On Thursday 15th February 2001 the FA announced the building of a new national training centre for all English football teams, professionals to youth; billed as a school of excellence that would aid our national team to glory and provide a bright future for our youth.
It was hailed as our version of the French FA’s training centre ‘Clairefontaine’; which many hold responsible for their national teams’ success in the 2008 World Cup and 2010 European Championships. The FA was firm in the stance that such a training centre would provide similar success to our future national teams.
A decade later and following building at the site being put on hold in 2004 to accommodate the re-build of Wembley, this past week has seen the FA via Sir Trevor Brooking and Gareth Southgate (Director of Football Development and Head of Elite Development respectively) once again talking up the venue to the press.
The likes of Steven Gerrard, John Terry and young Jack Wilshere will be gracing the training pitches when on international duties. However, the FA has confirmed that these same pitches will be reserved for grassroots training some 90% of the time. It’s all well and good giving our youngsters the best facilities and playing surfaces but it is essential that their style of play reflects these facilities.
This leaves me asking the question of whether English football needs a new training venue or a new philosophy.
Between 1969 and 1973 Ajax were determined to play an exceptional style of football where outfield players could play in any role and were all comfortable on the ball; ‘total football’ was born. The main pioneer of total football was then Ajax manager Rinus Michels who took it to the international stage with the Netherlands national side. It was however one of his players both at Ajax and for the Netherlands who became known as the systems most successful exponent; a certain Johan Cruyff.
As a player, Cruyff was often shown on the team sheet as a centre forward. He would however appear all over the pitch; he’d find space and receive the ball wherever he could cause the most damage to the opposition. His teammates were quick to adapt to the system too. They’d quickly fill spaces left by the mercurial Cruyff and this would filter across the pitch. Cruyff was quickly recognized as one of the greatest players in the world and came to be known as ‘the total footballer’.
When taking over as manager of Barcelona, Cruyff insisted on having total control of all football maters. In doing this he took his belief in total football into the heart of the club. From first team players to the youngest recruits, all were expected to play total football. He was manager of the club between 1988 and 1995 and his football philosophy lead to him being considered a visionary by many in Spain. Coaches from all over Spain would come to watch his training sessions and subsequently take the system on themselves; this soon filtered through to the Spanish national side.
In no time at all Spain had adopted total football and re-named it ‘tiki-taka’.
Tiki-taka can be seen week in and week out, still being played by Barcelona; now managed by Josep Guardiola who used the system as a player at the club during Cruyffs’ time as manager. Barcelona is recognised as the best football team in the world today.
Learning the system from a young age has undoubtedly aided in the careers of players such as Xavi, Andreas Iniesta and Cesc Fabregas. It was successfully used by the 2008 European Championship and 2010 World Cup winning Spanish national team; the skill they used during both competitions was praised around the world.
There can be no doubting that England produce players capable of adapting to such a system; the aforementioned Jack Wilshere is a clear example. However, our grassroots training seems to be limited to installing rigid four-four-two systems into the youth, with only the rare talents of players such as the young Wilshere and Josh McEachran of Chelsea shining through with their natural God-given ability alone; such players are a rare and precious commodity.
Spain were famed for being a team of quality footballers who would never win a major international honor; the unfortunate, (and to shamelessly quote Al Gore) inconvenient truth is that England have the same label. The difference is that Spain adopted a new system and a generation of footballers later they were World and European Champions playing the best football in the world.
England have used the total football/tiki-taka system once before; at Euro 1996. Terry Venables was another huge admirer of Cruyff and adapted the system for his tenure as boss of the national side. Shearer, Sheringham, Gazza and co all adapted to the system brilliantly coming so close to glory; Shearer has since said the following about his time playing under Venables,
“The best England team I played in was the one under Terry Venables before Euro 96. Terry’s knowledge and tactical know-how were spot-on and he knew how to get the best out of us too. We responded to him, believed in him and played some outstanding football in that tournament.”
The national side hasn’t played football like it since; arguably going backwards under the reigns of managers such as Hoodle and McLaren. Now under Cappello we play a ridged ‘Italian’ system that has got results; however our woeful performance at the 2010 World Cup cannot be forgiven and the system is clearly failing to extract the best out of our top players.
I’m not saying that we should hire Cruyff to oversee development at the new national training centre, and I’m not saying that having a new national training centre is a bad thing; it’s a great thing. It’s a great idea, ‘Clairefontaine’ undoubtedly helped the French and we want to have facilities that are the envy of the rest of the world. Having 10-14 year old kids training a couple of pitches down from the first choice England professionals can only be an inspiration to them.
But what I am saying is that English football needs to look at the lessons learned by Spain and evolve as a football nation; from coaching to players, youth to professionals, let’s set things in motion for our next generation as Spain did in the late 80’s. Having facilities that are the envy of the rest of the world is one thing, but not using them to nurture the true potential out of our best youth players will only lead to them being seen as a waste of time and money.
There comes a time when you need to stop thinking of 1966 and start thinking of the future; that time is now.