As young players advance in the game, it is important that they start learning game intelligence and combining this with technique. When they start playing at ages as young as 4 or 5 the more athletic and skillful players enjoy early success at simply running with the ball and going past players either with skillful moves or sheer speed and determination. They are too young at that age to think about sharing so their runs with the ball generally have two outcomes — they run into a mass of opposing players and lose the ball or they end up scoring a goal.
Unfortunately, due to the prevailing attitude of many well-intentioned coaches and parents, goal-scoring in this scenario is considered the only way to measure success on the soccer field, so it is rewarded and praised without proper attention being given to other technical aspects of the game.
Good technique is a base requirement but what will really determine how far our players will go will be their ability to consistently make the right choices and create solutions on the field.
Between the ages of 6-10 young players should learn and experience group behaviour. It is an important step for them socially to help others around them and accept being helped by others. During this stage of development they should also begin to understand sticking to assigned areas of the field and the importance of being rotated through different positions so that they begin to learn all aspects of the game. Again, within the model of measuring improvement solely via goal-scoring as described above, being assigned a defensive role on a team is often seen as a “punishment” or “a place to put weak players.” As coaches we need to fight against this.
Around the same age, however, we begin to see pronounced differences in the technical ability of players, and funnelling these players into more elite programs. Personally, I believe that this is too young, but certainly in North America it is at this age that young players begin to receive additional training and the first separation from their peers via the streaming process of “rep” and “select” takes place.
But what qualities do the world’s top clubs look for when evaluating young players? They generally begin to consider players as young as 7 but cannot invite them into formal training programs until the U9 level (that is, at the age of 8). Spain has been the leader in recent years with respect to youth development. During my trip to the top-flight Spanish club Sevilla FC in 2011 they confirmed that they look initially for good technique and pace.
They then look for young players who understand the game. On the field, are these kids looking around at all their options? Can they make intelligent runs into open space? Can they make correct choices when to dribble and when to combine with teammates? These same qualities are highly prized by our partner club in the UK, Wolves FC, although they will generally pay greater intention to the physical characteristics of players, as in England the physical demands on players are generally much higher than in Spain.
According to the English FA’s Technical Guide for Young Player Development — The Future Game, young players of the future will be required to release the ball accurately and instantly over a variety of distances using both feet and on any surface. A quality first touch will be critical as will the ability to operate successfully in congested areas with speed and precision. Retaining possession will be a key feature of play for Elite players and so will possessing the “craft” to disguise techniques and “out-smart” their direct opponents.
The ability to exchange passes quickly and accurately with teammates on a consistent basis will increase in importance as a player gets older, rather than repeatedly taking players on in 1v1 attacking situations. As players mature they will have to demonstrate their ability to decide what to do and when to do it within the demands of game situations.
If all of this sounds like too much “theory” just consider the success in recent years of the Spanish national men’s team —winners of the 2008 and 2012 European Championships and the 2010 World Cup. Every player on the team, regardless of his position, has a flawless first touch, knows how to move the ball quickly, makes sound, quick decisions in all phases of the game and is willing to combine all these qualities with his teammates to form a team that is the only one in soccer history to have won three major titles in a row.
Taking all these factors into consideration, we have put technique at the cornerstone of all our programs. Good technique is a base requirement but what will really determine how far our players will go will be their ability to consistently make the right choices and create solutions on the field.
A key reason I watch our Futsal games from the stands and watch video of the games is to evaluate how well the group and individual players are progressing with this. It can be an overlooked area of players’ development but it is a vital one. A combination of good technique and game intelligence can take our young players to higher levels of the game. I often tell the tale of Pep Guardiola being chosen for Barcelona — the club team that has supplied most of the players to the Spanish national side — as a skinny, slowish youngster because of his leadership qualities and game intelligence which far outweighed his speed and or other physical attributes at an early age.
Apparently his career in the game worked out rather well in the end!