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  • Writer's pictureBFCN

Youth Football Comparisons Between Spain, England, Belgium, and USA

"The vision of the game of a soccer player is the ability to correctly see the space, the teammates' movements and opponents, and to choose the best option between several possibilities."


Many of us now equate football with taking pictures, and solving a series of problems. You look, you scan, you decide. Perhaps the master of this is Xavi Hernandez, although there are many to come through Barcelona who could also be considered masters.

I've said it for years, but if I could force kids to watch a football video, I'd have them strapped in, eyes glued open, watching this video. Copyright laws aren't allowing me to post it here. It's all about Xavi's passing and receiving. 8 Xavi Rules. Totally worth your time.


At the TOVO Institute, just a little up the road from me here in Barcelona, this is the model they use for the cognitive process.

Gather information - decipher information - decide upon an action - hide your intention - do the thing - gather feedback. Fairly simple, right? In order to develop top players, we have to create top problem solvers. Humans love solving problems (apart from racism, disease, war, poverty, inequality, sexism, homophobia, climate change - we allow these problems to continue as long as we're not the ones suffering from them). Many of our favourite activities require some kind of problem-solution type interaction. Football is no different. How can I keep the ball? How can I transfer the ball to a teammate in a better position? How can I move the opponent out of the way to create more space? We get brief moments of joy when we successfully navigate these little problems by applying useful solutions.


Create Problem Solvers

In order to create these top problem solvers, we need to provide them with lots of problems. Ha. Many might have expected me to suggest we need to provide them with lots of solutions. No. That's what they did to many of us in school; the regurgitation of facts. A little knowledge is great. Even more knowledge is greater. But it's how we apply that knowledge. We need to create situations for our players to experience that have to be rich in visual cues and situations that are present within the real game of football. Over time, players become quicker at gathering that information, deciphering that information, and start to make better decisions. They begin to become better at honing in on the specifics.

We've all seen pictures of Messi that look like this. Here's how it would look to us in that situation.

Here's how it looks to him.

Some of you may think that you can't train that sort of thing. It's just natural. I think that's utter bollocks. In what part of the human evolutionary process would any human develop the specific ability to successfully navigate a team of international quality defenders with a ball at their feet? Remember that ability is incredibly task specific. So, be a defeatist, and believe that you can't train it. Okay. But you can certainly put them in situations where they experience it. The more you do that, the better they will become at assessing problems, recognising solutions, and solving the situations posed to them.


As you can see, Messi has had a lot of relevant experience.

You get the idea. The point is, he's experienced this situation thousands of times.


This is why we need to utilise representative task design when creating our sessions. Will the players face the problems we want them to solve? Are the right angles, distances, opponents, "pictures" present in the activity? Through our constraints, we can manipulate the; space, task, equipment, and people.


Space: What is the shape/size of the area? Task: What are we asking them to do? How are we rewarding it?

Equipment: What size target, ball, or other pieces of equipment are we using?

People: What are the teams/numbers/abilities?

Not only is this useful for our practice design, but also something we should consider when playing games and making competitions. We've all complained for a long time about how goals are too big for kids, the pitches too long, the teams have too many players etc. Football in many countries, in the way they play it, too often rewards bigger, stronger, faster kids. Early developers, those who are blessed with early height, or tall genetics, tend to thrive in the games we create for them. Football looks more like cross country, and thus the training and selection process is moulded to reflect this. If our task constraints for official games reward height, strength, and speed, then that's what will determine our selection criteria and training objectives.


Youth Football Structures

We've all read a lot lately about the changes in youth development structures in Belgium and Germany, how they're going with smaller pitches and smaller teams. They are improving the ball:player ratio by making sure there are more interactions with the ball. This means more engagement, more interactions, and more repetitions. Then we see some of the more ridiculous stuff, like some of the lived experiences that keep me awake at night, such as U7s playing full field 11v11 in Mexico. I still shudder.


It's not that extreme everywhere. We're doing things better in England, and to their credit, the USSF has taken some positive strides in that sense. Yet for me, we should be doing even betterer. The team size should be age minus four. In that I think fifteen should be the age to play 11v11. At eleven, kids should be playing 7v7. And so on.


