‘Would Messi still have been Messi?’ A lost generation of future footballers

ince players under the age 16 finally returned to academies in the last week, coaches have been watching for little signs that could mean a lot. Are their touches the same? Have players grown? Has that changed the way they play?

Due to the last lockdown rules – which aligned with the school restrictions – no players 15 or under had played a game since October, to go with the prolonged break from earlier in 2020.

The issue isn’t just one of wasted time or rustiness. It is one of lost time, and maybe lost opportunity. A generation of future footballers from the age of eight to 17 have had a crucial formative year taken out of their development. If a current 15-year-old happens to be one of those who – by quirk of genetics – would develop most at that age, there is the possibility they will never be the player they could have been. Some will go through their entire developmental phase having never played in an underage international tournament, given how competitions have been postponed. That would have been unthinkable for Phil Foden and many of Gareth Southgate’s current squad.

Martin Brock, chairman of the Junior Premier League, sums up the issue with a perceptive question.

“Would Lionel Messi have been Lionel Messi if you took a year out of his development? Do we get Diego Maradona if he couldn’t go out and play on the streets like he did as a kid?”

The biggest question is what this will do to the next generation of the game. Will the effects of the last year be visible across a streak of future players, a kind of football version of the K-Pg boundary where you can immediately tell who had their education during this period?

“I think it would be naive to think it’s not going to affect development,” says Danny Searle, who works in development with Aldershot Town. “Because a lot of kids will have missed almost a year of football.”

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Throughout the Covid crisis, elite football has naturally been concerned with the show going on, but what will the show of the future look like? Has enough attention been paid to the production line? Will it be the same quality? More pertinently, will scouts and coaches – and those who make the decisions on academy players – expect the same quality?

It should be stressed this isn’t to necessarily “blame” anyone. It is just an unprecedented situation that could yet have under-considered consequences. It is also a dilemma integral to every educational process.

“You can’t suddenly lose a year of school, and expect the kids to be ready for their GCSEs,” Brock adds. “You wouldn’t expect any kind of performer to lose a year of training, and then still be the same. You can’t. You’ve got to go back a year – but you can’t do that in football.”

As to what the exact effects will be, that has been the subject of considerable debate within coaching circles, as much because of the different way every individual child develops.

What is undeniably true is that every step of education is essential to the next step. It’s all interlinked.

“I’ve seen arguments that it’s not so bad if you’re 13 as opposed to if you’re eight, but another coach will say the opposite,” Brock explains. “I think everyone is losing a bit of football literacy.”

As a basic example, consider the following. One child who is technically brilliant may not have that amplified by a necessary appreciation for tactics, because Covid has interrupted the year in which that would usually be taught, while an instinctive reader of the game may have his budding career undercut because his technical training was broken.

It sums it up that it is perhaps the first steps – those first touches – that are the subject of most debate. If the “10,000 hours” theory has long been debunked, kids still need to play a lot just to get comfortable with a ball. That’s the fundamental foundation-stone of a career, from which everything else comes.

Here, under-10s have been denied hundreds of hours over the last year – both in training and PE, as well as just recreational play.

“It’s the ABCs, as we call them – agility, balance and co-ordination,” Brock says. “If you’re nine years old, you’ve lost a year of just running with a ball, kicking a ball, falling over a ball. So for some that can be the equivalent of losing two years. There’s a big worry.”

Nick Levett, head of coaching at UK Coaching, is one of many who take the opposite view.

“I’m not convinced the lack of ball-time is going to be the issue. What the Manchester United academy did with their kids during lockdown was say ‘just go and be a kid again, climb trees, play, don’t get hung up on football, football, football.’ The idea is the youngest kids get their touch and feel back pretty quick.”

Tony Mee, lead youth development coach at Doncaster Rovers, believes it’s simply about quality over quantity.

“The touches are important, but it can be a bit of a myth. With ball mastery, for example, kids doing toe-taps is a pretty limited exercise in terms of how you would use it in a game. Where the kids might have missed out is if they don’t have siblings or parents who can help with a bit of correction – but it’s really about using that technical ability within a game. It’s an area where some of them are going to be deficient.

“Obviously, even if you’re doing individual development stuff, skills practice, there’s nothing you can do that replicates the game.”

This is what has most been missing from the crisis for young footballers. Competitive games condition and hone talent, while fostering deeper understanding.

“In an academy environment, they’ve got a lot of individual skills that they can carry on refining all the way through their career, but to get that introduction into the 11-a-side game having played 5 v 5, 7 v 7 and 9 v 9 is really important,” Mee says.

It comes down to how a player is internally built up. They learn touches, then they learn to play in an area of the pitch within a structure, then learn more intricate tactical applications. Any disrupted step can distort the whole picture.

“One of the main focuses with 9 v 9 these days is about kids staying on the ball, encouraging dribbling, that sort of thing,” Mee explains. “There’s much less worrying about positions.

