The Way Forward: Solutions to England's Football Failings

Talent Identification in Soccer

From the acclaimed bestseller:

The Way Forward: Solutions to England's Football Failings

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(From Chapter 16)

“If you don’t get the recruitment right the rest is a waste of time.” Brian Jones.

We just saw the importance of opportunity and a player’s birth date and how these two things could have a major impact on the future of a young player. It is therefore essential to assess the people (and methods) that form the bridge between the foundation levels and academy football – the ‘scouts’.

The key to finding the best talent comes from those men who travel around local parks on the weekends aiming to find the most talented players. The pro-academies have a large network of scouts who watch games and tournaments all over the country. The aim of these clubs is to identify the best individuals for their academies; to try to find players who have the potential to become a professional footballer. However, as this chapter will discuss, it is the ‘recruitment’ aspect which is preventing England from developing a higher number of quality players.

Soccer Books Newsletter Bennion Kearny

Experts or amateurs?

“In the majority of cases the key to a child’s footballing future has been turned by wild hunches, guesswork, and dare I say it, decisions made sometimes on the way a child may ‘look’. Is this good enough?” Peter Glynn, FA Skills coach.

Talent identification programmes usually examine and judge a player from watching them compete in a match, then assessing their performance. If the player is deemed ‘good enough’ they are invited to an academy for a six week ‘trial’. It is here where the players are judged against the level of the academy boys. Now it is not easy to identify all the small attributes and details that join together to make someone capable of becoming a professional footballer at the highest level. It takes an analytical and focused mind, with a disciplined personality, to watch the game as a professional scout.

Vaeyens et al. (2008) point out that the success rates of talent identification and development programmes have rarely been assessed and the validity of the models applied remains highly debated. They argue that talent identification and development programmes should be dynamic and interconnected taking into consideration ‘maturity status’ and the potential to develop rather than the exclusion of children at an early age.

So if talent identification needs to be improved in England what should we be looking for?


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Judging too early

We have spoken already about the issues of early specialisation and how it may actually be detrimental for talented players to go into ‘full time’ football coaching at an early age. Yet the battle to sign the best players has intensified into little more than an undignified scramble with clubs increasingly searching for younger and younger players. Academies fear that they will miss out to rival clubs and thus aim to sign players as young as possible. It has led to a scattergun approach to scouting.

>> Based on the type of players who are ‘recruited’ by scouts, it is evident that their approach is myopic and basic.

Can we seriously judge the potential of a player as a 9, 10 or even 11-year-old? Is it not just too early? Would it not be better if young players were allowed to progress at the grassroots level, to enjoy their sport at a young age – being able to take part in a wider variety of sports which has been seen to aid their development?

As witnessed in Chapter Ten there is a strong argument to be made for young children taking part in a multitude of sports – to enrich their multi-functional development. At 11+ players will possess more functionality, agility and speed than their specialised counterparts. And this is being seen in academies. At Under-12 and Under-14 levels, scouts are having to go in search of fresh players to make up for those already in the system who appear to lack good movement and speed. The fact they have been at the club since eight should be an indicator of the failing here.

Perhaps the best example of a ‘late’ addition to the academy system is Theo Walcott. Andy Ritchie, a youth coach at Southampton said that he hadn’t seen anything like him before. Walcott was 13 when he first experienced academy football; he scored a hat trick for Southampton in his first game versus Chelsea. From there it was a meteoric rise to professional football.

Yet perhaps the fact he came to academy football late was the reason he looked so ‘natural’. He only started playing football at 10 years old. As Walcott professes, “As a little kid, I wasn’t even interested in football.” What this example highlights is the potential benefit of players developing their all-round sporting prowess. Being recruited early and playing academy football at a young age prevents this.

>> By scouting players too early – are scouts and academies negatively affecting young players’ development?

The English academy premium

“At the club level [you must] have open-mindedness. You used to get all this stuff from the scouts, don’t bring me back a centre-half unless he’s 6ft 1in. That means [Carlos] Puyol [the captain] wouldn’t get a game for Barcelona.” Andy Roxburgh.

As well as scouting players at a young age, perhaps academies need to re-evaluate their approach and how they actually assess players. What are they looking for? This is a question which is starting to be asked more and more by coaches in the grassroots and academy game.

We have already discussed why certain players will be more physically developed than others (mainly due to their age in the school year) yet, to the chagrin of many coaches, too many scouts demonstrate little knowledge about this. Scouts’ failure to understand or appreciate relative age effect is a major issue and it is not being given enough attention.

As Tom Taiwo said in his interview with the Daily Mail “Not enough account is being taken of boys’ ‘peaks and troughs’, of differing rates of physical and emotional development.”

Now there are various factors which are important to understand and evaluate when identifying talent.

– Physical Factors

– Physiological Factors

– Sociological Factors

– Psychological Factors

Dr Mike Duncan, of Coventry University, believes that “Despite on-going attempts, science and practice has still not found a means to accurately identify talented individuals whether it be in a specific sport or another domain.” Yet when you see players who are brought in to academies on trial they most often possess the defining features of relative age effect: they are bigger, stronger and faster than many their age. Is it conceivable that scouts are simply recruiting the most ‘developed’ players – believing that they are more talented than their counterparts, some of whom (as we saw in the previous chapter) are almost a year younger? It appears so.

>> It seems that many scouts have been given the remit to find the biggest and strongest players on the pitch.

Let me give you an example. A young player of nine years old arrived at a local professional academy and impressed the coaches who worked with him. When one approached the assistant head scout they asked his opinion. His answer was worrying for England’s future; “His Dad’s not big enough,” was his response. Size really should not have any bearing on the player, especially one who played in an attacking role.

