Sunday, 11 March 2018

Academy restructuring - set to become the norm?

"The Club has been forced to rethink the way it develops young players as a consequence of the impact of the Elite Player Performance Plan (EPPP) system."
This was the line from Tranmere Rovers FC following the unfortunate news that the club were set to, essentially, close down their youth academy. 

Tranmere have been in the Conference now for a couple of seasons. With a full time academy (and various other ventures that they are leading the way in), this was eventually going to be an area that they had to scale down should they not get back into the football league in the near future. 

This will have been tough on the many players in their academy that may not be so lucky to find another professional club. Tranmere have acknowledged themselves that and will try to assist them in finding new clubs but not all will be able to. Equally, I imagine many will have lost jobs and roles and have to find themselves new environments to work and coach in. 

However, Tranmere are not the first side to come to this conclusion following the impacts of EPPP. Wycombe, Brentford and more recently Huddersfield have all restructured in some form. 
Jason Koumas - a success story of
 Tranmere's academy in the past
All four of those clubs have produced a good standard of player from their academies. In days gone by, Tranmere have profited from the sales of Jason Koumas (£2.5m), Ryan Taylor (£750k), Ian Nolan (£2m), Clint Hill (£250k) who they had produced in their academy set ups which will have surely helped with the running of the club, let alone the academy. Due to the current system, Tranmere are now losing players for free at the younger age groups where they may previously have been able to hold onto players. 

These are not decisions that clubs are taking lightly. 

Brentford were well regarded in the competitive environment that is the London academy scene, with Miguel Rios, Kevin O'Connor and Ose Aibangee known figures for their good work at the club who were thriving in the Championship. 

Huddersfield cited their frustration at the lack of local players coming through to their first team. A startling fact in the BT 'No Hunger in Paradise' documentary revealed that Manchester City had more scouts in Huddersfield than Huddersfield themselves. They clearly did not feel the academy was value for money, despite having one U15 that was in the England youth squads and has since signed for Manchester United.  
"Running our academy in its current format (U8s to U18s) costs in excess of £300,000 a season and over the last two years we have lost over £500,000 of central funding for academy operations. 
Prior to the introduction of the EPPP system, the income from player sales offset some or all of the cost, and Tranmere had some notable success in developing and selling players." 
Tranmere's academy operated in, like Brentford, Wycombe and Huddersfield, a very competitive environment. They are probably used to losing out on players, but also probably made some good money previously for players that they lost to clubs around them. With EPPP making it easier for clubs in the higher categories to sign players from further away, this only compounds this issue. 

In terms of developing players, Tranmere are now going to focus their efforts on a 16+ development team. This may have come off of the back of Brentford's success in this area, as they now have more freedom to play against different types of opposition and focus their efforts on one group of players. You would imagine that this is more financially viable for them too, as well as still offering high levels of coaching in 'centre of excellences' at "affordable prices" for players in the local area. 

What will not be cut is the Futsal academy, contrary to reports earlier in the week. Tranmere have been a real leader in this area and are helping to develop Futsal in England as it continues to become ever more popular. They have received lots of praise for how they promote Futsal and also have an international coaching scheme, where the have coaches in China. 

I also found this statement interesting too: 

"Change is never comfortable but football has changed and we have to react and redefine our academy operation order, to protect the Club and to benefit those in our community."

Again, this is something similar to Brentford in being able to offer more to the community. Money that they may feel was wasted towards their academy programme may go to better use in creating more inclusive communities. Tranmere have announced several things that they are going to do with schools and grassroots football, which I commend them on.

One of the major criticisms (and I believe this too) of professional clubs is the lack of work or partnerships with grassroots clubs. I have mentioned this before, but Ajax work with over forty clubs in their local area, working with them to develop players and importantly, coaches! 

There is so much work we can do that could help raise the standard of coaching, not only to develop players but offer more opportunities for young children to be physically active and feel part of their local community. 

Tranmere feel that they expect more clubs to follow suit and it is hard to argue with this. 

