Monday, 29 August 2016

The curious case of Ross Barkley

August 20th 2011. Everton continue their traditional slow start to a season under David Moyes with a dismal one nil defeat at home to newly promoted QPR (beaten 4-0 by Owen Coyle's Bolton the week before). There is, however, one positive to come from the game.

A sparkling performance from a Premier League debutant lifts hopes. At just 17 years old this boy seems to have it all. He is strong, he can run with the ball at great speed, he is inventive and he has two good feet. 

Five years on though, and the jury is still out on Ross Barkley. 

Injuries, loan spells and an unsurprising lack of trust from David Moyes in a young player sees Barkley's development stall. Loan spells at Sheffield Wednesday and Leeds do little to persuade Moyes to select Barkley.  

In comes Roberto Martinez as Everton manager - the young attacking midfielder thrives. They come devastatingly close to Champions League qualification but in the year of a world cup there is surely a chance for Barkley to announce himself on the world stage?

Barkley makes his debut against Neil Warnock's QPR
Except Roy Hodgson is England manager. After an exciting performance against Ecuador, Hodgson is critical of Barkley, making his first England start. Despite clearly being the best player on the pitch, Hodgson bemoans his decision making asking journalists why they don't obsess on someone else. In Brazil, Barkley is limited to cameo appearances from the bench until England's fate is sealed and they are knocked out. This is fairly typical of Hodgson, but it also sums up people's opinions on Ross Barkley in his career so far. 

There just seems to be a reluctance to accept and trust him as a top quality footballer. 

Take last season as an example: In 48 games, Barkley scored 12 goals and assisted a further 11. Not only was that his most effective season to date, one in which he was nevertheless widely criticised by fans and pundits alike, but the 23 goals he contributed to in 2015-16 was bettered by only Harry Kane and Jamie Vardy of those selected for Roy Hodgson's England squad for the European Championships. 

How many minutes did he get in the tournament? Zero. As England toiled and struggled against Iceland, in a performance desperately lacking someone willing to take a risk, who would run at defenders, Ross remained sat firmly on the bench. 

Maybe it's an Everton thing?
As Everton struggled under Roberto Martinez last season, so did he. In the second half of the season he lacked confidence but when he raised his game he raised his team. In the FA Cup semi final against Manchester United him and fellow England international John Stones were at the heart of everything good as Everton pushed them all the way. In the game Barkley created several chances (particularly for Romelu Lukaku) that went begging. Had one or two gone in, would he have been hailed as the star man? 

For a player who is as close to the complete package as England are going to get, why are people so cautious of him? Turning 23, he clearly has his best years ahead of him and what he badly needs at this point is an England manager who will invest in him. 

This brings us on to the new England manager, Sam Allardyce, who has left Barkley out of his first England squad in charge. While Allardyce brings a different approach, you have to be puzzled that he did not select Barkley in a squad that contains Theo Walcott, Michail Antonio, Jordan Henderson and names Wayne Rooney as a midfielder. 

Having stumbled across watching his debut against QPR that day I was sure Ross Barkley was set to become an England star for years to come. He still can, but I now have a nagging feeling that we could be about to waste one of the most talented players in a generation. 

Sunday, 14 August 2016

Home comforts

Sean Dyche thinks that English football managers get a hard time.

He says that if he was foreign he'd be hailed as a genius. Now I am actually a fan of Dyche, I like the values he instills into his teams, I like what he has done on a fairly limited budget but I don't know many foreign coaches who have been called a genius who's sole title is the Championship (having got relegated the season before).
I may not be willing to say
 this to his face though...

He says he was criticised for playing a four four two formation with Burnley in the Premier League only for Claudio Ranieri to be lauded for his approach with the same system just a year later.

But here is a thought for Sean Dyche. His Burnley side that year were relegation favourites, just like Leicester the season after. Burnley were relegated, Leicester won the league by ten points. Dyche was unable to find a system that got the results needed to survive, while Ranieri was able to extract incredible performances from previously limited footballers to create history. Ranieri was also able to adapt their strategy as Leicester became harder to beat as the season went on. So there is certainly more to it than Dyche claims, don't you think?

