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.

Part 1: Institutes of Higher Learning for soccer -- is this really the way to go?

32 comments about "The growth of the academies (Part 2): Is there any evidence that they are giving us better soccer?".
  1. Nels Hanson, November 18, 2015 at 10:08 a.m.

    Does Gardner ever provide anything other than anecdote and speculation? I feel he's the Tom Friedman of football journalism (and I'm sure that he would disapprove of me using that term, being an American and all).

    What's really sad here is that he is actually trying to use 'evidence' to support a point. He even does a reasonable job of listing the findings that CIES present in their blog post (to which he tellingly does not provide a link, which makes me wonder how much actual editorial oversight there is here). But the numbers aren't nearly enough to support what he's claiming.

    It may be true that the percentage of club-trained players in top leagues is declining, but he does fail to mention that 'club-trained' refers to players who "have been for at least three seasons between the ages of 15 and 21 in their employer team". This excludes players who became professionals at other teams. It also ignores many of the realities of the modern football business in which a large club may assume it is actually a better business decision to simple purchase known quantities on the market than take the risk of developing their own.

    And CIES makes no attempt to interpret their results (at least not in their post), probably because those survey numbers alone are nowhere near enough to draw any conclusion about cause. Of course, that doesn't stop Paul here. He plows straight ahead with his own theory about why academies are ruining what was apparently a far more beautiful game back in his childhood (when even was off).

  2. Scot Sutherland, November 18, 2015 at 11:25 a.m.

    Since my 1970s days in college I have been involved in soccer, mostly coaching at the youth level. I ran across one coach, an American missionary kid from Brazil that consistently produced teams PG would love to watch and creative individual players. As far as I know he never coached any team older than U14. His approach was exceptionally simple, games, movement and decisions. There were no positions, no formations. The starting lineup was decided by a juggling contest. Players naturally gravitated toward positions on the field that fit for them in the context of the group they were playing with. He taught the players how to work together, make decisions, how to move on and off the ball. I have never seen more technical, tactically aware and creative teams as the ones he coached. He didn't care to much about the score. He could be brutal with team selection, dismissing players when he had decided they weren't good enough. Good enough meant more than physically, technically or mentally. He measured the love of the game, passion and creativity. There were absolutely no robots. Only one player I know of made it to the pros. By then he had been robotized into a defender. As a youth he was full of nutmegs, splitting passes, rainbows, delicate chips, late runs and combination play. I am absolutely certain what I saw being taught to those players bares little resemblance to what is taught in the academy system.

  3. Bob Ashpole replied, November 18, 2015 at 2:29 p.m.

    The problem IMO is that too many coaches favor players who follow instructions over players who solve tactical problems creatively. I agree with Mr. Gardner, although I blame the coaching, not the academy structure. Today coaches think there is a right way to play soccer. My pet peeve is coaches who dress up tactics as "technique" to force players to play a certain way. They should be educating players on the advantages and disadvantages of various techniques so an educated choice is made based on the tactical situation.

  4. Bob Ashpole replied, November 18, 2015 at 2:37 p.m.

    I suspect many coaches today would yell at Pele for his "bad" technique bouncing balls off opponents shins.

  5. Al Gebra replied, November 18, 2015 at 5:52 p.m.

    Many good points, especially from Sutherland. The game has certainly changed but there are still a lot of creative players out there. Unfortunately, the situation with the US MNT players is no different than what I experienced years ago when I coached ODP and my son was going up the ODP ranks. I observed that the most creative (and fun to watch) teams were at the district level. When my son was playing ODP and moved up to to the State and then regional level, the games got boring, pretty much like watching a college game. I couldn't help but notice that the creative player became pretty much non-existent at the "higher levels". They had been weeded out by the robots who were and still are much easier, for whatever reason, for many of our "higher level" coaches to select and coach. To wit, compare the current US MNT players to young Mexican players like Jesus Corona and Jurgen Damm. They're very fun to watch, especially compared to a loping Bradley or a fumbling Zardes.

  6. Scot Sutherland, November 18, 2015 at 11:33 a.m.

    I actually think the strength of basketball and gridiron in the US starts with integration of sports into the larger education system. The best players America has produced (with the exception of Landon Donovan) have been multiple sport athletes and college players. They are player who learn to "figure stuff out." I actually think Gyasi Zardes has regressed as a player because the has "learned" to suppress his natural instincts and do the "high percentage" thing. His first days in MLS (pretty much directly out of college) were full of clever turns and audacious attempts on goal. Those are now things of the past. He has been coached into being a "good professional." But he has also become "safe" and predictable.

