Matt Crocker on English youth soccer revolution (SA September 2017 interview)

On Tuesday, Matt Crocker will be named U.S. Soccer's new sporting director, replacing Earnie Stewart. He is currently the director of football at Southampton. But before that he was also English FA’s head of development team, coaching, overseeing England's national youth programs on both the men's and women's sides. In this Soccer America interview with Mike Woitalla in September 2017, he talked about the English youth soccer revolution. England won the 2017 Under-20 World Cup and shortly after this interview it captured the Under-17 World Cup with a run that included a 4-1 win over the USA (with Sergino Dest, Josh Sargent and Tim Weah) in the quarterfinals. 

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By Mike Woitalla

England may be home to the world’s richest league, but that hasn’t translated into national team success. It has not won a major title since its only World Cup win, on home soil in 1966, and has gotten past the quarterfinals only once, in 1990.

But this year, the England’s youth national teams have had a remarkable run that the English FA hopes will lead to future senior national team success.

In 2017:

England won a youth world title for the first time when it lifted the U-20 World Cup with an impressive undefeated run in South Korea.

At the U-21 European Championship, England reached the semifinals, where it fell to Germany on penalty kicks after a 2-2 tie.

It won the U-19 European Championship, at which its wins included victories over Germany (4-1), the Netherlands (1-0) and Portugal (2-1 in the final).

England qualified for the U-17 World Cup (which kicks of next month) as UEFA runner-up after having reached that biennial tournament only three previous times since its inception in 1985.

Matt Crocker is the English FA’s head of development team, coaching. He joined the FA in 2013 from Southampton, where he served as coach in the club’s academy, which spawned stars such as Luke Shaw, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Theo Walcott.

We asked Crocker for his account of how the English youth program has improved and also provide advice for coaches and parents of young players.

SOCCER AMERICA: How do you explain the recent success of England’s youth national teams?

MATT CROCKER: I think it’s a combination of a four-year project, a real clear vision about us wanting to be successful at the top senior level, targeting 2022 and podium finishes thereafter in terms of World Cups.

Working back, in 2012, 2013, when we first started this program, we built a clear strategy, put processes in place, put specific measurable targets for all of our teams, and created an aligned pathway from our youngest age group, under-15, through the senior team.

Matt Crocker (Photo courtesy of the English FA)

We’ve now got consistency in our environment both on and off the grass in terms of our coaching program, our system and style of play, how we’re recruiting, and what types of players we’re looking for to play in the various positions.

It’s not a fluke by any stretch of the imagination. We worked really, really hard in terms of getting consistency across all of our age groups. It’s a combination of getting buy-in from our staff, and also the players, and massively supported by the clubs, who helped us in terms providing the players to be successful in these tournaments.

SA: Was a change in playing style part of it?

MATT CROCKER: I wouldn’t say a change in playing style. Obviously, we have our DNA [Love the ball, love the game: Age-phase priorities] and our “in and out of possession” principles of what we want our teams to look like and the way we want to set ourselves out.

However, I just think it’s more to do with consistency and also focus. The focus was on us and what we were going to do, what we needed to do to win the game rather than be worried or scared of the opposition.

Obviously, we have to be aware of the tactical systems and key players of the opposition, but it’s more about us imposing our style on the opposition rather than us being fearful and potentially change the way we would like to play based on the opposition.

We have to be mindful, but it is more about setting the game plan about what we needed to do to win and sticking to our playing style philosophy in DNA.

SA: Are you confident that the young players in England who are currently having this success will excel in the future at the highest levels? What are the key factors for them to continue their ascent?

MATT CROCKER: Good question. First of all, I think we have some tremendously talented and gifted young players in this country.

The E triple P system [Elite Player Performance Plan] through the Premier League has provided more coaching hours, given players more opportunities to develop, improved the quality of coaching, improved the quality of provision, but also provided a more diverse games program.

So, the players who we’ve got now are as good as anybody’s in the world.

