Small is beautiful at Milton Keynes… and it could make us play like Brazil
Posted by Dean Holden at March 5th, 2013
by Martin Samuel, 6 February 2013
Considering that England play Brazil at Wembley tonight, it is fair to assume that this time tomorrow we may be crying. Why can’t we pass it like them? Why can’t we keep it like them? Why isn’t our game beautiful? It is a familiar wail. Boo-hoo-hoo, we want to be like you-hoo-hoo.
‘Better to light a candle than curse the darkness,’ said Peter Benenson, the founder of Amnesty International, except English football doesn’t think that way. ‘Stupid darkness,’ we mumble as more pedestrian thinking sends us down the latest blind alley.
There are men with candles out there, but we never seem to listen to them. Dan Micciche is the head of coaching at Milton Keynes Dons academy. It is not a job that allows a man to make headlines, but that doesn’t mean he has nothing to offer.
When Connor Furlong was called up to Scotland’s Under 15 squad last month, he became the eighth product of the MK Dons youth system to receive international recognition in the last two years. Dele Alli is the sole member of England’s Under 17 squad who is not on the books at a Premier League or Championship club. Giorgio Rasulo scored the only goal of the game as England’s Under 16 team defeated Scotland in the 2012 Victory Shield. Seyi Ojo went to Liverpool at 14 for a reported £1.5million. They must be doing something right. What they are doing, it seems, is evolving ideas. Micciche experiments with pitch sizes, with team numbers.
Not in any conventional way. Small areas, small teams, is the modern concept, and that alone is progress.
The days of a 10-year-old standing forlornly in the same size goal as Petr Cech, barely able to clear his penalty area with a goal-kick in ankle-deep mud, are thankfully over.
The Football Association has, at last, addressed the in-built flaws in youth football and we should feel the benefits over the next 10 years.
The popular wisdom favours small-sided games in tight spaces. The logic is irrefutable. Players get more touches, more shots, more runs and more scoring opportunities playing four versus four than 11 versus 11.
Their ball skills are improved by technical five-a-sides, rather than a war of attrition on a man’s size pitch that promotes only the most athletically dominant.
What Micciche is attempting is stage two. In the dome at Woughton Park worlds collide. Micciche has his Under 16 MK Dons team playing 11-a-side, but on a reduced pitch 60 yards long by 40 wide. He has cones on the touchline marking two invisible offside lines to compress play into the middle third. There is no time, there is no space. To survive in this game, you really have to be able to play.
An MK Dons kid is trapped on the near touchline, ball at his feet, two lads bearing down on him. He gets out of it with a lovely reverse pass.
‘You see, that, to me, is a goal,’ Micciche says. ‘At this age, you can swing your boot and the ball goes in, and everyone says “well done”. But it’s not necessarily progress, there’s no development. To see him do that, inside, I feel like we’ve scored, because he wouldn’t have tried it six months ago.’
Micciche, as his name suggests, grew up watching Serie A football on a giant satellite dish at home. Roberto Baggio was his man. He is not as steeped in the blood and thunder of English football as his contemporaries.
It is no surprise, either, that he started at Crystal Palace where John Cartwright was academy manager.
Cartwright, now retired, has been advocating variations of games played in tight spaces for a long time. From Palace, Micciche moved to Tottenham Hotspur working with Chris Ramsey before arriving at Milton Keynes under director of youth Mike Dove, who gave him a blank canvas.
There are five pitches of varying sizes at Woughton Park and academy players of all ages get to use every one. Team numbers vary, too. Each player gets a turn training and playing with boys between one and three years older, and all have a homework file with a list of improvements. The most radical thoughts, however, involve space.
‘A lot of coaches don’t like limiting the space,’ admits Micciche. ‘They think it looks messy. Sometimes it does because we’re asking a lot technically. You might not always get quality, but when you do it is the highest quality.
‘And when they go out onto a full-size pitch again, it feels as if they have got all the time in the world.’
We watched a game together. Milton Keynes Dons versus Forest School. Pitch dimensions of 60 x 40 yards, two quarters nine-a-side, two quarters 11-a-side to feel the difference.
Players who looked competent when the team numbers were reduced were suddenly tested as room on the pitch shrank. There was a surprising impact physically.
‘It speeds the game up, but players then need to hold off defenders because they haven’t the space to simply outrun them,’ Micciche explains. ‘Also, in order to work through a compact space, they will need to move their feet and body quickly.
‘The intensity is great so they need to react and think faster. It becomes exhausting, but it makes them clever at finding space.’
A shot rattles against a crossbar.
‘The game has shifted,’ Micciche continues. ‘Nobody gets the ball in splendid isolation any more. It’s like rush hour in midfield, you might get 20 players in 40 yards of space, and the defenders are as fast and athletic as the forwards.
‘We need to recreate what these players are going to face in the future.’
The last time Brazil visited England, in 2007, the performance of Kaka in the heart of the play stood out. No matter how many opponents surrounded him, he demanded the ball and his team-mates were happy to provide it. He always found a pass. Spain and Barcelona have that same quality.
‘We fail under pressure,’ Micciche adds. ‘That is a fundamental problem in English football. Once the game becomes tight, our approach lets us down.’
The first time Micciche tried out his theories, the opponents were a big Championship club. ‘It was an Under 12 game, a friendly, and I brought the dimensions of the pitch in, used smaller goals,’ he recalls. ‘We were 4-1 down at half-time and a couple of our kids were in tears.
‘I said that this type of football was going to ask different questions of them, that they had to think about how they would answer those questions.
‘We turned it around, and won in the second half. The next day they put in a complaint about us.’
Perhaps that is why as well as the standard league fixtures — MK Dons win some and lose some, like all academy teams — Micciche is happy to accept fixtures from stronger clubs, strong schools or even good men’s amateur teams.
‘It is important to play in as many types of football as possible, with and against players of different strengths and abilities,’ he says. ‘You need to challenge them all the time. Sometimes we won’t have as many players on the field as the opposition, or I’ll take my Under 16s to play a proper men’s team. People say, “you can’t do that” but they learn from it.’
It is possible that, after tonight, it will again be said that English footballers are inferior. That the technique of the Brazilians is a class away.
There will be analysis and much you will have heard before.
Too many foreign players in the Premier League, an absence of passion for international football. We could tuck it away in a file marked: The Usual.
So explain this. Increasingly, there are foreign coaches who have passed through the English game, like Gus Poyet at Brighton and Hove Albion or Roberto Martinez at Wigan Athletic.
And their teams play. Martinez is the father of modern Swansea City, Poyet has taken Brighton to the brink of the Championship play-off places.
Neither developed teams in the lower leagues that were stuffed full of foreign imports. They took local players and improved them technically.
Martinez signed Ashley Williams from Stockport County. Will Buckley, one of Brighton’s leading lights, came from Rochdale via Watford.
Martinez and Poyet encouraged bog standard Football League players to play a high quality game. So why can’t this be done in international football, with players of twice the ability? No doubt we’ll be asking those questions later.
Although if we did it earlier, the answers might be easier to find.