What few people know, however, is that Matt is also a qualified coach who has worked for professional academies and for whom writing about the game is a way of understanding it better.
Perhaps that is why he has written ‘The Way Forward’. But, more likely, it is an attempt to try and influence a system that - as seen this summer – seems to be failing at producing players who are good enough for the highest level. As he admits in this interview with Blueprint for Football, the aim is to “to give a comprehensive insight into the issues which have plagued English football in the past and the concerns of what is holding us back in the present and future.”
Yet Matt’s views make interesting reading for a wider audience then those who are interested in English football. “My objective as a coach is to develop coaches who are able to produce players with high technical excellence and strong tactical intelligence,” he says.
As with any good writer, his methodical and detailed analysis of any situation opens up to discussions and further thought about the issues. One might not always agree with what he says – or how he says it – but there’s no arguing that he is exhaustive in the way he goes about analysing the different arguments. And his views, such as those expressed in this interview, never fail to elicit a response.
How did you start writing about football, particularly about systems and styles of football?
Football tactics and systems have fascinated me for a long time yet there was no doubt that reading Inverting the Pyramid by Jonathon Wilson as well as being a daily visitor to zonalmarking.net got my passion for writing flowing. Before that I was a coach who would read and learn as much as possible.
The writing started after I attended the Uefa A licence course with Dick Bate in 2010, I was motivated to put down my thoughts and beliefs on the game and as you know, I am not unwilling to express my opinions or offer my thoughts.
As a coach I see the need to ‘know’ the game in terms of technical, tactical and psychological elements and writing The Whitehouse Address blog allows me to put down my thoughts in a clear way which aids my thinking towards coaching and player development.
What are your personal experiences of coaching?
Coaching is a real passion for me which I have had since I was teenager when I helped my dad coaching the young sides at my local club. At university I really got into coaching working with the university teams and a local youth team. From there I moved out to America and worked in Arizona.
In those early years I was keen learner and reader of everything to do with coaching and player development. This ‘self-learning’ certainly helped me put together my philosophy to football and developing players.
The major influences for me came when I returned to England started working with Coerver Coaching. This gave me a real insight and focus into the development of technical skills and how important it is for modern football.
As well as this I started on the Uefa A licence and learnt from one of the best coach educators in the world Dick Bate. This experience gave me such knowledge and insight into the game.
Working with a Premier League academy gave me the ability to learn and work from better players and coaches which again aided my development and took my coaching and understanding to new levels.
I would say these various experiences, levels and people I have encountered in my coaching ‘pathway’ has helped mould me as the coach I am today yet it is important for me that I am constantly learning and trying to improve what I am doing to become a better coach and teacher.
What is your coaching philosophy?
My philosophy as a youth development coach is to develop skilful and intelligent players who possess technical and tactical excellence both in and out of possession. My belief is that if you develop talented individuals who are masters of the ball and who are great in 1v1 situations then then you can create a strong and positive team.
I am a strong believer in developing game intelligence in players and therefore seek to put players in environments which promote decision making and problem solving.
As a coach I seek to encourage my teams to play out from the back and through the thirds with secure and confident possession with the aim to play positive, attacking football which incorporates individuality, skill, creativity and support play.
As well as this I put a strong emphasis on transition, using counter attack practices regularly to stress the importance of quick counter attacking play, along with promoting the understanding of defending in transition.
I am keen to stress the importance of defending and I make sure that defending is a key focus of the sessions and games which my players and teams partake in. I believe it is neglected by too many coaches, particularly in England which is hampering the development of top level players. Watching sides like Barcelona and Bayern teaches coaches that success comes from putting value into the defensive side of football as well as the attacking part.
Do you think England have one (a philosophy)?
English football was unfortunate to have two men in charge of the English FA in Allen Wade and Charles Hughes, men who had little understanding of the game of football and who used analytical judgements to create a philosophy of how English football should be played.
Both men dismissed teams who kept possession of the ball, believing they were playing the ‘wrong way’. As well as this they were not keen about players who possessed any kind of skill or creativity and believed in ‘functional’ players. This philosophy ruined English football for decades.
While Brazil, Holland and Argentina were winning trophies and developing players and teams who played with craft and skill, English football was becoming more barbaric and archaic. This was highlighted most in the early 1990’s under Graham Taylor, a major proponent of the Wade/Hughes philosophy.
Imagine the amount of English coaches who attended the FA courses between the 70’s and 90’s and the mentality they were being taught. It has been extremely difficult to change something which was so ingrained in our national game for so long. Of course the FA did not think to learn from Shankly, Paisley or Clough who were proving that keeping the ball on the floor was a successful style of playing the game.
Howard Wilkinson saw the errors of the FA and in 1997 sought to change things with his Charter for Quality. It made a change yet it was not the development of a national playing style, more an open invitation for the professional clubs to setup their own academies and develop players as they wished.
The past decade was therefore one lacking true guidance and leadership which is a reason why England is failing to produce a higher quantity of players capable of competing in the ever globalised world of football.
