How to improve football in England

By Walter Broeckx

With the world cup under way and with England out and Belgium in maybe it is time to have another look at an article that appeared a few weeks ago in The Guardian.

They tried to go a bit deeper in the reason why the Belgium national team was more successful than the English team. Now I must say that this being more successful is not really there. We have more chance than the English said the bookmakers. And on the field we have progressed to the next round. One could say more successful but lets not sell the skin of the bear before we have shot one.

So what was the plan? After years of not even qualifying for any tournament one of the people in the coaching staff of the national team came up with a plan to let all the youth teams play in the same way. The plan was to use the 4-3-3 system.

That system would give all the players more chance to get on the ball and this was also the system that was used in countries that surrounded Belgium. Like France and Holland. So one could say not really a Belgian invention but more trying to see what is being done in countries that are doing better and then implement it in Belgium.

What this did however was that for the first time maybe the difference between kids playing in Belgium and the Belgian kids playing in Holland and France in the youth teams went away. So when the national youth teams from Belgium called up youth players already playing in other leagues it wasn’t a cultural shock any more but all the players new and understood the system.

Before we started playing the 4-3-3 system I must say that Belgian football was dull and boring. One of the reasons I never liked the Belgian national team was the fact that they played like the Italians in the Catenaccio– style. Defend for 90 minutes and then hope for that one counter attack and then shut up the shop. No, no, no it wasn’t Mourinho or Chelsea that invented parking the bus. Italy did it and Belgium was their best pupil in school.  I don’t like parking the bus, so I never liked Belgium.

Somehow winning is not good enough for me. Do it with class and style. And so in the past I have just supported the best attacking team and hoped they would win. I have learned they don’t always win. But I never fell for the : ‘they have won so they are a great team’-punditry.  You can play horrible football, spectacle killing football but still win it. And then my football loving heart weeps.  But back to Belgium.

There are too many foreigners in the PL they declare. Well there around 60% of foreign players in the PL and in Belgium there are over 51% (couldn’t find the last numbers).  And as we only have around 34 professional football clubs (take with a pinch of salt as in our second division most players are semi-professionals) we have a very small pool to find players. Compare with the 4 professional divisions in England!

So why suddenly do we have a lot of talent in Belgium and go further in world cups than England? First of all I must say that this has been the first tournament Belgium has reached for since …2000 when we co-hosted the European championship. Otherwise we probably would have missed that too.

The change of system will have helped. But that also was very helpful was that the Belgian football federation stopped asking for money from people who wanted to take up coaching badges. Since then the number of people taking the courses was multiplied by ten. If it is for free we like to get it one could say. Universities were brought in to it and one player, Werner Helsen,  of my local team helped in the studies. He is a well known specialist in football studies and has been responsible for the fitness of the referees on a few world cups and European championships.

One could say bringing in science was helpful.

One thing that also was important was the fact that a lot of the current crop of talented players has played in foreign youth leagues. Alderweireld, Vertonghen, Vermaelen, Dembele, Chadli, Origi, Hazard, Mirallas, Januzaj just to name a few of them all went to Holland or France early on in their career. Hazard is of course the most famous of them but I think it helped him a lot in his career.

What also was important is not only to have good youth coaches, play the same system but also to allow those kids to show their skills. And to do that you need an environment that helps young players to develop. And in this referees play a big part of course. Protecting skilful players against thuggery was and is very important.

So we already have a few reasons now: making sure that the system helps to develop the kids and make sure they learn to play the ball and do a passing game by using that system. Bring in science. Let young kids go to other countries to learn from there. Ask referees to protect skilful players.

But then again you need a few teams that are willing to use the players coming from their youth academy in the first team. The AAA still sees it as a terrible project but ‘project youth’ is what made the Belgian national team to what it is now.

I think a few clubs may deserve special praise for this. I think a lot of the players came from Standard Liège  and Racing Genk. Both clubs from the East (and one Flemish and Walloon) have done the biggest job in giving young players a chance to shine from a young age.  From Genk we have : Courtois, Casteels (keeper injured just before the tournament), Defour, De Bruyne, Benteke (also injured). From Standard Liège we have Witsel, Fellaini, Defour (played for Genk and Standard). And Anderlecht who also have a traditional youth tradition with giving the best youth players a chance to make it at the top.

Even Club Brugge is going that way it seems for the moment. But they came behind the other 3 mentioned and don’t have their young players present yet.  So the 4 top clubs in Belgium are doing their bit with giving youth a chance.

