By Paul Gardner
What sounds like a cri de coeur has recently been heard from Arsenal coach Arsene Wenger. You could also call it, less romantically, a rant, I suppose.
What is getting Wenger in a lather is the move by the EPL to limit the size of its team rosters to 25 players, while at the same time enforcing a regulation that ensures at least eight players are “homegrown.”
That last requirement, designed to promote the development of a strong England national team, is not quite as specific as it sounds, for the definition of “homegrown” includes players of any nationality -- provided they have spent the three years previous to their 21st birthday with an English or Welsh club.
Wenger says the move is both “a joke” and “a disaster.” A joke because, he says, it won’t work as far as strengthening England goes, and a disaster because it will work as far as depleting rosters goes -- and this will adversely affect the quality of play in the EPL.
Let’s face it, foreigners are always something of a problem, whichever activity you look at. And when things don’t go well, the foreigner can expect to take a share of the blame.
The question of foreign players in soccer is hardly a new one. It goes back to the very beginnings of the sport, to the 1880s, when soccer was beginning to become a professional activity, and clubs in the north of England began importing Scottish players -- who were considered foreigners and were viewed askance.
Italy is the country with the longest tradition of importing foreign talent, dating back to the 1930s. It’s difficult to make the case that the policy has crippled the Italian national team, though -- we’re talking about a country that has won four World Cups.
The Bundesliga now includes a high percentage of foreigners -- yet the Germans were semifinalists in South Africa this year, and widely acclaimed for the enterprising play of their young team.
Wenger knows all about these contradictions, and scathingly points out that England, after its World Cup win in 1966, won “absolutely nothing” for a period of 30 years ... when there were virtually no foreign players in England.
And look at Spain, says Wenger, another country with plenty of foreigners -- yet it’s now world champion. It’s the coaching in Spain that does the trick, says Wenger.
Maybe so. But one of the first rules of soccer -- well, soccer journalism, anyway -- is that coaches should not be taken at their word. Wenger has his own agenda here. He has been the coach at Arsenal for 14 years, and this assertion about coaching is a rather precarious one for Wenger to be making.
Because he promotes himself as an “educator” of young players -- “I’ve been educating young players for 25 years now” and 14 years is more than enough time for him to have turned Arsenal’s youth academy into a producer of future stars.
But that has not happened. Of the most recent Arsenal starting 11, nine players were foreigners who were bought from other clubs. The other two were the English youngsters Theo Walcott and Jack Wilshere. Wilshere is the genuine article, having joined Arsenal at the age of 9. But Walcott cannot be considered an Arsenal product as he was already age 17 when he joined the club.
One player developed in 14 years is not a particularly spectacular record. But it is not as bad as it sounds, because I doubt whether any other English youth academy has done much better. In fact, few major academies anywhere in the world do much better. By major academies I mean those that are linked to top pro clubs - in other words, those that have plenty of money.
Clearly, money is not the answer to youth development. We should know that by now -- just as we should know that we can eliminate another factor -- that of “coaching.” By “coaching” I mean the amorphous, all-purpose definition that actually defines nothing. Because Wenger is right -- what matters is the coaching -- not in a general sense, but in its details.
The first question to be asked -- and it must always be asked -- when people start talking of “coaching,” is to get them to define what they mean. What sort of coaching? How much of it? Or perhaps, of equal or even greater importance, how little of it? And so on.
I feel the trouble with youth development in England is that the traditions and practices of the age-old English game -- outdated and damaging as they are -- are still being taught. Perhaps subconsciously, perhaps they don’t even need to be taught, perhaps they are a subliminal part of the soccer culture.
In his excellent book about the English academy system (“Every Boy’s Dream”), Chris Green lays bare a whole slew of political and organizational and social and educational problems that hinder youth development there. Yet there is hardly any discussion of what is actually taught in the academies. Even for Green, an acute observer, it seems that coaching is simply coaching.
But spending millions to set up an academy where intensive “coaching” will be performed cannot be the answer. If coaching is to be applied systematically -- and there seems to be no escape from that approach -- then the coaching had better be the right coaching, or it will do more damage than good. But defining the words “right coaching” is proving mighty difficult.