Will English football benefit from improved coaching methods?

Fulham FC

Before the excitement of the new season reaches its peak, English football could get a timely reminder of its limitations from the Italians.

Just 52 days ago, Andrea Pirlo orchestrated the midfield as the Azzurri beat England on penalties at Euro 2012. The good news for Roy Hodgson's side this time, as the two teams face each other in Switzerland on Wednesday, is that the veteran Juventus player will not be present.

His sublime performance starkly illustrated the gap in technique that still exists between English players and those at the very top of the world game.

The difference compared with England's 2010 World Cup exit, a 4-1 defeat by Germany, is that for the last two years the Football Association has been introducing a new style of coaching aimed at getting young kids to express themselves.

On a third generation pitch just off the bottom of Hyde Road in Manchester, a group of 34 coaches are taking their first steps on the Football Association's new youth modules.

The four-day course run by the Manchester FA is geared towards developing the right environment for five to 11-year-olds to learn the game.

Unlike the more traditional route through the FA's system, in this style of coaching kids are the focus, not the coach. Practices are technical, fun and give youngsters more "ownership".

"It feels like we have learnt how to coach rather than what to coach," says Luke Gibson, who is an FA level three academy coach at Bury FC.

In recognising the importance of developing skills over winning at all costs at youth level, the FA is tackling a long-standing issue.

Fulham academy director Huw Jennings, who previously worked as a youth development manager for the Premier League, says the importance of the right coaching at pre-teen level cannot be underestimated.

"Unless you have acquired those basic ball mastery skills by the age of 11, you are always going to be up against it," he told BBC Sport.

"Look at the number of English players, even in the Premier League, who only use one foot. That's because they have got into a learned pattern of behaviour which works for them. By the time they get to 25 they are not going to be trying new things."

Although the recent opening of St George's Park and important youth review reforms show the FA is in better shape, questions still remain regarding the governing body's reach.

The top end of English football is still in the clutches of Premier League and Football League clubs and, although coaches may take the FA youth modules, preventing the most talented trainers gravitating towards the first team is still an issue.

"If you go to some of the other European countries they place huge value on experts working with younger age groups," says the FA's national development for youth football Nick Levett. "It's a bit of a culture change for England to think there's nothing wrong with being the best under-10s coach in the country."

Given the cost and dedication needed to take a five-year-old through to the first team, perhaps it is understandable that clubs often look for shortcuts. Figures show that of 539 Premier League players last season, 270 British players came through academies. So why concentrate on getting the best coaches working with juniors when a talented player can be drafted in from elsewhere later on?

"Clubs traditionally have been varied in their approach because the business end of our programme has been around 18 years old," added Jennings, who has also worked at Southampton. "But for the long-term health of the game we need to ensure we are providing the best possible service for boys right the way down to the bottom of the food chain.

"Historically at Fulham, part-time coaches would have worked with five to 11-year-olds, but now we have three full-time coaches who work across all age groups and we pay part-time coaches according to their qualifications."

Even at Stoke City, where the first team's direct style does not fit in with the FA's philosophy of playing through the thirds of the pitch, they recognise that the club's youngsters need a rounded education.

Chairman Peter Coates describes the Potters' record of developing youth players as "average". But with the club's academy on course to receive category one status under the new Elite Player Performance Plan, which will boost contact time with players, he says they are redoubling their efforts, having spent £7m on a newly built training facility.

"We buy into getting good coaches working with younger players," he told BBC Sport. "What we are trying to do is replicate the old back street football where boys spent many hours honing their skills, but they did it amongst themselves.

"That disappeared, and the first to cotton on to a much more intensive development scheme were the Spanish and we are playing catch-up. We're trying to get the number of coaches and the number of hours youngsters play comparable to the best practice on the continent. I do believe that our young players are better technically than they were, but there is still some way to go."

Back in Manchester, the coaches are testing out their newly learned practices on each other as Manchester United academy coach Gary Sampson reflects on how his club values the younger players.

He admits the chances of replicating the class of 1992 are remote, when the likes of David Beckham, Paul Scholes, Gary Neville and Nicky Butt all came through the club's academy system.

But he believes that, despite the club's vast wealth in recruiting young foreign players, examples such as Danny Welbeck or Tom Cleverley show it can still produce home-grown favourites.

"At the end of the day, it's not just about getting them playing for Manchester United, it's about getting them a job in football," he said.

"Some of the stuff we have learnt on the course we do already, so it makes you think we are going in the right direction with the kids."

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