How a country shapes their youth development system will ultimately determine the quality and the depth of their high level players when they reach adulthood. Some football mad countries with large populations have always had moderate success because it's treated like a numbers game. We can afford to have an ineffective youth structure because we have millions of people, and they love football. Yet countries without that large resource of population size have been starting to outperform us. Consider the footballing successes of Croatia, Iceland, Belgium, and Uruguay, relative to say England, USA, and Mexico. In our large populations, we can afford to waste talent. It's okay that some kids become collateral damage of an ineffective system, because we have so many other kids, and changing our system is difficult and will take time. In those small countries, humans are scarce, and so they can't afford to be wasteful.


This is when I was genuinely shocked to see what goes on in Spain. Their kids play 7v7 from a young age, and stay at 7v7, before then making the jump to 11v11 at U14. Not only that, but the pitches and goals that most teams use are huge. So it would appear that Spain are wasting talent. How is this possible, and what does it look like?

And for comparison, here's Belgium.

What are some of the things we notice right away? For me, the Belgian game looks way more like football. There's more football actions, like passing, shooting, turning, dribbling, intercepting, tackling etc. The players have more repetitions at actually doing football type things. In the Spanish game, the goals and pitch size are more appropriate for adults, or older kids. It's the mistake of taking the adult game, and almost forcing the kids into it, rather than adapting and modifying football for a more appropriate experience for the kids.

Look at all that space not being used. The pitch is too big for the kids (or the team numbers are too small).

When we go to Belgium, we see less empty space. Football pitches still need space for counter attacks, sprints, running with the ball etc., but you see, if we make the pitch too big, then that's all the game becomes. The task constraints shape the behaviour. By making the pitch really big, we encourage and reward long ball football, which is more effectively played by taller and faster kids, which are typically found being born at the start of the year.


Constraints Affect Gameplay

We'll go through each constraint in more detail:

Big goals: If the goal is too big, scoring goals is as easy as kicking the ball high over the keeper's head. If you score goals, the behaviour or action took to score that goal is positively reinforced. Thus what happens is you get big kids, who have developed earlier, hitting hopeful shots over the flailing arms of keepers who can't touch the crossbar. When the keeper is a more appropriate size for the goal just a couple years down the line, what you find is the kid who scored bags of goals at U12 now suddenly can't find the back of the net at U16. That thirty yard toe punt no longer works. With smaller goals, players have to assess the situation before shooting, reading where the keeper is, and selecting the appropriate shot choice, while also disguising their intentions. Too big of a goal, and it is too easy to score, and less of that side of the game is developed. Teams also develop less intricate attacking play, because they don't need to get the ball so close to goal.

Seriously easy to score against this kid, right? And something I might do before or after a session if I need to feel better about myself, Michael Owen style.

This one is considerably more appropriate. The first example requires a bit of height and power to score. The second example requires power, finesse, accuracy, curl, disguise, and quite likely, it requires a team to work harder to create scoring opportunities.


Big pitches: Who can get the ball furthest up the pitch? Great! Hoof it that way every time it comes to you. If the pitch is too big, and there are too many players on the team for the correct developmental stage of the player, the quickest and most effective method to score is to boot it over the opposition defence. With too many teammates to combine with, and too many opponents to bypass, the ball is lost frequently. The younger the age group, the more transitional the game. Teams can't keep the ball, and then suddenly, the ball bounces out of the swarm to the right player, who launches it over the opposition, for the fast kid to run onto. Kids are often so far away from the ball that the switch off. Wingers and keepers can go long periods of time without any engagement. Or even worse, due to their desire to have the ball, they run over to it and reduce the space of their own teammates.


Big teams: Too many players means little involvement, or little interaction with the ball or the game in general. The ball:player ratio is so important. Imagine being five, and having to share the ball with ten or fifteen other kids. You're not going to touch it very often, and you're very quickly going to lose interest. The younger the player, the more key the ball is to their development. We make the mistake of making kids play on teams with too many players. Remember the rule of thumb; age minus four.


Big ball: Players must, must, must use appropriate sized balls. It must be proportionate to their body. For me, even if that means using size ones or twos, that's okay. You see some kids with footballs that are up to their knees. That's not football.

Morten Gamst Pedersen is easily one of the best footballers to have ever lived. He's up there with Pele and Maradona. If you disagree, you're wrong. Regardless, look at the size of the ball relative to his body. The picture below is a generic stock photo off Google for contrast.

