How Arsenal came to the rescue of English football

How Arsenal came to the rescue of English football.

By Tony Attwood

I started researching this article with three questions in mind:

a) Why is England so bad at football

b) Why does Arsenal under Wenger use so few English players?

c) Why does the Netherlands, with its small population seem to do better than England at football?

The second question could be answered by the fact that there aren’t, in Wenger’s  judgement, that many good English players around, but as to why, that’s a question that has often baffled me.  We seem to have a big population, a lot of players, a lot of clubs, a huge interest in football…

I thought I ought to make an effort (what with the Bent Cup about to start and everything) and try and work it all out.  A bit late to help England in South Africa, but maybe something for the future.

And I have found a most remarkable explanation as to what is wrong with English football, why Arsenal don’t use English players, and why it is soon going to change.  It’s a bit nerdish, but well, its WC (world cup) time, so that’s when it gets nerdish.

What I started by doing was to select a little group of countries: England, Netherlands, Italy, France, Germany and Spain.

First, I did a population list, taken from the last available census, and in some cases using official estimates.

  • Germany   81,880,000,
  • France  65,447,374  (France is the most fertile country in the EU – I thought I’d just throw that in, having just returned, although actually it’s not relevant to my argument).
  • Italy  60,045,068
  • England  44,226,000
  • Spain 46,157,822
  • Netherlands    16,499,084

Next, Registered Clubs. There is a study made by FIFA in 2006 called “The Big Count”. That showed there are around 40,000 clubs registered with the FA in England, which is 11,000 more than any other country.  The closest being the Brazilian Football Confederation who have 29,000 registered clubs.


  • England: 40,000
  • Germany: 26,000
  • France: 19,000
  • Spain: 18,000
  • Italy: 16,000
  • Netherlands 4,000

Then I tried registered male players.

  • Germany: 5,438,000
  • France: 1,746,000
  • Italy: 1,499,000
  • England: 1,389,000
  • Netherlands: 1,055,000
  • Spain: 629,000

Finally I tried to evaluate the countries in terms of the WC success. I used the old favourite points method – in this case, four for a win, three for runners up, two for third, one for fourth.   In case it is helpful I put my calculation in brackets – so (3/4/3/1) for Germany/West Germany means three wins, four runners up, three third place, and a fourth.  Total German points is 12 for wins, 12 for runners up, 6 for thirds, and 1 for the fourth: 29 points.

  • Germany: (3/4/3/1) 29 points
  • Italy: (4/2/1/1) 25 points
  • France: (1/1/2/1) 12 points
  • Netherlands: (0/2/0/1) 7 points
  • England (1/0/0/1) 5 points
  • Spain (0/0/0/1) 1 point

Germany: big population, lot of clubs, lot of players, does best.  Netherlands punches above its weight.  Spain like England has many more registered clubs than you might expect for the population but this doesn’t result in more registered players.

In fact the one figure that seems to have little link to success is the thing England is top at – the number of clubs.  Here’s the clubs total against the number of world cup points…

  • England: 40,000 – 5 points
  • Germany: 26,000 – 29 points
  • France: 19,000 – 12 points
  • Spain: 18,000 – 1 point
  • Italy: 16,000 – 25 points
  • Netherlands 4,000 – 7 points

I started out wanting to know what it is that allows the Netherlands with by far the smallest population in my selected group to do far better than we might expect.  Now I also want to know why England, with so many clubs (which must represent a real level of interest in the grass roots game) is so far down the scale.

The answer can only be that for national success you need players, and you need clubs, but you also need something else.  The answer appears to be quality coaching.

UEFA says there are only 2,769 English coaches holding the three top coaching qualifications. Spain has produced 23,995, Italy 29,420, Germany 34,970 and France 17,588.  I can’t find the number for the Netherlands.

And at last there is a link.  The number clubs is irrelevant, and although obviously you need population, and players, these are not the fundamental factors.  What you must have is top qualified coaches so that your best players don’t play in little club with no qualified coach, but rather play under good coaches.  (Spain take note, on this basis your world cup success rate is not acceptable).

