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Probably starting with Holland in the 70s, many nations have embarked on national soccer strategies. These strategies typically include:
- An overarching philosophy of how the game should be played. It has included possession soccer, counterattack soccer, prescribed tactics, player decision-making, certain systems of play, or a balanced approaches between skills, tactics, physical fitness, or mental training. Ultimately it is driven by how the governing body envisions the national teams (now from U15 to adult) to play, and play consistently. Regardless of a particular country’s vision, having one is a better than having none.
- A player development path starting with toddlers all the way to professionals. This typically includes development targets at various age levels. It addresses when and how skills should be developed, when tactics are introduced, when is full field 11 a side started, etc.
- A coach development program to ensure that coaches understand the vision and are training their players and teams in accordance with the vision and player development path.
- Professional club academies to ensure the best talents are honed and prepared for professional and national team play.
All of this has yielded positive results at youth tournaments and adult tournaments for some countries, and not for others. Germany, Spain, and Iceland are examples of success. Holland, the pioneer of national strategies, has struggled recently.
Up to the professional team level these national strategies work extremely well. Consistent player development at local clubs, regional select teams, and youth national teams ensures that players understand the requirements and are able to seemingly migrate to more competitive environments.
But once they enter the professional team academies, things may change. Now the club philosophy, which is based on competitive success and making money, takes over. It is dictated by technical directors and head coaches. These leadership positions, particularly head coaches, are quite often occupied by individuals from different countries. They have grown up in a system that could be quite different from that in the country they coach in. They may struggle with local players and often look to retrain them to comply with their vision. That is difficult. Or they buy players from their nations to have players that understand them better. This leads to a mix of players with totally different training and game philosophy backgrounds. I believe this is why some excellent players from one nation can’t get any traction under certain coaches at the club level.
National teams may also face a challenge. They are made up of players who grew up in the national system and understand the philosophy. But then they play on club teams and get retrained only to come to the national team and be expected to play what they learned in the first place. This is likely why some national teams (often with foreign coaches) struggle, even though they have excellent talent.
So what is the solution?
Having national programs of player, coach, and national team development is good and cannot be changed.
Pro clubs may need to rethink their strategies. Do I buy the best coaches and players and hope that they will retrain themselves to align with the club philosophy? Or do I
- align my club program with the national strategy
- hire coaches and technical directors that understand the national strategy
- focus on local national talent
- add select import talent who is intelligent and able to adapt their entire youth training to a new strategy quickly.
When you look at star-studded teams fail and “average” teams succeed, look behind the curtain at their strategies.
For national teams, coaches have to stay true to the nation’s vision and systems. They must rely on, or quickly retrain, their players’ ability to remember what they learned, regardless of how they are coached at the club level.