Maybe not a real football photo, but it does adequately convey the point. We see this type of arrangement in parks and playgrounds across the world. How high would that boy need to lift his leg to do a stepover? That's a significant amount of movement, compared to an adult with the same ball.


For too long, we have made kids play versions of football that are too advanced for them. They are not developmentally appropriate. Tactically, technically, and physically, they are way out of their depth. Some survive, while the rest are collateral damage. With big football crazy populations, you can afford that collateral damage. Small countries like Belgium can't.


We waste time telling kids to spread out. Why not just have less kids on a team?


We waste time teaching U5s how to pass. Why not just play games that utilise their desire to run with the ball?


We waste time working on throw-ins. Why not just do kick-ins? Get the ball back into play quicker, improve their ability to restart play with quick restarts like in futsal, and then teach them the more complex idea of throw-ins later on when they are ready for it. Don't believe me? At your next youth game, have a look at two things regarding throw-ins; 1. How many of them are dodgy, or are outright foul throws? 2. What percentage are actually retained within two passes of the throw anyway?


We waste time and effort screaming instructions at kids. Why not break the game into four quarters? Coaches become way less shouty when they know they get several more teamtalks with their players. In these five minute breaks, the coach gets to give more precise, valuable information to the players. They can give feedback, make subs, paint pictures, and reassure players who are struggling.


We have keepers feel like they are wasted, becoming bored in goal. Why not play games of football, and employ styles of play, that make way more use out of the keeper? Rather than standing on the goal line, getting cold during the ten minutes between shots, bring the keeper out and get involved in the game.


We waste possession so much from goal kicks and free kicks. Due to pitches being really long, many teams and players feel the need to lump it down field to get it closer to the goal. Make the pitches shorter, and we take away the opportunities for players to simply hit and hope.


Another issue discussed here in Spain is that many coaches and league organisers know that the pitch dimensions are ridiculous. Even though the playing format is mandated by the federation, surely we don't have to endure 7v7 on a square shaped pitch? Think of the effect all that wide space has on the wingers. Balls don't have to be hit accurately. Wingers don't have to work hard to create space. They don't even have to dribble. With forty yards of space to run into, they just need to knock the ball ahead of them and accelerate. What is needed in these situations is more flexibility from the leagues and the participating teams. If the pitch is too wide, use cones to mark new touchlines. This isn't just a Spanish problem. It happens in many countries, where common sense is prohibited by the governing bodies.


When we look back at that Belgian game, it looks like futsal played on grass. The keepers are involved, the game restarts with kick-ins (I don't know if there's a four second limit, but the ball is back in play quickly regardless). There's more passing, and less kicking. All players get to dribble, shield, and turn. Every player is only one pass or dribble away from being able to shoot. The size of the goals require well placed shots in order to score.


So I asked the question; "Why is it, that despite a lot of these problems, Spain still has lots of success?"


The answer; "The power is in the training." I'd say that more Spanish coaches are more clued up than English coaches. And even though the match day formats are perhaps detrimental, or at least not conducive to the development of young players, the training and information received is still of a high quality. Possession based football, lots of rondos, from coaches who understand the technical and tactical detail of the game. And many of them get that two or three times per week.


This is fairly standard. In England, we have a clear line between academy and grassroots (despite the best efforts of some private academies out there). In Spain, the line is quite blurred. Barcelona's youth teams play in the local league, against local teams. Every town or village that has a senior men's team will have youth teams that compete in these same leagues. To try and make sense of that, I'm going to use examples from my neck of the woods. We'll make a combined Portsmouth and Southampton league. Here are the teams;


Structuring a League

Southampton

Portsmouth

Eastleigh

Havant & Waterlooville

Gosport Borough

Fareham Town

AFC Stoneham

Hamble Club

Sholing

AFC Totton

AFC Portchester

Locks Heath

Colden Common

Warsash Wasps

Hythe & Dibden

Moneyfields

Fleetlands

Romsey Town


The U16s of all those teams would be playing in the same leagues. Even though their senior men's teams are far apart in terms of league position and budget, their youth teams would at least all be competing together. Only a few of the clubs listed are professional. The vast majority don't pay their players. Southampton are in the Premier League. Yet their youth teams would compete against each other on weekends. Seems like a mad concept to us.