In England the number of coaches is growing. UEFA says that in 2006 there were 397 A badge coaches and 45 with Pro coaches.  In 2009 the numbers were 895 and 115 respectively.   If we keep up this progress England will win the world cup in 2134, assuming the rest of the opposition don’t up their game.

It was Gordon Taylor, the chief executive of the Professional Footballers Association, who tipped me off on this (although not personally).  He recently said: “There is a link between coaching and quality. The timing of this is really important: the World Cup will bring this to a head, particularly if England do badly. How you do internationally is a proper reflection of your nation’s youth development.”

A report from Leeds Met University earlier this year said that, “There is a great shortage of adult coaches as 1,113,000 adults in the UK wanted but did not receive any professional coaching in 2006.”

So, to answer my second question: why does Arsenal have so few England players in its first team, the answer is simple – no one has coached them properly.  In France they get proper coaching.

For Arsenal it has now changed, because Arsenal took the matter in hand about seven years ago, and gave the top English children their own coaching, through the Academy system.  We are starting to see the benefits with our Academy side now.  “Arsenal rescues English football” might seem a bizarre headline – but it is more or less true.

Commentary notes: If you want to comment please have a quick read of this, to make sure you comment is published.

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The less mighty but still rather jolly index of Woolwich Arsenal

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26 Replies to “How Arsenal came to the rescue of English football”

  1. Great article Tony.
    I must say that the way Holland have organised them selves for many many years is a very good example on how to bring up talent. The Ajax school is the best known maybe as it has produced the finest players in the world like Cruyff, Bergkamp, Van Basten and many others. But the other clubs in Holland have gone the same way and this means that from all over the country young players are being formed.

    They focus a lot on technique. I remember reading an article with a Dutch youth academy coach who said: Running is something you can learn on your own but skills, ball control, playing together, passing the ball at the right speed at the right moment is something that we focus on. The more you practice it the better you get.

    So they first learn those young kids to play with the ball and later in their education the more physical aspects become more important. You must bring them together at some stage but good technique is the most important thing.

    I think this is the way to work and the Dutch like you said have been punching well above their weight for the last 30 years.

  2. Good article, Tony.

    I’m not really sure that lack of coaching is the only problem english football has, although it’s certainly one part – and one part that AW (together with AFC) is helping to correct.

    However, countries like Brazil always produce skillful players who we are often told weren’t coached but learnt their play using an orange (or some such) in the streets. Coaching started at a later age, of course, but the skills were already ingrained.

    I know that England doesn’t now have streets for kids to play in (although oranges have become more common) but lack of available areas where they could be out of danger from traffic (and other dangers) become less common.

    I do agree with you but early coaching isn’t the only need.

  3. I believe Arsenal has contributed a lot to English foot ball in addition to deeloping the English youngsters. The Gunners play free flowing foot ball since Wenger took them. And this has contributed a lot for other English clubs and there are other English clubs who play free flowing football now days. This is a great contribution in changing the UK foot ball culture.

  4. On the Cesc Fabregas show AW was interviewed. He said making a footballer was like building a house.The foundation is made when you are between 7-14 years old you must learn technique, if you don’t have it by the time you are 14, you are not going to make it into professional football.

    The 1st floor is physics. Will you be strong and quick enough for top level football? The 2nd floor is tactical, can you as a player understand the game? Where to move without the ball and with the ball, when to pass etc. If you don’t have these attributes by the time you are 17 years old. Chances are very slim for top level football.

    Now the roof is the mental side, which might be the most important thing. Do you go to a disco on friday night? Or do you rest before the game tomorrow? It all comes down to how much you want it. Without the roof, rain will come down an ruin the house.

    Of course there have been big debates about coaching children seriously at such a young age is just plain wrong etc due to several reasons.