EPPP serves a purpose, that being benefitting those at the top of the tree but much like in wider society this does not trickle to those lower down. Why not reject EPPP if this is the case? 

Ultimately, clubs outside of that inner circle may have no other choice.

You can read the story from Tranmere here. I'd certainly be interested to hear people's views on this!

Wednesday, 24 January 2018

The Winter Football issue - is Futsal the answer?

It's a common issue every year for grassroots football across the country.

A downpour of rain over night and your weekend can be ruined in one moment when you receive the dreaded message.

'Game is off'.

It is a constant point of debate amongst supporters of grassroots football. What can be done to stop this annual period of postponed games due to waterlogged pitches and bad weather?

Some of this discussion turns to the state of facilities for the grassroots game. 3G pitches were recognised as the way forward, with the core issue being funding. While the Parklife scheme is being
rolled out across the country by Sport England and the FA, a lack of facilities at this current time has been considered a real issue. And hearing the prices that some of these football 'hubs' are going to charge to hire it anyway, I'm not sure it's going to solve much of the problem.

Just this weekend, a central venue league for under sevens which play all their games on a 3G astro had to call off their games anyway. We can have as many astro turf pitches as we want but if even they get ruined by the weather, we need another plan.

A familiar sight
Another idea has been to move the grassroots football season to the summer. Whilst this is a decent proposal there will be issues around holidays, the great summer tournaments we have in that time and importantly, sports such as cricket would really lose out. 

More recent talk has centred around an alternative solution. Leagues have begun to pilot winter Futsal programmes.

This just seems to make so much more sense than the current, traditional set up. There are plenty of halls, such as in primary and secondary schools, with the space to play games in. The facilities would not be hard to come by with the right planning and are probably cheaper too. Futsal goals may be an issue, but again with the right preparation this can be organised in good time. It could be as simple as running through the start of December to the end of January, the times were traditionally rain stops play. 

This is not an attempt to stop kids playing in the rain, as some might worry or claim the world is going mad. I love football in the rain, but it is this period where games are routinely called off due to the pitches being unplayable that we need to find a solution for. Additionally, the pitches that regularly take a hammering could get a much needed rest as well and be in better condition potentially by the time the football season starts up again.

From a player development perspective, this could be massively beneficial too. Whilst Futsal is a sport in its own right, there is no denying it could be a great tool for improving a player's technical ability, especially in the early ages. That combined with decision making, with less space and time on the court, can add to the holistic development of a player. 

We wouldn't quite need these facilities...
It could be viewed from a multi-sport perspective too, with a variety of health and social benefits. This would offer something alternative, something fresher, to also give young players a chance to try something new that actually they may want to take up later down the line to stay physically active.

There would, I am sure, be other minor barriers. Such as knowledge of the rules of Futsal for players, coaches and importantly, referees. Or having to buy enough Futsal specific balls for the games.

Once again, these are problems that are simple enough to solve and while it may take some more of our time (and money) it may just be worth it. 

Saturday, 23 December 2017

Expected goals, expected scepticism...

As Jeff Stelling fumed about Arsene Wenger citing expected goals post-match (what does he even know, anyway?), his Soccer Saturday cronies laughed in the background. 'Yeah, you tell 'em Jeff!'

It is not the first outdated rant that a member of the Soccer Saturday team has made, as poor Marco Silva will tell you.

It is no surprise that these 'Football Men', as they often referred as within the game, are as usual off the mark with a new approach within football. I would guess that it threatens their own positions, as they begin to look more and more outdated. 

It is also not surprising that he had absolutely no idea what expected goals really is, as many who dismiss it as pointless do. 

A rant like Stelling's about expected goals is a dangerous one however within football because it will have been lapped up but unsuspecting fans, players and coaches who also have no idea what expected goals, or 'xG' as it can be known, even is. As a result, they will themselves be dismissive as it's a load of nonsense according to good old, lovable Jeff. 
Jeff rants about xG, Marco Silva and
 how football was better in his day

But if you dig a little deeper the whole concept of expected goals is very interesting and above all, useful. How many times have you been discussing a game you've just watched, particularly as a fan of one of the teams, bemoaning the missed chances that have impacted the outcome of the game?

