In this report, I have listed some observations from watching English Premier League youth teams for the last three years. During this time period, I have watched a number of games played by English Premier developmental teams and lower league senior teams. The quality of play is quite impressive. The following report contains recommendations and discussion points that may help coaches of American players in their teaching priorities.
The Industry of Player Acquisition and Selling.
The development of players, culturally, is an industry. The scouting, development and selling of young players in most European and South American countries is, significantly, financial. The buying and selling of players can be a very lucrative business and players are represented by agents at a very young age. It is a very different paradigm to the high school and collegiate route which is the path most American players take to become professional soccer players.
I spent a significant amount of time in the UK in 2016 and 2017 with John Doolan, one of Everton’s top scouts (Recruiters) One of the main jobs of a scout is to identify players who might be capable of playing in the Everton squad. The role of the scout is critical at top clubs and John, along with a number of other colleagues who work for Everton, search the UK, and indeed, the globe, looking for players who might improve their first-team squad. Along with the acquisitions of older players, professional clubs have youth programs for players as young as 10 years of age and going all the way to 23 years of age. Everton’s youth programs have been very successful in developing professional players but much time is spent watching players from other clubs who might be traded to enhance and strengthen Everton’s first-team squad.
Everton Football Club is a football club in Liverpool, England, that competes in the Premier League, the top flight of English football. The club have competed in the top division for a record 114 seasons, missing the top division only four times since The Football League was created in 1888. Everton have won 15 major trophies: the League Championship nine times, the FA Cup five times and the UEFA Cup Winners Cup once.
All the top clubs have full time staff members watching and evaluating potential signings from other clubs, especially, in their late teens and early 20’s. John is perfect for this position having gone through the youth development system with Everton and then playing for a variety of English professional teams. Everton invited him back to become a youth development coach, where he became a valued and respected staff member, developing the likes of international players, Ross Barclay, Tom Davies and John Joe Kenny. Thoroughly cognizant of the demands of both Premier League and youth developmental levels, John accepted the position of Scout in 2016/2017 season and has become noted for his work ethic and player evaluation capabilities. He is the quintessential, talent spotter and takes his role extremely seriously.
Watching Premier League Youth Development.
Although the players in these games are the same age as our American high school and college players the quality of these games are of a very different character. These games feature players who have acquired advanced technical skills which include the importance of taking care of yourself on the field including some of the “Dark Arts” of the game. Watching Liverpool U18’s versus Paris St. Germain U/18s, Everton U21’s versus Man Utd U21’s etc. is just different!
My experience in Brazil, as an observer, twenty years ago, was the same. The youth players are fighting for their professional lives and everything from what they eat, to their professional progress as players is carefully monitored. Whether they sign a professional contract or not has a massive impact on their family, especially as many come from quite poor backgrounds.
In the UK the players are, similarly, playing for their careers and are observed and analyzed in every game they play from a very young age. Even practices are videotaped. Lower league teams recognize that if they can develop a player and sell to a higher level club, they can make a whirlwind of money.
Most of the players are, obviously, committed to becoming pro. However clubs are directed to offer sophisticated education programs and many players have attended American universities – often turning pro after graduation from university, either back in the UK or in the USA. They have the enviable position of having a University degree in their back pocket producing a very different motivational paradigm from UK and Brazilian players who have modest educational qualifications.
First You Make Your Habits and Then Your Habits Make You
Obviously the identification of talented players is of significant interest to all of us..….but my interest, for this report, is in identifying the technical habits which make these players so good. In watching so many games I noticed that similar skill patterns kept occurring game after game. After 43 years of playing and coaching in the USA I had rarely seen this level of soccer night after night, right in front of my eyes. The HABITS displayed by these young English professionals are, well worth noting for the future development of American players. In addition some observations of game management from the Premier Youth League coaches (use of substitutions, holding a lead, changing systems of play etc.) are also noteworthy.
As the Premier season draws to a close these are my reflections from some of the games I have seen. Some may appear to be repetitive…but repetition itself is a critical part of the players development journey.
The following observations stand out –
Use of the upper body to retain possession of the ball. Moving into opponents prior to receiving the ball……or…as Anson Dorrance (UNC-Chapel Hill Head Women’s Coach – 1991 USA Women’s World Cup-winning coach) would say, “Controlling the opponent before controlling the ball.” When two players are going for the ball the player who cuts off the other player “first” will win the ball. This will require players to step across and “into” the immediate opponent and blocking out the opponent…dare I say, something I have seen basketball players do on free throws. Blocking out players can only be done within a couple of paces of the ball, otherwise, it would be obstruction. This important technique is called “shielding”. One of Anson’s legacies as the USA Women’s national team coach is that the best American women have mastered this skill….and the USA are number 1 in the world’s women’s game.
Ability to secure the ball with every part of the body, even under heavy pressure.
- Pre – receiving move. Player receives ball under pressure and buys time by “gesture” movement towards ball……player initiates a long step towards the ball which freezes opponent and then, let’s ball run across himself and takes ball in a different direction.
- “Flipping”. Receiving under pressure but “Lifting” ball over opponent’s foot.
- “Sitting” Cushioning a physical challenge by lowering center of gravity and initiating the first physical contact by stepping into opponent.
- “Gesturing / Indicating”. Attacker is marked tightly by opponent but indicates, with an open palm, to team mate to pass ball to foot which is furthest away from marking defender. A technique used successfully, as a player, by Paul Lambert when playing central MF in Scottish national team.
- Scanning. Playing “Sideways On” (Frank Lampard – Master Scanner.)
- Head on a swivel all the time.
- Constantly looking over shoulder;
i. When moving into a support position.
ii. Just before the ball is passed.
iii. Moment ball is passed.
iv. When the ball is on its way.