  5. I really think it’s culture. In England kids growing up idoliIng teams like man utd who are physical and get results. A great goal is a rocket if a shot that beat the keeper. Ask the kids in Spain what a great goal is and it will be a much different answer. To be honest so many other countries are ahead of England in this perspective. England gets by an the infrastructure and passion, but the sophistication is lacking still. Wenger is the first to do it in England and based on the treatment he recieves till now, I wouldn’t be surprised if he is the last. Hopefully arsenal can represent this shift for a long time

  6. Really, really good point Tony, well thought out to illustrate an original and fair observation as always. The other thing I think this highlights, is what a nation of talkers we are. There are tens of millions of football fans in and part time pundits in England, talking about football, reading about football, writing posts and so forth, and yet so few people prepared to put their money where their mouth is and actually coach.
    I also think that these countries benefit from (mostly) having better weather and being able to be outside more, and I would be interested to compare the number of playstaion units sold in each of these countries (what an old fogey I am….).

  7. RE the Ajax academy – I’m sure that I read somewhere, a long time ago, that they only take in forwards (who are already those who are most comfortable with the ball at their feet) and those who don’t quite make it are turned into defenders. Hence the ‘total football’ concept where every player is comfortable in every position and from every player you can get constructive play. Play, that is, with a forward momentum.
    What spoils that sort of concept in England is the so called ‘coaching’ that goes on at most English clubs and which seems to major on physicality and ‘winning the fight’. It’s got much less to do with use of the ball and much more to do with using your strength and appetite for physical confrontation. Even the overseas players who are brought in seem to be bought for their ability to do well in the ‘English game’. Chamakk, I sense, is just such a player.
    Wenger, wisely at first, brought in the likes of Vieira and Petit to establish physical superiority in midfield, but then moved to more technical (his word) players in order to achieve a different kind of dominance. His hope, presumably, was that other clubs would go down the same route and that Arsenal would succeed by just being the best (quickest?) at the new, more ‘continental’ style. But he reckoned without the likes of Allardyce and Pulis who resolutely stick to 1960’s football because it delivers what they crave most – survival in the Premiership and the money that goes with it.

  8. Hey Tony (Great Anaylsis)

    Back in 1995 I played over in holland on a european tour U15s with my sunday league team and you could see the difference in technical ability although we won the majority of our games they were much better technically

    because every coach I had at a young age would say stuff like row Z, kick straight up there, never pass backwards only forwards, get stuck in. It has always been a physical game in england

    the only players in england off the top of my head with a more continental approach have been steve macmanaman, Gazza and joe cole ( which I hope we get)

    like in France wenger has realised you need to get the players young, he doesnt think many of the players that had come through had been good enough, Sometimes I look at theos touch and it is disgraceful.

    Arsenal finally have a great crop of english players coming through, If anyone is going to produce a player of the caliber of lionel messi it will be Arsenal could the 2018 world cup be ENGLAND as world champions

  9. Nobody will be surprised to read that I think the big problem with English football is the media.

    Sounds silly but I think the problem of English football is a ridiculous self image.

    We have a 3rd rate national team. If Spain win the World Cup, they’d have more pedigree than us.

    Yet, the media perpetuates this myth that we’re a footballing powerhouse of any kind.

    Without this myth, and with the kind of passion we do have for the game, English football would have been forced to take stock, to plan, and to correct its deficiencies decades ago.

    The French did that in the 1980s, and they went on to win the World Cup and euros, and now have one of the best youth systems in the world, despite having a 3rd rate league.

    So we persist with a yahoo football culture, where we believe we have ‘mental strength’, we’re very plucky, we’re grafters etc etc…..but it’s never been backed by the truth.

    The whole premise of English football is “we’re crap but we’ll scrap”. Only in England is “playing pretty football” something to scoff at. Only in England is there this idea that you can’t have graft and technique.

    All perpetuated by the media.

    In two days the World Cup starts and they’re at it again……

    We’re going to win the World Cup!!!!!!

    We have more World class players than anyone else!!!!!!