This seems to be a better way of doing things that whatever they do in England for the moment.

And one final thing that people in Belgium will say. At least those who keep their feet on the ground and not get overtaken by a sudden hype. A word that I like to use in football and that has a big influence: LUCK.

Yes, you need some luck that suddenly in one generation you get a lot of talented players. Hazard wasn’t the work of Belgian football. It was the work of French football. But as he is Belgian we take the benefits of that work. And a few others. You don’t order top players like him, you just are lucky to have them and that they come together with a lot of other top talents.

So there it is the mix and if England is willing to go the same road, which is a long road and you have to accept periods with not qualifying during the process, you might get back to the top. But then you will need coaches and educate the people that the only way forward is to leave kick and rush behind and teach young kids to be skilful and to work with the ball. If you start today you should have a decent team in some 8 to 12 years time I think.  Depending on the luck factor of course.


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21 Replies to “How to improve football in England”

  1. Thanks for interesting article Walter!
    I want to ask you a question re referees and the ‘spray foam’ in the World Cup. As a referee, I would have thought the sensible way to do it, is to spray where the wall has to be, then get the players back! – it annoys me everytime I see them do it they way they are – I guess FIFA told them to do it the way they are!

  2. Key, key point: make doing coaching qualifications free. It costs around £200 in this country to do Level 1 – which is basic. Given that Level 1 takes around 3 days, Level 2 six days and so on that is quite a commitment – with charging as well a lot of people are put off.

    We can then start to make inroads into the huge shortfall in UEFA B and A coaches (never mind pro licence). A couple of other thoughts:

    A senior coach at my son’s club tried to do UEFA B but was really looked down on and made to feel unwanted as he didn’t have a pro background. He failed the course (and I know he is an excellent coach).

    Notwithstanding all the above, I wonder how many high level coaches Costa Rica (for example) have…? And Uruguay (obviously not UEFA but presumably CONCACAF and CONMEBOL equivalent). So while I think poor coaching and facilities are a major factor in England’s decline; we surely have much better coaches and facilities than many countries currently shining in the World Cup! I have been really impressed with Ghana and Nigeria for example.

    And, while I felt that England were unlucky to be drawn against two Top 10 teams in their WC Group… I then realised that they had both lost to Costa Rica!! Costa Rica. Incredible. Their two best (known?) players are a young Arsenal player who has always been loaned out and is 50:50 whether he goes into the squad for next season, and a Fulham bit-part player. Again, incredible.

    Let’s see what happens tomorrow. I actually expect England to win as the pressure will be off – England should improve while Costa Rica will probably go the other way. Gerrard should be forcibly retired for his idiotic speech about the consequences of failure. Talk about a self-fulfilling prophesy!

    The message must be: go out and enjoy yourselves – this is what you have been working towards all your life. Now make the most of it!

    Rant over.

  3. The answer is simple.
    Find all the little Messis’ on mainland Europe and naturalise ’em!

  4. Good article Walter. Lots of things needed to improve football in England…coaching, giving kids a chance, good pitches, getting over the dark years of idiotic councils and education authorities banning competitive sports in schools….has competitive sport ever been banned in Costa Rican schools?. I would add…get rid of Charles Hughes, his dinosaur flawed research, get rid of all acolytes of Charles Hughes from the higher echelons within the game, and I would even have a Stalinist purge on people called Charles Hughes!!
    Back teams like Arsenal who are trying to change English football for the better and bring it into the current century, rather than use the press, imbecile pundits, match scheduling and sub moronic refs to thwart them at every opportunity.
    Recognise football exists outside the north west and money lands of west London, referees might even exist south of Stoke, though this is unproven.
    What will save us….change eventually, but in the shorter term, maybe immigrants from outside England, hungry youngsters born without the sense of instant entitlement the Xbox xfactor generation many UK kids seem to possess. UKIP might not want to hear it, but there have been and will be new British citizens, football versions of the likes of Mo Farah out there desperate for a chance. Not saying all uk youngsters lack hunger, they clearly do not, but offering kids , their families and agents huge sums of money before they have achieved anything surely cannot be helping the situation. Our last World Cup winners would have been the sons of miners, ship builders, dockers, ww2 military…..those guys had hunger. Of course such working class utopia is no longer relevant…..but hope you get my drift somewhere disguised in this rant

  5. I think the question that needs to be asked is. Are you seeking to improve football within the English leagues or seeking to improve the English players in our football teams.

