This feature is the second in a three-part series looking at why English football struggles to produce and develop creative midfielders, how it can learn from Spanish football’s success over the past decade, and how it can change for the better. The series includes interviews with journalists Graham Hunter, Jonathan Northcroft, Euan McTear as well as various players and coaches from around Europe.
Part two analyses the reasons how Spanish football became so successful, why Spain weren’t always a passing team and the influence of basketball.
It’s a clear and humid July evening at the NSK Olimpiyskyi stadium in Kyiv, Ukraine. Xabi Alonso controls the ball in his own half and pings a pass into the feet of Sergio Busquets, who’s found a pocket of space in the centre of the pitch. He swivels effortlessly and fires a missile of a pass forward that cuts through Italy’s entire midfield and defensive unit.
The pass meets the run of the onrushing Fernando Torres perfectly – now in-behind the opposition defence – who unselfishly squares the ball to an unmarked Juan Mata, who strokes the ball into an empty net. It’s 4-0. This was the Euro 2012 final and Spain have just beaten Italy to win their third consecutive major international tournament, brushing aside a team containing the likes of Andrea Pirlo, Giorgio Chiellini, Leonardo Bonucci, Daniele De Rossi and Gianluigi Buffon.
The result, whilst impressive, was almost secondary to the manner of their astonishing performance, as Spain started with no recognised striker. Instead, they deployed a 4-6-0 formation, showing outstanding fluidity, technical mastery and tactical perfection. Their performance and control of the ball left Italy looking like tired greyhounds in a track race, despairingly chasing an object that would always be just out of their reach. They simply passed Gli Azzurri to death, leaving them dizzy and bewildered. Spain had reached a level of performance, mentality, natural ability and success that few other teams ever had.
Spanish players are now considered to be some of the most technically gifted, creative players in the world, and the statistics speak for themselves. Six of the top 10 most creative players in Europe this season are Spanish (total key passes completed in LaLiga, Premier League, Serie A, Ligue 1 and Bundesliga).
But Spanish football wasn’t always based on the free-flowing passing game that we’ve become so used to. For decades, Spain’s national team was actually famed for their directness, pressing and physical style of play. Spanish-based journalist and broadcaster Graham Hunter recalls how different the style was. “While there were clearly creative midfielders before Luis Aragonés took over in 2004, remember that Aragonés came from an era as talented as he was, that the football that Spain played was still called ‘La Furia Roja’,” said Hunter.
“If you look back at the early 1980s, if you look back at the way Athletic and Real Sociedad played, there was a real trace of sulphur about the battle. The Basques in ’79, ’80, ’81 and ’82 wanted to kick the fuck out of Barcelona. While they were full of skilful players, they were brutally hard. There have been many players who you could transplant out of Spain and into any physical era of English football.”
Part 1 | The midfield template holding back English football for decades and solutions in Spain
Then came Johan Cruyff. He returned to Barcelona as manager in 1988, and although the Dutchman inherited a side that had won just one league title in the last 14 years, he immediately demanded an incredibly technical, attractive style. What followed changed the face of football forever.
Cruyff’s Dream Team played a style of football that had rarely been seen before, adapting the Dutch Total Football philosophy into a revolutionary 3-4-3 system, Barcelona won 11 trophies in eight seasons, including four straight league titles, three Spanish Super Cups, 1 Copa Del Rey and a European Cup.
Hunter explains how Cruyff impacted the culture of Spanish football: “The influence which Cruyff had on all of Spanish football [is huge], not simply the fact that he worked several times at Barcelona.
“There was an awareness, a jealousy and a will to adapt to intelligence, technique and ball retention, that stemmed with the Dream Team from 1989 onwards. Teams, coaches, youngsters all around the country said ‘That’s how I want to play, that’s what I admire’.”
And so, inspired by Cruyff, the shift in Spanish football culture began. The transformation from La Furia Roja to merely La Roja began in 1995. Writing in the These Football Times’ Spain magazine, Jon Townsend explains how they changed their national process in order to produce better players, players who excel technically.
“From the ground up and from the top down, Spanish football transformed itself and in the process has specialised in winning by looking at its past, working out the problems from within, and creating a culture of change.