  10. Excellent article. I swear the uk is about 60 million people though, in fact supposedly a little higher. Which actually makes our stats worse and proves your point. I would say though whilst our academy looks fantastic we should wait and see how the kids do when they’re older. Our star kids like wilshere look amazing but until they’ve done it consistently at the highest level I think we would be premature to say wenger is saving English football. Certainly looks very possible though.

  11. Ryan – the population figure of 60 million or so is for the UK – what I took was (I think) the last census figure for the UK and then did an estimate of how much of that was England.

    All the figures (such as number of clubs, players etc) are meant to be England – not least because England is a “country” from the point of view of FIFA, and so that statistical source of theirs which I listed in the article, has England as a separate country.

  12. Tony, while I think you may have a point my opinion is that kids of today have to many other distractions. I remember in my youth every (boy) was involved in football, whether at school or at the local youth club. I vividly remember playing in the street with coats, jumpers as goalposts, playing daily in the school yard after just picking teams between those who wanted to play. Playing in the youth club gym every night. Playing for the school on wednesdays. In the Hampstead and District league on Sunday and Hendon and District league on Saturdays when Arsenal were not playing at home. There were no coaches in those days ( I am talking about late 1940’s to 1958 era ) but the first division of the Hampstead and District league was a very high level and despite the number of pitches on Regents Park we always had a good crowd around the pitch. Hendon FC, were in the Hendon and District league at that time as well. So the standard had to be very high.

  13. I’m with Ole Gunner on this one. being irish and relatively neutral in my observations of the National team, it seems to me that the media more or less pick the squad.
    Erikson let them pick his squad because he knew that if he deviated from it he was just handing them a big stick for his own back in the (inevitable) event of failure.
    Ca[pello is no different. There were a few potential surprises in the 30 squad but when the time came, the media’s hype for that pikey Rooney was such that he could request the players that he wanted around him in South Africa. As a result nobody who could potentially steal the limelight of might not automayically pass the ball to him was selected.

    It is a very self defeating strategy as when these players believe their own press, they lose their hold on reality, generally get sent off in the playoffs and England with 10 men go out on penalties and manager departs many millions richer.

    Standard formula .

    Anyway. they are too old (Ferdinand) too fat (Lampard) too slow (Heskey) and too undisciplined (Rooney), too well paid to be motivated (Gerrard) to actually win it. The only really good keeper that they have is Hart and he wont start.
    For England to win a major championship they would need a manager without any external commercial interests who had zero contractual media obligations. No media at training at hotel, after matches, nothing nada etc. Players sent home if they as much as touch a blackberry.

    Complete focus.

  14. Ah! Ha! Tony,

    I think you are on to something although I do not agree with the theory of coaches…

    I instantly thought of organized religion when you were on about UEFA coaches… My thought was just because you go to Church on Sunday (not that this happens anymore…guilt intended) does not mean you won’t go to that fiery place downstairs. Follow me now because just because you get a badge and support the perfectly legit UEFA doesn’t mean it will bring you success.

    So but what I do believe is a mixture of all of the above and it should also be said that England plays its football as does much of Europe in winter when its colder. The WC is played in summer.

    Lastly, and Walter says it best is practice. I think it was Tiger Woods who said “Practice makes perfection.” You could probably find a link somewhere of cultural work ethic.. Germans apparently claim that?

    While you are contemplating this how do you explain the Hungarians in the 50’s?

  15. Hi Tony

    Great article, though I wonder if you included European Champs whether there would be any difference, probably not. The reason the Dutch are so skillful above and beyond the other valid posts above?
    Check out, enough said……

    Nice to see the PIGS are coming home to roost (if pigs can roost that is!), friend in Barcelona said that the city was almost paralised by a civil servants strike, 5% cut in all wages as a starter, how long the big earning fat cats (footballers?) are made to follow….. the beginning of the end of spending without restraint me thinks.

    Keep up the good work

  16. How many English players play outside the EPL/Championship etc? My impression (please correct me if you know otherwise) is that this number is very small. I think the rest of the world agrees with you Tony, and this is why we don’t see many English players outside England.

