Permit me a brief sermon on the old club vs country debate.

In practical terms, this ‘debate’ mostly involves the tricky politics of national call-ups putting popular club players at risk of injury or fatigue. But it has become a cultural issue as well, particularly in England where exasperation with the leaden, tabloid-selling nationalistic hype of the mens senior side has led to many domestic club supporters wishing their national team ill.

This a simple and probably simplistic way of cleaving these two great footballing institutions. For one, club football ultimately operates under the sanction of the national governing body, which is also responsible for oversight of the national team. In most countries, the strength of the domestic league depends on a strong national association which oversees player development and, ideally, helps to establish a clear pathway from the youth and amateur levels up through to the national team. In short, club needs country and country needs club.

There are some exceptions to this, of course. For example, the popularity of the Premier League and its ability to negotiate its own TV rights deals has allowed its member clubs to simply purchase the best international talent available, rather than rely on a domestic player pool, to compete. This has no doubt fueled the club vs country divide, as the importance of ‘England’ in the context of a globally popular league has arguably diminished.

Then there is Canada, where the three top tier professional teams play in a US-based domestic league that operates under the sanction of the USSF. Despite a small domestic player quota, the vast majority of these teams are comprised of foreign—mostly American—players, reducing the pressure for a strong national development program.

But in the rest of the world, clubs still rely on a strong national development program to help supply talent, which in turn helps to serve the national team, still the paragon of international footballing greatness in the eyes of most supporters. It is the passion for the national team that drives most nations to find more and better young players.

This search is no easy quest, and every international break or tournament provokes a familiar debate around some of the most difficult and tantalizing questions in all of football, questions like:

  • What should a nation do to develop the best footballers in the world?
  • How much should a nation spend on football development in order to succeed?
  • Does population or GDP play any role in helping to build a better national team?
  • Is a healthy domestic league absolutely necessary for national team success?
  • What is the best and most effective way to help develop the best soccer players on the planet?

The temptation has long been to try to answer these questions simply by pointing to a historically successful national team and urging other nations to follow their example. So, since Spain are kicking ass in international football at the moment and are providing a seemingly endless line of elite talent to the world, why don’t nations just do what Spain does? Why don’t all nations, heeding the advice of Spanish technical director Gines Melendez Sotos, have all 8-year-olds “…spend an hour doing exercises based on one-touch football played in tight spaces”?

The obvious answer is not all nations are like Spain. Learning from another nation’s success is a good thing, yet it must be done with very close attention to cultural, economic, and geographical context. For example, what is the role of the Big Two clubs in Spain in helping to supply players for the national team? Is it sustainable to stress a particular style of play at such a young level, particularly if tiki-taka falls out of tactical favour at the national team level (unlikely, I know)? Are there elements of Spanish player development that mesh well with Spanish sporting culture? And did this approach at the youth level come about with the recent rise of the national team in Spain? Or was it incidental? Can the Spanish experience be replicated in just any nation? How much of a role did Barcelona’s famed La Masia play in helping develop these players?

Prozone analyst Omar Chaudhuri raised this point a few days ago when he questioned the wisdom of looking to Belgium, with its recent crop of supremely talented senior players, as a potential model for England:

I think this is one area where the intelligent application of analytics by domestic football associations can do a world of potential good, particularly those that involve best practices in player development. At the very least intelligent analysis would, ideally, isolate those elements that are universal to the development of talented players regardless of specific context, leaving FAs to decide the best and regionally-specific means to implement them. It would cut out a lot of useless noise or unearth any clear missed opportunities.

It’s not as if there is no work being done along these lines already. For example, Blake Wooster (with help from Choudhuri) unearthed evidence this past April that England’s youth selection policy is still influenced by the Relative Age Effect (RAE). Wooster explains the concept:

Authors such as Matthew Syed, Malcolm Gladwell and Rasmus Ankersen have already done a great job at demonstrating how sport’s selectors have a tendency to pick teenage athletes whose birthdays occur in the first few months of a given sport season as they appear to be head and shoulders above the other emerging talent. Of course they normally are – because they’ve had more time to develop physically and technically. In other words we often confuse great talent with older talent.

Here you have a simple yet very real phenomenon which individual national associations could do work to help correct, with significant advantages to the domestic pool of talent. It can be used in conjunction with the existing sports science on the subject, science which drives existing development models like the Long Term Player Development plan here in Canada.

The important thing through all this however would be to avoid ‘data abuse’, and reach simple, overarching conclusions on limited information. This is why the analysis is much more important than the analytics, if you follow.

For example, there is some evidence that one-size-fits-all training regimens from a young age may not be the best means to develop elite players. Just fostering simple enjoyment of the game among kids could go much further to develop a strong national team than any “science-driven” five a side exercises. As ever, sometimes the best analytics simply prevents you from doing dumb or obviously counterproductive things, rather than the “right” things (if such a thing could exist in player development).

As Benjamin Alamar wisely put it in a post from last May (RT’d today on my timeline by the great Ravi Ramineni):

Most businesses, like most teams, have limited financial resources to spend on analytics. This constraint makes it vital for organizations to not just invest and “do analytics,” but to create a strategy for maximizing the return on their analytic investments. While there is no one strategy that works best for all organizations, any organization can be helped to make better decisions by having better information.

Surely the time has come to put national team angst aside in order to look at simple things nations might do to develop better players for a stronger national team.