As featured on Guardian Sport
As Real Madrid’s Isco squeezed the ball through a helpless Tom Heaton’s legs, Spain did the unthinkable and completed a stupendous comeback to steal a draw after being 2-0 down in the 89th minute against England.
Though this was a friendly match, tackles were late and tempers were at sky-high levels below the freezing London rain. Both teams wanted to win. With the England managerial post still officially vacant, Gareth Southgate will have been desperate to shock many and beat the nation that has dominated world football for the past eight years, and he was a few seconds and a few more bad decisions away from doing so.
With a deflated Southgate questioning the fourth official about the allocated time whilst the 2012 European champions were still celebrating the leveller by the Wembley corner flag, the grief on the former defender’s face was clear to see. Even after so many changes to personnel in the second half, the leading candidate for the job was devastated that his team couldn’t hold on to the two-goal cushion with seconds to go, yet it wasn’t for a lack of opportunities to do so.
In Martí Perarnau’s newest book, Pep Guardiola: The Evolution, the Manchester City coach is quoted talking about how to react after conceding a goal: ‘What’s really needed in moments like these is the midfielder’s mentality: ‘win the ball, move the ball around 50 times’. With that, you lower the heat of the match, the team which has scored against you loses a bit of heat and energy and you can then work out how to tip the game back your way. But if you take the ball and bomb forward you’ll lose it and then have to keep chasing back. If that’s happening when your rival’s buzzing from just having scored then there’s every chance they’ll catch you again. No, that’s not the way. Win the ball, pass it 20 times and lower the temperature.”
After Iago Aspas threw John Stones off balance with neat footwork, likely acquired from backstreets in his Galician hometown, before whipping a sensational effort into the angle via the woodwork, England had possession a total of eight times before Isco equalised; four of which were hurried clearances, three were anxious attempts at playing the ball out from deep areas (all were quickly thwarted by the pressing Spaniards) and one was a driving individual run from Andros Townsend which resulted in an ill-timed central pass. None of the eight resulted in England having the ball for longer than six seconds. Spain punished a wasteful English team for these sins.
Having grown up playing in the north of England and completing my first few coaching licenses through the English FA, I decided to travel and see how things were done elsewhere. Over the past eight years I have worked with coaches from countries varying from Germany, Italy and France, to Argentina, Brazil and Peru. One thing I noticed was that amongst the differing mindsets that each would construct their methods and coaching philosophies around, they all had one main focus: to win.
I was lucky enough to land an assistant coaching role within the youth team of a club on the outskirts of Barcelona in 2014 and found myself thrown back with astonishing disbelief at the ideology and settings that I encountered from day one. As I was under contract elsewhere until September, I’d missed pre-season and met the players, staff and my coaching colleagues in the dressing room before retiring to the stands to watch the third game of the season amongst the parents.
My first session was 24 hours later, and before the players took to the training pitch they were gathered in the complex studio situated in the corridor beside the tunnel to view vital points and key areas to improve upon in a 20-minute video broken down into critical tactical moments by the head coach. The boys were just 13 and 14-years-old.
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The youngsters were then led out to the centre circle where the Mister awaited them before directing them in a debrief from the 1-1 draw the previous evening. The learning points from the short tape were emphasised and individuals were singled out, both to be questioned on their mistakes and also praised if their work was of a level sufficient to the boss’s expectations. With a quick mention of next week’s opponents and in which areas they can beat them, the players were off doing laps of the half before completing their routine passing drills in squares. Eleven minutes into my first session in Spain and the English FA’s ‘no lines, no laps and no lectures’ rule was breached by a man who went on to coach for FC Barcelona.
As the week continued, I would learn that having what I’d been taught back home at the front of my mind would only hinder me if I was to learn progressively in the home of the then-European champions. Sessions were played out in game situations with the pitch segmented into thirds and also wide channels for where they would attack the upcoming opponent’s preferred 3-5-2 formation. My mentality had to be altered.