Proof of that: you’ve got the U-20 World Cup [Golden Ball MVP] Dominic Solanke. Jadon Sancho was the Player of the Tournament of the U-17 European finals. Goalkeeper Freddie Woodman was the [Golden Glove winner] at the U-20 World Cup.

All of a sudden, those benchmarks show we have the players who are capable of being among the top players in the world at those age groups. …

The elephant in the room is them getting the opportunities to play in first teams. Obviously, there’s no golden bullet to solving that issue, which is a 92 clubs and country solution. So, we all need to work hard to find what we can potentially change to give the youngest players opportunities as early as we can to play in the Premier League and Football League in this country, which is the final piece of the jigsaw to hopefully be successful at the senior international league.

SA: Is the financial success of the English Premier League a detriment to the development of young English talent, because clubs can buy so much top foreign talent? And is there satisfactory cooperation from EPL clubs with the FA's efforts to improve youth development?

MATT CROCKER: I think finally the Football League, the Premier League and the FA are all working together. I think it’s clear and recognized that all those governing bodies want more young homegrown English players in the Premier League teams. The Premier League is arguably the best league in the world with some outstanding world players.

The flip side of that coin is our young players at the clubs are having the opportunity to train and learn from the best, from those role models from all over the world, in terms of different styles of play, the technical and tactical abilities. But also from what those top players are like off the field, which has a massive positive rub-off effect on our young players.

However, we would all want to work together to find more playing opportunities for those young players in the Premier League, playing in full stadiums, playing at the highest level.

And certainly the three governing bodies are working really hard behind the scenes to ensure that those greater opportunities are provided to players going forward.

SA: What is your advice for coaches at the youngest ages?

MATT CROCKER: Recognize the role that you play, because the impact you have on those young players is great at the grassroots level and determines whether the talented players you might have on the team either fall in love with the game or fall out of love with the game.

So, the biggest thing is make sure the players enjoy the experience. Give them loads of opportunity to practice, to be put in game situations and really enjoy being around the game. Be a facilitator to provide the players opportunities to practice and play games.

Expect the players to be enjoying touching the ball 90, 95 percent of the time across a session. Give them opportunities to learn through the environment you create rather than correcting all the time.

SA: What is the biggest mistake that coaches make at the youngest levels?

MATT CROCKER: Over-coaching. To act like that Premier League coach on the sidelines trying to solve all the tactical issues in games.

SA: What advice would you give to parents who want their children to excel in soccer?

MATT CROCKER: Be supportive. Don’t see the game through your eyes. It’s their childhood. You’ve had your opportunity to be a player. Be around to support, nourish, encourage, and also make sure you’re there to listen.

Being a parent myself, I’ve got three teenage boys, all of whom play football. I empathize during that car journey home when they’ve been a substitute or they haven’t had a particularly good game. That is the time they need you most. Just remember, whatever you’re feeling frustrated-wise, they’re probably feeling a hundred times worse, so be there to support them through the difficult times and encourage them that they can put things right in the next game or next training session.

That’s the good thing about football, you’re never more than a couple of days from another opportunity to play again.

26 comments about "Matt Crocker on English youth soccer revolution (SA September 2017 interview)".
  1. K Hakim, September 13, 2017 at 12:54 p.m.

    Winning at youth level is never a sign of how the senior team will do. New Zealand, Ghana, Turkey have all won World Youth Cups but how has that helped them win at senior level? This is the fundamental issue of how adults in the game fail to understand that at youth level it is ALL about the player, not the team. You have to develop a player who can play on any team, not a player that fits on just your team and system. Do you think Messi, Neymar, Coutinho, Suarez, Marcelo, Mbappe, etc, all came from youth teams that won all their leagues and tournaments? Of course not. If that was the case, agents would be crawling all over these team coaches to sign up all the players. It simply does not work that way. Puberty wins at youth level. But it is when puberty levels out and a kid has to play with the adults that you see the level of player you have. So winning at U17, U19, U20, U21, U23 levels is great for that coach and that team but it says nothing about the level of player you are developing at right back or striker, or center mid or wherever. In Brazil many of the world great full backs they produced were strikers as kids. But since Brazil had better strikers in the adult game they got switched to attacking full backs and we got to see world class attacking defenders who could score goals. This kind of article just demonstrates where governing bodies waste so much time and energy on team success instead of look at every individual and find ways to make each one more skilled on the ball. Then as their physical development reaches the adult level, they should be able to play and do well. But let's stop heralding youth team success and begin focusing on individual players becoming great.

