England's Youth Soccer Model Aces First Big Test at World Cup

England's Youth Soccer Model Aces First Big Test at World Cup

Dele Alli of England controls the ball during the 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia group G match between Tunisia and England at Volgograd Arena on June 18, 2018 in Volgograd, Russia.

SourceDan Mullan/Getty

Why you should care

Triumphantly reaching the last 16, England enjoys success with its least experienced national team in years.

If you’ve been referring to England as a “former” soccer great in recent years, it’s time for a rethink. Today, the country’s national team — the least experienced side England has fielded since 2000 — dismissed Panama, 6-1, securing its spot in the tournament’s last 16.

Dele Alli is the prototype for a new breed of England player. Just 22 years old, the technically adept Tottenham Hotspur forward is already used to playing for his country. Like many players in England’s World Cup squad, Alli has spent as much time in the youth ranks as in the senior team, representing England at various levels, including the under-21 team previously coached by Gareth Southgate, now the England manager.

“I played with Gareth a couple of times with the under-21s, so I know his philosophy,” says Alli. “He picks a lot of players where we want to play good football, attacking football, and that’s important. It’s exciting for us.”

We want to dominate the ball, but we want to be positive and dynamic with it too.

Matt Crocker, head of development team coaching, Football Association

Southgate’s squad for the tournament may be attacking, but it is also the least experienced that England has fielded since at least 2000, in terms of the number of top-level club games the players have played, the earliest date for which reliable data are available from the websites Transfermarkt and England Football Online.

Over the past two years, players in the England World Cup squad averaged 25 full games a season in Europe’s “big five” leagues — Spain, England, Germany, Italy and France — and the Champions League, Europe’s most prestigious club tournament. This compares with England’s squad for the 2002 tournament whose players averaged 30 full games per season.

Part of the reason may be the increasingly cosmopolitan makeup of England’s Premier League, where wealthy teams can offer huge wages and attract players from around the world. In 1992, English soccer players took part in 69 percent of all minutes played in the Premier League, compared with 34 percent today.

By contrast, Spanish players take part in 58 percent of the minutes played in La Liga, and German players get 45 percent of the match time in the Bundesliga.

The reluctance of English players to move overseas also limits the match time they get. Last season, English players appeared in 3,523 games between them at the top level. Spaniards managed double that number of appearances.

Youth team is more of a pipeline for the senior squad

The solution for the Football Association, the governing body of English soccer, was to use its youth teams as a pipeline for developing a cohesive squad with a well-established tactical system and a mentality of success. In 2014, the FA unveiled the “England DNA” program, under which it instructed its youth teams to play the passing and progressive style of soccer expected of the senior squad, with players of all ages coached based on a set of shared principles.

“We want to dominate the ball, but we want to be positive and dynamic with it too,” says Matt Crocker, the FA’s head of development team coaching. “We might not see players for two or three months, but condensing ‘England DNA’ down to [a few] principles has made it really easy to get those messages across to the players.”

The approach was a response to the success of rivals such as Germany. After the German team failed to win a match at the 2000 European Championships — a deep humiliation — the authorities joined forces with professional clubs to spend tens of millions of euros each year to train grass-roots coaches. Today, there are an estimated 1,300 full-time coaches across Germany.

Suddenly, Die Nationalmannschaft, which had earned grudging respect for its disciplined defenders, was receiving adoration for its thrilling attackers. German clubs placed more trust in new blood. The average age of a Bundesliga player dropped from 27.6 years in 2002, to 25.3 a decade later. In 2014, Germany won the World Cup.

Players have more under-21 experience

In England, the hope is that players will get early experience in national youth teams, even if they cannot consistently break into club sides. Members of the current England squad have played together at under-21 level more frequently than any other recent England squad, apart from the similarly young Euro 2016 squad. Counting each time that two players have appeared in the same match, the current team has had 234 shared appearances at under-21 level.

These players have also spent more time winning with one another, with 130 shared wins at under-21 level, a sharp improvement on the record of previous senior England teams. There are signs this new approach is having an effect. Last year, England won the under-20s and under-17s World Cups, as well as the under-19s European Championship. This World Cup in Russia is the first big test as to whether the approach will bear fruit in soccer’s grandest occasion.

“There is a simple consistency across our teams and the players have more confidence when they step up to the seniors,” Crocker says. “I really think we have more connected squads than ever before.”

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By Murad Ahmed and John Burn-Murdoch

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