August 20, 2011


The Question: How long can Spain's football dynasty last?: The success and technical expertise of Spain's youth sides suggest the country will rule football for the next decade at least (Jonathan Wilson, 16 August 2011, The Guardian)

So what caused the decline? Domenech never seemed an easy fit for the job. The transition from a great generation to the next is never easy. There was, fairly evidently, a loss of hunger from the older, successful generation, and a sense of entitlement from younger players, born into an environment in which winning was the norm. But there was something also about the way the game was played that raised questions about Clairefontaine, something Matt Spiro explains in detail in issue two of The Blizzard.

There were suggestions that players were being picked for physical rather than technical qualities. The 5ft 7in Marvin Martin, who has impressed recently for the senior side, failed to get into Clairefontaine because he failed one test: the x-ray that predicts growth. As Spiro makes clear, it is slightly more complex than that, and Clairefontaine actually seems more open to small technical players than many of the club academies, but the whole race row that erupted in April had its roots in a discussion over whether French youth football was too focused on physicality. And although France have failed to reach the finals of three successive European Under-21 Championships, the performance of the Under-20 side in reaching the semi-finals of this World Cup suggests not too much is amiss (even if they were thumped 4-1 by Colombia in their opening game).

Still, the 5ft 7in detail resonates, given that is the height of Xavi Hernández, Andrés Iniesta, David Silva and Lionel Messi, the players who have guided Spain and/or Barcelona to world domination. Francisco Filho, the coach who was instrumental in establishing Clairefontaine before moving to Manchester United in 2001, is adamant that La Masia, the training facility that is the heart of Barcelona's youth system, follows similar principles to the French academies: drilling technique, playing constant small-sided games, having players train constantly with the ball rather than running laps or shuttles or working in the gym. The difference seems to be that it, and the Spanish game in general, is more prepared to give smaller players their chance. Seven of Spain's starting XI against Brazil in the Under-20 quarter-final were under 6ft.

It is a simplistic theory, but perhaps, particularly at youth level, smaller players have to think more than their larger opponents, and so they develop football intelligence earlier. (England, I note with a shudder, had the tallest squad at the Under-20 World Cup). Since the heyday of Clairefontaine, the offside rule has been radically liberalised, something that has had the effect of stretching the effective playing area from around 35-40 yards to around 60, creating more space and allowing smaller players to play.

And yet teams still try to play the offsides trap? Obviously defenses should switch to a system with two central defensive backs in front of the goal and two defensive midfielders in front of them. Because these players are going to be less mobile they can be bigger and as offenses are forced to play balls in from the wings, instead of making direct runs, the shrimps up forward will be useless against the defensive giants. This evolution is particularly well suited to Amnerica, which can easily field bigger and more physical players at both ends.

Posted by at August 20, 2011 7:00 AM

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