This feature is the third 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 three looks at future of English football, what more needs to be done and how there have been a number of positive signs over the last 12 months.
On 4 December 2014, the English FA unveiled an ambitious national performance plan called the ‘England DNA Philosophy’ at the national football centre, St. George’s Park. Its aim was to unify a philosophy in order to produce more quality players for the England team, emulating the approach of Germany in 2000 and Spain in 1995.
There are five main elements of the programme: who we are, how we play, the future England player, how we coach and how we support. From under-15 to senior level, every age group will play the ‘England way’. This means that when in possession, England sides will ‘intelligently dominate by selecting the right moments to progress the play and penetrate the opposition’. Out of possession, they will win the ball back ‘intelligently and as early and efficiently as possible.’
It would be easy to dismiss these measures as empty PR statements, because the FA have been undertaken reviews like this before with little to no impact. However, within just two-and-a-half years of the launch of this programme, England’s youth teams started to achieve success at international tournaments. These included: Under-17 European Championship runners-up, Toulon Tournament winners, Under-20 World Cup winners, Under-21 European Championship semi-finalists, Under-19 European Championship winners and Under-17 World Cup winners.
The results are mightily impressive, but the final one in the list is arguably the most significant, as England’s under-17 obliterated Spain 5-2 in India back in October 2017. Spain’s youth teams have been the benchmark of technical and tactical quality over the last decade and for England to beat them so emphatically, coming from two goals down to win, sent shockwaves through world football.
More significantly, England’s young midfielders played a massive part in their tournament win. Wolves midfielder Morgan Gibbs-White scored in the final and played a pivotal role England’s young midfield also featured the likes of George McEachran (Chelsea), Angel Gomes (Manchester United), Jadon Sancho (Borussia Dortmund), Tashan Oakley-Booth (Tottenham), Nya Kirby (Crystal Palace), Callum Hudson-Odoi (Chelsea), Emile Smith-Rowe (Arsenal) and Conor Gallagher (Chelsea).
Part I | The midfield template holding back English football for decades and solutions in Spain
However, the standout player was undoubtedly Manchester City’s 17-year-old midfielder Phil Foden, who won the tournament Golden Ball award for best player and scored twice in the final. His success attracted the attention of City manager Pep Guardiola, who invited the youngster to join their first-team squad on their pre-season tour of America.
After making an appearance in a friendly against Manchester United, Guardiola was asked in his post-match press conference about Foden’s performance: “I don’t have words. I would like to have the right words to describe what I saw,” Guardiola told the assembled press. “You are lucky guys, believe me, you are the guys who saw his first game in the first team at Manchester City. I’ve not seen something like I saw today for a long time. His performance was another level. He’s a City fan and loves the club. He’s a gift for us. He’s special.”
Spanish-based sports journalist and broadcaster Graham Hunter was enormously impressed by the England youth sides, particularly their technical level and their ability in possession: “I watched a lot of England’s two World Cup wins and a couple of good Euro performances.
“I was particularly impressed with Foden’s under-17 team, because I love Hudson-Odoi. I’m not always right but Pep said that Foden’s going to be fantastic. Hudson-Odoi, though, that’s the guy that I’d pay to watch every time, his intelligence, his ability to go past somebody, the daring. I really enjoyed watching him so, so much.
“In my view, what I saw in almost all of those youth setups, is quite a significant change in what they wanted to do with the ball. I think I see generations of English players coming through again that are going to want to do different things with the ball. Particularly at tournaments and environments where the temperature is hot, you don’t want to be chasing the ball. So I’m moderately hopeful, I have to say, and even though I’m a Scot, it would please me.”
Sports journalist Jonathan Northcroft believes that the success at under-17 level shows that things are changing in English football, especially on a technical level: “I look at those who have won the under-17 World Cup, there are players at an extreme technical level. Like Foden, Sancho and Gomes, they are very technical players and they’ve got creativity in them.”
Northcroft also believes that things will change even further, due to the success of Manchester City and the impact of Guardiola’s style of football: “I think Guardiola is going to change things, probably is already changing things, just by the sheer prowess of Manchester City. I think that’s going to be the most powerful example. I think it will be a slow change, but it will happen, particularly if he continues in English football, and maybe there will be a few coaches that will follow him as well.”
Part II | The revolution that changed Spain and the one yet to arrive in England
There is renewed hope for the future of English football because, in addition to the international tournament wins at youth level, there’s a lot of similarities between England’s youth shake-up and the Spanish youth revolution in 1995.
