"We'll start with the beep test, and then there'll be a two-mile run."
It took me less than 30 seconds of taking to the pitch at Enfield to realise that I had absolutely no business being there. Not only was it blisteringly hot in north London, but every time I glanced over my left shoulder I was reminded that I was standing in front of Tottenham Hotspur's academy wing. On one of their pitches. In front of a professional coach. At least I wasn't alone.
The trip to Enfield seemed to be something perilously approaching an afterthought. For Under Armour, my hosts in England, the big event was the kit unveiling, which had taken place a day prior in the bowels of London. That was the main media draw too -- dozens of journalists packed the crowded venue to see Gareth Bale, Michael Dawson et. al put on the footballing equivalent of a fashion show. The next day, there were a grand total of 11 of us, all decked out in Spurs training kits and huddled together beneath a blazing blue sky.
To say we were being put through our paces would be to take overstatement to hitherto unexplored peaks. Those of us who made the journey to Tottenham's new training grounds were there to learn about the academy, and, by extension, youth development in the Premier League, rather than to show off our footballing skills. We just happened to be learning through doing rather than watching.
English football has had a rough go of things over the past few seasons. The performances of the national team have fallen off from the relative peak of the early-mid 1990s, and the Premier League's indifferent performance in last season's Champions League has been seen by many as an indication of something approaching terminal decline.
That sort of talk is, of course, a monumental overreaction, the product of England's permanent nervousness over being rendered irrelevant rather than any real evidence of decay in the game. But that doesn't mean improvement isn't necessary. Premier League teams are in constant competition with both each other and Europe's best, and one of the most important elements of their work is to unearth and develop as much local talent as they can. If that's in alignment with what the public wants to see, so much the better.
The struggles of national team -- especially the England players' obvious technical and tactical inferiority -- means that far more attention is being paid to youth development these days than in the past. Teams like Tottenham are being charged with building a bright new future for the country through their academy system. There have been calls to replicate the Spanish system, using Barcelona's La Masia as a model in order to instill a more thoughtful (and, to some, more beautiful) game in the souls of England's youth.
By minute 15 of the 90 I'd end up spending on the Enfield pitch, youth development was pretty much the farthest thing from my mind. It seemed to me that the purpose of the academy isn't to produce better footballers but rather to punish me, personally, for having the gall to write about the sport. Although the threatened beep test had never materialised*, even the most gentle of warmups was enough to leave us in the unfortunate position of combining the dual tasks of gasping for breath while trying to look casual about it.
*It was probably a joke, but my theory is that our coach, Paul Griffiths, had looked at us and seen nightmarish visions of his guests strewn over a synthetic field in various stages of emesis.
To add insult to respiratory injury after a series of jogs, sprints, stretches and an exercise that involved alternating running like mad around a circle with bouncing like mad inside said circle, we were told that the routine we'd just completed was the standard warmup for children ages 6 or 7. There's nothing like being outdone by young children for one's self confidence.
The most important lesson of the early exercises was the reminder of just how mortal everyone involved was. It's easy to look at footballers, even youth players, as sporting machines, forged in the fires of training to become that bizarre class of celebrity whom we treat as athletic gods, their humanity stripped from them as part of the price they pay for their extraordinary talents.
But when you're out there, going through the same exercises (albeit significantly more incompetently) as professional footballers do multiple times a day, your view of talent becomes less about innate, supernatural ability and more about hard work and dedication, a far more healthy view of athletes. And when I say hard work, I mean hard. Training at a professional level looks rather easy until you're out there trying to do it yourself.
By minute 30, I was seriously considering death as an option. The drinks had been forgotten and were taking an inordinate amount of time to locate. Messily devouring my neighbour, a pleasant enough Asian chap whom biology told me was 80 percent water, was looking reasonably attractive by the time said drinks finally arrived; I made sure to select the 'UK' flavoured Powerade as a history-tinged tribute to my earlier plan.
Physical comfort is a world away on those pitches. Even if you're having fun, there's some part of your body woefully unhappy with what you're doing. The ability to do what footballers, even the youngsters, do day in and day out is staggering. They probably actually have to do the beep tests, too.
That Spain have something to teach the rest of the world, so far as football goes, is obvious, and Tottenham are hardly alone in attempting to learn as much as possible from the European and world champions. The academy is now playing a 4-3-3 system at all levels, focusing not just on keeping possession with passing triangles but giving the players as much time with the ball as possible.
The major benefit to technical proficiency is that it gives footballers more time to operate. Dribbling past the opposition at speed is flashy, but the real magic is in being able to extricate yourself under pressure and keep attacks moving. Being comfortable on the ball, especially in one-on-one situations, is often the difference between being forced to kill the attack by passing backwards and making that perfect pass despite being put under pressure.
More time on the ball during games means more one-on-one opportunities for Spurs youngsters, but the real work comes during training. Work without a football seems to have been pared down to the bare minimum; the stated target is that every player gets 1,000 touches of the ball in each 90-minute session. That's 5,000 per week for the younger players -- a footballer entering the academy can expect to have something close to a million touches of the football by the time they turn 11.