(See chapter on “Sideways On Soccer” in my booklet – “Developing The Elite American Soccer Player.”)
- Driving the ball “dead straight” with power and “shaping” passes.
a. Ability to drive the ball, over long distances;
i. “On a rope.” Dead straight, no spin. Arrives at targets chest. (Again, Frank Lampard driving ball – below.)
ii. Also with fade. This pass slows down as it approaches the target and is easier to control.
iii. Also with a slight hook. This pass has spin and the target can receive the ball on the run.
iv. With backspin. A shorter pass was played between defenders with backspin. Checks up for attacker, behind backs.
Too many of our players cannot drive the ball dead straight. They continually hook the ball…why?
- Ball not out of feet enough. The ball must be out and away from the players body and feet so the player can take a long “hop” in this case from right foot to left foot which is the plant foot. As left plant foot lands the left hand is pointing at target – arms are important part of technique.
- Plant foot (in this case the left foot) lands too close to ball. The ball needs to be struck with the knuckle of right big toe and, to make ball go straight, must strike ball slightly left of center. If the plant foot lands too close to ball there is not enough space for knuckle of right foot to contact ball left of center and make it go straight..
- Striking toe comes up too quickly. If the striking toe comes up too quickly it will put spin on the ball and ball shall hook. Right toe should be pointed downward all the way through the strike.
I have watched several practices of professional youth development teams where the players simply drive the ball at each other putting hook, slice and straight driven balls. I remember watching some Liverpool players staying behind after formal practice to work on hitting the cross bar of a goal with no net from the top of the penalty box. One player stood on one side of the goal and his partner on the other – a competition to see who could get to 10. This is a technique that is well worth staying behind to work on after practice.
- Development by Osmosis – Learning from older players.
Playing with and against older professionals is one of the most effective ways for young players to learn and develop. It is very fashionable to play a couple of older professional players (30/32 years of age) in games alongside the young professionals (u18s, u20’s etc.) In addition, clubs will, often, use older players coming back from injury to play in junior games. There is a sprinkling of older players in many of the youth games specifically to enhance the learning experience of the younger players.
Sadly many American clubs cannot do this simply because all the older players have gone to University at the age of 18 and many have not come back after graduation….so there are few people for the 14/15 years old left to learn from. However, I have worked at clubs were the coaching staff is young enough (30+) to play with and against the older age groups within the club (say the 16 year olds) who mix in with and against the older players. Other procedures could be developed to enhance the younger players learning from playing with and against older players – having local college players to come and help with practice is one way of improving young players by osmosis.
- Using substitution as a motivational tool.
There is enormous competition for playing time within youth and professional squads and the coaches will, often, use the substitutes as a “Threat” to players on the field who are playing poorly. The coach gets the subs off the bench so the players playing in the game see the subs warming up alongside the field a couple of feet from the game. In a system when subbed players cannot go back in again this move by the coach can be a notification to specific players on the field that you are going to have to do better or you shall be subbed! The American system allows free substitution so the threat is not quite as sinister but modifications can always be improvised by a united coaching staff who are in agreement about player performance.
- Early Movement – Early Support..
Players moved to support a teammate “Before” the ball reached that teammate.
So…player A passes the ball to player B and, as the ball is rolling from A to B, player C is already moving into position so that player B can pass the ball to him first time or, at least, early. Combined with early verbal communication this enabled players to play one touch. A certain portion of each practice playing 1 touch soccer can enhance this habit. Verbal communication is, also, to be encouraged.
- Early Decision Making and the importance of Small Sided Games.
Due to the positions, they occupy there are certain patterns of play that occur in every game to players. Players must be exposed to those patterns of play in practice and master those patterns. Consequently, in a 6 v 6 practice game a right-back should be positioned on the right side of the field which corresponds to the position he plays in the 11 v 11 game. Right backs receive the ball sideways on in a game as they are in a flank position. Central midfielders receive the ball facing their own goal…which is a completely different receiving skill. The positioning of central midfielders in small-sided games should reflect this. Players are aware of their options with the ball before receiving it. Frank Lampard’s body positioning (sideways on) and constant scanning made him one of the finest midfielders to ever play the game.
- Ability to receive a hard pass.
Players rarely bobbled a ball even when passed with lightning speed. Although our US players have improved in this area they still make too many first touch mistakes. A common mistake novice players make is to receive the ball with a loose ankle i.e. with the big toe pointing down. To make the foot rigid the big toe should be pointing up which will lock the ankle and give the player a better receiving surface and more control over the ball – also important for passing with the inside of the foot. This is one of the most common mistakes I see when watching our young players and must be addressed early in a player’s technical development…the consequences from not correcting this malady are dire. Players who have receiving flaws shall have a very difficult time playing at a significantly sophisticated level.
Two walls featured here – one in Brazil and one at an English Premier League club. Players are expected to spend an enormous amount of time doing very basic routines kicking the ball against a wall. We were astonished to see the willingness of Brazilian players to perform, what appears to be, extremely basic skill repetition day in and day out. The Brazilians used their wall every day, sometimes for 30 minutes. The big question is, “Are our players willing to do basic repetition?”
- The Coaching Team.
It would not be unusual to see 5/6 staff coaches at an Everton U18 game…plus more in the bleachers watching the game. This is not always possible in American clubs but the understanding that the coaching staff are a team which work together must be emphasized.
Moreover, it is, absolutely, essential that the coaching staff must have an understanding of “correct” technique.
e.g. Heading – Pictured below – Poor on top. Good on bottom. Why? How is it done correctly? Ball mastery by basic repetition must be embraced by the players.
Coaches MUST be interested in their own continuing education (bottom photograph) and be willing to adhere to the Club’s Technical ID as developed by the club’s Technical Committee.
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