Expected goals actually helps us work out if that is true or not. It is a metric that quantifies the likelihood of an effort on goal actually being scored through an algorithm.

Why should fans care? Well, they don't have to, and they probably don't, but when someone is bemoaning a team's fortunes such 'on another day that shot goes in' or 'we were unlucky' you can actually go a long way to proving it to be true or not.

xG has come to prominence somewhat more as it has started to appear on MOTD (after the corner statistic flashes for each game, how sad am I?) since the start of the 2017-18 season. For anoraks like me, it's really cool that something like this is being embraced in the mainstream media. It is something I think will quickly become the norm amongst football fans in the coming years.

For coaching, scouting and analysis, it is just one of many developments in football analytics. Any team who outwardly promotes their use of analytics is labelled as using 'moneyball', which I think again shows that there is a long way to overcoming the dismissive nature of football towards stats!

A metric like expected goals can be huge for departments across a club. Coaches can assess where they might need to work with a striker, in terms of their finishing or the positions they pick up. Analysts can identify exactly that for them. Scouts can back up subjective attitudes towards a player with objective data like this. If a player truly does pick up good positions but just isn't scoring them yet 'xG' will help identify this, making the recruitment process a whole lot more efficient.

I am by no means an expert on this area, far from it (!) but I do recognise it's significance and how it could aid my own coaching in football if I wish to pursue it at a higher level one day.

As analytics becomes more sophisticated it is slowly being dripped into youth development in the professional game - which can only be a good thing. The more objective we can become to supplement that alongside the more subjective information and ideas we have about players the more informed decisions can be made about young players and their future. Too often, decisions on young players are made on a whim because of a personal opinion from one coach, which may not be representative of that club as a whole. 

In terms of grassroots football, it may not have as much significance due to the nature of the game at that level with various constraints that would not really allow for it, not least of all; time. But just by educating players, or coaches, they can start to think a little more objectively about things rather than relying on their own confirmation bias.

The dismissal of expected goals as a metric by the more old-school thinkers is a strange one, but as I said above not surprising. Statistics, especially the interesting ones, possibly threaten this type of individual's 'traditions' and 'values' and maybe they worry will be rendered useless as modern football develops. Those who embrace it however, will find the benefits. What is to lose anyway?

Though the 'Football Men' may not like it, expected goals is here to stay and is slowly becoming the norm. Furthermore, there will be many more useful statistics to come that will be far more meaningful than the original 'possession' that brought stats into play in football. Analytics is developing in football into something very meaningful, so think before you dismiss it without even understanding it!
To learn more about expected goals and analytics in football, here are some interesting articles! - BBC article - Guardian article - FourFourTwo documentary - Very good website that breaks it down - Goal expectation and efficiency

Friday, 15 September 2017

The relative age effect revisited

Last year I wrote this article on the relative age effect. Since then, for my dissertation in my degree I researched the impact of the coach as a social agent on RAE and whether their knowledge levels are sufficient in combatting birth bias. If you wish to read my dissertation feel free to contact me or comment below! 

Istvan Balyi, a sports scientist, devised the long-term athlete development model during the 1990s. Balyi recognised that the talent identification process in sport was flawed and that someone who is identified as talented at a young age does not mean they will always become an elite athlete. An easy example is that often a young player would simply be physically mature for their age and stand out as a result because they could use their size as an advantage at that time, leading to smaller talents going unnoticed.

Balyi's model sought to restore the balance between training load and competition during childhood and adolescence, recognising the different stages that young people are ready to develop at. If
fundamental skills were taught during these optimal stages of development, it could help divert the focus away from short terms results (or selecting the current best performers) and focus on long term development. For this reason the Football Association adopted, and adapted, this model in order to create a holistic method for coaches to follow.

This is relevant when discussing the Relative Age Effect (RAE) as the theory suggests that those born earlier in the year, and thus more likely to be bigger in physical size, benefit in the early years of talent identification and selection. But why is it that coaches and scouts identify more physically mature children as 'talented'?