Spanish football stays very local, often within the city or the region. That's not to say that a team from Southampton wouldn't ever play a team from Manchester, or even Birmingham. It's more that for the vast majority of their football, apart from the occasional tournament or tour, they stay very local. It's due to their population density, which I will explore in another article.


There are two more components that make Spanish league structures a little different. In most cases, they're allowed often a maximum of three teams per age group. This prevents bigger, more successful teams from hoarding all the players. The popularity of FC Barcelona is such that they could have teams A-Z, because all the kids would want to play for them and wear Barcelona kit. In addition to this, in most cases, clubs aren't allowed more than one team per division. If so, the top division of any league would have Barcelona A, Barcelona B, and Barcelona C finishing first, second, and third. I'll draw an example.

The above is how an average age group in St. Louis, Missouri might look. The big four clubs of Missouri Rush, Lou Fusz Athletic, Scott Gallagher, and Sporting STL would dominate, often having multiple teams even in the same division. With our logical brains, we would assume that these were, for example Rush A, Rush B, Rush C etc. But they're not. It's an every man for himself type deal. The teams may wear the same kit and have the same name, but that's where the links stop. Many are run by hyper-competitive dad coaches, or fairly well paid ex high school and college players who have a reputation locally. There is no shared identity or philosophy, and no progression between teams. If I'm the "B team" coach, I won't ever suggest to the "A team" coach one or two of my players for them to have a look at, because losing those players would hurt my own team's chances of winning. We may be at the same club, but we don't work together. There is no A or B team.

Now I've coloured in those four teams that dominate STL soccer. You can start to imagine the effect this has. These big clubs are backed by millions of dollars. They own massive soccer complexes, and are therefore able to run large amounts of teams due to the economies of scale. It makes it very hard for small, independent clubs to compete. These massive clubs can afford to throw money at coaches, so they draw in the coaches with reputation and influence. This in turn brings the best players over. These clubs win the majority of trophies, not because they are the best teams, but because they bought the most lottery tickets.


Looking at my hypothetical division one above, you'll see that Rush have a 3/8 chance of winning that division. It's quite likely that it will be a Rush team that gets to post trophy photos on their Facebook page. This attracts more parents, because they want their kids to be on these winning teams. Even though most will say they don't care about winning, and they just want their kids to be happy, you can tell from where they spend their money, that this just isn't true. The teams at the top get ore players at their annual tryouts, and are able to strengthen yet again. From a money point of view, they can often have squads of eighteen players or greater at U13. Parents are happy to pay for their kids to sit on the bench of a winning team, because winning is all that matters. It makes a few thousand dollars extra, which you then multiply by boys and girls teams, from U6 to U18. Money talks.


With the fields being too long, the number of players being too high, and the goals being too tall, how do you win games? Pick tall goalkeepers, fast forwards and defenders, and players that can kick the ball far. It's a very simple formula. Clubs may as well reject kids not born in the first four months of the year before they even show up, and have a height bar like they do at the entrance to rollercoasters to turn away any kid too short. Then instead of actually doing anything football related for the tryout, just do a series of speed and endurance tests. Pick your players from those results.


Three teams per age group, and no teams from the same club per division prevents the St. Louis situation from happening. Clubs actually have to get good. The focus now becomes on developing players. What also helps the Spanish over the Americans is that Spanish clubs have somewhere for the kids to go. Spanish youth teams are part of pathways to senior teams that compete in an open system. American clubs often stop at U16 or U18, as their pathway is into college. With no open system (MLS is a closed league with no promotion or relegation) there are few amateur or semi pro teams around with a link from youth to senior. American clubs, therefore, make their money from registration fees. Since the kids will never play for their first team, they will never get the compensation, so they have to make money from the wallets of mom and dad.

This is how it would look if applied to my area on the South Coast. Obviously Portsmouth and Southampton would still dominate, but they wouldn't be able to hoover up all the players. In this format, the Eastleigh A team is a more attractive prospect than the Southampton B team. Even though Southampton are a Premier League club with a global presence, it would still allow lower league clubs like Eastleigh, Havant, and Gosport to prepare their kids against the best around. Unlike in St. Louis, where the top three Rush, Lou Fusz, Gallagher or Sporting teams are way more enticing than the top teams of other clubs.


