The Champions league final 2011 was the last straw as far as the English FA is concerned. Watching the best English club struggling to compete with the best in Spain has forced the English FA to look concertedly towards problems at the heart of the English game. The disappointing performance of the national teams, both senior and under-21, had triggered the debate as to whether the team was good enough to challenge consistently for honors. Analysis shows the problem is rooted deep into the most basic element of the football clubs – the youth academy.

English clubs have to comply with the rules put out by the Football Association with regards to the running of their youth academies. The fact that rules exist helps prevent the richest clubs from running amok with their academy and making a mockery of the less privileged clubs. However, some of these rules have also served the purpose of slowing down the development of players in the youth set-up, and have affected the club’s player recruitment process.

Stuck in a ‘club’ habit?

The one rule that has hindered the development of players under the age of 18 has been the limit on the number of hours that the clubs are allowed to keep them on the training field. Under the current regulations, players between the ages of 10 and 18 are allowed to spend a total of only 2000 hours on the training ground. Compare this to the model around the globe, where clubs like Barcelona and Real Madrid are allowed to train their players for any amount of time, thus allowing for more wholesome development of the players.

The reason this issue has now become one of paramount importance is the emergence and subsequent dominance exerted by the national football teams of Spain, at all levels. One major reason behind their recent domination has been the presence of players that have played together for almost ten years now. Add to this, the fact that most of the players in the first eleven come from the two powerhouse football clubs of Spain, and we can understand why they have been so successful.

The players have developed a level of understanding that comes only from long hours of practice on the playing ground, and are thus able to play their brand of possession football, which focuses on wearing opponents out. The English team has a much more heterogeneous team composition (which is a good thing for the League), with players from multiple clubs from the premier league. However, with the players used to a particular way of playing at their clubs, the national team has generally lacked cohesiveness, and has faltered at the first knockout stage of all the major tournaments in the recent past.

Add to this the issue of English clubs struggling to compete regularly for honors in Europe, with Manchester United and Chelsea being the only consistent clubs. Manchester United have reached the finals of the Champions league three times in the last four years, and yet, they have only one victory to show for. Both their defeats have come at the hands of Barcelona, and in both games, United were unable to challenge Barcelona for sustained intervals of time, as they struggled to get possession of the ball and as a result, failed to impose their own style of play.

The fact that clubs have not been able to work with the young players for longer durations has resulted in their training to be very particular, with focus on areas such as technique and defending, along with the emphasis on stamina. As a result, although once the players develop, they have the right physical attributes and are good defensively, they often lack the mentality and creative edge needed to cultivate and impose a particular style of play. This is now a problem that needs to be addressed swiftly, as it has seeped into the national teams;as was shown by England’s performance in the last summer’s world cup. The national team, with its players all coming from different clubs, find it difficult to play with any particular philosophy and ultimately resort to plainly putting the ball out on the flanks, expecting the wingers to make something out of the situation, or worse still, look to play the long ball, and look for scraps from there.

The English academy structure has seen good defensive players such as Gareth Barry and Scott Parker emerge, but the lack of a cutting edge in midfield is what has hindered the progress of the team. The early retirement of Paul Scholes, coupled to the fact that Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard struggle to play together, is part of the problem. The one midfielder in England who does play the role of a deep-lying playmaker very well is Michael Carrick, but he has never been selected consistently for the national team. The failure of emergence of young ball-playing midfielders, who can take their places, has magnified the problem.

Hard time replacing Scholesy?

Another rule that has limited the scope of the youth academies of certain clubs is the 90-minute rule. English clubs can recruit only those players under the age of 18 who live in areas that are within 90 minutes of the club for their youth program. This rule has, on the one hand, helped the smaller clubs in the lower leagues protect their young players from the attentions of premier league clubs and has helped them survive going out of business by cashing in on their promising young talents at the right time. On the other hand, it has also badly affected clubs such as Sunderland and Newcastle, who are close to the sea. Roy Keane made this point a couple of years back, whilst he was Sunderland manager, that they face a rather unusual problem of not having enough players in their academy and that they would have to look out for good fish in the sea!

