The Future of Football: Bleak or Blossoming
Luke Shaw is a 21 year old left-full back for Manchester United in the English Premier League. He signed a 4 year contract arriving from the famed Southampton youth movement in 2014 for a fee reported to be in the £30 million range.
Dogged by injuries and criticism of his heart and desire to succeed in the beautiful game, Shaw recently returned to the United squad to stinging criticism from Portugese manager Jose Mourinho,:
Deemed a footballing phenom from a young age, Shaw was destined to be the left-back successor to Ashely Cole in the England set-up. Unfortunately, he has not lived up to the billing and stands at number four or five in the pecking order.
The danger of being an raw athlete and neglecting the development of the actual asset that turns good to great, the brain, can be compared to a surgeon with amazing steadiness and stamina performing a procedure on a part of the body he has little understanding of – they're destined for failure.
Theo Walcott, the Arsenal speedster who was also acquired from the Southampton academy, has also been dogged by criticism about his football brain throughout his career. In 2010, England legend Chris Waddle slammed the then 20 year-old saying,
I personally disagree with the above, not because I believe Walcott does have a football brain, but rather because I don’t think he is a great footballer in the first place. He is a fantastic professional, incredibly genuine and possesses a threat to opposing teams through his speed alone but I don’t actually think his feet do what his brain wants them to. At times, his lack of coordination is painful to watch and this may lend fact to the premise that Walcott does actually have a football brain but lacks the talent and coordination to execute his desires.
Changing scope to youngsters that combine the talent and brain to exquisiteness I present Exhibit C, Dele Alli. Graeme Souness recently compared Alli to another young hopeful, Everton’s Ross Barkley saying,
Ross Barkley was tipped as England’s next hope as his raw athletic ability is second to none and he does have a high IQ of the game. The difference between Alli and Barkley lay in the development of their football brain. Alli has had the tutelage of one of the most revered young manager’s in the game, Mauricio Pochettino, while Barkley has played under David Moyes, Roberto Martinez and Ronald Koeman. There has been no consistency and until now, under Koeman, he hasn’t played under anyone who can legitimately hone into his mental footballing ability. Alli on the other hand has had an imperious football education and it has reaped the ultimate dividend in developing him into one of the best young players in the world.
We take the raw ability and technical nous of athletes and hone both of these competencies into an elaborate composition henceforth creating a specimen, in this case, a football specimen. Individuality does not breed success therefore the second phase of development is the integration of a team. I did not say the integration into a team but rather the integration of a team. We must not let a silo mentality swallow our ambition of success. No matter the difference in technical make-up of a football squad, a manager and their staff must integrate each and every player thereby developing them individually and collaboratively.
This is where Canada and to a degree, America has failed in the development of squads capable of scratching the surface of the World's elite. Despite the development of the American Men's National team, I do not class them in the same echelon as Brazil, Italy, Germany, France or Spain.
Where is the gap. We can pinpoint multiple barriers to achieve this standard of football such as culture, grassroots development, interest etc. but I want to focus on one specific, intellect. At times I feel as though we focus too much on the on-field technical development and physical growth of players rather than emphasizing the intellectual advancement. World class hockey players from Canada are created in abundance. From a young age they see, hear and breathe the greatest game on ice. Their intellectual development comes every Saturday evening on Hockey Night in Canada when listening to brilliant hockey minds discuss the game. In football, we struggle to cascade technical education to our budding stars. For example, I rarely watch football on TSN or Sportsnet and see the pundits freeze frame the screen to discuss certain peculiarities such as positional awareness of a player or a specific philosophy being embedded and expressed by a team. All I see and hear is video and discussion regarding is goals and saves.
I know many people in the BC soccer community with incredible football intelligence and thankfully, they are training our young players through their academies and football clubs. I have faith that we will see more players developing into intelligent champions of the game through coaching and/or playing. However, this needs to be supplemented by real analysis into the development techniques to create a generation(s) of footballers who can play and more importantly, understand and champion the game. Only then will a true footballing culture begin to embed itself into our country.