When I read interviews with English coaches who have spent time abroad, I often see the same thing said. The other nations think we are arrogant! And this from a young English manager does little to dispel the myth.

When you look at the current crop of young coaches coming through it's no wonder there is a majority of foreign coaches at the top level of English football. There was a real struggle to find viable English candidates for the national team manager's job. Eddie Howe has done an excellent job, producing excellent football with Bournemouth but who else is there that really strikes you as a potential world class manager? Lower down the divisions, there are promising young coaches, but it is up to them to prove themselves.

Ajax's 'De Toekomst' which means 'The Future'.
An open access facility.
Something that has summed it up is the recent ventures abroad from British coaches ending in failure. Both Moyes (who also performed miserably when given arguably the biggest job in football) and Gary Neville were both sacked within a year of being appointed at Real Sociedad and Valencia. The Premier League is hyped up as the most challenging league in the world but when tested abroad the last English manager to have any success is the late Sir Bobby Robson nearly twenty years ago. We have to do more to raise our standards.

It is however positive to see coaches taking the plunge and working abroad in many different roles. For English coaches to become more rounded and adaptable it is vital that they pick up these experiences. Hopefully it can become the norm rather than simply an exception.

I know that one of my ambitions is to work abroad, whether that be in senior football or developing
young players. In fact, next month I am fortunate enough to be visiting one of the best youth systems in the world at De Toekomst, Ajax's famous academy set up. You can expect a blog on that trip!

The open nature of academies across Europe is in stark contrast to academies in England. Everything is top secret. You have to have some form of identification or permission to get in to places. Rather than share ideas, you get the feeling that clubs are more worried about other clubs gaining an edge on them. While you can understand it to a certain degree, particularly from a financial view, it is still disappointing that this is the attitude we have.

This may be the next step for us as a nation in terms of developing better players and coaches! We have been going in the right direction (Youth Award, change in structure of coach education, England DNA) but this would enhance what is already a positive process.

Thursday, 7 July 2016

Onwards and upwards

We are well and truly into the inquest of the catastrophic exit to Iceland last week.

The Football Association are now on the hunt for a new man to lead the English national team, and the questions are being asked of the players we are developing, and how we are selecting them.

For me there are still positives to take, mainly from the group stage performances. They did not perhaps yield the results we wanted but the approach and style England played in pointed to a more positive future for English football. One poor performance does not change all of that, in my opinion.

Here is a video I developed throughout the tournament. After last Monday's game I was not sure if I would go through with this but I felt it was better to have some perspective and recognise that this is a process and that there are going to be some testing times.

Just look at Wales as an example of this. This tournament has been a long time coming for them, starting with John Toshack promoting young players, continuing their development with Gary Speed and now Chris Coleman is reaping the rewards.

You can download the video here:

Dan Ashworth, technical director, and his team have faced some tough criticism. Questions are being asked as to whether the 'England DNA' is worth pursuing.

If we scrap this plan in it's infancy how can we ever hope to create an England side that looks like it knows it's roles and responsibilities throughout the team? This is a long term plan, one which could be a serious game changer for English football. This is where the country needs to believe even more in this 'journey'.

Wednesday, 8 June 2016

Too much too soon?

Search for Xavi Simons on the internet and you will get hundreds of thousands results, videos with over fifty thousand views and twitter accounts fawning over him. You would be forgiven for thinking this is quite a high profile person.

In fact, Xavi Simons is a twelve year old boy. A twelve year old boy with a lot of talent granted, but someone who surely should not be exposed to such scrutiny?

There is a Daily Mail article online (forgive me) from January this year about how a host of clubs are
"tracking" him and have been in contact with the boy's father. Not only is that just plain wrong on a footballing level, but for me it is morally wrong. 

Named after his Dad's favourite player 
I'm not convinced that a twelve year old is ready to receive such attention. It reminds me of the stories of Sonny Pike who was once heralded as England's great new talent. This was over twenty years ago, before the age of Facebook and Twitter, but the young lad struggled to cope with the pressure. Pike was shoved into the spotlight and it was detrimental to his football career. This was a kid who just needed to enjoy doing what he was good at - playing football! 

