The growth of the academies (Part 2): Is there any evidence that they are giving us better soccer?

By Paul Gardner

Evidence from a survey by the Switzerland-based Football Observatory (see Part 1) indicates that the number of acceptably skilled academy graduates is declining.

So, to ask whether the academies are doing their job is not a mischievous question. Despite the thinking and the energy and the money that, worldwide, has gone into the building up of the academy system, something is misfiring.

Were I to aim an accusing finger at the academies, I would point it firmly at that carefully chosen, key word — Academy.

A superior word to describe what is seen as a superior system run by superior people. I referred in Part 1 to the problems that the pros bring with them. Not the least of these is an air of superiority, of confidence in the correctness of their own opinions. The notion of an academy, a center of higher education, must inevitably bolster those feelings of superiority. Feelings that can quite easily brim over into arrogance. Arrogance, in turn, demands subservience. In soccer, I perceive too much of that.

The new soccer leaders come with the trappings of academia . For the coaches, their multiple badges and diplomas might almost be thought to count for more than their actual coaching experience. How can that be? Quite possibly because the academy coach is surrounded by highly qualified professionals, the products of higher learning. Proving his own academic standing in such company is important. Self-respect almost demands it.

Maybe job security enters into the picture. Alongside the coaches come the new technicians. Alongside. For the moment. Though coaches may also wonder whether these new guys might not be the cuckoos in their coaching nest.

The technicians are definitely academics, the computer analysts with impressive university degrees, the techies who can measure absolutely everything that happens on a soccer field. Well, nearly everything. Then we have the medical staff. With them come the physios, all much better qualified than they used to be. There are nutritionists, too … all of these people are now trained professionals. That they have an immense contribution to make seems to go unquestioned. But, as with the academies themselves, a skeptical attitude would be a more intelligent approach.

Before the academy era we had, in the 1980s, a brief interlude in England when soccer schools were all the rage. In 1987 I spent a day at England’s National School in Lilleshall. There were 32 boys resident there, from age 14 to 16. Supposedly the cream of England’s youth players, though there were plenty of critics who disputed that claim.

The atmosphere was unmistakably scholastic, that of a boys’ boarding school — there was even a husband-and-wife couple who looked after the boys’ “pastoral” concerns. That meant non-soccer matters, though I doubt whether any of the boys had the faintest idea what that vaguely religious word meant. The relations between the boys and the coaches seemed easy enough, but it was detectably one of schoolboys to teachers. The school, by then renamed as a School of Excellence, was closed in 2013, the sample of boys being considered too small.

From a mere School, to a School of Excellence, and so on up to an Academy. The pedagogic progress seems clear, but the more highfalutin the terminology gets, the more important it becomes to establish what it really means. However, the achievements of the academy system have been so negligible, that I have found it necessary to focus on what it has not done.

I find no evidence that it is producing better players. That conclusion can of course be reasonably challenged because the definition of “better player” is debatable. So let me widen the view. Is there any evidence that the game itself is better than it used to be? I mean better in the sense of more skilled, more exciting and entertaining to watch.

You can see the problem. Because the academies may be producing crops of superior defenders. That is quite likely. The most important academies are those attached to pro clubs, whose coaches may well encourage the developing of better defenders — usually considered the bedrock of a successful team. Add to that possible bias another definite bias: Given the strict tactical and positional requirements of defensive play, defenders, and particularly goalkeepers, are much more amenable to teaching than are players at the front end of the team.

Flooding the sport with superior defenders sounds like a recipe for less goalscoring. It is unlikely to make the game more exciting and entertaining.

Luckily, that fear may be misplaced. As it happens, I haven’t been particularly aware of a influx of great young defenders appearing on the scene — so the academies’ inability to develop better players may take in all positions — except possibly, goalkeepers, who are always the odd man out anyway.

It may be that it’s time to step back from the pedagogic frontiers, to stop paying so much attention to the process and the technique of teaching. That is unquestionably of great academic interest … but how does it fare when used to teach the playing of soccer?

Most of the advice that used to pass for coaching wisdom has deservedly joined the Dodo. In my youth it was common to hear phrases like “Play it the way you’re facing!”, “Don’t pass to anyone who’s marked”, and, in my case, after yet another poor pass, “Yours are the ones in white, Gardner.” Plus the usual “Let him know you’re there!” and “Get stuck in!” and so on. Pretty awful stuff.

Even so, there is one piece of wisdom that was heard then, and is still heard today. Not shouted — merely offered as an observation: The game is the best coach. Which means, of course, that the coach is not the best coach. I suspect that is something that no one, no coach, who has been swept up into the world of the academies would accept.

If the game is really the best coach, then we need a lot more playing of the game — not supervised by adults — and a lot less of the academic approach of teaching. Teaching what, anyway? A vital part of soccer, the artistry and the creativity, cannot be taught. Just as it cannot be measured by computers. But it can be suppressed.

Is this what we’re getting? The things that can be taught — and therefore presumably learned — are the defensive side of the game. I don’t doubt that such things are taught splendidly in the academies. But I’d rather the emphasis were put somewhere else. Academy products will definitely be more highly trained, more tactically aware than previous generations of boys. Whether that necessarily makes for better soccer — I rather doubt that.

I do believe that too much emphasis on teaching — however expert it may be — tends to shrivel a young player’s soccer personality. Playing in games — without frequent interruptions from coaches — allows a boy to learn without being taught, or instructed, allows his personal traits, foibles, flairs and whimsies to develop and those are the qualities that distinguish a talented artist from a robot.

I fear a lot of those personal touches would be frowned on by the academy coaches, probably suppressed in the name of “correcting bad habits.” Of course, there’s a nice academic discipline involved in that, getting the pupils to do things correctly — but I think the academies need to do more. They need to demonstrate, incontestably, that their didactic, academic approach is the right one.

Right now, the evidence seems to me to point in the other direction: That nurturing young soccer talent needs a very flexible, non-programmed approach. Developing team players — which will surely be a top target in the pro-linked academies — is not the same thing as developing individual players. Players with their own soccer personality, their own set of skills, their own magic, maybe their own genius. Rare players, but the sort of players that soccer has relied on for over 100 years to raise it above, way above, simply a bunch of guys running about.

This is not necessarily about a Messi or a Neymar or a Ronaldo or a Rooney — players who, almost from birth, were recognized as exceptional. It is highly likely that such amazing talent will be respected wherever the player goes, a youth club, an academy or wherever. That has nearly always been the case, and the academies are not likely to change that.

But just below that level lurk the nearly-lads, those with a hidden genius that needs help to blossom. Maybe they are lacking in self-confidence, maybe they have too much of it, maybe they are lazy, or find it difficult to “fit in” — they are problem kids who need careful attention if their genius is to be realized.

But before it can be realized, the genius must be recognized. I wonder whether the academies, with their scholastic approach, are equipped to nurture the mavericks? If they cannot, for philosophic reasons, do the job, that would not only be another mark against them, it would also be a huge disappointment.

What better statement of their own value could the academies make than to ensure a future in the sport for highly talented maverick players, those who, in the past, may have been “coached” out of the game, or simply ignored? Not an easy project, but one that would firmly establish the value of the academy system.

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