English football clearly recognises it has a problem in developing world-class footballers.
The money is there and the facilities are there, but the national team’s prolonged lack of success has acted as a wake-up call that somewhere the system is broken.
The response of the clubs was the introduction of the Elite Player Performance Plan in 2012 to ensure the best young players get access to the best coaching and facilities earlier.
The Football Association, meanwhile, unveiled an ‘England DNA’ philosophy in 2014 which is ‘about developing players with outstanding technical and tactical abilities as well as physical attributes and psychological and social characteristics’.
That is key. Back in 2011, the FA revealed that 57% of players at Premier League Academies in 2008-09 were born between September and December, making them the oldest children in their school years. Just 14% were born between May and August.
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For far too long, English youth football has focused too heavily on physicality over technique.
It has been opined that Lionel Messi, who had a growth hormone deficiency as a child, may not have made the grade had he grown up on these shores.
Clearly, however, this is not a problem in Spain. Barcelona were so convinced by Messi’s talent that they agreed to pay for his medical treatment to get him to Catalonia, while the national team’s ultra-successful midfield partnership of Xavi and Andrés Iniesta is a pretty clear sign that physicality is far from the most important attribute when it comes to developing homegrown players.
No matter what changes the English FA and leagues implement at a national level, however, there is still a huge reliance on grassroots scouts and academy coaches to spot talent.
David Cartlidge is an English journalist that has worked as a youth and academy scout in Spain for several years. He answered some of our questions about his role and youth football in the country…
– Hi David. First of all, how did an English journalist end up scouting for clubs in Spain?
“I moved out to Spain in a journalist capacity many years ago, and in doing so I built up several connections.
“My articles have always been based on player analysis, focusing on their progression and particular attributes. It felt like the sensible thing to move into scouting from then on.
“I had always been asked for opinions and information on players from people at clubs, be it coaches or scouts. Some of those I regularly spoke with suggested I take it a bit more seriously, and I did exactly that.
“I started in a capacity of offering reports on individual players for an agency, and from then on I was approached for work as opposed to me reaching out.
“Several players I took a big part in scouting and offering information on moved to clubs on the basis of my work. Several went from Segunda to La Liga, even some from Spain to the Championship and Premier League. It has basically grown from there.”
– What is your role exactly, and what does it consist of?
“Currently, I’m between two clubs in La Liga and La Liga1|2|3 with an affiliation with each other. This is a role employed directly by those clubs. We watch players already in their system, but also potential players who could become available to them.
“Several teams in Spain have an affiliation like this. For instance, Xabi Alonso was picked up by Real Sociedad after excelling at Antiguoko. They’re teams that have a link.
“I’m working in a similar capacity, identifying the players at these smaller clubs for the bigger clubs. It’s young players generally, in some cases very young. Youth football has always been my strength.
“The average week consists of watching a lot of training sessions, morning and evening. Making notes on the players, and making sure they are all compiled against the individual.
“We watch the game on a weekend too, and basically do much of the same. There is a lot more to note in the game, and small details are key.
“We can tell a lot watching the player live. I have notes formulated in advance on most players, of what type they are. I then go from there to make my own judgements on that particular game.”
Would be right to assume there is much more of a focus on technique than physicality in Spain than there perhaps is in England?
“Yes, and it’s not just England. Speaking with people in France for instance, I’ve noticed their obsession with physicality at a young age. I spoke to Aymeric Laporte many, many years ago – and he brought up the exact same thing.
“Athletic Bilbao may get tagged as physical-centric, but Laporte went on to say he learned all he knows technically there. In France, he didn’t feel there was that window.
“Antoine Griezmann experienced similar; don’t forget that several major French clubs told him that he was too short.
“In Spain it’s technically and tactically focused. I like it this way. You do see more of the physical side creeping in, though – I think you have to be strong in all areas. Germany have done this, for instance, from a young level to great benefit.
“There’s a lot more focus on the mental side of the game with Spain from a young age. You have to be switched on tactically; it’s intense. Some may say it can reduce the fun aspect for a young player, but it shapes them better. Football is fun, but it’s also serious.”
– Aside from their locality, where do Spanish clubs tend to look for young players? Do they ever look to England?
“It’s mainly in Spain. To coin a phrase, it’s a global game. You get a lot of kids coming over now from South America and such. Or in most cases they’ve already been identified by the foreign-based scouts.
“My work focuses on those in the catchment area. English players are not something that are looked at. The pool of local talent, and Spanish talent, is too deep. There’s almost no need to look elsewhere.”
The Spain U21s are obviously excellent, and recently the U17s have impressed too. Is it a good time to have an interest in Spanish youth football?
“Yes, I am immensely excited. The financial situation at clubs in Spain has forced clubs to go to their academies more now. That’s a huge positive.
“There is so much talent there, and a lot of it gets left behind still. Now, with this chance to focus on the academy more, we will see more come through.
“Espanyol, who are struggling from a financial sense, have done a lot of that this season. A team like Real Sociedad or Athletic Bilbao are more natural, they will go their regardless. It’s the ideology of those clubs.
“As for players, I’ve been excited about Manu Morlanes for some time. Villarreal picked him up at an early age from Real Zaragoza, albeit one of their satellite teams, and he is progressing immensely.
“Ferran Torres at Valencia, and Abel Ruiz of Barcelona stand out for me in the U17s. Those guys will be making headlines soon.
“Look out for players coming from little Roda too. They’re based out of Castellón, and many of those players head to Villarreal as part of their affiliation.
“It’s a good academy that doesn’t get a lot of credit but deserves more of the spotlight. The Valencian community has some extraordinary young players.”
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