“The commitment of the Real Federación Española de Fútbol (RFEF) to prioritise high-level, accessible and comprehensive coaching education through a national program ensured that talent from all over the country had access to the necessary resources, most notably the qualified coaching methodologies, from a young age.
“Whereas other nations import top talent to attract marketing dollars and fan interest, Spain’s approach was to win that battle by producing better players throughout the system. “
Order | Spain
In his book, Spain: The Inside Story of La Roja’s Historic Treble, Hunter reveals just how unified and coordinated this approach is, with every age group having a consistent approach: “For Spanish football development the magic number is 55. Every summer, culminating in July, Meléndez (Spain’s categorías inferiores manager) his staff and the 19 regional scouts who work for him on a voluntary basis will meet and agree a list of the best 55 14 and 15-year-olds in the country – five for each position in the under-15 team.
“This process is duplicated for the under-16s, under-17s and under-18s, and while the under-19s and under-21s will gather an initial squad of only between 33 and 40 players, the process of selecting Spain’s senior squad each season will start with Vicente del Bosque and his staff also picking what they consider to be the best 55 national team players.
“Spain’s players will be drilled over and over again what to do in possession of the ball and when they lose it, how and when to press and how much distance is allowable between the lines of defence, midfield and attack. Heavy emphasis is placed on when to move the ball quickly; where each player must be in relation to the two around him; who will form their triangles, via which they aim to get numerical superiority in match situations.”
Over the course of the football season, the best 55 players in the 14 and 15-year-old age groups will then live and train at the national training centre just outside Madrid for three days, once a month. This allows the youngsters to learn the Spanish way, developing them as players and as people.
In January, the 55 will become 33, with the best three players in each position continuing their education until the summer, when there’s a competitive tournament. The consistency of the system has led to an outstanding level of player development and an era of Spanish domination.
Spain international tournament wins since 1995:
6 x UEFA European Under-17 Championships
5 x UEFA European Under-17 Championship runners-up
8 x UEFA European Under-19 Championships
2 x UEFA European Under-19 Championship runners-up
3 x UEFA European Under-21 Championship
2 x UEFA European Under-21 Championship runners-up
3 x FIFA U-17 World Cup runners-up
1 x FIFA U-20 World Cup
1 x FIFA U-20 World Cup runners-up
2 x UEFA European Championship
1 x FIFA World Cup
Spain’s success at youth level has also been merged with their domestic clubs’ willingness to give young players a chance in their first team, something many in England are still struggling to do. A report by the BBC, analysing the minutes played by the squad members of the four 2017 European Under-21 Championship semi-finalists, showed that in the 2016/17 Premier League, English under-21 squad players played just over 20,000 minutes of top-tier football – 17,000 fewer than their Spanish counterparts.
Furthermore, 88 percent of the Spain squad’s game-time this season has come in LaLiga, whereas England’s ratio of minutes in the Premier League is 47 percent. In summary, young Spanish players are playing a lot more often and with better players, which is a massive factor in their development. As Jon Townsend puts it: ‘Think about how much better the likes of Xavi, Iniesta and Busquets became by playing with Messi or how much better Cristiano Ronaldo, Modrić, Kroos or Marcelo make Isco, Asensio and Carvajal.’
Read | The coming of Isco: a star finally on the way to greatness
In LaLiga, almost every team has a young, Spanish midfield talent playing regularly in their first team. In Spanish football, there’s a culture of belief and confidence in young players, and they’re trusted and given time to develop. Five teams of the current top six in LaLiga trust their young midfield talents, under the age of 25, to be vital parts of their first team: Marco Asensio (22) at Real Madrid, Saúl Ñíguez (23) at Atlético Madrid, Carlos Soler (21) at Valencia, Fabián Ruiz (22) and Francis (22) at Real Betis, Rodri (21), Pablo Fornals (22) and Samu Castellejo (23) at Villarreal.
Spanish-based football journalist Simon Harrison believes the financial differences between LaLiga and the Premier League are a key reason why Spanish clubs give young players more chances: “The biggest thing for me is the budgets in Spain. Clubs can’t afford to go spending a lot of money on big players, it would be inefficient, especially in the Segunda and below. Instead, it makes more sense to put money into the youth system and then put faith in younger players when big sales are made. That helps younger players, as the pathway to the top is a lot clearer. It isn’t as likely that clubs will hoard young talent and loan them out, like Chelsea would. It isn’t a sustainable model.