It’s nothing uncommon for coaches to discuss techniques and gameplay issues with their students. I can hand-on-heart say that I’ve never once witnessed play-acting being either condoned or encouraged, but having studied on coaching courses and UEFA licenses in Spain, I have seen tutors advising aspiring coaches to speak with referees about decisions, and this is eventually sieved down to impressionable players. I’ve noticed juniors as young as eight speaking to and crowding officials all in the hope of swinging the next 50/50 decision their way. If an opposition full-back is on a yellow card then youngsters are prompted to play on and run at the said defender and get into the area as soon as possible as he’ll be hesitant to tackle, leading to mistakes.
Football and sport in general strips us all the way back to our most natural of animal instincts. Wanting to win and being successful is the most instinctive impulse a person can feel and if somebody is in between you and your goal then you must find their weaknesses and leap upon them immediately. This is sport. This is life.
By the third training session, five scouting videos had been viewed by players that week and each individual was prepped and inclined on how to help his team win the next game of football. I spoke with coaches of younger groups from various clubs and ultimately realised that for juveniles from as young as seven, winning is the lead priority. Was this all short-sighted? Was this really the best way to improve young players? Was this an old fashioned, uneducated approach? Was it just a cultural contrast?
The English FA’s Talent Identification Manager, Nick Levett, recently gathered results from a survey given to over 55 groups of English children of both sexes, aged 8-12 and playing in both professional and grassroots clubs. The top three statements given from the youngsters were “Trying my hardest is more important than winning” – this statement was in first place by a significant distance; “I like playing because it’s fun”; and “I like playing with my friends”.
In another piece of research, Levett reveals that from 10,000 children aged between 10 and 14, over 80 percent would prefer to play the game and their team lose rather than be a substitute and their team win. Conflicting attitudes from players within the same age groups in Spain.
Throughout the 2015-16 season, I was working with the under 14s of another outfit in Spain. This particular club were of an elite professional level with their senior team playing in the top-flight and my group was fixed in a title race against the likes of FC Barcelona.
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During an eight hour bus journey to play in the Copa España in Guadalajara, the club psychologist handed out questionnaires to the Catalan prospects individually – asking of their main purposes and aspirations from the games that followed. In order of the most common answer first, the responses were ‘Win the tournament’, followed by “Execute game plans well’ and ‘Give the image of a united group’.
I thought back to when I was a young child playing in England more than 15 years ago and when most techniques were not particularly broken down or taught correctly, coaches wanted us to enjoy success and improve as individuals. When playing, I wanted to win. My opponents also wanted to win and those who wanted it more would often get the victory as they’d trained harder, practised in their own time and prepared themselves to be better than their counterparts.Playing for your club was the real deal where results mattered and ‘fun football’ was played with your friends at
Playing for your club was the real deal where results mattered and fun football was played with your friends at lunch time and in the streets after school, and even then school trousers and dress shoes were ripped and in tatters from last-ditch slide tackles in order to avoid defeat.
I can never once remember walking into school on a Monday and asking a friend “Did you try your best this weekend?” or “Did you have fun with your friends?” The only inquiries were “Did you win?” and “How many did you score?” Nothing more, nothing less.
Fast forward a few years and I was playing in a regional semi-final for my college team as a 17-year-old. After going down to two early strikes we managed to claw our way back into the game and I scored (a rarity for me) our scrappy third in the quagmire of a pitch with minutes remaining. A moment after scoring, we had another chance on the counter-attack; this time I chose to carry the ball to the corner flag and waste time, much to the fury of the usually placid coach. In an enraged fit, the teacher subbed me off and screamed at me on the touchline. Due to his irate tone, I couldn’t work out the reason for his anger and assumed he was unhappy with me wasting the four-against-two breakaway.
It was only in the dressing room and all the coach journey home from Hull that I realised he was upset due to my gamesmanship and “bad sportsmanship that represented our college’s fine reputation in an ugly manner”. The game ended 3-2 and I’m still proud of my actions.