  7. Joe Linzner replied, November 18, 2015 at 1:54 p.m.

    I agree with you, as evidnced in the TT game there was a hesitancy in his game and his initial exhuberance from his initial performances seems absent. He has reverted to academy robotic play and fear of making a mistake. Personally I would ask JK to let hime play his position with abandon and let him know that mistakes happen and not to worry about a touch or pass misses at times. People seem willing to forgive Altidore al sorts of lack, form work rate to bad touches and sloth.... I keep hearing that we have no better options...Zardes is a better option and would work better with Wood as a partner.

  8. Nels Hanson, November 18, 2015 at 1:35 p.m.

    A few things. I'm not saying that the best players in the world don't have innate talent beyond what can be taught. That's sort of what makes them the best. Otherwise, yes, we'd just be churning out Messi and Messi. But, to All American, there is absolutely no good argument (or really any argument, it's just assertion) presented by PG that we have fewer great talents now than we had before. I suppose whether you consider them 'creative' is somewhat subjective, but my personal opinion is that they are every bit as enjoyable to watch as players of the past. But talent needs training. It's ridiculous to use players like CR9, Messi, Neymar or Rooney as examples of what academies can't teach when every one of them came up through an academy. There's no attempt here to try to separate out the value added by by the academy from their natural ability. Robotizing is a wonderful word to throw around here, but I have no idea what it's supposed to mean. Most professional footballers are not generational talents. They are excellent and dedicated athletes and they develop a set of skills that allows them to perform at a high enough level to earn a living playing the game. That's just the way it is in any profession. What they need from an early age is a solid fundamental set of skills. I think Scot has provided a good example of how that might be done and has provided no evidence at all that that is not how it is done in professional academies (an example from the '70s in the US is not representative). In fact, this sounds very much like the policies of the best Dutch academies and Dutch clubs are among those most dependent on developing their own players (PG can harp on the state of the Dutch national team, but that has absolutely nothing to do with the fact that their academies are producing plenty of players who make it in their own league and this is in large part due to economic necessity, something he ignores). To Scot, again, I really don't see any evidence for the multi-sport hypothesis. Name one of the 'great' American players who was a successful multi-sport athlete. And how on earth are college coaches going to do what collections of better trained, more experienced coaches can't do? Is the creative development of a player in college supposed to come about essentially through neglect? I really don't understand this argument. And finally, I just don't get the nostalgia here. The game has changed. I feel like a lot of what people miss is a hazy recollection of Cruyff or Socrates loping around the pitch. The context in which that was able to happen no longer exists. And let's not forget just how poor most professional players of that era look compared to the average professional now.

  9. Kent James replied, November 18, 2015 at 11:26 p.m.

    I generally agree with your assertions, but would suggest that perhaps one reason people are nostalgic for some great individual players in the past might be that such players were so much better than the players around them they stood out more; now the level of the average player is so much higher (especially in terms of fitness and defense), it is harder to stand out offensively (though for some, like Messi, the better defenses only allow them to demonstrate how good they really are).

  10. don Lamb replied, November 19, 2015 at 9:14 p.m.

    ok, ok. I see you, Nels Hanson. Very well put.

  11. Scot Sutherland replied, November 24, 2015 at 11:42 a.m.

    Keep in mind the US produces more world class athletes than any other country. Disproportionate to our population. I have done a lot of research this. Going in the direction of the rest of the world would be going backwards. One good article.

    On multiple sport athletes:

  12. don Lamb replied, December 2, 2015 at 9:14 a.m.

    Scot - College lacrosse coaches (and football coaches for that matter) like multi-sport athletes because their games require little skill. They want the best athletes and then they can put them in their system. Don't get me wrong -- it's good for soccer players to play other sports, but soccer needs to be taken seriously from a young age if the player is going to reach a high level. On the contrary, many NFL football players didn't start taking football seriously or even playing the sport period until late in their teens.

  13. Nels Hanson, November 18, 2015 at 1:42 p.m.

    Incidentally, none of this even addresses my original point that PG is making an argument from assertion and that the blog post he fails to correctly cite does not actually provide any evidence for his conclusions.

  14. Tyler Wells, November 18, 2015 at 1:46 p.m.

    I will not echo Nels Hanson’s excellent comments because he has already said it much better than I could. Paul and some of the other commenter’s come off as curmudgeons grumbling “they don’t make them like they did back in my heyday.” Well yes, the world has changed and football has changed. The academies and other methods of instruction are here to stay because that is what wins. The Spanish and now the Germans produce players who are a part of a team and they rely upon the pass, rather than the dribble, to advance the ball. Personally, I find this style very enjoyable to watch.