  2. Bob Ashpole replied, April 24, 2023 at 11:17 p.m.

    Well said.

  3. Santiago 1314 replied, April 25, 2023 at 12:47 a.m.

    MC as Director checks most of the Boxes;
    We will know more about his "Vision" when he Picks A GM and Head Coach for the USXYT

  4. humble 1 replied, April 25, 2023 at 12:17 p.m.

    Not sure K Hakim will get these replys.  This article and it's comments are like opening a time capsule.  In 2017 - Ernie Stewart was still at Philly and US still had a chance to qualify for WC 2018.  Winning in youth soccer - how did this peice devolve to that - we might as well start a Messi vs. Ronaldo thread to go along with it.

  5. Jay Wall, September 13, 2017 at 1:21 p.m.

    Some EPL teams have also stepped up to improve the experience of youth players. For example, in 2015 Manchester United setup their "Football in the Community" program working with schools and local youth clubs for all ages in their footprint to promote a fun and successful introduction to football program in their community through the schools. "Manchester United’s Football in the Community Programme allows Manchester United to reach out to local communities, primary schools and grass roots football clubs throughout Greater Manchester and provide a safe, enjoyable structured programme with one key aim: fun. Football in the Community has two main areas of work; working with and forming relationships with schools throughout Greater Manchester and working with grassroots football clubs throughout the North West of England." See: >> This effort is not as extensive as the DBF nationwide program, established after Germany's failure in 2000, but is a significant step in the right direction.

  6. Jay Wall, September 13, 2017 at 1:25 p.m.

    The link to the Coaching Within Schools created by Manchester United is at:

  7. Bob Ashpole, September 13, 2017 at 1:33 p.m.

    K Hakim, you make good points. The only problem I see is that you assume that Matt Crocker and Mike Woitalla are focused on winning team competitions rather than player development merely because they mention youth team success.

  8. Ginger Peeler, September 13, 2017 at 3 p.m.

    Thank you, Mike, for an article that also reminds us that 10 years, even 20, of effort will not guarantee a World Cup winning team. The English have been at it for ages. We're still the fresh-faced new kids on the block. And we ARE getting better. But we still haven't even settled on a style of play. It will all come, no doubt with a lot of trial and error. Even if the team play hasn't been up to expectations, we have more depth of, at least, good, utilitarian players than we've ever had before. Those fans seeking perfection are advised to find another team to root for. The USMNT is a work in progress. We're getting closer to being a world class team every day. But we're not there yet. Rather than rant and rave yourself into an ulcer, either pick another team that more closely matches YOUR expectations, or take a deep breath, chill and enjoy the tiny advances we make as a team. Yes, there'll be stupefying lapses, but each mistake provides a teaching moment for the players on the field. Two steps forward, one step back. I love this team. I can remember when it consisted of mostly college players. Times have changed and we're improving. It's just not going to come overnight even if we are Americans from the US of A!

  9. R2 Dad, September 13, 2017 at 8:33 p.m.

    Even the English have been able to turn around their player development problems in 10 years (and no one would have ever guessed that). Shouldn't we be able to as well? Their problem is getting their top youth players into teams where they can get lots of minutes to continue their development, which is a problem we have as well. Yes we have been slowly improving, but MLS means our CONCACAF competitors are improving more than we are--we've actually gone backwards (relatively) since 2002. Maybe a new head of US Soccer can fix this by streamlining all the competing organizations/rules/tournaments to allow the cream to rise to the top in youth soccer?