    For me they are two very different questions, with different answers.

    If you want to improve football in the English leagues, leave things the way they are. At present the business model seems to be throw more money at the Premier League and they will buy in the best talent and we get to watch great football.

    For me this is a very flawed idea and relies on Football being increasingly popular for fans/sponsors, which given the fact that the national side took a hammering in the World Cup seems to be short sighted. This also relies on the idea that the revenues/improvements will ‘trickle’ down to the lower leagues.

    If however you want to improve the English national team then I think there are a number of ways forward.

    Increase participation in Football.
    1. Push participation in Sport in both primary and secondary schools. If you get young people interested in sport from an early age they are more likely to keep playing sports,. This wont just benefit football but will help other sports.

    2. Grass roots football needs have a higher priority within the F.A. Whether this is via county football, 5-side or even encouraging futsal (the sport that Neymar credits for his skills).

    3. Stop marginalizing Women’s football. It is one of the fastest growing sports in the UK. Help it grow. Who knows maybe the fact that the ladies get better results than the men might push the men’s game forward to.

    Improved coaching
    We can have all 63million people in the UK playing football but that doesn’t mean anything if we don’t have the people that can teach them as well as identify the players that have the potential to be world beaters. To be fair the F.A is seeking to improve this area, its just slow.

    Shoot the F.A
    Of course Im being flippant. However, the past few years the F.A has gone from once farce to another. From the massive overspend on Wembley,
    to failed World Cup bid to the recent storm on sexism within the F.A. The signs are there that the F.A board is incompetent and needs a radical change.

    Hopefully these changes would include introducing some transparency in the organization on how the Referees are selected and trained as well as publishing the match reports.

  6. There are two other areas that the F.A (or even FIFA) could look to improve our game

    Education about the game
    Its gotten to the point where I turn off the sound for certain commentators as they simply dont seem to understand the game they are watching.
    Get the refs to explain their decisions. Either release the match reports or better still have a press conference with the two managers and the ref and have them all explain their decisions. Or get the ref assessor in the studio going back over the plays/decisions with pundits.

    Its often talked about but it seems that there is very little respect for the refs. It needs to be cut out. Watch a rugby match and compare that to what happens in football. You dont talk back to a rugby ref as their mics are open (and the broadcasters do play the sound) the players may not like the decision, but they do have respect for the ref in the match. This should also cut out some of the bias (hopefully).

  7. Off topic,watching brazil vs cameroon and the ref is just another shit hole.
    The TVs dont play back shoddy fouls and wonder what is going on but i predict brazil is not going any further after this group stage.

  8. Some great comments none, including respecting the refs. Trouble is, some of the EPL refs do not always earn respect, but still a valid point nonetheless

  9. I just posted a comment from my iPad but it didn’t upload. That will be the second time its happening. Yet from my phone it shows up on the site. All I did was to thank Walter and to say that the biggest point, to my mind, is the fact that the young ones do not go to some other leagues to develop. I think it is because young English players are overpriced, so nobody comes for them. Yet,they cannot really get spaces in the crowded and highly competitive EPL clubs. The media also has its part. They hype these lads and that drives the prices. With that, the clubs whereat they can get chances for regular fielding cannot afford them. They end up like Wilfried Zaha of ManU who would have been a regular player in some other club. Thank you again. Hope the appropriate people, nay, “entities”, will read your post.

  10. On the subject of refs, look at the one in this pic appearing to celebrate with a Nigerian player after they beat Bosnia, with some dubious decisions from this ref.
    Puts even our own dancing dean in the shade

  11. @paul southcott I agree with you on the foam. Mark the point where the ball should be and pace the 10yards and mark a line. Blow your whistle and 10 seconds later book any player that has not stood behind the line. It will only happen a few times before all players rush behind the line. In fact players who don’t move 10 yds from a free kick should be booked. Time wasted by wall building etc. is abuse of spectators funds. We pay to see the game not to see walls built and paint dry!!. Free kicks, corners, throw ins all seem to be time wasters. Referees can add time on but rarely do.

  12. Great post, thanks!

    Great analysis, although I would say ultimately the success of a national coaching system falls to be judged in euros and world cups. Success in competition often has very little to do with infrastructure, and more to do with the luck of the draw, of injuries, of referees and of the bounce of the ball.