  15. Joe Linzner, November 18, 2015 at 2:04 p.m.

    Yes, it is more enjoyable to watch, yet it is something that few on this team do well. However it is advantageous to be able to take on individuals as well. Even with Messi, dribbling is not at which he excels. His skill is sublime, based on shielding the ball, subtle change of pace, feints and weight changes. Plain comfort on the ball. The key to dribbling is shielding the ball. It is NOT juggling. We still look down at the ball when we go one on one... Altidore is specially clumsy head on one on one. .. We have a few on this team that understand that. Nagbe, Johnson, Jones, Cameron....slowly, we'll getthere but academies ain't a gonna do it.. unles one on one is not taught with a blackboard.

  16. don Lamb replied, November 20, 2015 at 10:37 a.m.

    Academies can't train 1v1? That is what the Barcelona academy revolves around. The entire reason they play 4-3-3 throughout their organization is to create 1v1 opportunities on the wings. Their intricate passing and probing is a way to find to the most advantageous opportunity for the 1v1.

  17. Walt Pericciuoli, November 18, 2015 at 2:35 p.m.

    Good article Paul. One I hope our US federation bosses take to heart.

  18. Ric Fonseca, November 18, 2015 at 2:43 p.m.

    First a hearty THANK YOU to Nels Hanson for his extremely well written comments.
    Second while I somewhat struggled reading PG's piece and tried to make some sense of his very wordy essay, Mr. Hanson put it all very succinctly and clearly, which, my third point is I understood what PG did not say or exposed to support his thesis. Lastly, Mr. Hanson out is even more succinct in using one simple noun "nostalgia" that summarizes what many commentators have gone back to. And in reference to last night's game, I so bemoaned Zardes' blatant missed score, and his whiffing on a shot that were so reminiscent of last year's WC possible goal by you know who, Jazzy was so out of whack in trying to take on not just one but 2-3 TnT players, Bradly not passing the ball the way he's facing (see PG above!) or when doing so giving weak passes, sauntering back on defense... well "at least we didn't lose" as Sunil was for sure watching the team from the stands!!!

  19. Richard Brown, November 18, 2015 at 3:59 p.m.

    On English schools of excellence from the head of a school of excellence years ago the Bury manager

    It depends on the club.
    The only criteria that has changed is that they can only take on children under 16 from no more than 10 miles from the club.

    I saying that though, top prem clubs have now established 'Locality feeder clubs' which are either sponsored clubs already established or new club set-ups which incorporate a different area to the main club. From these 'clubs' the best players are taken for trials.

    This is one of the main reasons why top clubs like Arsenal and Manchester United now 'invite' young players for trials from other countries or indeed fund overseas feeder clubs in areas where there is no restriction on distance from a catchment point of view.

    As for the age at which players can be members of Schools of Excellence the clubs are bound by the new FA Child Protection Scheme sponsored by GOAL. I could easily say that its this or that age, but I know that even as young as 6 years old, there are instances of these 'talented' players playing for 'certain funded amateur clubs' which are the link to these Schools of Excellence

  20. Vince Leone, November 18, 2015 at 10:59 p.m.

    Paul ignores one of the central purposes of the academy system--to reduce the number of noncompetitive games and reduce the burnout that comes with playing too much. The goal is unrelated to the teaching methods.

  21. Kent James, November 18, 2015 at 11:38 p.m.

    This is an important discussion, and I think people on both sides have made good points. Essentially, what it boils down to is "is the best way to generate the best professional soccer players to cast a wide net, searching for natural talent, and gradually select the best as they mature (harvesting what nature produced), or is it better to identify potential talent while they are young, and provide them with the resources (primarily training in a very competitive environment) to help them grow"? Nature or nurture? The streets of the world or the pristine fields of professional academies? My own personal view is that while the game may be the best teacher, it is a slow teacher. It requires that kids eat, drink and breath soccer, and unfortunately, there are a lot of alternatives (especially in the US). Kids might learn on their own how to strike a soccer ball, but coaches that can demonstrate good technique can speed up the process. On the other hand, highly competitive environments in which mistakes are punished, creativity will be in short supply. So the trick is to speed up the learning process without stifling creativity. It's a fine line, but I have some ideas...

