch, some have a natural awareness about them – where players are, where they should be – they just don’t have to think about it. These players may not have huge talent, but they still influence games. You’ll see other players galloping around like lunatics, calling for the ball and watching players run past them when defending. They may have huge talent on the ball, but are clueless of what’s around them while they’re on it. Dalian Atkinson, anyone?

We’re not talking grass roots, we’re talking elite youth football. And this is where I think the United academy shines.

Coaching at the level we’re talking about there is no excuse for players not getting development they need; often, knowledge is pushed aside with the assumption player will learn with experience. This is what many Villa academy products are missing when they come in.

Clever Players

It is important the technique is taught and that players can use the ball to the best of their ability. Our academies are doing this, and we are producing some fine technical players. Wilshere is a prime example; he comes with a big bonus, being a naturally intelligent footballer. Then you look at a players like Gabby Agbonlahor and Daniel Sturridge. I do not believe the difference is ability on the ball, but how they see the game (or don’t). They are not “intelligent players”  but there is no reason why they shouldn’t have become “clever players.” Having footballing knowledge (or know-how) passed on to them is essential.

Paul Scholes is a prime example of how a player can become “clever.” Scholes has always been one of the most talented players I’ve seen on the ball; but, off the ball, he was lost as a youth. He’d dive in two-footed, lose his man, and would work hard with no end product. But his defensive development has been such that he is now a “clever” midfielder. Experience and game time has helped, but his determination to understand the tactical side, as well as guidance, have turned Scholes into the best and biggest waste of an English talent in 30 years. While we should have built a team around him, we merely stuck him on the wing.

I have no worries about Gardner – I’ve watching him for several years, and he’s a natural footballer. He’s on and off the ball and rarely gets lost on the post. Some of our other youths come in without much knowledge. Clark, for instance, still takes up very odd starting positions. When defending quick players, you take up a different starting position from when defending big, slow lumps. Baker seems to have learnt this. But, Clark? Still making the same mistakes. So why is no one sitting him down and going through it all with him? He is probably the most talented central defender at the club, but he positioning is woeful. This can be learnt, though, and not just through “experience.”

The Youth – Our Glimpse Into the Future

I really do feel that elite young English players now are technical equals to their foreign counterparts, but the big factor they are missing is cleverness. You see Icso winning free kicks like a 35-year-old pro in La Liga. At grassroots, we still have a hell of a lot to sort out; thankfully, with the amount of scouts and professional clubs, not many talented players get missed, but that is no excuse for the poor attempt to raise the standard at that level of football for young players. Many attempts have been made, and with all the right intention, but with poor application and little thought.

A prime example is this “seven-a-side” nonsense that we currently use. The idea behind it is to increase the amount of touches for players; and, thus, the players improve quicker. This was roundly mocked by Cruyff, who was invited at the time by the FA to launch the scheme. Traditionally, the youths played the same eleven a side on a smaller pitch (twenty-two players). This was changed to seven-a-side and a slightly smaller pitch. But then the top coaches noticed something – the players that benefited from the move were the ones that dominated the eleven-a-side games with their size. The seven set up actually encouraged players to hold on to the ball; it gave more time and space to control the ball,  but also gave less players a chance to play the game. I’m afraid clubs didn’t add more teams, they just used less players – again, damaging the amount of youths playing the game regularly.

There have been many different types of football played with the aim of producing and showcasing technical ability. But the thesis of them all is lots of touches in close quarters to other players. Players need to control the ball and keep it under control to be able to stand out. The big lumps will still have their advantage of size, but this is negated by the close quarters of other players who will quickly surround. If you can’t control the football, then you will not influence the game.

Issues of Space and Time

Look at Brazilian street games: 50-odd kids running around a dusty patch 30x40yards, no space, no time, and no wonder they produce players who can control the ball in an instance and produce spectacular individual skills. I’m not saying its the way to do it, but it’s proof that this “close conditions” football works.

These games also teach players to find space. Space is often seen as a wide open expanse on the field for someone to run in to. But it’s not just about that. You can find space in between two six-foot-six CBs standing five yards apart if they’re not watching you – or, with clever movement. The tight conditions of small team, small pitch, actually makes this finding of space a second nature to young players.

Lack of Chances, Mistakes, And Proper Development

The lack of chances for youths to play around the team is of big concern. Too many young lads I have spoken to have player one position all their lives. It’s not just that a player may be a better CB than CM, but has never had the chance to play in that position. It is the understanding of what your teammates need from you – how you can best help a team mate when you’ve played in his position and understand situations that arise.

Physical attributes are honed and toned to the highest levels, and technical ability is drummed into young players very early on. The naivete of players coming through is stark. Young players make mistakes and they should learn from them, but tactically, they seem  lost. They probably do not know what the smart option is. Coaching is about adding and developing players; it is a guidance, a passing on of experience. Its identifying areas and motivating a player to work on it.

The other major factor we are missing though is to actually blame the players, too. How many have been seen to stop developing at twenty? They’re on £30k a week; they’re millionaires, they’ve made it. It’s all about attitude and focus. Unfortunately, there seems to be a culture within English football that distracts young footballers from this with the media hype that often surrounds one or two performances. I am not saying players shouldn’t be rewarded for their talents, but I do also feel it is too much too soon. Life on easy street does not encourage one to better oneself.

Coaching is a difficult, personal issue, and one-size-fits-all certainly doesn’t work.

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