My dissertation research primarily sought to gain an understanding of the knowledge grassroots coaches have of the relative age effect, and furthermore how they impact this and their understanding of the FA's Long Term Player Development model (LTPD). It involved over 200 coaches answering questionnaires and some attending a focus group.

In my results, there was a chasm in levels of understanding of RAE between UEFA qualified coaches and Level 1 grassroots coaches. On the face of it, this is understandable. Coaches who have more time to invest in themselves and coach at a higher level were more likely to have encountered education on RAE. It was also identified in the focus group that Level 1 coaches are more likely to be a parent or family member with less spare time than a career coach who has UEFA qualifications.

However, this is problematic because when children are identified to be selected for a professional club it tends to be in the grassroots game, probably coached by coaches with Level 1 or 2 qualifications. These coaches tend to have less of an understanding of the Relative Age Effect and as a 'social agent' may be allowing RAE to manifest as a result. They may be giving increased and better quality opportunities due to their perception of a player as 'talented'. This is known as the Pygmalion effect. A player who may have more talent but just hasn't been able to showcase it yet because of their current physical disadvantages may miss out on these opportunities. It has been shown in research that "talent" at a young age is not a very good indicator of their chance of making it as an athlete and this could be a possible reason why.

My research found that the majority of coaches (particularly those with the Level 1 and/or 2) felt inadequately educated on the matter. Though there has been an increased emphasis on implementing RAE into coach education, the majority of coaches responding to the questionnaire felt they had not been made suitably aware of the issue. This suggests that although most have encountered RAE not enough time has been spent on it nor has there been much depth to this education. Due to the time constraints of coaches who volunteer in the grassroots games, ideas such as short refresher courses and online modules were recommended for further education on the Relative Age Effect, which could also count towards any FA Licensed Coaches Club (FALCC) members continuous professional development. Details such as ways that coaches can combat RAE were mentioned, as they felt that a lack of solutions were provided for coaches to use at grassroots level. More information on how the FA's LTPD model can reduce RAE would also be hugely beneficial! A holistic approach will reduce the reliance on one area where someone may be forging ahead, such as physical development, which is mentioned is not always a good indicator of future ability.

In the FA's adapted LTAD model they introduced four corners which they believe impact a player's development. Technical, Psychological, Physical and Social. In the questionnaire and focus group, participants were asked to rate which they felt were most important but also which they felt they could impact on the most. The issue with identifying young people as naturally gifted is that this means that they do not believe they can coach this. It is 'nature' after all! However, this is another mechanism that allows RAE to manifest

The physical corner of development was also recognised by the coaches as less important to consider and less likely for them to be able to impact on. Whereas it has previously been an accepted idea that in English football too much emphasis is placed on a player's physical ability to help win games, it might also be a less conscious factor that creates this birth bias. Because coaches do not consider it as important, they are less likely to cater someone who is physically smaller and recognise that they need more time to develop before they are discarded as not good enough! Furthermore, if a coach does not believe they can affect a player's physical development due to it being an issue of 'nature' then that player may suffer more in the future too.

This was an interesting topic to cover for my dissertation and one that I consider very important in the grassroots games, particularly at the younger ages. Players are picked up (wrongly in my opinion) at ages as young as four and five nowadays. Everyone is in a rush to beat each other to talent and therefore these decisions are made in an instant. Subconsciously, are these people going to identify the smaller, younger, possibly less noticeable players or the players who make an impact on the game in that moment in time? Hopefully this is a trend that will begin to change and more due diligence will be made!

Sunday, 6 August 2017

VIDEO: England DNA - Bearing fruit?

There was plenty of disappointment as England crashed out of the semi finals in the Women's european championships against Holland.

Expectation was high following the progress Mark Sampson's side had made over the last two years. Prior to the game, England had been the tournament's best side with emphatic wins over France and Spain in particular. Though they lost 3-0 in the end, and lessons must be learned, it is important to also recognise the development of a side that had exuded confidence during the competition.