I have no doubt that in these times players are better looked after and better prepared for the attention that comes with being a young footballer. At Barcelona, Xavi Simons is in a great place and I hope his family is not lured in by the financial riches other clubs may offer him to sign for them. In the long term where is better for your football education than La Masia? 

This is not just an isolated case either. Young footballers in England receive a lot of attention on social media. 

There is a boy who signed for a a category 1 academy from the club I coached at. He came to us having arrived from Germany just days before,  instantly we knew he was not going to be with us very long. He had joined the club he is currently with within a year. Brilliant for everyone. 

His father keeps us updated with his progress (unlike the club) and we are very grateful, but even without that it would still not be difficult to keep track of how he was doing anyway. The boy has an Instagram account with thousands of followers. 

You can see from his updates that he is excelling. He is an under thirteen, like Xavi Simons, that plays several years above his own age group. He has even been on the bench for the under eighteens this season. He regularly goes away to tournaments and wins awards. 

On every post, comments such as 'you've made it', 'baller', have the potential to feed his ego but are relatively harmless if he has a level head and his club will make sure a player with such potential will not let him get carried away. However, he has already been subjected to comments such as 'you faked your age', amongst more claims that he is making it all up (he is not). 

He should not have to deal with that. At some point, someone may wind him up on the wrong day and he could get himself in to some trouble. 

Someone who has impressed me with the way they have kept them self under the radar is Marcus Rashford. Obviously not on the football scene, where he is one of the biggest talking points in a season that has been ridiculous enough in England, but how he has managed himself (or been advised to) off of the pitch. 
Just takes everything in his stride

When a young England player bursts on to the scene the media are always well prepared to pounce and make a story out of these young adults for the wrong reasons. Jack Grealish, Jack Wilshere - maybe it's in the name - are just two examples of players who have struggled under the spotlight. Aside from his new contract we have heard little of or from Rashford away from football, which can only be a good thing. 

It is no surprise that with every new challenge he has taken it in his stride, a reason why he deserves to go to the European Championships. Theo Walcott was famously taken to World Cup ten years ago at seventeen having not yet played for Arsenal, but this feels entirely different. Rashford may not play in the tournament in France this summer but his place in the squad is absolutely on merit. 

Hopefully he will be used as a shining example for young players to follow. Stay focused, keep your mind on producing consistently and good things will come. What surprises me is the rush everyone is always in.  People make poor decisions based on wanting to do things far too quickly and young players leave environments where they were thriving because a bigger club offers them huge financial incentives. 

In an ideal world, young players will be allowed to develop in their own time and not impacted by false expectations. It is simply unfair on these children. And that is just what they are, children!

Kick It Out have launched a campaign to tackle football-related discrimination across social media and raise awareness of the impact of online abuse.
Visit the ‪#‎KlickItOut‬ microsite here for more information!
Here are pictures of me and players from my under 7s side supporting the campaign! you can take part by printing off a sheet from this link:…/We-need-KlickItOut-because-Print-Ve…

Tuesday, 24 May 2016

Guardiola: Success or failure at Bayern?

It is the 33rd minute at the Allianz Arena in the second leg of the Champions League semi final between Bayern Munich and Atletico Madrid. Javi Martinez has just won a penalty for Bayern.

The score is already one nil in a game in which Bayern have so far comprehensively outplayed Atletico, who look unusually unnerved by the occasion and Bayern's devastating performance. Up steps Thomas Muller. If he scores, this tie is surely over, there is no coming back for Diego Simeone's men. But if he misses...

What if Muller had scored?
It is quite timely that I had just finished reading Pep Confidential before this crucial fixture earlier this month. If you haven't already read it (why!?), Marti Perarnau follows Pep Guardiola in his first season at Bayern Munich. It is a fantastic insight into the genius of Guardiola. This is a man with an obsession, but with a fierce passion to deliver success through his ethos and values. In the book, for example, you learn quite how furious he is with himself for betraying his own beliefs in the semi final tie where they are beaten by Real Madrid in that season. 

