On a brisk summer afternoon in Clissold Park in Hackney, east London, a group of boys aged seven and eight arrive for their first football trial.
Although most of the parents try to underplay it all, with ready smiles and encouraging words come what may, it is a big moment for the boys. At stake is a place in the new intake for the academy at their grassroots club, London Soccer Stars.
There are 35 boys invited for trial. Most have been at the club since the age of three or four, when they started out playing imaginative pirate games or racing car drills to make early ball coordination skills fun. By now the coaches know the players and their capabilities and in trying to form a well-rounded squad they face the same niggle that crops up every year. Midfield players? No problem. Attackers? Fine. Defenders? Hmmm. Not so straightforward. AK Miah, the head of the academy, estimates that out of the 35 contenders there are only two players who show natural defensive qualities.
The rest of the boys asked to play in defence would prefer to play further forward. It is an annual challenge. “We hardly ever get a player who comes over to you and says: ‘I am a defender,’” Miah explains. “It is difficult to teach a young defender how rewarding it is to get a clean sheet. The older they get the more they take pride in defending but for the majority of youngsters there is no big attraction in defending.”
There is a connection between this park scene and the apex of the English football pyramid, a modern idea of defending that has led to the shortage which sees Roy Hodgson select only three centre-backs in his European Championship squad. For all the England manager’s confidence in Eric Dier’s capacity to fill in and play at the heart of defence if necessary, it is obvious that going into a major tournament with three main central defensive options brings a high level of risk.
Although age and experience are not everything, there is a marked difference between the 2016 group of Gary Cahill, Chris Smalling, John Stones and Dier compared with 10 years ago when Rio Ferdinand, John Terry, Sol Campbell and Jamie Carragher went to the 2006 World Cup. The class of 2006 had an average age of 27.8 and the cap average between them was 41. The class of 2016 has an average age of 25 and cap average of 21.
The nature of defending has changed radically in recent years. Although the intentions are laudable, and it is difficult to be too critical of an attempt to create more polished ball players at the back, there has been a trade-off. Traditional defensive virtues are harder to come by than ever. Terry Burton, who has coached in the professional game for almost four decades and is using his expertise as a scout for Hodgson, does not think the balance is right.
“We have lost something,” he says. “There is a realisation today that we haven’t got rounded defenders who can defend first as a priority – which is still their main job. We have had a phase in youth development where we have been one‑eyed, only looking at the beautiful style the Spanish have been flagbearers of. While watching games I have heard a lot of coaches making similar observations of defenders. ‘He can’t head the ball. He’s marking on the wrong side. He doesn’t see the danger.’ A coach wants to see if you can anticipate, intercept, clear the box, read the game.
“Defending is a beautiful skill. I still see a good defender as being as pure as a good No10. But it has to be taught. It has to be practised.”
A couple of years ago at St George’s Park the Football Association unveiled a philosophy called “England DNA”, a culture that is supposed to underline all the work in developing international‑standard players across the age groups. According to its mission statement: “England teams aim to intelligently dominate possession selecting the right moments to progress the play and penetrate the opponent.”
From a defensive point of view, England DNA seems to aspire for style over solidity.
Recently the former Leicester City and Ipswich Town striker James Scowcroft, who coaches youth football, was at St George’s Park working on his Uefa A licence. He is concerned that the English game has veered too far away from some fundamentals. “In a lot of academies the art of defending is not encouraged as much as it once was,” he says. “There is a more technical emphasis. Defenders are expected to come out with the ball, to ask themselves: ‘What can I do with the ball?’
“The mentality has changed. Technical possession is the focus. There is a mindset of trying to produce a new culture of football and the art of defending is getting bypassed. You can’t afford to do that because there are two sides of football – when you have the ball and when you don’t have the ball. Both are equally important. A massive part of the game is being overlooked.
“Academy football is very possession‑based so defenders don’t get tested until adult football. By then it is alien to them, and at that point they don’t have time to learn.
“The likes of Tony Adams and Steve Bruce were not technically the greatest players in their teams but they were fantastic defenders. Do you think Tony Adams would be playing for Arsenal today? At 18 years old he was captain of Arsenal in the 1980s. Where would he be at 18 years old today in Arsenal’s system? Maybe on loan, maybe getting some experience in the lower leagues or playing in the under-21s, which is not so competitive. Would Arsène Wenger progress an 18-year-old Tony Adams today?”
That sharp question filters back down to grassroots. Sean Daly runs Focus Football, a club aimed at arming youngsters with the qualities to be placed at professional academies. Daly was previously the recruitment officer at Tottenham Hotspur overseeing the six-to-12 age group and a scout in Chelsea’s youth department. He observes how the fashion for a more technical style across player development in England sees more physical or combative players sidelined.
Daly says: “A lot of young children get released who possess those other qualities – willingness to tackle and bravery – in the quest for a No10.
“It is very difficult to make players brave. I have seen some players released because they are not technically tidy enough at young age groups and people are more reluctant to work harder with them to improve their technique compared to those more gifted players.”
A youngster with traditional defensive traits will often find themselves overlooked in favour of a more technical player asked to play at the back. That brings its own challenges.
“You have got to get a child to buy in to playing defence. Not many want to stand at the back and put their face in front of the ball to stop a goal, or can maintain concentration for long periods without the ball. Centre-back is not a sexy position any more. It’s complicated if you are looking at planning a pathway as not many children actually want to play there.”
The pathway some years down the road is also complicated. Scowcroft laments the difficulties for the age group coming out of academy football and trying to break into the first team at the elite level. He recently went to the Toulon under-21 tournament, which England won, but appreciates how hard it is for even the most talented defenders to earn the trust of Premier League managers. “At the top of the Premier League the top clubs have international strikers, some are world class, so it is very hard. It is a high‑risk league with big rewards. So to play a 19-year-old defender against a world‑class centre-forward is a gamble managers can’t easily take.”
The changing profile of what we look for in our centre-backs needs another assessment. “England do not possess dominating defenders in the style of a Terry Butcher or Tony Adams but you should never stop being yourself,” Scowcroft says. “England need to use those raw qualities as well. Leadership, playing with your heart on your sleeve, that is important in tandem with trying to play the ball out from the back.”
It will take a concerted effort to change the mindset at youth development level. But it is an effort from which English football would benefit, if not in time for France 2016 then for the future. Somewhere between a John Stones and a Chopper Harris cruncher of bones, the aim has to be for some defensive middle ground.
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010