Across the board, this has been a summer of success for England national sides. Great strides have been made where previously as a nation we have found it hard to compete. At youth level too there have been some fantastic performances, where the style of play has been clear to see. Too often England teams have struggled to dominate games, where the opposition have had the lion share of possession and territory.

In my blog last year before the Men's European Championships I wrote how what fans truly wanted to see was positive performances that hinted at a brighter future, and I think this is what we are beginning to see now.

While we are still waiting for players to find more of a pathway into their club's first teams (blog on that to come soon), there have been individuals that have shone this summer.

Solanke - u20 World Cup Best Player
In the u17 European Championship, it was Jaden Sancho who won 'Best Player' while his club team mate Phil Foden also starred. Dom Solanke won player of the tournament in the u20 World Cup, no mean feat in which several others impressed such as Jonjo Kenny and Freddie Woodman. At the other end of the 'international journey', Jodie Taylor looks set to finish as top scorer at the Women's European Championship when only a few years ago she had been cast into international wilderness.

There is plenty to be positive about following this summer's events, that is for sure. Hopefully in the future our teams will continue to grow, become more confident and make their mark on tournaments to come.

The link below is to a video I have made in an attempt to capture this summer's success. I made one last year (link) and this is what I hope is a progression of that.


If you have any feedback, please comment below!

Tuesday, 18 July 2017

No ball games

This blog is inspired from my journey walking back home as I came through a car park one afternoon last week. Empty, bar one car in the corner , through this long open space I thought to myself about what a great place this would be to have been able to play football on the streets with friends.

A high bush to stop the ball (in most circumstances) going out onto the road behind it, markings that you could use for goals and enough space to fit at least a five a side, if not more! To me it seemed ideal. That was until I saw the dread sign: NO BALL GAMES and this brought back some memories of my own.

In the council estate that I lived in as a kid, there was a great open space (partly on the road) where we could play football. Specifically, we used to play 'four goals' in which the loser is knocked out and generally replaced by someone else. This space lent itself perfectly for that with bollards, railings and speed bumps marking the goals. In this game you had the perfect risk/reward dilemma. Sit back and defend your goal and you allowed the opposition to attack you, play offensively without fear and one mistake would mean your empty goal was badly exposed! You could play in doubles if the numbers demanded so, add restrictions to make sure the game doesn't get out of hand and change the size of the goal if needs be.

However, this area had the same 'no ball games' sign that I saw the other day in the car park. And we were reminded of it by people who were not even remotely impacted by us playing football there. But we began to grow tired of this, playing in the hope that someone wouldn't come and yell at us wasn't as fun.

Furthermore, if our ball went over the fence and into someone's garden it was not coming back. If we were lucky, on the right day it would be thrown back but we played carefully trying not to kick the ball too high knowing that if it went over the grumpy man who lived there would pop it. Bye bye 2006 World Cup Teamgeist ball.

It made me think, nevertheless, about the complaints of a lot of grassroots coaches these days. One of the main ones I hear is that kids do not play on the streets like 'we' used to do and that Generation Z are more concerned about playing on their consoles. But is this a rather simplistic excuse for those who do not want to take responsibility for a supposed lack of 'love of the game' from young children?

Do less and less children play on the street because of technology or because of the conditions of modern society, in which parents prefer to keep them where they can see them? And as highlighted, the restrictions on places nearby you can play? What if there is no local park and a parents doesn't feel comfortable sending a child on their own to play further away?

Someone I really respect said to me that in England, particularly in football, we are great at listing problems but not so keen to provide solutions. In this discussion, I think that is pertinent. How about we set our minds on how we can recreate these conditions that allow street football, which many great footballers have been born out of, rather than complaining that the youth of today aren't as interested?

How about we encourage our players to play football outside of sessions, which it feels like they do less and less? Those who do so will notice the difference, as will their peers. Creating unstructured play opportunities is becoming more and more popular. At Feyenoord, they leave footballs on their pitch for an hour before training for those who want to come early and play. Bristol Rovers recently developed a very interesting initiative where they gave ownership to their players and let them play on the street with various obstacles.