“You’re not looking to pigeon-hole them into one position, but to make them effective in an area of the pitch. So, someone may come out of the foundation phase into 11-a-side and they’re not a right-back or right-sided midfielder, but someone who plays in that area of the pitch.

“So there’s almost an argument to be made for those who would have gone to 11 v 11 either this year or next year to have another year of 9 v 9. In our case, it’s difficult because the one thing you can’t do is alter the clock.”

To illustrate the point, the next step from there is refining psychological understanding – knowing why and when to play in a certain way – but that is further complicated now by physical changes that have not been complemented by competitive games.

“Kids going through to under-14s, 15s, 16s, they’re being affected tactically and physically, because they’re not getting that top-level fitness after their growth spurts,” Brock says. “They’re hitting adolescence and they’re not getting a lot of football to develop their balance and co-ordination.”

Levett adds: “You have early maturers that might drop off if they’re not well rounded in psyche and everything else, and you might have little ones that have now caught up because they’ve had a massive growth spurt,” Levett adds. “But if the clubs are not aware of what’s going on, it’s quite a tricky time for those age groups.”

This, for Brock, raises an essential question for the future of the game and so many careers.

“Are clubs going to have to adjust expectations as to what they think a good academy player is?”

Levett wonders the same.

“If you get further down that pathway, and people external to you are making critical decisions about your future, there’s definitely an impact there, and we often find that some of the kids that really kick on at 14, 15, 16, they’re the ones we might miss because people make decisions and release them.

“You just hope that professional clubs are looking at it in a sensible way.”

It can also go the other way, where young players feel they have lost what they had.

“I know of one kid who was about to be offered a trial last March,” Brock explains. “In the first lockdown, he worked quite hard to keep his fitness up, doing all the Zoom sessions. He came back in July, and was a bit more out of shape, but kept it up. Then, when the second lockdown came in November, they just couldn’t keep him motivated. He felt he’d lost his chance.

“There’s a huge drop-off in that 15-to-16-year-old age group anyway, but this is just going to make it more pronounced, because I wonder if clubs will go ‘OK, they’ve lost that last year and a half, that finishing school for them. We won’t take any’, or just one or two superstars, and they won’t take a chance on any more. It worries me.”

There is a concern that will change, and limit, the very complexions of future professional careers.

“I think where it’s really paramount are under-16s – because they are players looking at going into a full-time – and at under-18, as some clubs are looking to trim squads. So these players might have looked to get a one-year pro contract, which is more or less a development deal, go and play under-23s football then go out on loan, but that option might not be available to them.”

“I think clubs are going to take the easiest option of taking the best, and won’t worry so much about developing those who might come through late,” Brock adds. “I guess the flip side of that is whether we see more Jamie Vardys, or – actually – are we never going to see a Jamie Vardy story from this period because these kids have lost too much time in football, and there are not going to be options.”

This may have tangible effects on what the game looks like, and affect its very variety of player. Of the 277 current Premier League players who went through the majority of their football formation in England, for example, only 86 came through the division’s academies.

The breakdown of Premier League player origin can be seen below. The numbers are taken from where players spent the majority of their formative years.

Premier League player origin

‘Big six’ academies: 50

Rest of Premier League: 36

Championship: 48

League One: 16

League Two: 14

Non-league: 12

France: 44

Spain: 28

Brazil: 23

Portugal: 22

Germany: 18

Netherlands: 16

36 other countries: 224

The variety of this alone could well be affected.

“I think the production line will always be there, it just might look different in future,” Mee argues. “The football seasons over this period – 2020-21 and maybe even 2021-22 – could look completely different from any other football season that ever existed. If players can’t get an opportunity at 14, 15 and particularly 16, clubs might decide next year they’re going to use boys already in their system, whatever effect that has on their under-18 programme for example. Previously, we [Doncaster] might have looked to recruit boys from London that were released by category-one clubs. Now, if clubs only recruit locally from within their system, there are added implications – not everybody has access to digs. There may well be a knock-on effect. Maybe players that were ignored get scouted locally at 19, 20, 21.”

This is another element. There may be unintended consequences, that also lead to unexpected positives.

“I think as you start to spread more through the ladder, there will be different effects,” Searle says. “If you look at the pool of talent in England at the moment, we’ve got a lot of riches. You only have to look at those in and around the England under-21s. It’s a credit to the players and the people who have worked with them. I’m confident with the level of coaches that are out there, these players can catch up.”

Elliott Massingam, a coach at West Brom, also strikes a hopeful note.

“Let’s take a group of nine-year-olds, from any club in the country, it may be five years time, when they’re under-14, and you can compare them to under-14 groups you’ve had in the past – then you might be able to tell the effect of all this.

“But kids are resilient, kids bounce back, I don’t think what’s gone on in the last 10 months or so is going to have a huge long-term effect on development.”

Time will tell, but time is also the issue.

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