Matt Scott: FA’s stats analysis is as flawed as its development

“Most of the harm in the world is done by good people, and not by accident, lapse, or omission. It is the result of their deliberate actions, long persevered in, which they hold to be motivated by high ideals toward virtuous ends.” Isabel Paterson, The God of the Machine

Since it first issued from its English womb on a centuries-long odyssey of global cultural conquest, the game of football has been like a scornful child towards its disdained parent. England still clutches to her bosom the distant memory of football’s singular, bounteous visit back home. The triumphant 1966 World Cup is held to the nation’s heart like a grieving parent cherishes a lock of hair taken as a keepsake from their departed offspring’s head.

England cannot win, will not win. That is the angst-ridden refrain that seizes Englishmen every other summer and the same, maudlin chorus of what once was will return this month and next as England prepares for what is the 24th international tournament since the Bobby Moore, Bobby Charlton and Gordon Banks generation won it in 1966.

The Quixotic nature of England’s biennial quest has now grown into an institutional neurosis. Hence the report last week of the Football Association Chairman’s Commission, which was launched last September with the words: “The biggest problem the England team faces going forward… quite simply is this: in the future it’s quite possible we won’t have enough players who are playing regularly at the highest level in this country or elsewhere in the world. As a result it could mean the England team are not able to compete seriously on the world stage.”

Now, quite apart from the fact that there has been precious little serious competition from English teams over the past 50 years anyhow (two failed international-tournament semi-finals have rendered England anything but a serious challenger and more like a bit of a joke), Dyke’s Commission does not deliver what it sets out to do.

What the report instead gives us is at times a sound body of statistical research as to the state of English-player development and then undermines it with a collection of misplaced inferences, dangerous extrapolations and catastrophic interventions as to why this is and what is to be done about it all.

The Commission correctly identifies that fewer Englishmen play in the English top division or the Champions League than representatives of other nations in their respective domestic competitions or in other top flights overseas. This is true and this is troubling. The FA assumes this is down to:

1. Inadequate competitive playing opportunities

2. Ineffective regulation of player transfers

3. The quality and impact of coaching and coach education

4. The quantity and quality of grassroots facilities.

The Commission says: “The difference in the development pathway between young English, Spanish and German players is best illustrated by comparing a cohort of equivalent quality players for each country. We tracked players who were selected for their nation’s team in the U19 European competitions between the period 2006 and 2008.”

Hm. What if these players were not in fact of “equivalent quality” at all, and the English crop instead were the poor cousins of their more cultured Spanish and German counterparts? Well it looks like history supports this rather fundamental point. In 2006 it was the hosts Spain who lifted the Under-19 trophy, the third time they had done so in five seasons. England? They failed to qualify even for the pre-tournament “elite round”. In 2007 Germany reached the semi-finals only to be knocked out by Greece, who lost in the final, again to Spain, who again were hosts. England? Only a marginal improvement on the previous year’s no-show as, despite qualification to the elite round, the Three Lions failed to make it to the finals tournament. In 2008 England did finally make it to a tournament finals, failing to emerge from the group stage. So too did Spain, that time, but Germany ended up winning it instead.

So what we can say is that, yes, these were the finest English exemplars of that generation’s crop of footballers. But the claim that they were “equivalent quality” to football’s finest practitioners of the same age in Spain and Germany is on closer scrutiny manifest nonsense. In fact, it turns out that it was not the opportunities for these footballers that were limited, as Dyke and his Commission would have you believe, but in fact it was the players themselves. They were limited. Too bad at the game to make it to a European Championship finals tournament for Under-19s. Is it any wonder they were largely unable to progress to the first teams of clubs in the world’s richest league?

The report unabashedly talks about Sky’s multibillion-pound investment in English football and the “unintended consequences” this has had for youth-player development, as if Sky’s money has been a bad thing for English players.

What unspeakable bilge. The point is all that money has permitted English clubs to recruit the world’s finest players. If those on Manchester United, Chelsea, Arsenal and Liverpool’s doorsteps have not been the best available in the world in their position, those clubs have looked further afield. This is far from an unintended consequence but presumably the desired outcome for English clubs and their Sky paymasters, all invested in the betterment of the English domestic league.

It is for the same reason that English clubs play in the world’s best stadiums. Those of the 1970s and 1980s that were the tragic backdrops to disasters like Hillsborough and the Bradford fire were unfit for purpose. So boards went out to get new ones. These line items, far more pressing to the day-to-day operation of Premier League clubs’ businesses than the throughput of todays’ eight-year-olds to the first team in 15-17 years, required a good deal of management time to deliver. It is hardly surprising that youth development atrophied by comparison.

And here is a very important point. It takes years to develop young players. Years. In 2006, that failure of an England Under-19 team was the product of a haphazard, century-old coaching system that had produced only two competitive senior England teams in 40 years (World Cup semi-finalists in 1990 and European Championship semi-finalists, at home, in 1996). Indeed, nine years before that Under-19 tournament began, England’s then technical director, Howard Wilkinson, had launched his Charter for Quality (CfQ), a radical new approach to youth coaching that would institute for the first time an academy system. It advocated a coaching pathway all the way from seven years old.