Although the FA came out with The Future Game document which outlines an ideal way of developing players and playing the game, it is a long way off seeing this implemented and taught to coaches, especially at the grassroots level. Unfortunately the coaching courses are failing to educate and persuade coaches of how to develop talented players, winning football is still seen as the priority and this is damaging future players.
Without a national playing style and philosophy English football at youth level is disjointed and fragmented. However we have to ask, can we trust the FA to implement a philosophy for the modern game? Would it not be better to look at what academies like Southampton and Arsenal are doing and seek to replicate their philosophy across the country instead?
What do you consider to be the biggest problem in England?
There is some excellent work going on all through the English game, at all levels. Yet there is clearly a problem in regards to English players breaking into the top levels of professional football. The issue appears to be that these players are lacking the necessary skills and ability which foreign players have at the ages of 15-18. Therefore the issue comes with what is happening before that.
In my opinion there is a multitude of issues which are having an effect on the development of talented footballers. Firstly I would argue that our young players are being let down by a lack of quality in sports at school, particularly in primary schools. The lack of quality teaching of P.E. is failing to develop children with good movement and mechanics which is being seen to effect the long term development of footballers.
As well as this grassroots clubs and academies are not doing enough to develop the skills of young players between 5-11 years old, key years in neural development. Personally I would like to see a greater number of young children playing futsal, whether in organised situations or even better, on their own in their local community. The ‘death’ of ‘street soccer’ has certainly affected the development of players because they don’t practice and play as much as young children in other countries, playing futsal can help increase those hours and enhance players skill on the ball.
Moving into academies and a key issue which needs improving is the quality of work being done between 12-16 years. Personally I believe the quality of ‘teaching’ is not good enough at this key development period and this is where players are being let down most. If this is the elite level then it must be considered ‘elite’, unfortunately there is a culture of mediocrity in this area which needs improving.
Finally I would argue that the players that are being recruited are not of the required level; a short term view on size and strength has seen a neglect of players with intelligence and importantly the correct ‘mentality’ which is needed to progress to be a professional. These areas and more are covered in my new book The Way Forward, which as you can see there is much to consider and improve on.
Why are some countries better at producing technical players than others?
As I mentioned above, the issue is that players are not playing as much as they should be in order to develop their skills in game situations. ‘Street soccer’ developed skill, decision making and competitiveness which happens very little now. The participation in futsal will aid the development of players too and it is up to the FA to create more centres which offer more children this opportunity.
As well as this is the level and knowledge of coaches working with players between 5-11 who are not developing technical skills in players but who are instead dismissing them! This culture of ‘skill destroyers’ needs to end, right now coaches are more concerned with winning than developing and this meaning that players are being told off for trying to use skill in games.
A need for better coaches of young players is vital, if we don’t get the foundation right how can we expect to produce players in the future?
Yet when you say ‘technical players’ then we cannot ignore the tactical element of being a good technician. You see England possesses some very good technical players yet very few intelligent decision makers. Game intelligence is something which many players lack and this is because too many sessions and coaches use isolated technical practices which do not seek to develop the intelligence and decisions of players.
The reason Spain and Brazil produce so many technically good, intelligent players is that they develop their skills in environments which promote decisions as well as ball handling. Both countries value futsal highly and this is no coincidence.
The development of game intelligence is required for English players to be better ‘technical players’ and this will require coaches putting players into game realistic environments which develops ‘smart’ decision makers.
There is a disconnect between the ages of 18 and 21 where players do not get enough games. What needs to be done?
Well as mentioned there is an argument to say our players at 16-17 simply aren’t good enough. However it is important to consider development up to 21, even 23 years of age. Therefore players who are denied the chance to play between 17-21 are stunting their development.
Unfortunately many Premier League sides are not willing to integrate their academy players into the senior set up and provide them with key experience and development. Instead these players stagnate in the youth side and fail to push on further. Of course the other issue is that clubs buy in foreign players at 16+ and often neglect the English players.
The solution to this problem has been sought to be addressed by the EPPP and the creation of the Under 21 league which will see players between 17-21 play regular ‘competitive’ football. This is important for their development and progression, especially because they will play in a similar way to the first team.
As Barcelona have shown the key to developing players is to provide consistency and continuity of style and philosophy so that the players learn the tactical element of the clubs style and system. Therefore the Under 21 league may provide this to more players.
Yet if we wish to see more English players coming through the academy system then it may be necessary to do what Germany have done and make sure there are at least 12 players in each academy side up to Under 21 who are eligible to play for England. At this time the ‘home-grown’ is too ambiguous and damaging to English player development. A change in this rule will limit the amount of foreign players clubs are allowed to bring in and would hopefully see more English players coming through.
A worrying trend however is that there are talented youth players at clubs like Chelsea, Arsenal and Man City who are not being given the ‘opportunity’ to progress. It would appear that moving to one of these clubs gives players a healthy wage yet denies them the opportunity for playing time and thus fails to push their development forward.
It may be necessary for players to leave these clubs between 17-21 and move to sides where they will get regular first team football. A player like Tom Ince, who moved from Liverpool at 19 years old has excelled while playing over 80 first team games for Blackpool in the Championship, his development has certainly excelled by moving.
