“I can’t believe that in England they don’t teach young players to be multi-functional. To them it’s just about knowing one position and playing that position. To them, a striker is a striker and that’s it. For me, he is somebody who has to move, who has to cross, and who has to do this in a 4-4-2 or in a 4-3-3 or in a 3-5-2, each of which is different. I don’t think you should take a youngster, say, aged between fourteen and eighteen and only teach him to play 4-4-2. You have to teach him different systems, make him comfortable in all of them. Because what happens if later he has a manager who likes to play 4-5-1 or 3-5-2? What happens to him then?”
Whilst watching England’s fortunes in the recent European Under-19 Championships in Estonia, I kept returning to Jose Mourinho’s now-famous criticism of youth development in this country.
As Noel Blake shuffled his pack to suit each opponent, his young charges regularly found themselves playing in a different position to the one in which they’re previously operated. Many even changed around two or three times per match.
Nathaniel Chalobah was deployed as an attacking central midfielder and as a right-back, yet remains a centre-back by trade. Forward Harry Kane put in a man-of-the-match display against France as a central midfielder. Defenders Eric Dier and Jack Robinson could be found at centre-back and at full-back, whilst utility man John Lundstram was everywhere and anywhere he was needed.
When Mourinho made his assessment some six years ago, he was speaking honestly about his experiences not just with Chelsea but with what he saw from other clubs. He also may well have been right, but as we approach the end of another summer where the Three Lions were left wanting on the senior international stage again, we must recognise that progress is being made.
As surely as night follows day, an England national team ‘failure’ is greeted with cries of the need for reform and change, ideally from grass roots level upwards. Much of this is already in place and has been for some years. Change is being made, and it’s already bearing fruit at the very highest level.
Consider the squad Roy Hodgson took to Poland and Ukraine. Phil Jones, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Jordan Henderson and James Milner may not pull up many trees individually, but they are all positionally versatile and capable of helping the team out by ‘doing a job’ wherever required. Milner is an experienced 26 years old whilst the other trio remain very young and will grow into very good options for club and country for a long time to come.
Key contributors Glen Johnson, Wayne Rooney and Ashley Young have proven to be highly effective in roles away from their most familiar. England didn’t lose out in Euro 2012 because their players weren’t multi-functional; instead it was one of the team’s strengths.
Yes, it takes more than just the ability to seamlessly transition from one position to another to succeed, but it’s an important piece in the overall jigsaw.
I initially approached this subject as a Chelsea fan, having keenly noted the vast number of youngsters in the club’s academy who are very adept in these arts, but the longer I thought about it, the more it became obvious that every club is making massive strides.
It’s all too easy to be critical; to point at what’s being done wrong and bemoan problems. It’s harder to willingly praise an area which has previously been maligned. Whether England is up to standard in terms of producing tactically intelligent players who prove Mourinho wrong or not can be debated long into the night, but it’s fair to say that his argument holds far less water now than it ever has.