The emergence of Jordan Henderson, and Jack Colback to an extent, is an encouraging sign, but this rule, in general, has hindered clubs from freely recruiting any player from across the country and so has been a bottleneck for the development of more talented young footballers. The big clubs with worldwide scouting networks, and large amounts of cash injection, have instead turned their sights to promising youngsters available from across the world, with clubs such as Arsenal and Chelsea having academies with a very high ratio of Foreign-to-English players. With FIFA now slowly implementing the 6 + 5 rule, the major clubs in the premier league are splurging out on young English players, trying to get players to comply with the six homegrown players in the playing eleven rule that is expected to be enforced from next season onwards.

The final reason that is preventing young English players from coming through the academy to play for the first team is the instant success that teams now crave for. Clubs such as Manchester City and Chelsea with the backing of their owners, have resorted to buying players from across the globe by spending exorbitant sums of money, and thus, have neglected the English youth players. Since John Terry, Chelsea have  not had a homegrown player who has been able to establish himself in the first team.

Manchester City has probably the best academy, but they have slowly ensured that most of its academy graduates have left the club after not being able to get into the first team squad regularly. Some of their recent youth team players have been the likes of Michael Johnson, Steven Ireland, Micah Richards, Joe Hart, Nedum Onuoha and Daniel Sturridge to name just a few. However, with the exception of Joe Hart and Micah Richards, the others have all moved on or are looking to move on. To their credit, City have bought other English players such as James Milner and Adam Johnson, but their failure to live upto their transfer fee, and perform consistently, has seen them lose their place in the team, and has eventually led to most of the English players languishing in the substitutes and reserves.

Arsenal faces a struggle to put English players out on the field, and currently, its only English players are Jack Wilshere, Kieron Gibbs and Theo Walcott. This preference of managers for foreign talent, which can be obtained at a young age or for high prices is another factor leading to the problems that currently besiege English football.

Wilshere – the future of England!

Recent measures taken by the Football Association to revamp the academy structure – such as increasing the number of training hours for under-18 players to 10000, abolishing the existing 90-minute rule, and ensuring that smaller clubs get compensated for their young players not in one go, but through add ons – will help fast track the development of young players. With the increase in number of training hours, players will now be able to spend more time trying to learn the art of building up the play, and will help produce more cultured footballers, who understand the importance of keeping the ball. The development of players like Wilshere and Henderson are a clear indication that given the right kind of coaching and exposure, players with the correct mindset to play the game can be produced. The fact that Josh McEachran is considered a very promising prospect at Chelsea is also a very important development, and if he makes it to the first team, he will be the first academy graduate to do so since Terry.

The step taken by the English FA to increase the number of hours of training for players under the age of 18 substantially is probably five years too late, as they have missed out on almost an entire generation of players. The rigidity of the FA in terms of their rules and regulations is what has forced the premier clubs to look at foreign players to improve the quality of their youth teams. In the modern day game, teams work a lot on their academy structure to develop youth team players capable of challenging for a place in the first team squad regularly. With UEFA now looking to level the playing field by implementing the fair play rules, teams are looking to cut down their spending, and focus only on one or two pivotal buys, to add that extra bit of quality to their ranks, and so this rule change is of paramount importance.

The 90-minute rule, in addition to the change in the compensation package for young players, will see clubs now scout the entire country to pick up promising youngsters for their academies, and can only help in better sustenance and development of the academies. In addition to all these changes, one should also appreciate the approach of clubs like Aston Villa, who instead of using the cash obtained by selling their major assets, are instead looking at their academy graduates to do the job for them in the League this year.

Given some time with the new rules, there is a distinct possibility that in the near future, one can expect to see players of the caliber of Manchester United’s class of 92 and 93 that featured the likes of Beckham, the Nevilles, Butt, Giggs and Scholes.