Hopefully we can begin to consider how we can engage young people and create conditions for them that replicate the classic street football games but also encourage them to go out and 'play' more!

On the same estate where I used to play, it slowly became deserted where once lots of kids would play football. I noticed recently when I went back there that more and more kids are back playing football (and various other games to include others who are not football fans) accompanied by parents who come down to watch and talk with other parents! Maybe that bodes well.

Monday, 19 June 2017

Youth football: Where do we draw the line?

This blog post is inspired from reading Michael Calvin's latest brilliant book 'No Hunger in Paradise'.

The book does a fantastic job of capturing youth football and its realities within the professional game. At times it is heart-warming, at others it makes you despair.

And while reading it, it reminded me of everything that is wrong in youth and grassroots football.

Four, five, six year old boys are sold the dream. They are invited to 'academy development centres', promised contracts once they turn eight, their heads are filled with ideas of the riches that come with the game.

The reality is, barely any of these players will end up in the professional game as footballers. That is the cold reality. So why are these young people so unprepared for this? The percentages are tiny, minuscule. To be clear, I have never stopped a player progressing to an academy that I have coached, nor would I ever. It is a wonderful opportunity. Nevertheless, the reason I am so passionate about coaching in grassroots football is because although children do not all become professional footballers, they do all become members of society.

Do kids truly get to learn to love the game?
And inevitably, whether it be at eight, ten, twelve or as they approach the potential offers of scholarships, these players are discarded by their respective clubs. On a visit to AFC Ajax last September (blog here), their academy recognised that by releasing players, they are admitting that they have failed the players and that the coaches are not doing their own job.

I see similar parallels in grassroots youth football. Young children are released for not being 'good enough'. Firstly, good enough for what exactly? Secondly, why do they need to be good enough? The very definition of grassroots football is the introduction to and enjoyment of the sport.

How do we change the ever growing commodification of academy footballers, though?

I firmly believe players shouldn't be registered with professional club until fourteen years of age, but we know that this is never going to happen, nor is it practical. Clubs find loopholes round the fact that clubs are not allowed to sign players until they are eight as it is, as identified earlier in this article. An alternative might be that you can not release players on the grounds of ability until the age of fourteen. That way, you my get some degree of patience. For example, some players may struggle through a growth spurt (or a lack of one). Quite often clubs will get rid of a player like this whereas all they need is someone to give them the opportunity once their body settles down. I would be interested to hear people's thoughts on this!

Another cause for the concern in the growth of young players becoming commodities for clubs, if they are not already, is the presence of intermediaries. I find this abhorrent, simply put. As players approach sixteen they no doubt need some form of support in this area but surely that should come from the club providing education? That way we will get less players getting caught in a tug of war battle, incited by an 'agent' which would let them get on with their development with minimal distractions.

No doubt there are good agents about, as highlighted in Calvin's book, but does a nine year old really need an agent? There are too many people looking to milk the next superstar for everything they have and it is a stain on the game.

As players become shifted from club to club looking for the 'best' offer, this throws up many issues not just for the child as a footballer but as a person. Is this really what is best for the child?

It all came too soon for Sonny Pike
Clubs ask players to relocate at young ages to be near enough to the training ground - otherwise they may not be asked to stay on. I have witnessed parents share a genuine concern for having to move their child just to play for a professional club's academy at just ten years old. Equally, there are some parents who push their children too far. Taking them to clubs left, right and centre. Are they being given sufficient education on their child's welfare and what is truly best for their development as a player?

I am indeed aware that this is the 'nature of the beast' that is academy football and the professional game, but does that make it okay? Clubs are going above and beyond now, seemingly having no shame in the length they will go to sign a player. Two huge clubs now have been punished and yet it feels like we are only just scratching the surface here.

And finally, is it all a bit too much? Children can not cope with the same strains as adults, battering them year in year out, is it a dangerous game to be playing with their mental health, as well as physical? These players train up to four times a week plus a game. Will they be able to form a stable social life? Are they getting as much time to concentrate on other areas in their education? As I said, not every child can become a footballer.

I guess my question is, where do we draw the line? And are we currently crossing it?