The American argument here is that keeping Southampton and Portsmouth local stunts their growth. Well it certainly hasn't done that in Spain. Not only do the academy kids of professional teams live fairly normal, grounded lives when compared to their American counterparts, it has also raised the game of the teams locally. Raise the floor to raise the ceiling. Tough competition makes us stronger. Americans pay thousands to travel across the states so their kid can play twenty minutes of a seventy minute game. Kids lose their entire weekends for this, often travelling on planes and staying in hotels. If they play locally, they still get to do their homework, hang out with friends, and watch TV. They still get to be normal.


The majority of talented American kids that I met were some of the most stunted psychologically. They weren't living normal childhoods, and were missing out on so much, while pursuing these artificially scarce soccer development opportunities. With a bit of effort and more collaboration, Missouri teams wouldn't need to travel to Indiana or Ohio for games. The solutions to these problems run counter to most American ideologies.


Even though Spain gets a lot right, they could be better. There is still much collateral in the Spanish system. However, the football culture there is so strong, that they can do it badly, and the kids would still love it. The USA doesn't yet have this deep love for the game, meaning they can't be as wasteful as perhaps Spain is. Spanish kids watch football on TV, watch their local club in the stadiums, play with their friends in the street, take a ball to the beach with their family, and idolise their footballing heroes. Some American kids do this, but it is not the norm. They are outliers. They are not immersed in football like we are in England, Spain, and Belgium. What the USA has on their side is participation numbers.


Steps

So where does Spain get it wrong?

Too big too soon. The goals are too big, the numbers of players are too big, and the pitches are too wide. The 7v7 games are played on half of an adult 11v11 pitch, and typically look square shape. As a result, the formations and organisation of players always looks a bit off. It also doesn't sufficiently prepare players for the jump to 11v11, because there is nothing in between 7v7 and 11v11. Looking at the example above, Spain would be more like the red steps. Belgium is the blue steps, and England and USA are the white steps.


Belgium plays 5v5 for longer, which is great. The white steps are more preferable, because they are easy to manage for developing players. It's only a small, gradual increase every two years. In Spain, they go from 7v7 to 11v11, and this can act as a filter, eliminating less mature or less developed players. Fortunately for Spain, although not everyone is on the same page, they do value smaller players and possession football. This makes their players more skilful and intelligent. The Spanish immersion into football, with futsal goals in every school, playing in the streets, parks, beaches with their friends, and receiving decent training two or three times a week means that the Spanish kids are more resilient in regards to facing these big steps. Because they are intelligent, skilful, and love football, they can handle that 7v7 to 11v11 jump. It would be better for them if they didn't have to, but you see in this case, a strong football culture can overcome a bad football system.

A pathway like this makes a lot more sense. Players gradually progressing via smaller steps. Everybody is better for it. It's more inclusive of all players. It doesn't prevent us from moving players up if we need to.


When it comes to designing a youth soccer development system or pathway, here are a couple things we need to consider...

When I look at this, I see an appropriate sized keeper. There is room between the keeper's head and the crossbar, but the keeper can touch the bar.

This next one, by contrast, is ridiculous. It's much easier to score. Shots require less accuracy, technique, and decision making, and can be scored more liberally from hopeful efforts from greater distance.

In the first example, the keeper can cover most of the goal. Now, any strikers have to place their shots. Teams have to create high probability scoring chances, rather than sending it to the big kid and hoping something happens.

With the bigger goal, it doesn't matter too much what the keeper does. If you hit it high, you're scoring. This does not reinforce good shooting habits. But because we want to win games with our kids, we'll encourage the stronger players to shoot anyway, and just hope that the technique and decision making corrects itself further down the line.

This looks like a challenge, and you'd fancy the keeper to save it most of the time.

This looks really silly, and way too easy for the striker. You'd actually be upset if he missed.

What's changed here is the size of the ball. If the ball were bigger like this, think of how it would impact the player to strike it. A laces shot, driven shot, chipped shot, curved shot all become ineffective methods of shooting. You might as well toe punt it. Try and visualise for a second, putting yourself in the shoes of that kid taking the shot right now. You're not kicking it normally, are you.

Adding a more appropriate size for relevance, these side by side examples demonstrate the importance of ball size. Of course, the bigger ball is an exaggeration. I'm doing that to make the point, because it's easier for us to imagine kicking something the size of a beach ball. To young kids, playing with a size four or five before they're ready can also feel like that.