The robust debate about whether the A-League’s top-scoring n, Jamie Maclaren, is good enough for the Socceroos tells us everything about what’s wrong with player development. Who sees the wood for the trees?
Maclaren scores goals, and goalscoring is a skill. How you arrive at the ball, and what you do with it, in the nanosecond when the ‘chance’ usually arrives is what makes goalscorers the most precious commodity in the game. Not that you’d know it.
Listen to the commentariat, and the judgement about Maclaren is all about whether he can play in a ‘system’. Mark Viduka once famously said the only system he knew about was a hot-water system. In those days, strikers were measured by their goals. These days it seems they’re measured by their GPS.
What’s not in doubt is that Maclaren is a goal-poacher – 38 goals in 50 games since joining the Roar last season – and the national team needs goals. This is not so much about whether Maclaren deserves to be picked, it’s more about whether a player like him deserves to be picked. That’s the dilemma.
For decades, the philosophers have agonised about why struggles to produce players who can master the ball in the area where it counts – the goalscoring zone. Over the years, there have been a thousand theories, and almost as many re-calibrations of programs designed to manufacture these type of players. Truth is, there’s only one solution. Repetition. Which takes time.
Strangely enough, in the era of full-time professionalism, time to develop skills is seemingly in short supply. has made great strides tactically, but the technical revolution has been neglected. The key contributing factors to most goals – crossing, shooting and heading – are ancillary to game-based training in both junior and senior programs. You reap what you sow.
In my memory, no n player has ever hit a dead ball better than Con Boutsianis. In the A-League era, only Nebojsa Marinkovic comes close to his level of unerring consistency, but he’s a Serb. Boutsianis is passionate about re-focusing player development on goalscoring. He’s spent years fine-tuning a methodology so advanced its attracting huge interest from overseas. But in his own country he’s ignored.
Boustianis, and other former NSL players like Zlatko Nastevski and Peter Katholos, have been trying to convince clubs and elite programs to invest in specialist coaching, but the door usually gets shut in their face. A-League coaches aren’t inclined to engage specialist coaches, while the development curriculum also sidelines one-on-one skills training.
Boutsianis remains unequivocal. “With kids, we’re not teaching the fundamentals. That starts with a dead ball, that’s where you learn the mechanics. There are 20 ways to kick a ball. Once you get that sorted, you switch to a moving ball. That’s how you take the game from A to B. But we’re not asking the right questions about why our players struggle with the basic skills. Let’s stop the bullshit about possession, and start focusing on how to score goals.”
How? Ten to 12 hours per week training, building up to 50,000 touches of the ball. That’s the Boutsianis mantra. Incredibly, full-time pros in the A-League struggle to get to those benchmarks. Poignantly, there’s evidence that a growing number of them are getting frustrated by the rigidity of their training and have started to engage in secret one-on-one sessions to work on their skills.
A-League coaches often lament the poor technique they inherit, but few do much about it. Factor in their average weekly training schedule – recovery, rest, fitness sessions, defensive shape, offensive shape, 7v7, 8v8, 11v11 – and they’ll tell you there’s not much time left for crossing and finishing drills.
A good strength and conditioning coach will incorporate ball work in the warm-up, but it’s not the same. Indeed the same strength and conditioning coaches will often forbid players doing ‘extras’ after training because of the modern-day obsession with loading. Hitting too many dead balls risks soft-tissue injuries, so the story goes.
Like Boutsianis, former Central Coast Mariners coach Phil Moss believes the game needs to re-think it’s approach. And he’s seen the issues from the inside: “Individual skill, at the top level, is about execution under pressure. That’s what creates the exciting moments, the goals, we all want to see. But to get there, we need to change the system, the program. If we do that, if we create more time for specialist coaching, things will improve dramatically. I’m sure of that.”
And so we come to this. Forty years after the introduction of a coaching and development pathway, the game still lacks goalscorers, and there’s no sign the production line will be making up the deficit anytime soon. If you’ve screamed at the TV when a fullback puts a simple cross over the byline, or a striker shoots wildly over the bar from close range, you get the big picture.
Putting the ball in the net is as much about individual skill as collective effort. Perhaps more so. So instead of talking about what Maclaren can’t do, start talking about what he can do. Do that, and we start to identify the crux of the problem. The next step is to do something about it.