Soccer talent identification – born to play a role?

By Chris Towlson @chrisptowlson

I am a Lecturer in Sports Coaching and Performance at the University of Hull. I have kindly been invited by the Football Collective to introduce a research article that I and my colleagues (Dr Andrew Garrett, Dr Stephen Cobley, Prof Adrian Midgley, Guy Parkin and Dr Ric Lovell) have published in the International Journal of Sports Medicine. For context, this study formed a chapter within a larger body of work (The Maturity related Physical Phenotypes of English, Elite Youth Soccer Players: Exploring the Elite Player Performance Plan) and it is hoped that this short conversational piece will initiate further debate surrounding young soccer player development and talent identification in the UK.

In a new era of professional soccer Financial Fair Play, many domestic soccer league governing bodies and professional clubs have invested and deployed varying programmes for player talent identification and development. Introduced by the English Premier League in 2011, the Elite Player Performance Plan (EPPP) was tasked with the broad aim to increase the efficiency of talent identification programmes within professional clubs in England, and help increase the number and quality of ‘home grown’ players capable playing at the highest standards. The EPPP has provided a co-ordinated service of Sports Science and Medicine provision, developing national protocols and minimum standards for youth player development throughout the ‘Foundation’ (U8 to U11), ‘Youth’ (U12 to U16) and ‘Professional’ (U17 to U21) stages of development.  Accordingly, each trimester of the soccer season, accredited soccer academies are required to monitor their players’ anthropometric and physical fitness characteristics relative to their individual stage of biological development (or maturity) and growth, in an effort to better track individual players’ development trajectories according to their playing position and benchmark against a national database. So, with the EPPP in mind, are the soccer stars of tomorrow born to play a certain playing position and are professional soccer clubs in England prematurely allocating playing positions of young players based on temporary physical development characteristics such as height and maturity?

Does timing of child conception matter… surely not?

In many team sports, talent selectors have been shown to systematically discriminate against children born in the latter months of the selection year (known as the relative age effect) in favour of players born earlier in the selection year who are often beneficiaries of enhanced maturity related anthropometric (taller and heavier) (known as the maturity selection hypothesis). This type of (sub)conscious selection policy/bias can often result in relatively older players being preferred for selection in to elite soccer academy institutions and exposed to more advance coaching at younger age. In general, the relative age effect phenomenon has been shown to be strong in the Foundation and Youth development phases of the EPPP in England. However, when broken down in to playing position there is no evidence to suggest that this phenomenon has any influence on elite youth soccer academy coach’s decision to player a child in a certain playing position throughout the EPPP.

Does size matter?

It is seemingly common for soccer coaches to naturally play their biggest and strongest players in integral team roles such as goalkeeper, central defence and striker (may be less so now?), with some encouraging these players to use their natural physical advantages in order to gain success during individual aerial duels and physical battles in match-play. Given this ‘tradition’ in playing position selection, it is unsurprising that even in the modern game, playing position attributes of young soccer players are often characterised by enhanced anthropometric (specifically stature) and some physical fitness traits often present pre- and circa-adolescence.  For example, boys selected for goalkeeper and central defensive roles are taller than their team-mates across the entire EPPP development pathway leading to senior team selection. Such examples are also accompanied by goalkeepers and central defenders’ players being advanced maturers in comparison to their team-mates throughout the EPPP. Suggesting that ‘yes’ size does matter for certain positions and it is often mediated by the players’ biological maturity. That said, I guess the bigger question here is… so what? Ultimately, coaches are still getting the best player for the position… aren’t they?

Let’s get physical

It is no secret that since the introduction of the lucrative Premier League in 1992, English soccer has become more physically intensive and demanding resulting in senior players developing increasingly specialised physical fitness profiles that complement the demands of specialised playing positions such as central and wide variants of the same general position. For example, central midfield players within the EPPP showed a tendency to be slower than their wide midfield team-mates in the U15-16 and U17-18 age groups. Likely suggesting that players within the EPPP development pathway are recipients of receiving specialised coaching and physical conditioning that may best prepare them for senior match-play. In addition, given the unique role of goalkeepers during match-play, it is somewhat surprising that only U12-13 goalkeepers in the EPPP displayed inferior running agility, slower sprint times and endurance capabilities than their outfield counterparts with differences diminishing throughout their development. However, although this plethora of playing position specific data generated by the EPPP is enlightening, it might be suggested that there is an absence to provide a central measure of ‘our’ young players technical ability and this is what matters most… right?

Admittedly, this article isn’t exhaustive and may even produce more questions than it answers and therefore hopefully sparks debate surrounding this area. However, it does provide some evidence to suggest that our young players are potentially ‘type-casted’ at a very young age (before complete maturity is achieved) to specialize in certain playing positions based on certain anthropometrical characteristics that mirror the characteristics of senior professional soccer players. In light of the evidence raised, it is urged that the systematic monitoring of players physical and anthropometrical characteristics are continued to better inform soccer academy (de)selection policy, so that temporary body size advantages do not result in potentially inaccurate and premature selection of positional roles. On a personal note, it is of great personal reassurance to see more and more academic researchers and academy practitioners are engaging in more collaborative research projects and conversation platforms (such as the Football Collective) that will inform current and future talent selection and development practice.

You can read more about Chris and his research here. 

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