    It amuses me to hear the top to bottom analysis and talks of rehauls and following the fashionable countries’ examples every time england get knocked out of a cup (often cruelly). I’m not English so I don’t take it personally!

    They said the same about whoever was doing well after every tournament. Part of me thinks Belgiom is just the latest one. And good for Belgium, they have done the things you say and they have a great team. And they struggled to wins in both games and may easily have missed out.

    Tournament football is fine margins and a huge luck factor. They should teach that on the UEFA B course.

  13. 1. England still has a thug orientation to football that stifles the development of skills.

    2. Having worked with lots of young people from all the various continents, the English players have the most pride. They seem to think that just by being English they could play better than others even when it was clearly not the case! England needs to get a grip on reality, they are not great football players and they need to learn how to play the game.

  14. Paul….as long as the referee determines that the wall is 10 metres from the ball and the ball has not been moved, then it is fine for the ref to spray paint the defending players boots. As you know only the defenders need remain at least 10 metres from the ball so he can spray the defenders boots. Knowing professional players mentalities, most referees will spray the top of the defenders’ boots which will often cause them to back up to avoid having foam on those 500$ adidas…..therefore mission accomplished!

  15. In Canada, after the first Russia-Canada series which Canada won by a hair, there was intense and ongoing questioning of our ice hockey philosophy and approach. We learnt as a nation that we were no longer the masters of the game and so we started improving the coaching and fitness as well as skills development from our lowest leagues on up. This has had a significant and lasting impact on our game and allowed us to win the last Olympic gold medals for men’s and women’s ice hockey. Other countries have long since caught up to us but at least we have maintained our overall edge by improving in almost every area of the game, at least as quickly as our opponents do.
    English Football is too tightly bound in tradition, naivete and a myopic refusal to accept that other nations have surpassed the ¨home of Football¨ in technical, developmental, training and skill building success. The stuffed suits that run the FA and the EPL consistently refuse to face this dilemma, preferring to believe that the English game is sound and truly representative of good Football. If, in this instance, English football is so sound, then why is the EPL importing 60% of their players from other countries?

  16. @ Walter , guys , nice article and comments . Football is and should be fun . Kids should not be over coached nor made to doubt, but rather to express themselves .Let them take time to grow and develop at their own pace .

    Parents ,coaches and officials should guide and encourage them .Do not allow the child to be confused with conflicting advice and wrong and negative playing tactics.
    Let there be a structured and unified plan with allowance for individual tweaking . Self interest, bias and politics should never be allowed to take root of be rooted out if present.Some painful decisions and actions must be endured to finally attain success .

    Here’s such a story..

    Fable of the Hedgehog
    It was the coldest winter ever. Many animals died because of the cold.
    The Hedgehogs, realizing the situation, decided to group together to keep warm. This way they covered and protected themselves; but the quills of each one wounded their closest companions.

    After awhile, they decided to distance themselves one from the other and they began to die, alone and frozen. So they had to make a choice: either accept the quills of their companions or disappear from the Earth.

    Wisely, they decided to go back to being together. They learned to live with the little wounds caused by the close relationship with their companions in order to receive the heat that came from the others. This way they were able to survive.

    The best relationship is not the one that brings together perfect people, but when each individual learns to live with the imperfections of others and can admire the other person’s good qualities.

    The moral of the story is:
    Just learn to live with the Pricks in your life!

  17. Last big tournament for Belgium was not Euro 2000 but Japan/South Korea 2002. Watched the game vs Brazil in Hong Kong during a pub happy hour, witnessing Mr. Prendergast’s controversial decision to disallow Marc Wilmots’ goal. Brazil had a lot of problems in this game and went through because Belgium kept missing the target… so NOT only because of the referee.

  18. @Mark. Spot on! How many English players have gone into other good leagues and excelled?

  19. The problems with the English national team remain constant, as do the tried and tested solutions.

    Why do we always try to solve these problems from the top down, when countries such as Spain, Germany, France and Belgium have proved without doubt that to work from the bottom up (although it does take time and patience),actually works.

  20. I have a few questions –

    Since this current World Cup turns out to be Copa America 2.0, it brings into mind a simpler, yet perhaps more attractive conclusion:

    It’s not about coaches
    It’s not about the grass roots stuff
    It’s not about the facilities

    It’s about kids playing in the streets playing happy football, growing up into exciting footballers, playing with uncompromising passion, who are doing a lot better than their fellow Europeans.

    What’s your take on that ?

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