Even England’s style of football was similar to Spain’s at one point. Graham Hunter explains the similarities between Spain’s La Furia Roja era and British football: “It’s supposed to mean playing at high, aggressive tempo. Now where have we heard that kind of expression before? Apart from the colour, that’s modern British football.”
There’s been a reluctance for English coaches and players to move abroad, but Spanish sports journalist Paco Lloret explained that in previous years, Spanish coaches and players also shared similar tendencies: “I remember in the 1980s and 90s, for example, you could not find a Spanish coach working outside of Spain. Now it’s common, but then from Argentina, many coaches came to Spain, and from the Netherlands and other countries. Now Spanish coaches go to France, Austria, England of course and many countries, it’s a new age for them.”
Before the year 2000, the only Spanish footballers in the Premier League were Nayim, Albert Ferrer and Marcelino. By the 2007/08 season, 13 Spanish players appeared. This season, 31 Spaniards have made at least one appearance, which, apart from English, is the most common nationality you will find in the Premier League.
Whilst the success of the English youth teams is a plus, in order to develop their skills, they need regular game time, something that is hard to come by in the Premier League. Northcroft believes more players will choose to go abroad to get that essential game time: “I think there will be more British youngsters going abroad, because of the economics of the Premier League. To get a game is very hard for young players, and the more that people like Sancho succeed, the more others will want to do it. I know that Bundesliga clubs, Dutch clubs, Spanish clubs and Italian clubs are now scouting English football specifically to try and pick up talented 18 and 19-year-olds because they see it as an untapped market.”
So far this season, just 14 English players under the age of 21 have made their debuts in the Premier League, with only six of them being natural midfielders. The lucky few are Callum Hudson-Odoi (Chelsea), Rekeem Harper (West Brom), Phil Foden (Manchester City), Reiss Nelson (Arsenal), Joe Willock (Arsenal) and Levi Lumeka (Crystal Palace).
Read | Steve McManaman: the man no English export can touch
As a result of the lack of playing opportunities in the Premier League, young English players like Sancho (Borussia Dortmund), Reece Oxford (Borussia Mönchengladbach), Marcus McGuane (Barcelona), Ademola Lookman (RB Leipzig), Chris Willock (Benfica), Mason Mount (Vitesse), Rolando Aarons (Hellas Verona) and others have all chosen to play football abroad in recent years. They have been offered more opportunities to play top-level football, plus the chance to experience different cultures, environments, pressures, and tactical systems. This can only be a positive thing for English football in the long-term.
Hunter believes it will have a massive impact on English football if English players chose to go abroad, in the same way that Spanish players improved after experiencing English football: “Let’s say an elite 25 or 26-year-old from Britain begin to play regularly at a Juventus, or Roma or Bayern or Leverkusen or Monaco. Then, broadly, what will be brought back is that they’ll all laugh about the things they don’t like or laugh the things that they find odd.
“What they’ll also bring back is ‘this is what we do in training, this is what we eat, this is our curfew, this is how many times we train, this is what the physio’s do and this is what the fans expect’.
“I swear to you, what helped a great deal in Spanish football was that those who went to England came back with different knowledge, different attitudes and passed that on. It was like a positive virus. Every second week I speak to Luis García, I speak regularly to Gaizka Mendieta, and over time I’ve spoken to Xabi Alonso, Álvaro Arbeloa and Pepe Reina about life in England. They found things in the Premier League that they think we’re lacking here in Spain, so they brought back these different attitudes and different mentalities. That definitely grafted itself onto what was already an exceptional era of talent.”
It’s dangerous to make sweeping statements based off just a few years of youth tournament success. However, if English football can use these tournament wins as a springboard and managers are able to trust these exceptional young players to get regular minutes in competitive senior football, the national team will see the long-term benefits.
It is imperative that over the next few years, the talented midfield youngsters that England are producing get the game time they need – either in England or abroad – in order to develop and fulfil their potential. If Spanish players can learn things from English football that made them better, there’s no doubt that English players can become better by experiencing football in other countries.
Maybe it would be too much to suggest that England could enjoy the same level of success that Spain have over the last decade, but if it’s anything close, England should see a new, exciting breed of creative, technical midfielders coming through. With more English players and coaches choosing to go abroad, the introduction of a unified ‘England DNA’ program, the impact of Guardiola, and with a talented generation on the horizon, the future can, at last, look bright for English football.
By Nathan Bliss @Nathan_Bliss14