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Graham Arnold, FFA flag grassroots reform: 'Physically we can't compete anymore in Asia'

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Football Federation Australia has flagged major changes in football's grassroots after research found a worrying a lack of minutes for young players and an A-League that has one of the oldest median ages in the world.

Spearheaded by Socceroos and Olyroos boss Graham Arnold, FFA senior technical analyst Doug Kors and academies and youth men's national teams manager James Duvcevski after COVID-19 wiped clean their calendars, the analysis' findings are seen by its authors as providing empirical evidence of long-suspected structural and regulatory brakes in Australian youth football that hamper the next generation.

"When you go away with the junior national teams, as hard as it is for me to say, physically we can't compete anymore in Asia," Arnold told ESPN in an exclusive interview. "Technically, we're not as good as the Asians.

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"Physically, our boys against South Korea, when I was with the Olympic team, [during] the national anthems I looked at [assistant] Rene Meulensteen and said 'Rene, look at this, it's boys against men.'

"How do you expect to get a physical body for elite sport when you're doing it for eight [Y-League] games?"

The study examined 35 leagues across the globe and classified them as either "Production," "Peak Performance" or "Experienced Player" competitions; their label dependent on how their minute distribution by age compared to the average. A focus on total and percentage of match minutes was emphasised, with Kors and Duvcevski determining that a benchmark of 2250 minutes in a season -- or 25 complete matches of 90 minutes -- was a significant indicator for positive career progression.

With the disclaimer that data collection concluded prior to its COVID-effected run-home, the A-League was classified as an "Experienced Player" league: players who turned 32 years old during the 2019-20 season playing the greatest number of minutes over the past five seasons -- the oldest dominant age cohort of all 35 leagues examined.

Of the competitions examined, only Qatar's QNB Stars League offered fewer first-division minutes than the A-League in 2018-19 and, of the 317,901 available in the Australian top-flight, just 19% were recorded by players under the age of 23 -- compared to 27% in Serbia, 35% in Croatia, or 37% in Uruguay.

"The A-League doesn't play enough football," Arnold said.

Though 93 Australian players aged 23 or under were found to have recorded first division minutes worldwide, when the requirement was raised from one minute to 2250, just three of those 93 players -- a miserly 3.2% -- reached the new threshold. Limited minutes, systematic barriers and inconsistent levels of competition below the A-League were also shown to leave youngsters unnecessarily hampered by a lack of match fitness, sharpness and courage when an elusive chance of a breakthrough at domestic or international level arrived.

In the wake of the findings, the FFA plans to recommend that age-restrictions for A-League academies participating in the NPL in 2021 be lifted to allow players born after 1 January 1998 to participate, and for all A-League teams to participate in their respective NPL1 competitions. It will also push for all men's and boy's seasons involving players over the age of 17 to contain at least 30 matches to boost competitive opportunities -- which will likely see a number of NPL competitions around the country expanded to 16 team formats.

"If you look at the developmental countries, you can see that you need to play around 36 to 40 games a season," Arnold said. "How do you get great at your trade if you're not doing it enough? For me, that's been the biggest thing out of everything I've seen: that kids between the age of 17 and 21 are just not playing enough football.

"If NPL1 goes to 30 rounds, then at least you're going to have kids playing 30 rounds plus maybe four or five games in preseason, FFA Cup, and then finals series. Then the under-20s are doing similar and all of a sudden the kids are playing much more football.

"Maybe the perfect scenario is a Y-League that replicates an A-league of 33 rounds. But do we have the money for travel? Money for hotels? I'm not sure we do. So, maybe, we've maybe got to do it a different way. And the different way for me is NPL1 right around the whole country. We need our best kids playing against grown men in NPL1, we need more match minutes, and we need more games. We need to give the kids an opportunity to come back and get more time to develop and stay in a professional environment."

Though their ability to unilaterally implement changes is limited due to budgetary constraints and the coming unbundling of the A-League, the federation is banking that a sense of unity and impetus created by their research -- a video presentation in which it is summarised by Arnold, Kors and interim-national technical director Trevor Morgan set to be distributed to relevant stakeholders -- will combine with a number of other reforms to create a much-needed change in thinking surrounding development in Australia.

These include a planned introduction of a domestic transfer market that will incentivise development, which the Sydney Morning Herald has reported is set to be the subject of a white paper in the coming months. The introduction of a national second division has also been flagged -- declared as not being a matter of if, but "when and how" -- and potential changes to the structure of the much-loved FFA Cup when it returns in 2021. Sources have also told ESPN that consideration is being made towards allowing future participants in a national second-tier to also retain an NPL senior side that will function as reserves.