Paul had us go through a couple of exercises designed to encourage close control in chaotic situations, and succeeded in half of his goal. Intricate passing circles turned into messy scrums within seconds, which did not come as much of a surprise to anyone involved. It was increasingly obvious that none of us would be signed on after our trial, and we were then informed that we'd be skipping the rest of the technical drills because it was 'too hot and you probably just want to hit the ball in the goal anyway'.
It was fair enough. I certainly wasn't hoping for another 950-odd touches. At the rate we were going, that would have taken days.
There's plenty to be said in defence of traditional English football. It's hardly in favour at the moment, but creating chaos through raw athleticism and bloody-mindedness can win matches. Granted, it can also lose plenty of matches through a complete inability to control play, but combining ferocious, physical play with technical ability doesn't seem like a totally insane proposition.
It's strange to think about, but there's a serious tactical philosophy at the heart of 4-4-2. Football is currently obsessed with the transition game, with most coaches rightly pointing out that the moments after possession changes hands are the most important of all. But English football, brutal though it might be, is also predicated on transition.
The seconds after a move breaks down don't necessarily imply an attack-to-defence transition but rather one from order to chaos, and physical, reflexive, thoughtless football is built around exploiting that moment. It's a nihilistic philosophy of the sport, to be sure, but it's certainly a valid one.
And, more importantly, it's one that can be learned from. It's very well and good to play beautiful football when you're able to, but even the most structured, disciplined teams will see play break down several times a game. Why not train yourself to take advantage of that when it happens? After all, if you're pressed for time, it's easier to bully a defender out of the way and lash a shot goalward than looking up and trying to pick out the perfect pass, especially when said defender is doing his best to turn you upside down in the process.
All the same, I wasn't expecting to be told off for aiming.
Tottenham's departure from the continental is most obvious during shooting drills. Rather than a quick interchange of passes before a shot, the two strikers have to compete for the ball and shoot as soon as they have anything approximating a clear sight on goal -- while the other tries to stop them by any means necessary. There's no time to pick out a perfect shot, which translates to hitting the ball in the direction of the goal as hard as possible as soon as you find yourself with a fraction of a yard.
Imagining the same setup with actual footballers, it's easy to see how it would simulate (and stimulate) the madcap action that occurs in the 'red zone' of both penalty areas, from which the vast majority of the goals are scored. No matter how cerebral the team, they'll have to fight through this sort of situation at both ends of the pitch in almost every match.
And that's how we came to The Stoke Game.
I had been given a full kit for the training session, including what turned out to be a pair of very comfortable Under Armour Hydrastrike IIs, but I was left somewhat bemused by the lack of shin pads. I was told it wouldn't be a problem, that the training session would be fairly low-key. And so it proved for the first hour or so.
Then The Stoke Game started. It's a fairly simple idea; an extension of the messy shooting drill we'd been practicing for the previous 10 minutes. Two teams of six play in a tight space, with the ball lobbed in at random. Both sides are trying to control the ball and shoot as quickly as possible, and with no room to be found it's almost impossible to construct anything approximating coherent football.
Head tennis followed by flailing about was generally the order of the day. Naturally, the lack of shin pads came back to haunt me. I had committed a cardinal sin of The Stoke Game -- attempting to run with the ball. I skipped past one challenge, and was in the process of successfully navigating the second when my punishment arrived in the form of a studs-up, Shawcrossian tackle to my standing leg. It got nowhere near the ball, of course, but the general sentiment was that I deserved it for having the temerity to try to dribble, and The Stoke Game doesn't have fouls anyway. Truly, this is preparation for the Premier League.
Minor injuries aside, it was easy to see the intent. By forcing every player to fight and battle for possession (and there were a few stray elbows to go along with the crunching tackles), Tottenham instill their youngsters with a healthy appetite for physical play to go along with the technical and tactical attributes they teach elsewhere. It's not traditional English football, and it's not the Spanish model. The intent seems to be to take the best aspects of both.
Is it working? We won't know for some time. That's the nature of long-term, developmental projects. But building on the heritage of two footballing cultures makes perfect sense as the Premier League modernises. Celerity of thought combined with speed of action is what makes the perfect player, and seen in that light a fusion of the European and English models makes perfect sense.
Spurs are not alone in their quest to shape young men into elite footballers. While they work, so does the rest of the world, and, like Lewis Carroll's Red Queen, they're having to run just to keep up. It's difficult to imagine their approach being unique among the country's elite academies, but at the same time it's difficult to imagine anyone else significantly more invested in youth development either.
While the stated goal of the Academy is to get players into the first team, most of the youngsters won't make it that far. For me, though, the real purpose of youth development is to maximise the potential of everyone who comes through the system. Spurs players are being taught a modern footballing curriculum, and they're being taught well. The vast majority of them will, if they want to, have long careers at a high level even if they don't make the grade with Spurs -- and there'll be plenty who do make it.
For Tottenham and the club's charges, the future is very bright. And if the setup at Enfield is representative of what's going on around the country, we'll see the popular perception of youth development in English football reverse itself before very long.
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