It can be a fine line between success and failure. When Thomas Muller missed that penalty, it gave Atletico some belief back. Beforehand they had looked hopelessly lost, but this was their reprieve. As it was, Antoine Griezmann's second half goal proved crucial as they won on away goals.

And now, Guardiola has been branded by lots of critics as a 'failure' in his three seasons at Bayern. Here are the raw statistics of his tenure.

Games: 161
Wins: 121
Draws: 21
Defeats: 19
Goals scored: 396
Goals conceded: 110
Trophies: 7

A pretty astonishing record. However, to quote the man himself, "titles are just statistics". I believe we have to look beyond these when judging his time in Munich.

Guardiola seeks to develop his players understanding
of the game
Guardiola was tasked with creating something that would last beyond him, a legacy to make Bayern "a global player", in the words of Uli Hoeness. He has innovated once again with his 'inverted full backs' and Bayern are an incredible team to watch.

No one exemplifies Guardiola's work better than David Alaba. Under him, Alaba has become, in my eyes, the universal footballer. You could play him in practically every position on the pitch and he would give you an eight out of ten performance. He is incredible.

Who better to ask about the head coach's time than the players? Phillip Lahm, a man who had won almost all there is to win before Guardiola even arrived at the club said this:

"You’re always measured by the number of trophies but he developed a lot of players with the way he thinks about tactics, the way he analyses games and prepares teams for particular opponents. He really helps players develop and he even helped me improve at the age of 30. You’re right — with Pep it’s more than just about winning trophies."

Thomas Muller also branded it a disgrace that people might consider Guardiola a failure. The connection he made with his players is quite evident.

What it boils down to, ultimately, is how you define success! For some, Guardiola came into a ready made club who had just won the treble and had it easy. Therefore, anything but winning every trophy available is unacceptable. But how many teams have ever won the treble in succession, or even close together? Not so many, and maybe only when they have been reinvented as a team (see Luis Enrique with Barcelona last season) as Guardiola has also attempted to do. 

For others, success is to implement your beliefs on a team. To develop the players individually and collectively. I believe that this is where Guardiola's philosophy leans towards. Regardless, no one will be more critical of him than himself. He will scrutinise every move he made and what he could have done differently.

As someone who enjoys coaching young children, success to me is seeing them enjoy the game and develop as a player and a person. Quite a different world to working at the elite level, but I like to think that Guardiola tries to be quite brave in having some of the values even at the top level. 

Monday, 16 May 2016

England DNA to come to the fore?

The announcement of the England 26-man provisional squad for European Championships has generated plenty of discussion. Who will go? Which three will be dropped? Who was unfortunate to not make the squad? And that will only continue and increase as the build up to the tournament progresses.

Reading through the list, I am enthused. Since the disastrous World Cup campaign just two years before the squad has really improved. We appear to finally have a squad of players with high levels of technical ability and the tactical awareness to play in different systems of play.

Dan Ashworth - director of elite development
"England teams will play with tactical flexibility, influenced by the profile of the players and the requirements of the match or competition." 

That is the formation statement made in the England DNA document. Should we look back at recent England games, the Germany friendly stands out as a relevant example of this. Upon changing from the 4-3-3 to the 4-4-2 diamond, England increased their control on the centre of the pitch and with the addition of Jamie Vardy to the front two became more of a threat to the German goal. They changed shape due to the requirements of the game and it proved successful.

While the England DNA was only officially launched at the back end of 2014, under 18 months ago, it does appear to be bearing fruit. This report was developed by Dan Ashworth and his team. How accountable Roy Hodgson and his staff are to align the senior team with this philosophy is hard to tell however the signs are certainly there that it is being bought into.

Coming into the tournament England have one of the youngest squads around. Players such as Dele Alli (formerly coached by Dan Michiche - coach in the England youth set up), John Stones, Eric Dier and Raheem Sterling all fit the mould. These are players who can intelligently play in different roles for the team, are comfortable in possession and exude confidence. What better way to showcase the England DNA than with a young vibrant England squad making a fist of it in France this summer?

