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How England transformed its young footballers

After decades of disappointment, England revolutionized its youth development program. In 2017 the young Lions lifted world and European trophies. How did they do it? And can the changes translate to the senior team?

Last year, England’s young Lions surprised many observers by winning the under-20 World Cup undefeated, lifting the under-19 European Championships trophy and reaching its final and seminal with the under-17s and under-21s respectively.

It was the first time the Lions had won a youth world competition, and the youngsters’ success marked an uplifting change. “People cheered them on and their feat was displayed in the media,” says Luis Fernando Restrepo, a Direct TV sports journalist who’s been covering the Premier League since 1999. “But before the summer nobody believed in them.”

England haven’t won a major championship since the World Cup in 1966 and have only gone past the quarterfinals of the global tournament once since, in 1990. “People here laugh when talking about their football team. They say: ‘Oh we’re going to make fools of ourselves like always,’" says Restrepo. “Not even the players are motivated to compete.”

But since 2012, English players are following a long-term plan that's aimed at winning Qatar 2022. Last year’s results hint they’re on the right path.  

England’s new DNA

The FA came up with five key elements to enhance its training program: 1) Who we are:  “[It's] making sure the players have a passion for playing for England. We celebrate each individual story and bring it together for the team,” says Matt Crocker the FA’s Head of Coach and Player Development. 2) How we play: Determines the specific style all teams should have, from the under-15s to the senior team. 3) The future England player: Looking for players whose characteristics fit the team’s style. 4) How we coach: Sets consistent coaching methods, and a unified philosophy. 5) How we support: "Aligned and consistent support services: sport science, medical analysis, psychology development,” says Crocker.

UEFA EURO 2016 Achtelfinale England vs. Island (Reuters/K. Pfaffenbach)

England exited Euro 2016 to underdogs Iceland

 The Lions’ new DNA comes to life at St. George’s Park, the team’s state-of-the-art training ground, equipped with 13 football fields -one of which is a replica of Wembley Stadium’s -, a training gym, sport-science facilities and a Hilton Hotel. It opened in 2012 and became the symbol of the new program.

“Back in '88 France constructed Clairefontaine training center, where all its national football teams convene. Ten years later they won the World Cup. England’s plan is similar,” says Marcenaro “We didn’t try and reinvent the wheel,” says Crocker. “We learned lessons from Holland, Spain, France, Germany and also from other sports, whether it be British cycling, British hockey, or American football.”

Part of the plan is exposing players to as many championships as possible, so they step on to the senior scene with confidence. This has always been a sore topic in English football. Sixty-nine percent of Premier League players are foreign, which means young English players are falling through the cracks and playing for Championship (second tier), League One (third tier) and League Two (fourth tier) teams.

A chance in the Premier League?

Premier League coaches are starting to take notice of their homegrown players though. According to Tifo Football -a Youtube channel on English football-, this season 91 under-23 footballers played in the top flight. Among the Brits were Manchester City winger Raheem Sterling and Liverpool’s right back Trent Alexander-Arnold - who were both named in Gareth Southgate's senior World Cup squad on Wednesday - and Everton midfielder Tom Davies.

Indien Fußballer Rhian Brewster in Kolkata (Getty Images/AFP/D. Sarkar)

Rhian Brewster (of Liverpool) celebrates England's under-17 tournament win

In 2012 the Premier League introduced its Elite Player Performance Program (EPPP) “with the mission of producing more and better home-grown players,” says the Premier League’s Head of Youth Neil Saunders. “It promotes the empowerment of each individual player through a player-led approach.”

“It’s similar to what was done in Germany: a robust categorization system for academies,” says Crocker. “That basically means improvement of training facilities, full time qualified coaching and support services, full time player education so players combine football and education.” The EPPP increased the number of youth tournaments, and is meant to improve its quality. “Youth tournaments are short and lack in level,” says Restrepo.

Though more academy-grown players are getting a chance to play for their club’s first team, the numbers are still low. According to CIES Football Observatory between 2009-2017, 23.6 percent of Spain’s first league players were homegrown; in France it was 23.2 percent, in Germany 15.1, and in England 14.1.

“We’re mindful that we’re just at the beginning. One summer doesn’t make us hugely successful long term. It’s an indication that we’re on the right path. Until we’re consistently doing that across our development teams and into the senior team I don’t think we can truly class ourselves,” says Crocker. In Russia Crocker expects the senior team to have a good tournament, and for the young players among them to get more experience.  

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