  17. i have to agree with Olegunner, i think the media has a lot to anwser for. a case in point was last nights whitewash of a show called panorama.
    even though manu, the glazers, the fa, the epl and just about everyone else refused to be interviewed, the show missed all the salient points. instead of spending money on horses, jousting competitions and garden gnomes, they should have done a proper in depth investigation into what is obviously a serious issue.
    the subject matter could easily fill an hour show with no adverts but last nights effort could have been condensed into ten minutes.
    there was no distinction between types of debt and different ownership models, but plenty of footage of manu fans shouting ‘glazer out’.
    if any of the people who declined to be interviewed had nothing to hide, why decline the interview. and as far a government is concerned, the sports minister declined to be interviewed because he was too busy sorting out the 2018 bid for the world cup. so we will have to wait till then for the government to do anything about this situation. the fa and epl must be rubbing their hands with glee.

  18. Agree with Simons comments above about the Panorama program last night. They could have done something a lot more detailed and in-depth, but instead cobbled together a rushed half-hour presentation of everything we have already read in various newspapers and web sites etc.
    Back on topic, this article is excellent and I think that everyone who has commented has put forward one of the many valid reasons why we do lag so far behind the rest of Europe’s big football nations. I thought the points highlighting the gulf in numbers of qualified coaches between us and the others really hit home how bad grass roots facilities actually are in this country. I feel that it is no surprise that the FA has encouraged football clubs to form and fund their own academies as it seems like this is a good reason to shift grass roots responsibilities and hence the blame, away from the FA and onto the clubs when people question why we continue to fail at the WC etc. I can’t speak for others but it makes me quite angry that the FA would prefer to spend £800m on a bloody football stadium that we do not even need, when much of this money could have been invested in getting people qualified and employed in proper coaching and training.

  19. Great point as always, Tony. There’s a book, called “Soccernomics” (which you’ve probably heard of, given the subject matter in many of your articles), that delves into England’s international success (or failure). They actually argue that England overachieves in terms of matches won (although, unfortunately for England, they’re probably winning too many friendlies and not enough quarterfinals), and make a case that too much of England’s soccer population is working class, not drawing from the much larger middle class (although this may have changed, since I don’t know much about the current state of UK youth soccer). Anyways, just some food for thought, I’m sure you could find the book at amazon or in a shop. Keep up the great work, Tony and Walter.

  20. When I came to live in the UK in 96, from Holland, I was amazed how little appreciation there is of talent. It’s pretty ridiculous how the they-don’t-like-it-up-them brigade gets away with it, both on and off the field. Every week the physical English approach is promoted on MOTD by oafs such as Alan Hansen and Sam Alardice without any critical questioning. Big and strong is preferred over technically skilled. Perfectly okay but then you have to accept that England gets kicked out of the world cup before the semi finals. The physical style just doesn’t cut it anymore at international level.
    The only way forward for England is to replace Gary Lineker with Jeremy Paxman on MOTD and at the FA make Johan Cruyff head of youth development, let Wenger take charge of coaching development and put Collina in charge of the refereeing. IMHO of course.

  21. Good read!

    Do you have a figure for the number of ex footballers who choose to work as pundits/pseudo-journalists instead of getting their coaching badges?

    28,000 easily?

    OK maybe not…

  22. Suberp Article!!

    That was a very good read…& i certainly agree with the thought process! It is for this very reason that today i am such a big fan of Arsene Wenger & Arsenal. I mean, a lot of ppl could possibly pick good & proven players from around the world & make a decent team!! But to pick them up young, nurture them & then be the one to launch them onto the world stage is something else. Thats how how make a great team. The core has to be homegrown players. Yes u can & should get quality & established players, but only to supplement your squad. or else you’ll probably go the Real Madrid way.
    I know Wenger receives a lot of flack for not spending & having to go trophyless for close to 5 yrs…but look what we have today! A profit making club, good young players & the ability to spend in this window!!
    I know it doesn’t count for much….but i swear by wenger’s policy (ok, not all!! ) The future IS bright…

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