For those that are sceptical of the new direction the Football Association are looking to take English football in this is the chance to sway opinions. A positive performance - and I don't think anyone is demanding England bring the trophy home - may encourage clubs, coaches, players, to adopt this philosophy.

Alli and Dier are examples of players comfortable
playing in a number of roles 
The production line of talent appears to be working to good effect. England now have teams at every age group from under 15 to under 21. For those starting their 'international journey' , as described in a webinar by Dan Michiche, at just 14 years of age this allows them to experience the England set up. They can begin to develop an understanding of the England DNA and the expectations placed on them from an early age which could benefit the player in years to come.

More age groups allows more players to enter the system. Much has been made of the lack of English talent available to the manager so this could be an interesting way of developing the pool of talent. A glance at the England under 19s squad includes; Patrick Roberts, Reece Oxford, Ademola Lookman, Lewis Cook. It's an impressive looking squad. All players I would have thought could play at higher age groups, further highlighting the talent that is there to be developed.

Coming back to the senior team, this tournament could be very important for the development of English football. If elements of the DNA playing philosophy (In possession, out of possession, transition phase) are evident in the way the England team successfully this summer it will show huge progress and bode well. There will be reason to believe in something that a lot of time and money has gone into.

I myself hope to have the time available to analyse England's games in relation to the playing philosophy that the England DNA presents. It will be interesting to see the difference in style compared to the world cup in Brazil, with the DNA launched just six months after too.

Saturday, 7 May 2016

Have you asked the kids?

Those who have attended the FA Youth Module 1 - Developing the Environment - will know that one of the key messages the course delivers is around player led development. In fact 'ownership' became a bit of a buzzword out of it. As an eighteen year old when I was on the course it certainly opened my eyes when thinking about this angle of approach and it helped broaden my sessions for sure. However, I think I became a bit lazy with it and left it to 'here are the cones, you set the size area'.

I asked subs at u7s game to evaluate team
 performance per quarter!
Not that there is anything necessarily anything wrong with this. It's great for kids to feel responsibility and you get to see an insight into what they feel is realistic and appropriate for THEIR needs. For myself anyway, I think it became a bit of a cop out.

This blog takes inspiration from a recent guest article I saw by Stuart Armstrong on rivers of thinking (definitely advise you to read it!).  What I really liked was how Stuart talked about setting time aside for self-directed learning. This is something I am definitely going to be experimenting with. It would be very interesting to see what the under sevens (my current side) come up with! They are a fairly confident, outgoing bunch so I am sure that they will have plenty of ideas in their heads. Further more, I think it would further create an environment in which the players know they are coming to learn in. 

A scenario I found myself in just this week further emphasised the good ideas that children can come up with. At a PE session I do every Wednesday we start our session with a fun arrival activity. It's usually some form of tag game. This week I hadn't necessarily had anything planned so instead of trying to make it up on the spot I thought I would ask the kids. Nearly every single one of them wanted to share a game they like to play!

The game we eventually did go with was 'Grandma's footsteps'. They had a great time, doing something they had chosen to do, whilst also getting great outcomes for agility, balance, co-ordination and speed. We were able to start the session in a positive atmosphere!

What this reinforced to me was that actually, children think in different and interesting ways. If we ignore what is going on inside their heads we could be missing out on some valuable opportunities for their development. 

I am very keen to develop players who can think on their feet. I refrain from commentating during games as I worry that I will stop them from becoming effective decision makers. Self-directed learning could be a really useful tool to add to that. 

For the FA youth award, I am putting together player profiles of the under sevens I am coaching to give a context behind the ten sessions in my logbook. It's important for me for the players to be a part of this. This way, they can understand their own strengths and limitations and plan their development. Another idea I thought might be for each player to take turns each week in organising the arrival activity geared towards the topic. 

If you have ideas around empowering players to give them more of a say in their development - share them by commenting below!