“A lack of money to invest can only promote patience, because there is no other option. There’s more chance for there to be a lot of pressure on sporting directors or managers than youngsters because they have a bit more of a connection to the fan base if young players come through to the top table.”
The environment and culture in Spain also plays a role in how players develop their skills. Spain-based football journalist Euan McTear explains how the climate allows football to be played more often, especially when it comes to young children playing in the streets: “Kids in Spain will spend more time playing football than in the UK, where kids are more likely to sit in, watch TV and play PlayStation.
“In Spain, they’re more likely to go out, it’s partly a cultural thing, I think parents in Spain are a bit more open to letting their kids play out on the street, the same way as UK parents did maybe 20 years ago. The weather helps as well – they can play football for 300 days a year.”
There’s also more space made available for football facilities, even in major towns and cities. This creates more opportunities for children to participate in futsal and street football, where close control, passing and the ability to keep the ball is paramount. Hunter explains the impact this has on young footballers: “It’s imperative to recognise that because this country has such a different climate, on almost every big street corner there is some kind of multi-court.
“There will be small five-a-side goals, not like letterbox style like we’ve got in the UK, like up-right hockey side goals. In these small-sided games or futsal games, they’re generally played with a very heavy ball – it’s smaller but it’s very heavy and you can’t kick it long distances.
“Therefore, when you’re growing up, if you can’t kick a ball long distances, then low and behold what is it that you learn to do? You learn to control, produce tricks, getting past somebody is a lot about nuance and confidence. What you see almost everywhere across Spain is this ability to do special things with the ball, but also make passing movements that use space in order to open up what is a closed down game, like in a small space with a heavy ball.
Read | In the pantheon of modern-day greats, where do Sergio Busquets’ unique talents rank?
“There are a host of elements which make Spain’s ideas about what a ball is for completely different from much what has been modern belief and teaching in Britain, not just England. If you grow up with that, it changes intrinsically what you think you’re supposed to do. It changes your perspective, expectations and skill level.”
Although football is Spain’s major sport, it’s closely followed by basketball. Hunter explains why Spain’s love of the sport has had an influence on how Spain play football: “Spain is a very big basketball country and England is not, they are absolutely fanatical about it here and it can regularly joust for the front-page of the sports papers.
“Therefore, if you look at the concepts of basketball – small-sided, ball retention absolutely vital, intelligence of movement, positioning – if you think about the importance of the pivot in basketball and pivot in Spanish football, you can start to see there was an immediate blending.”
Another factor in the recent success of Spanish football was the creation of a culture that valued top-quality coaching, but also making it affordable and accessible to everyone. The average cost to undertake a UEFA A Licence course in England is £2,965, with prospective English coach having to spend over £4,000 to go from UEFA Level 1 to UEFA A, spending approximately 250 hours of teaching in order to qualify.
In Spain, as of 2013, the cost of the UEFA A Licence is just €1,200, but It requires 750 hours of teaching in order to qualify. In summary, football coaching in Spain is much cheaper, and coaches have more hours of teaching and experience under their belts when they do qualify, in comparison with how it’s done in England.
This has had a profound impact on the number of coaches England and Spain produce. As of 2013, according to the UEFA Coaching Convention Statistics, there are just 1,395 English coaches with either UEFA A or Pro qualifications. Spain have 15,423, an incredible 1005 percent more. Furthermore, just 203 coaches in England hold a UEFA Pro Licence, the highest possible coaching level, while Spain have 2,140 – that’s 954 percent more.
As of April 2018, there are only five English managers in the Premier League. In LaLiga, 17 of the 20 clubs have Spanish managers. Pep Guardiola, considered one of the greatest managers in history, failed the FA UEFA B course four times in England, before going to Italy and passing first time. Considering his success and undoubted coaching pedigree, it points to a flaw in the coaching qualifications themselves.
Spain have done things the right way, proving that root and branch reviews can work if the priorities are right and the philosophy is consistent throughout the entire system. The review of their football programme in 1995 brought success for their national and club teams. In 2014, the English FA announced their own programme, which we’ll explore in the final part of this series.
By Nathan Bliss @Nathan_Bliss14