  22. Kent James, November 18, 2015 at 11:48 p.m.

    As for those ideas, you need a system that is inclusive (and therefore inexpensive), especially at the younger ages. Low pressure games, lots of ball touches, very little travel, kids encouraged to play other sports as well, with a focus on fun. But, have the system overseen by coaches who can make sure parent coaches are using age appropriate practices that focus on the aforementioned characteristics, and provide weekly skills training (for those who want it) by someone who can teach technique. Additionally, provide opportunities (pickup games with older kids) for more talented players (especially) to play at a higher level (without pressure). As the kids get older, gradually provide more challenging play (including competitive pressures), more travel, and more opportunity for the best kids to play with other kids like them. However, maintain the broad net/low cost leagues as long as possible (so as not to lose the late bloomers) by not pulling out all the best kids, and, even after the best kids are playing regularly in highly competitive matches, make sure they have the time to play pick-up (to give them a chance to develop creativity in a non-competitive environment and build the confidence to be creative in the competitive one).

  23. R2 Dad, November 19, 2015 at 12:38 a.m.

    For every high-quality DA team, I see 3 or 4 poor ones. There are quality teams that AREN'T academy sides, but those coaches aren't going to migrate to those academy clubs unless there are adequate incentives. I think this keeps going back to the business model. Why aren't clubs/academies configured with ESOPs, in order to attract and retain those top coaches? Every club I see is owned by 1 or 2 people and they're not sustainable entities.

  24. Daniel Clifton, November 19, 2015 at 8:50 a.m.

    As I understand the academy system, it still depends on parents putting out alot of money. This will naturally deny many talented young soccer players the chance to be a part of an academy simply because their parents can't afford it. This is a major stumbling block.

  25. Ric Fonseca replied, November 21, 2015 at 2:45 p.m.

    So, as I read your comment, Daniel Clifton, the "academy system" needs to go the way of the dinasour, except for those folks with the necessary resources; hmmm, sorta reminds me of the 1%ers vs the 99%ers....

  26. don Lamb replied, November 21, 2015 at 6:40 p.m.

    Daniel, This is something that needs to be cleared up here and probably across the entire US soccer culture. There is a difference between USSDA academy clubs, MLS academies, and independent academies. USSDA academies are just travel clubs that have been granted the privilege of playing the USSDA league. They generally have a limited number of scholarships. MLS academies are getting better in the cost department offering more and more free programs. Independent academies can do whatever the heck they want and are theoretically more community friendly since they are not part of sanctioned leagues or overlord organizations. We need more independent academies to feed MLS academies and lower level professional teams, and these academies should be incentivized by receiving compensation for developed players. These types of academies are not very common in the US, but they are all over the place in every part of the world that has a culture that values the game highly.

  27. R2 Dad replied, November 22, 2015 at 11:36 p.m.

    Don, sounds like a great topic for a follow-up article by PG or MW.

  28. Scot Sutherland, November 23, 2015 at 11:24 a.m.

    For the record. I love Paul Gardner like a friend, though I've never met him. He sees the game like an art critic with a keen eye for virtue and beauty. He has a bit of poetry in his prose that draws out a response, whether you agree or disagree.

  29. Spanish Red, November 26, 2015 at 12:15 p.m.

    Very true article. The academies should be finding talented players and teaching them the nuances of the game. Coaching will not make a bad player good. Can you imagine coaching Messi or Ronaldo. These players are so naturally talented and so good that coaching them is an irrelevance. Explaining tactics which will be of advantage to the team is fine but don't try and tell them how to play football. This, to me is where academies fall down. They take anybody they think can play a bit and think they are going to turn them into superstars. It doesn't work like that. Here's an article on a completely different subject of Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard:

  30. Richard Brown, November 30, 2015 at 10:56 a.m.

    How hard is it to coach a player like Messi now?

    Is there anything a coach can tell him that he does not already know?

  31. fifi Olibares, December 27, 2015 at 11:47 p.m.

    Teaching kids soccer in an academy is like teaching them math in a class room they will only learn if they are ready for it or if they want to, hence all the shouting going on, academy coaches should just limit themselves to teaching techniques and tactics and then let them play with out structure.

  32. fifi Olibares, December 28, 2015 at 12:45 a.m.

    I have researched the methodology of training at the mls academy that graduates more players into the first team, and all they do is the same, shouting instructions, belittling players when they don't do what is asked of them and not allowing them to be artistic or creative. there are not that many players in the usmt that look like ever did anything other then follow a coaches instructions. all their moves look robotic and unnatural to the game of soccer. we need to teach and let play develop by itself,

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