Back in 2012, the FA voted through a number of major changes to how youth football was structured in England, in order to place a greater emphasis on the development of technical skills rather than winning in the short-term.
Of the 778 votes cast in total, some 87% were in favour of youth teams playing in smaller-sided games, while using more compact pitches and goals that would help coach to impart technical skills.
Of course, this was part of more sweeping changes and the FA’s ‘England DNA Philosophy’, which ultimately sought to create winning Three Lions sides in the future. But what did this initiative entail, and has it delivered success in the subsequent 10 years?
What is the ‘England DNA Philosophy’?
‘England DNA’ refers to the coaching and development philosophy that was unveiled at St. George’s Park in 2012.
This was cultivated in line with then-England Under-21 head coach (and current manager) Gareth Southgate, director of elite development Dan Ashworth and coach Matt Crocker, with a view to establishing a cohesive playing philosophy across all age ranges and ultimately creating winning sides.
England DNA also provides a starting point and blueprint for the FA’s ongoing approach to elite player development, while it’s underpinned by five key elements. These can be explained as followed:
- Who We Are: This principle revolves around instilling pride in players who represent England at all age ranges, while teaching individuals about the heritage of the Three Lions’ side.
- How We Play: This focuses on the core playing style and philosophy associated with the England national side, which is characterised by the domination of possession and aggressive pressing (and counter-pressing).
- The Future England Player: A key tenant of England DNA, this talks about the strategic development of players and an increased focus on technical and tactical abilities. There’s also guidance given to core physical, psychological and social characteristics.
- How We Coach: This looks at how the above skills are identified and taught, while creating consistent guidelines for coaches and those charged with developing youth players.
- How We Support: Finally, this looks at the support and advice given to England players as they develop, from identifying potential performance improvements to providing the very latest in analysis, sports medicine and nutrition information.
Has This Proved Successful?
It’s interesting to note that 10 years have passed since these widespread coaching and development changes have been implemented, while the 2022 FIFA World Cup provided an insight into whether they’ve proved successful.
Well, England were beaten by France in the quarterfinals, in an all-too familiar defeat that featured a missed penalty, questionable and conservative substitutions (which is a weakness often ascribed to manager Southgate) and an ability to truly seize the initiative when the team was on top.
Despite this, however, and the absence of a winning England team, we’ve all witnessed genuine improvement and progression in the 10 years since England DNA was launched.
Certainly, recent England squads have been increasingly harmonious, while even younger players have sought to represent their country with genuine pride and professionalism.
At the same time, we’ve also seen the profile of younger England players change significantly. If we look at players like Bukayo Saka, James Maddison and the precocious Phil Foden, for example, these attacking players boast outstanding technical and dribbling skills, while they’ve enabled the Three Lions to gradually adapt their style of play over time.
While there’s more progress to be made here (England still struggle to maintain or dominate possession against Europe’s top sides), the improvements made to date have been steady and noticeable.
The Last Word
When France won an historic home World Cup in 1998, this came approximately 10 years after they’d implemented similar coaching changes at grassroots level.
The Three Lions have fallen short of this achievement, which is a slight disappointment given that the England DNA initiative was created in part to create winning teams at all age ranges.
However, we have seen more than one successful England youth side since the scheme was kick-started, while the presence of increasingly possession-based senior teams and technically adept players also suggests that the country’s coaching is progressing in the right direction.
At the same time, England’s senior side managed to reach a World Cup semi-final (2018) and European Championship final (2020) prior to their quarterfinal exit in Qatar, so they appear to be inching closer to the major tournament success that they desperately crave.