Now perhaps the CfQ had its flaws – undoubtedly it did, in fact. But those who joined the first academies in 2000 as seven-year-olds are today 21. The same generation, then, as Adam Lallana, Luke Shaw, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Jordan Henderson, Phil Jones, Raheem Sterling, Ross Barkley and Jack Wilshere: the crop on whom England’s current coach is pinning his World Cup hopes in Brazil next month.

One of the four “obstructions” enumerated by the FA as being to young English players’ detriment is coaching, though the Commission has deferred its findings in this area until a second iteration of the report to be released later this year. But it is to my mind a far more important factor in the paucity of available English players. Days before the last World Cup began in 2010 I revealed in my Digger column in the Guardian some depressing statistics for English eyes.

There have just not been enough good coaches in England. According to official UEFA statistics compiled in 2007, there were only 2,769 English coaches qualified to UEFA B, A or Pro level. In Spain there were 23,995, in Italy 29,420, Germany 34,970 and France 17,588. Given the popularity of football in England, where there were 2.25 million registered players in 2010, that meant one senior UEFA coach for every 812 players. In Germany the ratio was not 1:812 but 1:150. In France 1:96 and Italy 1:48. In Spain it was 1:17. Those nations have provided 11 of the 16 finalists in all World Cups and European Championships since 1998. England have not been among them.

So what of Wilkinson’s heirs? Why have they not coached the coaches? For this is surely a remit of the national association as the coaches’ licensor. Ask Sir Trevor Brooking, who for more than a decade has been the FA’s Director of Football Development (on a reported £350,000 a year). If England’s coaching infrastructure is failing then Dyke might be well advised to look closer to home for the culprits than those he choses.

The legacy of failure that has hamstrung England since 1966 lies in this: only now is the CfQ bearing fruit. And just as it does the FA’s own chairman is crying foul, demanding structural change to the English league system. For the report further sets out how to overcome its four “obstructions” with a number of radical proposals. The most eye-catching of these was the recommendation for a new league being inserted into the fourth tier of the football pyramid for the ‘B’ teams of the biggest, most established and successful Premier League sides.

One thing England can still boast as a tremendous success, despite its decades of international failure, is the depth of its football pyramid. The Football League Championship, a second-division tournament, is the fourth-most-attended league in Europe after the Bundesliga I, the Premier League and the Primera Liga. One of the lessons learned from the experience of Glasgow Rangers’ enforced relegation to the fourth tier in Scotland is that big clubs attract crowds wherever they go. But it does not follow that the inorganic development of a new team within a big club will create a similar level of support.

The Bundesliga already has just such a format for the ‘B’ teams of its biggest sides, as the report points out. Yet attendances for even a giant like Bayern Munich B, whose equivalent first-team gates average in excess of 70,000, are in the low-single-digit hundreds. They also routinely dole out heavy defeats against all comers. This is not a recipe for sound finances or for competitive balance.

Would it even assist the players who seem to be doing perfectly well through the academy system? (And you can add to the names of the recently announced England team those of outstanding young Welsh talents Gareth Bale and Aaron Ramsey as successful recent products of Football League clubs.) The answer is: probably not. Back in 2007 Les Reed, who succeeded Wilkinson at the FA, identified what he saw as the key flaw of the CfQ. He believes coaching should all have been geared towards developing ready-made products for the first team, not as it was towards success in organised league and cup competitions for the academies. “If development coaches are not winning matches they will be questioned about their ability,” said Reed. “Then you have a youth team based on results like the first team.”

Inserting our current young players into teams in the English league pyramid as the FA now recommends will create an extremely competitive environment for 18- to 21-year-old players. It will expose them to early injury risk, to a pressured, results-based environment. But will it develop their technical skills? That is at best questionable. Does Dyke’s commission assume English clubs would never select products of their own academies if only they were good enough? The texture of Hodgson’s most recent selection in the national team suggests not.

There are refinements from which English youth development could surely benefit, and perhaps the Elite Player Performance Plan, whose Under-21 League began for the first time in the 2012-13 season, might start to address these. But England’s current situation does not justify root-and-branch revolution of the English football pyramid.

Dyke certainly means well. It is probably fair to say he is “motivated by high ideals toward virtuous ends”. But to base the future strategy of the entire English league pyramid on the basis of extrapolations from flawed data analysis would be an appalling misstep. The best Englishmen can hope is that the 2014 World Cup proves a platform for England’s best current youngsters to show up the Dyke report’s central recommendation for the dangerous hogwash it is.

Journalist and broadcaster Matt Scott wrote the Digger column for The Guardian newspaper for five years and is now a columnist for Insideworldfootball. Contact him at moc.l1702075186labto1702075186ofdlr1702075186owedi1702075186sni@t1702075186tocs.1702075186ttam1702075186.