  10. Fire Paul Gardner Now replied, September 14, 2017 at 12:53 p.m.

    We haven't gone backwards since 2002. There is more talent at all levels now than there was then. Admittedly, the full national team isn't reflecting that yet. The USMNT used to be more than the sum of its part whereas recently it has been less. I'm not sure that's a player development issue. You also forget that England is a country where football is far and away the #1 sport whereas in the US it is likely still #4. And finally, I'd hold off making any great conclusions based on this current England generation until we see what happens at senior level. England's performances at recent major tournaments have been poor.

  11. K Hakim, September 13, 2017 at 8:50 p.m.

    Bob, I'm not laying this on the writer. I am talking about a trickle down effect. The governing bodies of England and the USA are of the same ideology: Put together elitist youth programs and you get elite players for the adult level. It's fake news. It's ignorance. But it carries down to the grassroots youth coaches and parents who demand team results way before their kids have grown or even developed any level of ball control. In America it used to be about State Cup. Now that competition is a joke, now it is about team rankings and brackets in tournaments. None of this has anything to do with the skill level development of the players. A player does not become world class playing against warrior players every week. Forcing a player to play 1-2 touch to move the ball is not going to create a Neymar Mbappe or Messi. So putting together better athletes to compete in national leagues does not result in better players. It forces players to make more forced mistakes and fear. In development you have to have fun, enjoy the ball and express yourself. So defenders should be allowed to carry the ball forward and dribble opponents, just like a striker would. But coaches at academy level are telling kids to pass pass pass. Kids need a balance of hard and easy games. They need fun games and intense games. Every game does not need to be intense. A 10-0 game is just as important as a 1-0. You don't see Bayern Munich U16s play Barcelona U16s and PSG U16s and Man United U16 every week because 1) its' too expensive and 2) there is nothing to gain for players to develop freely. Kids need to be free with the ball not controlled and while many of the traits in the England DNA plan are good, I know for a fact the coaches are not letting these players play with freedom. They are still being told when to pass and where and so there are no new John Barnes, Paul Gasgoigne, Steve McManaman or Peter Beardsley coming out of these England U17-21 teams. That is the point. USDAs are no better than this nonsense. We have to see the whole concept flipped on its head and go back to kids being individuals first and play locally with their friends so they have fun being kids and enjoy the ball before they are put in U17-U18 teams to win. Bu they want these academy sets ups even younger. It's stupid and a route to failure again.

  12. Bob Ashpole replied, September 14, 2017 at 3:42 a.m.

    K Hakim, you have not been paying attention to what has been happening in England for the last several years. Mr. Crocker was brought in from Southampton to reform the FA's player development process. From what I can tell, Mr. Crocker (and Mike is doing his part as well) is part of a solution, not the problem. Why aren't you coaching too?

  13. Jay Wall, September 13, 2017 at 10:15 p.m.

    Interestingly in the United States the Sports Industry Foundation documents the sales of soccer gear, shoes, balls, goals, etc. for almost 8,000,000 youth soccer players in 2015 in the United States; and only half of those players are registered with U.S. Soccer. Actually the statistics are worse than that because uniforms, shoes and balls are being made in El Salvadore and other Central / South American nations and being sent over the border for sale to Hispanic teams not included in the Sports Industry Foundation numbers. / So we have a large number of youth players being developed by non U.S. Soccer certified and trained Coaches who learned the game in other nations and whose players prefer to play for them and for teams and in nations who play the way they play in Central and Latin America. These are players that very often don't play for American Clubs, Colleges or MLS . . . they want to play the skillful beautiful game. Look at the Bolivian League in our nations's capital for example with both adult teams and youth aspiring to play like the adults. Look at FIFA statistics which claims the United States has just over 4,000,000 players registered with U.S. Soccer and that there are approximately 20,000,000 players who are not registered with U.S. Soccer. In contrast, look at Germany with 6,300,000 registered players and only 10,000,000 unregistered players. / Our player pool and player development is fractured between U.S. Soccer and the programs they support; and an equal if not larger number who believe they can develop better, more skillful and creative players by following the examples of non-English speaking soccer powers like Brasil, Germany, Argentina, Switzerland, Poland, Portugal, Chile, Columbia, Belgium, France, Spain and Italy, who have all been extremely successful in developing players.

