Despite the resignation of Gareth Southgate, the Football Association’s Head of Elite Development, progress appears to be being made in various areas of the FA’s approach to player development and the England national team. Some aspects, like the Elite Player Performance Plan (EPPP) are controversial, ruthlessly stoking the fires of an increasingly fraught ‘us v them’ debate relating to the Premier League and its position within the wider football infrastructure.
Others are almost universally welcomed. The National Football Centre at St George’s Park has been well received overall, with coaches and supporters alike enthusiastic about the centre at Burton and its potential impact on the long-term fortunes of the national team and English football at large. The need for better coaches, for more coaches, is now crystal clear in the mind of practically everybody that matters. And with roles due to be filled to provide the bridge between SGP and elite football, the association’s commitment should be applauded.
It’s only one piece of the puzzle, albeit a significant one. The matter of the English game’s collective attitude is just as important, if not more so. The idea of a new English football ‘vision’ encompasses everything from a unified willingness to focus on an agreed point in the future to the adoption of a style of play that becomes – in both senses of the word – English football.
The teams most often used to draw a comparison against English football are Spain and Germany, two nations that have hauled themselves back from their own relative low points to produce teams that can compete consistently at the very highest level. Each has a coaching set-up that puts England’s to shame, and both have had to work extremely hard to drag up the quality of their national teams. But these are not identical success stories.
Spain’s development, notwithstanding their high number of UEFA-licensed coaches, seems to be built primarily on a style of play. La Furia Roja have become a team of such quality that few from any point in history could match them at their best. They’re famed for their style; passing teams to death, often at pace and in tight spaces – requiring a high level of technical ability throughout the team – has become the Spanish way, developed years previously at Barcelona and eventually perfected by Pep Guardiola and his side at club level.
For Germany it’s been more a case of smashing a stake into the ground, defining a moment that ceased to be just another day or another year, and instead was transformed into the beginning of a brighter future. Boasting enough UEFA A, B and Pro-licensed coaches to fill a modestly sized Premier League football stadium, German football tweaked its very structures in order to drive improvement in die Mannschaft, and while the style of play that has developed isn’t quite tiki-taka it is played by a thrilling young team of technically and tactically brilliant footballers. Silverware may or may not follow.
What unites these two very different approaches is the desire to embrace an approach in the first place. England don’t need to copy Spain, playing 4-6-0 and racking up obscene numbers of completed passes in each game. Germany should be considered a more appropriate comparison, by which the FA draws a line and decides that instead of 2014 being the next important date in the calendar it is in fact 2022 that should be the focus of our work, work that establishes a new tactical and technical English way, bolstered by something approaching a tenfold increase in the number of UEFA-licensed coaches.
Setting aside the primacy of the national team, youth football at all levels can only benefit from improved coaching at the top. The better and more numerous the best coaches, the wider the trickle-down effect into youth football. Improved coaching bleeds down further by virtue of sheer volume, but what’s most important is that it takes with it a technical revolution.
Spain and Germany, the latest poster boys for the implementation of a vision, didn’t enjoy overnight success, nor did they expect to. For England to adopt a similar period of building it is first necessary to accept that this does mean that a cluster of major tournaments become mere milestones, markers on the road towards a far bigger strategic goal. England leap from tournament to tournament, expecting much and delivering little as we tread the changing waters of international football.
The actual nature of England’s vision for the future doesn’t matter as much as its existence and our commitment to it. In terms of style it could be an adoption of a short passing game, a focus on pace and counter-attacking or even a development of a more typically English physical game. But whichever direction is taken, it’s essential to have a direction. There’s no reason whatsoever that English football and the national team shouldn’t modernise over time in order to compete, but it will take coaching and commitment at all levels.
Now, we have a focal point for all that: St George’s Park.