Two weeks ago we all learned that English footballers now account for less than a third of all the minutes played in the Premier League. One of the main concerns of this is that many young English players won’t develop properly as they are unable to play. This has been taken very seriously by the FA, who have set-up a Commission to look into it.

More playing = more learning = better players

I agree that young footballers need to play football in order to learn. Sitting on the bench doesn’t offer them the chances to learn that they need to grow and develop. Various professional footballers and pundits have commented in the past weeks of the need to play football regularly in order to develop. They haven't gone into much more detail than that, but we can assume that what they mean is that learning happens through experience and that you don't get any chance to improve if you're not given the chance to try. Of course, when we learn we make mistakes. But these mistakes are a vital part of finding out what works and what doesn’t. Development is stunted if there is reduced exposure to learning situations.

It’s a strong argument, and one that is not only relevant to young players trying to break into the first team at a Premier League club. It is also very relevant much earlier on in their footballing lives. Club football for children requires that they join a squad of players, with more players than they actually need to play the game. For example, it's normal for a team playing in a 7-aside league to have as many as ten children in the squad. This means that only some of the children get to play while others must be substitutes. So, despite the fact that we know and agree that learning happens through playing, we run children’s football in such a way that only seven in ten of a club’s children are playing at any given time. That means nearly one-third of the children are on the side-line watching.

If we agree that learning happens best when playing football rather than sitting watching it, and if we agree that development (rather than winning) is the most important consideration in children’s football, then why do we have a system where nearly one-third of the kids sit and watch the game while the others play?

The table below shows the future game formats for ages 7-12, along with some possible squad sizes. In the penultimate column it shows the average % of the game that each child actually plays.

The final column of the table shows the % increase in playing time which would be possible if we abolished substitutes and only formed teams with exactly the same number of children as are needed to play (so for 5v5 at under-7 and under-8, we would have a squad of 5 children).

It is my view that if we enter a team in a 5-aside league, then we should just choose five children for that squad. Using squad sizes that are the same as the team size would mean that every child plays all the time. It would put a stop to the selection to the starting line-up of the “best” players, and it prevent adults from side-lining the lower-ability children (who need the learning most!). Most importantly, at the 7-12 year old age-group, this would mean an increase in the amount of game-based learning for every child in football by at least an extra 40%.

Having talked to a few people about this over the past few days, here is why we think we need substitutes in kids’ footy (ages 7-12). What they have told me is in bold, with my response underneath.

  • In case someone gets injured. It’s a shame when someone gets hurt of course, but is it really that much of an issue that we have to have another kid sit on the side waiting their turn, just in case? I suggest we just put up with the fact that one team are a player short and get on with it.
  • In case someone is sick that day, or unable to make it. Ditch the rule books. One of the other kids can bring a friend instead. Let them play. It’s a great way of getting new kids into footy. If not, uneven teams again, no big deal.
  • There aren’t enough pitches to have everyone play at once, so we need some to be subs. With the reductions in team size and pitch size in children’s footy, it should be possible to use less space to house the same number of children playing. If we take these reductions further (for example 4v4 up to age 10), we can further reduce the amount of space needed to play. For example, eight 4v4 pitches for 9/10 year olds (15m * 20m) could fit into half a full-size football field. That equates to 128 kids playing on a full field, where once there were 22.  
  • Squad size needs to be big so we can have games in training. Teams can train and practice together.
  • To let them have a rest. If pitch sizes are appropriate for children’s physical limits, then they will be able to play a full game. They don’t need a rest. If they do, then play on while they rest.
  • They can learn from watching. Yes, they can, I agree. But they can learn a lot lot more by playing.
  • Fewer teams and fewer games mean easier management and officiating. Having a greater number of teams may require that we are better organised. It may also require that we have more referees (although personally I am not convinced that children’s football needs the kind of refs we currently use).  
  • Real football has substitutes. There are many reasons why children’s football doesn’t need to be like ‘real’ football. There is a Neanderthal viewpoint that we need to replicate the Premier League for our eight year olds. In my opinion, it is among the most damaging of viewpoints in children’s sport.


One of the main trends in children’s football over the past decades has seen a reduction in team size, pitch size and goalpost size. The statistics and research overwhelmingly show that the fewer children on the pitch, the more learning happens:

  • Liverpool University study - compared 7v7 to 11v11 for 9-10 year olds: In a 20 minute game, 149 separate skills in 7v7 compared to 111 in 11v11, 35 dribbles compared to 10 dribbles, twice as many goal attempts.
  • Manchester United study - compared 4v4 to 8v8 for under 9s: The 4v4 game increased the number of passes by 135%, the number of scoring attempts by 260%, the number of 1v1 encounters by 225%, the number of dribbling skills by 280%.
  • Minneapolis study - compared 4v4 to 11v11 for 10 and 11 year olds: On average, each player touched the ball over 12 times more often in the 4v4 game.

The changes in team size will be phased in over the next two or three years, and they will make a difference to the amount of learning (per child) that happens on the pitch. But if all we end up doing is reducing the number of kids on the pitch, and increasing the number of kids watching on the side-lines, then we have achieved nothing. We must reduce squad sizes at the same time as reducing team size.

[Interestingly, even small changes can have a big effect. For example, for the 5v5 game format being used for under-7 and under-8 football, if we reduce the squad size from 7 children to 6 children we can increase average playing time by 17%. That may seem minimal when looked at for an individual child in one game, but the effect at a national level across a whole season could be huge].

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The Ministry of Football 4v4 Mini-League is a 4-aside event that takes place over four weeks. Squads are made up of four children, so all the children play and there are no substitutes. If a child can't make it that week, one of the other children can bring a friend. Or if that can't be arranged, we ask one of the children from another team at the event if they want to play an extra game (before or after their game).

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  By Mark Carter, October 2013

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Mark Carter

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