Measuring a Football Nation From Grassroots
You can learn a lot about the quality of a football nation by watching their top league as it is often the ability ceiling for players in that nation. The top level is where the best players in that nation play, therefore, this is how we might evaluate a nation and their ability to produce players. However, what if we judged a nation and their ability to produce players by watching their lowest level? What can we learn about a country by watching their semi-professional and amateur leagues? Let me explain.
I will use the four categories that I use when evaluating any league or player:
Using these categories, I will explain what to look for when evaluating players in the semi-professional league.
Technical ability is probably the easiest for people to see as it’s evaluating players when they have the ball — they’re the center of attention. Semi-professional players have incredible technical ability. I encourage you to go watch your local semi-professional or amateur team and see for yourself. The best time to see their ability is when the players are warming up as this is often unopposed ball control, where the players are most relaxed. It isn’t until the game begins that their technical ability is questioned because the pressure of the game itself is real, and having a player chasing you is daunting.
When judging technical ability at first glance, I look at four things:
- Ball carrying/dribbling
For the sake of time we’ll just use passing as an example. Here’s what I look for when evaluating a player and their passing ability:
- Are the passes floating? Low to the ground? Driven? Are the laces used or are the players using a side of their foot?
- How far are the passes going? How fast are the passes going?
- Can the player(s) perform several types of passes?
After identifying the types of passes we can judge the quality:
- Are they over hit or under hit?
- How often does the player complete the pass?
Semi-professional players have the ability to perform different types of passes, for example. They know how to do it and you can see it for yourself. Semi-professional players are often the academy players that don’t make it pro, and less often are they just a barfly who likes to kick people as much as they do the ball (although this style of player does exist.)
When evaluating passing as a skill, we are not looking at the outcome. We are looking to see if the player is performing the action correctly. For example, poor decision making may make someone look like a bad passer, when decision making is a different skill itself. A semi-professional player may look like a bad passer because their decision making is poor, thus making the semi-professional player look like a poor player.
If you find that the passing quality of a semi-professional player is good, and that the player is able to execute several different types of passes, this should tell you that the technical skill floor of the nation is good, and that the coaching at youth level in the nation is decent to good.
If we compare the technical ability at semi-professional level to that of the top flight league in the nation, we’ll find that the biggest difference is that top flight players can show excellent technical ability while under pressure. Being able to perform at a high technical level under pressure — in game, is the difference between semi-professional and professional players.
It can be difficult to measure the tactical understanding of a player because they have to do what is asked of them, so their skill set may not be best suited to how they’re being asked to play. So when evaluating a nation, their semi-professional level and how they compare to their top flight league, we can look at the tactical understanding of the coaches at the lowest level.
Like players, coaches are coaching at semi-professional level because they haven’t quite made it yet or aren’t destined to make it for a number of reasons. However, we can judge the footballing nation these coaches coach in by the football that is being played.
Tactical understanding can be broken down into a few parts:
- Knowing when to play a certain way.
- Wanting to play a certain way.
- Being forced to play a certain way.
Semi-professional teams do not have the luxury of “trusting the process”. You must win; winning is the only process that matters. A semi-professional team will not sacrifice 2–3 seasons so the coach can try to implement Juego de Posicion on part-time players. So, teams need to know when to play a certain way in games.
For example, if it’s the 80th minute and the winning team has a goal kick, they’re going to smash that ball as far as humanly possible (after wasting some time) instead of doing a deep build-up from defense, like Manchester City. That’s because the players and coaches know the ability of the players and opponents — they’re not going to take a risk like that.
You can give the players and coaches some leeway though. During the game you can see for yourself how they want to play.
- Do the players know when to go forward after winning possession?
- Is the decision to go forward one that they even know how to make or are asked to make?
- What shapes are being used in and out of possession, if any?
The more intricate and detailed a team is in how they approach a game could be an indicator of game knowledge. If you see that a team immediately punts it to the two strikers up top without second thought, perhaps that shows a low-level of game knowledge on the surface, but this could be the way the team is forced to play, and not how they want to play.
Alternatively, this could be the only way the coach or players know how to play. In which case, you would look at more teams in the semi-professional league to determine if it is a pattern and not an outlier.
This should be more straightforward. How physical is semi-professional football? The answer is very. However, we can measure a football nation and their quality by asking a few questions:
- How fast are the players and how often is their pace relied on? Is the team fast, or are individuals fast?
- How strong are the players and how often is their strength used when making decisions? Is every player strong, or is it a select few individuals?
After asking these questions and coming to whatever answers you do, you can compare these answers to the top flight. In Scotland for example, I had the privilege of watching several top flight games as well as amateur and semi-professional games.
The game at semi-professional level is heavily reliant on pace, strength and power. Most teams were made up of players who looked like the Hulk. Compared to the top league in Scotland, it’s safe to say that the physicality and requirements to compete are similar. Most teams are quite physical and rely on a player and their physical attributes.
The difference between semi-professional footballers in Scotland and professional players in Scotland is the technical ability under pressure. Therefore, Scotland is still a nation dependent on physicality. We can apply this type of thinking to the other categories as well. How dependent is a nation on their technical or tactical ability?
Food for thought: is being reliant in one area of ability better than another?
Social or Mental is just a way of talking about football culture and football intelligence. Nations that place a higher importance on football will produce smarter players; ones who make the right decisions more often, as well as producing players that excel in the previous three categories. A German semi-professional player will be better than a Canadian semi-professional player in every one of the four categories I’ve used.
Excellent decision making can be easily spotted at semi-professional level because it’s a rare trait for players to have.
To determine the quality of decision making we can look at:
- When a player decides to play forward, backwards or sideways.
- When a player decides to carry/dribble the ball.
- If the player chooses to receive the ball into space or take a closer touch.
- A defender pressing an attacker alone or with others.
The list can be endless, but these are the decisions I can spot most often. If we see that semi-professional players are capable of making these decisions, this could be an indication that the players are smarter than we think them to be. This tells me that the coaching and game importance in the nation is at a high level. If smart players are playing at semi-professional level, the intelligence of the players at professional level must be high.
It’s fair to say that most, if not all, amateur and semi-professional leagues are physical by nature. However, what determines the nation and their ability to produce players is how often the other categories we discussed are on display accompanied with the physicality. Semi-professional leagues that have players who excel in the other categories likely have a good top flight league that can produce players successfully, repeatedly.
These players come from excellent youth coaches who got them as close to a professional level as possible. These coaches exist because they were excellent players, lovers of the game, wanted to do good for their community, help develop the next Shaun Wright-Phillips, or all of the above. These coaches would not exist if it were not for predecessors like them, and so on, and so on.
A nation with a good level of semi-professional football is a good footballing nation, and this is my favorite way of determining the quality of good footballing nations.
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