  14. frank schoon, September 14, 2017 at 9:44 a.m.

    You mean to tell me THIS is what the FA now stresses in coaching and developing of players, which to me is stuff you can read in a Dutch KNVB Coaching School soccer manuals going back 40 years ago. But worse, now you can imagine the damage that has been placed up on our US youth development by the influx of so many English coaches/trainers in the past 50years in US soccer; for the US soccer scene has been heavily influenced by the English coaches with their Neanderthal coaching techniques. I've always stated I wouldn't have an English coach come within 150ft. of one of my players. Just think what US soccer would look like today if it were heavily influenced by Brazilian, Dutch, Yugoslavian in the past 50 years. We are a country of individualism and creativeness, but we produce nothing but "stiffs" in soccer even our Hispanic contingency playing and learning here are de-
    neutered , displaying no where near of what we see of a typical South American player. Like K. Hakim ,I'm not impressed with their success of winning these youth tournaments. Realize the coaches who are now training come from the "old school" of English soccer and now, all of sudden, follow a new program of teaching when their background does not have any of this new so-called DNA. This is why Cruyff criticized the Dutch KNVB Coaching Academy for having coaches at the Academy who themselves have never played at a high level to teach the new coaches the game of "positioning". This is why Guardiola does so well with his teams for he learned from Cruyff how to teach the high level positional game that KNVB Academy coaching are unable to teach to the new coaches, for they have never played at high level themselves. I blame the leadership of the USSF for this glaring mistake of allowing a country like England, whose style of soccer is basically a joke, to have so much influence in our youth development in all those years.
    I wish somehow, we would go back to the "street soccer days' and apply the "ELEMENTS" of it i.e mixed ages, freedom of expression with the ball, playing on concrete and grass, different balls,etc up to the age of 14. If we can some how facilitate this within the soccer organizations, thereby precluding the need for licensed coaches who become facilitators in those formative years.

  15. Joe Wilson, September 14, 2017 at 12:09 p.m.

    Why does everyone have to write a novel in the comments on this site. There are no paragraph breaks...make your point quickly and stop droning on and on with your "soccer expertise".

  16. Mitch Mitchy, September 15, 2017 at 8:13 a.m.

    Blame The USSF, The English, The Daddy Coach etc...
    Unfortunately its us to blame The good ole US of A.
    We are obsessed with winning the championship at U8 post it on facebook and let all my friends know my sons on the greatest team ever. We are a country of American Football, find the biggest, fastest, strongest kids get them all on a team together and go out and kick ass. This doesn't allow for any development but... Its not changing in any of our lifetimes.

  17. frank schoon, September 15, 2017 at 9:22 a.m.

    Mitch, I agree that "winning' to me is dirty word when it comes to developing the youth. Here is the problem, if we get rid of "winning" as an element in youth soccer and work strictly on developing then the question is who do you rely upon developing our kids.....English coaches? and their philosophy of the game. I'd say certainly not and who is the blame for that USSF!
    The overal problem is getting the right people and philosophy to develop the youth, regardless if we employ "winning" as an element.

  18. Bob Ashpole replied, September 15, 2017 at 11:03 a.m.

    Agreed. IMO quality always depends on people, not just in coaching.

  19. frank schoon, September 15, 2017 at 11:43 a.m.