How do you judge the level of coaching at academies?
As mentioned earlier, in my opinion the level of coaching in academies lacks the quality and teaching which players need to excel. An acceptance of mediocrity and lack of challenging practices, often which involves too many isolated technical sessions has resulted in low standards and the failure to develop intelligent players which the modern game needs.
A need for tactical education of position specific and team roles both in and out of possession will be required for academies to develop ‘elite’ level players. If these players are the ‘elite’ of English football then they must be treated like this.
Personally I believe that every coach working in Academies should have or be working towards the ‘A’ licence coaching qualification. The gap between the B licence and the A is significant and our young players deserve to be educated by the most educated coaches in the country.
If a player works with a poor and uneducated coach at any point during their development years it could have a serious impact on their future development, therefore Academies should be providing their players with the best teachers of the game.
This opens up the issue that if we want the ‘best’ working with our elite players, then clubs need to see the value in these coaches and start paying wages which reflect the quality of the coaches work. Too many talented coaches are leaving England to work abroad in North America, Qatar or Asia because the pay is much better. This cannot be the case if we wish to produce better players.
Is the FA doing enough to help coaches?
Personally I believe that the FA need to focus their efforts and resources on the grassroots game and develop a larger number of better coaches for young players in order to develop more talented and confident players who can move into the academy game possessing more skill and intelligence.
The focus for the FA should be on making sure the foundation levels have a higher number of quality coaches who in turn can develop a larger number of talented young players. The concern I have is that the Level 1 and 2 awards are of a poor standard and if the majority of English coaches only have these awards then they will be affecting the development of young players.
Yes the new youth modules show an improvement and coaches will certainly benefit from this but these are still not mandatory for coaches to ‘coach’ players and the truth is that the Level 1 and 2 courses are not good enough to give coaches licence to work with young players.
The FA has set up a coach mentor scheme and the hope is that these mentors will help work with coaches who require help and guidance yet the attendance of the courses will certainly aid coaches knowledge and delivery.
Yet if the FA wish to have a higher number of quality coaches working in the grassroots game they need to offer their courses at a lower rate and make the youth modu
les a mandatory part of being a coach. By increasing the level and quality of coaches across the country, English football can develop a higher number of talented players.
What can you tell us about your book?
In The Way Forward I aim to give a comprehensive insight into the issues which have plagued English football in the past and the concerns of what is holding us back in the present and future.
The book is split into four parts; part one discusses the ‘Golden Generation’ and their failings as well as the FA’s failed ‘direct football’ philosophy which was destructive for the future of English football.
Part two aims to give an extensive view of a player’s development between the ages of 5-21. My intention here was to look at what happens between a young players ‘career’ and assess the numerous factors which can aid or destroy the development of a potential professional player. I have discussed some of those factors already with you already and there is clearly much more work to be done from schools, grassroots, academies and the pro clubs.
In part three the book looks at the importance of ‘opportunity’ looking at how birth date has a massive bearing on the future of a young footballer. As well as this I look at the issue of scouting and talent identification in England and how this affecting the lack of quality players becoming professionals. As well as talent identification the book focuses on sport psychology and the development of mindset, highlighting that the neglect and ignorance of sport psychology is hampering the development of players.
In the final part I look at what the future holds for English football, putting particular focus on the FA and the new Technical Director Dan Ashworth and the importance of his role in shaping the future of English football.
The final chapter seeks to offer solutions to the issues and concerns brought up in the book. It is easy to criticise and blame people and I wanted to offer more, I wanted to lay down solutions to the issues holding English football back and the extensive list at the end is my belief in what is needed for English football to develop a large quantity of quality players.
Why should people read it?
Good question. In my opinion there is not a book which offers as comprehensive an analysis of the issues which are affecting English football as The Way Forward. It is a well-researched examination which has taken evidence from research, experts and the experiences and opinion of coaches and parents as well my own personal experiences and opinions.
Many may argue the book is controversial and highly critical of many areas in youth football yet I believe that it is a fair account of what is needed for England to improve standards and quality across all levels.
For those who read The Whitehouse Address blog they will know that I am passionate and opinionated and attempt to be thorough in my analysis. The Way Forward offers an even deeper and comprehensive analysis account of English youth development and I believe it is a must read for all coaches, parents and anyone with an interest in youth development, in England and abroad.
What's next for you?
The hope is the book makes an influence to coaches across the country and the need for improved standards and investment in youth development is made. As much as I have loved writing The Way Forward my love and passion is first and foremost to coach and improve players.
I am currently working with a number of individual players and coaches developing their skills and knowledge and this summer I have been recruited by a professional club to come in and instil a philosophy for their Academy which seeks to develop players a greater number of quality players for their first team.
My objective as a coach is to develop coaches who are able to produce players with high technical excellence and strong tactical intelligence. Through my coach education clinics I focus on these elements and seek to give coaches ideas which help improve their players.
Personally I wish to keep learning and improving as a coach and an educator of players and coaches. The love of learning is something I have always had and this will never stop.