Yet perhaps the worst part of this story was that the player’s father was actually a professional footballer who had enjoyed an illustrious career in the Premier League and who had scored hundreds of goals during his time there. His size had not prevented him from becoming a top professional yet, according to this scout, his son would be judged on what his father looked like, more than what the young lad was capable of himself.

The ‘what if’ scenario is always interesting when we consider English coaching and recruitment. Imagine what some of the greats of football were like when they were younger and how the English ‘mentality’ would have affected their potential careers. Would Cruyff, Best, or Messi have made it out of the English system? Probably not. And why is this? Because England are looking for the wrong thing when they scout for ‘potential’. Let us see why Holland and Barcelona’s philosophies towards talent identification make their production systems so fruitful.

Holland is a small country with a small population yet is a giant in the game. The Dutch model of player development is arguably the best model of player development in the world. In his book, Beautiful Orange, David Winner talks of Dutch football being admired in all parts of the world and how their style requires high individual skill and intelligent combined team play. They have produced great players who possess creative skill and intelligence.

Players like Johann Cruyff, Dennis Bergkamp and Wesley Sneijder have all come through Ajax’s famed academy, so what do Ajax look for when scouting young players? They base their assessments of players on four aspects. They call it the TIPS code, an acronym for Technique, Intelligence, Personality and Speed.

Through the TIPS model of selection, the scouts and coaches at Ajax take the following into account when scouting and identifying talent: a player’s relationship with the ball, his temperament in competition, his intelligence, movement, understanding, his ability to learn, take on information and his attitude, listening skills, and his willingness to learn. Looking at this list makes you realise why Holland is constantly developing talented players.

Barcelona, who adopted the Ajax model of youth development several decades ago with the arrival of Rinus Michels and then Johann Cruyff, use the talent identification of TABS: Technique, Attitude, Balance and Speed.

The Barcelona and Ajax academies can be said to be the most productive and successful in world football, constantly producing players for the professional game. The adage of ‘what you put in is what you get out’ is precisely what talent identification and academies are proving. Ajax and Barcelona are scouting a particular type of player and reaping the rewards of it.

England’s failure to produce small players

Size isn’t everything in football. Players like Pele and Maradona were no giants, and over the past decade we have witnessed the rise of the ‘little man’ in football. With the success of Barcelona and players like Xavi, Iniesta and Lionel Messi – it can be shown that you don’t have to be tall to be successful. In fact these players have proven that being small is advantageous.

Over the past several seasons we have started to see a change in English football with the arrival of many smaller players. The lessons learnt from Barcelona and Spain with their quality of football and success has brought to England players like Carlos Tevez, Sergio Aguero, Eden Hazard, German player of the year Shinji Kagawa, and Spanish players Cesc Fabregas, Santi Cazorla, Juan Mata and David Silva.

>> The clichéd ‘not big enough’ mantra coming from academies and scouts is restricting the development of our own Xavis and Messis.

This is a positive sign that the English style and tactics are modernising and that the quality and type of player being sought is different to that of previous decades. Evidently English clubs, or at least their foreign coaches, have seen the importance of possessing the modern trequarista: the small, creative playmaker who enhances their attacking quality and creativity.

Ten years ago, you’d have said football was becoming a game for physical monsters, but the success of the little man has alerted many to the potential of these players. So why are these smaller players seemingly better in these positions? Well it has to do with the restricted space and time in the modern game. This has meant that players need to be excellent at finding and exploiting space as well as possessing first-class technical ability, poise and vision. The smaller player has proven to have these characteristics in abundance and have become essential for sides looking to bridge the gap between midfield and attack to unlock tight defences. Playmakers have become the most important players on the pitch and the ‘little man’ is proving to be the most capable in that role.

As the world of football has embraced the smaller players, only two ‘little men’ have been effective for English football in recent years and in both cases have been under-used or not used effectively for their national side. Paul Scholes and Joe Cole could have been very special players for England and yet were not deemed as important as Gerrard or Lampard in the ‘playmaker’ role. Both ended up being shunted to the left side of the team. England’s mentality towards ‘small’ players has proven damaging in the past decade yet perhaps the most concerning part is how small players are viewed in England’s youth academies.

England’s problem appears to be a mistrust of ‘small’ players. Without question the single most important change – which needs to happen in the majority of English clubs – is for them to dismiss the notion that ‘small’ players are less valuable than bigger players.

Arsenal appears to be one of the only English teams who favour technical ability over size. Wenger’s project has been in place at Arsenal for 15 years and working with Liam Brady, the academy manager, young players are being developed in a similar style to Barcelona’s. Changes in youth development often take a decade to see and this is the case at Arsenal. Jack Wilshere is the first world class product to come through the club’s academy, a true mark of what they can produce. Other academies need to understand the value this ‘type’ of player brings to a side and not dismiss them based solely on their height.

> If England wishes to compete with the top sides then our attack needs more creative ‘little men’ playing, which will allow England to be more creative in possession.


The gap between grassroots football and academy football is bridged by some of the most important people in the development of elite athletes – scouts. It is therefore shocking and nonsensical to have people with little or no understanding of the game, and children, to be scouting games and finding players. In England, ‘scouts’ are, for the most part, amateurs who have little knowledge of talent identification.

As this chapter highlights, English scouts are failing to see what is required in the modern game and are basing their opinions on players who possess size and strength over other more valuable capacities.

English football needs to change its approach to identifying talent and instead look towards characteristics of the modern game. Ajax have proven that their model of talent identification locates the talented players not for the short term but for the future. English scouting has a long way to go. And as the next chapter will discuss physical aspects should not be seen as important a focus. Scouts should be looking at what a player possesses ‘between the ears’.


An excerpt from

The Way Forward: Solutions to England's Football Failings