    Bob, teams tend to breed the feeling of winning. When I played street soccer we enjoyed playing ,doing the moves , beating people 1v1 , looking to see what the other kid did with a ball perhaps you can learn from ,score goals but we didn't come out every day with the thinking of we need to win. To win was more secondary to all the other things we were doing. Although we picked teams or sides, these teams were only for that particular day the next you were on a different team. In other words, teams ,actually, were a means to play not something you supported or were loyal to. So when I came home after playing, I didn't say to my parents ,we won ,but it was the playing we enjoyed. Kids today are directly and right away play for a team and try to make sure the TEAM wins. This is where it is going wrong. The only time the team was important ,for me, let us say, was when I played for Ajax on the weekend, but the rest of time it was playing

  20. Mitch Mitchy, September 15, 2017 at 1:02 p.m.

    Im not against winning, we just need more of a balance.
    Some select structured soccer but also playing in a team with friends with next to no subs and just playing.
    Lets let kids just be kids a little longer.
    You must build the LOVE first.

  21. cony konstin, April 24, 2023 at 11:45 a.m.

    The key to all of this if possible is to get winning and development to work hand in hand. 

  22. Bob Ashpole replied, April 24, 2023 at 11:24 p.m.

    Winning against peers does not come from development. I think instead of winning you need a philosophy like Tony DiCicco's that stresses playing over winning. "Playing hard, playing fair, playing to win, having fun." Other philosophies runs into motivation problems that this one avoids.

    Everyone cannot win a game, but everyone can have fun playing it.

  23. humble 1 replied, April 25, 2023 at 12:24 p.m.

    Winning is fine and normal in youth soccer - the key is it has to be in a conext that enables talent identification.  We do not have that here - and K Hakin ironically, 5 years ago explained why.  The development silos that exist here.  All over the USA young men and women drive by the their best local competition on the way to games further away - wasting time - time that could be used to develop - and wasting opportunity - to play the best local game.  Let me give you three silos at the top of the boys heap - I cannot use pyramid - as we do not have one - MLS Next - ECNL - USL Academy - these three leagues do not play one-another.  Even though ECNL and USL Academy share the registration platform run by US Club Soccer - the leagues are run independantly.  This is just at the top of the heap.  The lower you go - in age - the more bifurcated the youth system is - the further and the more games - players go by on the way to their games.  Montevideo Uruguay - they have a single boys pyramid - there - all the top players that came from Montevideo have been identified for the past 50 years.  Montevideo - is about the size of St. Louis.  Set this up in St. Louis - and see what you can do.  This is my beef.  Have nice day. 

  24. humble 1 replied, April 25, 2023 at 12:29 p.m.

    Little known fact - one of the reasons FC Dallas continues to produce top players - they actually have - a youth structure that is closer that most metro areas to a pyramid - not perfect - but somewhat formed - and the clever folks that set-up the FC Dallas Academy system - realized this - and - they embeded FC Dallas academy into the community - their stadium is shared with the local HS school system - and - their academy players - mostly - I believe - go to the local public schools.  Others have tried to copy - RGV Toros - RSL - and failed.  It is not easy.  Those guys - the ones that setup Dallas - they were sharp cookies.  Get the foundation right - and you get - a gift that keeps on giving.  Good day! 

  25. Bob Ashpole replied, April 25, 2023 at 4:30 p.m.

    Ironic that the competing leagues are behaving like "for profit" corporations in concentrating on the same affluent high density population areas ("markets"). All it would take to pave the way is one state organization to implement reforms in player development that were known 50 years ago--1970s best practices are still best practices.

    The ball is still round.

  26. humble 1 replied, April 29, 2023 at 12:28 p.m.

    So true.  Ball stil round.  What makes the Beautiful game beautiful - is - it's simplicity and low overhead.  How we turned this into mega-youth clubs - this is our real bottleneck to talent ID and development.  USSF sits on top of this pile of dung.  We need them to lead us out - to open back up the beautiful game - to everyone - not just large metro areas - and middle class - to rural and families with smaller pocketbooks - the way it was intended. 

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