Talking Tactics

Academy players helped by overseas experience

Adrian Clarke 30 Jul 2017
England Under-20s

Fulham's Huw Jennings tells Adrian Clarke how an increase in international club tournaments has played an important role in England's summer of success

Adrian Clarke's three-part series on Academy coaching concludes.

Tactical improvements

Success for England's youth teams at major international tournaments this summer has delivered a timely boost to the Academy system.

It was one of the Elite Player Performance Plan’s (EPPP) primary goals to produce more and better quality home-grown players, and those success stories indicate strides are being made.

Fulham's Academy director Huw Jennings is convinced that one particular change has helped sharpen tactical focus among young English players.

"There has been an explosion in Academy sides playing in a lot more international tournaments, which is giving their young players that type of experience and the ability to cope in those environments," he explains.

"There are more competitions available at a younger level and that's definitely helping our domestic players find more of a cutting edge, which is where we’ve been criticised in the past.

"The performances of the England junior teams shows that our young players are much more able to succeed in a tournament format than they used to be."

"There has been an explosion in Academy sides playing in a lot more international tournaments, which is giving their young players that type of experience and the ability to cope in those environments"

Huw Jennings, Fulham Academy director

As a Championship club, Fulham do not always receive automatic invitations to continental events, but having seen how much it helps, the Academy has made it a policy to actively pursue entries.

"Across our age groups domestically and internationally we are in around 35 tournaments a year, and that's a healthy number," Jennings continues.

"Across the youth circles there are definitely more clubs paying notice to the importance of tournament play, and at Fulham we've made it a particular focus of ours to go down this route. We see terrific value in it."

Greg Lincoln, Arsenal's Under 14 manager, can see English youth sides closing the gap on European clubs too.

"In the past I've been on study visits to Spain and Germany, and from the tournaments I've played in as well I found that the European boys were far advanced compared to us tactically.

"In recent years we have taken steps in the right direction to catch up.

"When I looked at how some of the overseas teams train, they do a lot of 8v8 or 11v11 where they're working in three lines, keeping each player in their area in order to keep things relevant. That's something we can do more of I think."

Marc McLaren, Wolves
Marc McLaren of Wolves says the popularity of video games such as FIFA and Football Manager has led to young players becoming more tactically aware

Increased media coverage and the popularity of computer games such as Football Manager and FIFA has also helped to close the gap.

Wolverhampton Wanderers Under 9s coach Marc McLaren has seen the evidence with his own eyes: "When we introduce the press, how we press, and the areas of the pitch we want to press in, the kids are much more aware than they used to be in my day.

"They still need a bit of prompting and guidance, but I do think they are getting it earlier because of platforms like the FIFA and Football Manager computer games.

"They're used to playing in different formations, getting to understand the different roles and responsibilities, and they know the importance of what’s required in each position."

In the future, Southampton's Academy manager Matt Hale can see coaches inviting youth players to talk about their game more openly, even in front of their peers.

He elaborates: "Through education and the courses our staff have been on, part of the future programme is to try and engage young players in that [tactical] side of the discussion, for example in a pre-briefs ahead of a game.

"You might get them to come to the front and show you where they think they should be standing at a certain situation rather than us just telling them.

"These days there is a little bit more engagement with the player from an early age, so we will want them to start showing us where they think they should go, and then be guided by the coach to find the right solution."

Matt Hale, Southampton
Southampton Academy manager Matt Hale says coaches are encouraged to engage young players in tactical discussions, rather than just passing on information

Huw Jennings has a word of warning though.

He says it is vital that the increased focus on tactics at youth level doesn't take precedence over the technical development of Academy players.

"In recent seasons we've seen Academy opponents come to us at Fulham and focus on stopping us from playing.

"Ultimately a coach’s job is to focus on development. Practising an art form that prevents another team from playing the type of game they want to does not sit right with my psyche at Academy level.

"Knowing your tactical responsibilities, individually and collectively is part of the game of course, and its part of a young players’ education, but there’s a tricky balance between teaching something that’s done to achieve results on the back of denying an opponent, rather than promoting positive play. 

"Here at Fulham I certainly don’t want our academy coaches to be focused on the end goal of winning.

"I want them to focus on the process of teaching the boys to become winners."

See: How video augments Academy coaching

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