I didn’t understand the ex-Crystal Palace defender’s motives after we’d spent training sessions working tactically and even going as far as practising penalties before cup games. Was he really so disgusted in my actions? Was he the first of the new breed of coaches that I witnessed putting winning in second or third placed priority behind the performance and image of the team?
Back to Guadalajara and the Copa España, where we went all the way to the final to face our old sparring partners Barcelona in front of the television cameras that were broadcasting the game nationwide. With a thrilling first half drawing to a close, one of the senior members of the group (in Spanish youth football, teams are put into age groups containing players within two years of each other as it gives each individual an experience of being both one of the oldest and one of the youngest in a team) hit a speculative effort from distance which caught the Barça keeper off guard but agonisingly bounced out from the underside of the bar. Having been dragged from his knees and into the dressing room, the 14-year-old was distraught in having not given his team the lead after his own mistake saw the eventual winners equalise late in the half before finding a way to beat us in the second period.
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A day earlier, in the semi-final, an injury time goal from our striker saw us pip a franchised academy to the final in a 4-3 win that sparked wild celebrations and TV interviews followed. Amongst the celebratory pile-on was a 12-year-old boy who didn’t play a single second and yelled encouragement from the bench throughout. Winning is a monumental part of a Spaniard’s make-up. From being seven and eight years old, it is bred into them daily and the results are there for all to see.
At the end of the 2015-16 season, Sevilla – who finished seventh in La Liga – became the eighth successive Spanish team to win a European trophy. By winning the UEFA Super Cup in August 2016, Real Madrid made sure that it was nine consecutive domestic European trophies lifted by Spanish clubs.
People argue that too much focus on winning has been the leading culprit and creator of the problem and downfall of the English grassroots game. Nick Levett assures me that the majority of professional academies in England won’t commence opponent scouting or enhance victory as a priority until the players are 16-years-old or older. Have kids changed?
The shredded trousers and split trainers have been substituted for iPads and iPhones and a National Trust survey found that British children between the ages of four and 14 spend, on average, just over four hours a week playing outdoors, compared to 8.2 hours a week when the parents questioned were children.
Receiving bumps and bruises whilst unshackled by the guardianship of parents or teachers is where youngsters learn to avoid obstacles that may obstruct their path, whether that be the biggest kid in the neighbourhood closing in with a crunching tackle or a car passing through the middle of the streetnpitch floodlit by lampposts. Characters are shaped in these environments and the greatest memories are made. However, the best flashbacks of all are moments when you won your three-a-side street match or were a successful fugitive in nightly game of ‘knock a door, run’. Imaginations naturally ran wild in order to succeed and overcome the hindrances laid before our target.
Former Celtic and Scotland international John Collins was recently on a radio show discussing winning and described it as a barrier to the development of young players. Of course we should have a game plan and methods of coaching, but should these not eventually lead to wanting to win? I have seen clubs and parents go as far as requesting that youth football results are not to be published so as to save the embarrassment and pain of the losing players.
This mentality would actually harm our fledgelings in the long run. Losing is part of the game and plays a huge factor of building our spirit. The most successful of individuals and teams in all walks of life are as good as they are because they once tasted the putrid, sickly pit of defeat and sacrificed everything to do all they could in finding a way to never taste it again.
Sport teaches us self-discipline, motivational and organisational skills, and when more than 99 percent of the young players we coach won’t ever play professionally, the least we can do is give them attributes to find abilities and strengths within their inner selves to adapt and evolve in order to be succesful in the real world away from football that becomes more dog-eat-dog by the day.
Our beautiful game is a sport like no other, bringing people together. As football changes and grows rapidly, one thing should never go away, and that is the competitive nature of the game that supplies upsets such as the plucky Leicester City winning the Premier League title or extra-time winners from Portugal’s Éder in the Euro 2016 final and many other favourable success stories that last a lifetime in the memories of millions.
By not developing winners, are we subconsciously encouraging losers?
By Alex Clapham. Follow @alexclapham