A similar analysis project, this one focusing on pathways for girls and women's football, is expected to be completed in the coming months.

"We have to unite the game," Arnold said. "It can't be the A-League and the NPL hating each other anymore. We've got to stop it. It's grown-ups hating each other, like a horrible divorce, and the ones that are suffering are the kids. It's got to be repaired, help the kids and make sure that we help the game and ensure that these kids are given the opportunity to fulfil their dreams.

"You've got to train more and you've got to play more. It's that simple.

"I'm not saying that all the kids should be in the A-League -- the A-League is our Premier League. But what I'm saying is that give them somewhere to play if they don't play in the first team. Let them go back and play in the NPL1."

Hinted at in the move to increase the age range for academies in the NPL, one of the other biggest barriers to addressing Australia's pathways, in the eyes of Arnold and many A-League officials, were rules surrounding contracting youth players. The current age limits, they claim, force coaches to part ways with players they otherwise would have preferred to keep that were late developers.

In his discussions with ESPN, Arnold detailed how he was confronted by an absence of players from the 20 to 23 age range to select from during Olympic qualifying because of the disincentives surrounding their retention, while Ron Smith of the FFA's Starting XI group, which was consulted during the analysis, observed that current A-League regulations were actively working against young players.

"I experienced it with the Mariners and Sydney FC," Arnold explained. "The age cut-off of 20 is too young. You're giving a kid basically half an apprenticeship -- you're cutting off their career by the time they're 20 and big decisions have to be made.

"I've had past experiences at Sydney and the Mariners of having to release kids because you've got the three under-20s in the A-League roster and then, once they got to 20 and one week, you've got to give them a first team contract or you've got to let them go and bring in new under-20s into the first team roster. The one that smacks me in the face is Max Burgess. Every weekend I see the way he's playing and when you look at him, I let him go at Sydney because I couldn't fit him into the first team squad when he turned 20. He bounced back, but how many haven't bounced back?

"There is a myth that all of our Golden Generation, I call the Golden Generation players from 1990 to 2010, not just 2006, and all those players, everyone thinks that everyone went away at the age of 18 or 19. It's all a myth, there's probably only a handful that did. The rest, Scott Chipperfield, Jason Culina, Brett Emerton, all those guys, they went away when they were 20 or 21 or 22 years old. If that was the case today, probably 50% of them would never have gotten through. So, the age group of 20 is, for me, too low, it's too early. Kids need more time to develop, there are late developers, and in this country late developers do not get a chance of having a career.

"I would say that at this moment in time, every A-League and every state federation agrees with the under-23 [recommendations]. I think they all understand, even the A-League owners and CEOs, that coaches, they've all had to make big decisions at some stage about letting a kid go when they didn't really want to because of this situation."

Unsurprisingly, the current structure of the Y-League was also identified as providing a sub-optimal growth environment by the data. An ineffectual eight games in length, the shift to which Arnold points to as one of the possible causes for a lack of young talent that has emerged at Socceroos level in recent years, the conference based nature of the current format is impossible to align with the A-League. As a result, players that sat on the bench at a senior level are frequently prevented from at least attaining some form of minutes in that week's Y-League -- negatively affecting match fitness, technical readiness and match confidence in the middle of the season.

And with the future of this year's competition uncertain -- numerous ESPN sources have expressed doubt as to its viability and Arnold himself was unsure of its status -- the Socceroo and Olyroos boss emphasised the importance of the mooted NPL reforms in the face of its maladies.

"Why can't the kids play NPL1 for 30 rounds? And then have the eight-game tournament, because I don't call it a competition, it's a tournament. Play that at the end of the NPL season," suggested Arnold. "Still keep the Y-League, keep the trophy, but have a tournament-based situation like national teams have to do for the junior kids when they go away, and play every two or three days and go to the AIS and televise it.

"Because when you look at it, the way it's done in [conferences], Sydney hasn't played against Perth Glory in five years. When you really look at that, it's eight games a season ... eight times 90 minutes is 720 minutes. Think of it this way, eight games of 90 minutes is 720 minutes for one kid. Divide 12 months by 720 and you get 60.

"Kids are playing 60 minutes a month. How do we expect to produce elite footballers by playing 60 minutes a month?"