Gilbert Agius is embracing the challenge of nurturing future national team players but the Malta U-21 coach admits that it takes time and a lot of patience as he prepares his young charges to their upcoming UEFA European Championship qualifiers.
The former Valletta FC coach experienced a mixed start to his competitive tenure as Malta U-21 coach when last month his young charges enjoyed a fairytale start to their Group C campaign when they thrashed Northern Ireland 4-1 at the Centenary Stadium.
However, four days later they were brought down back on earth with a bag after suffering a heavy 6-0 defeat to Russia in Moscow.
“The goal for me as Malta U-21 coach and my fellow members of technical staff is to produce players who can play for the senior national team,” Agius told The Sunday Times of Malta.
“But this is a long process that needs time as the players need to gain the necessary experience at international level. Every player that we have selected so far for our team tried his best. I have been pleased with the effort of all the players, both those that are still with us and also of the others who for some reason or other are not part of the selection this time around.”
Agius said that he was very encouraged with the team’s display against Northern Ireland but was left disappointed to see his charges slump to a heavy defeat to the Russians.
“Our performance against Northern Ireland was quite positive, albeit there were some tactical mistakes on which we are working, but I was very disappointed with what I saw against Russia,” Agius said.
“The thing that disappointed most was that in the space of four days when we faced a stronger opponent than Northern Ireland, the players forgot all the basics of our game.
“We can’t afford to start matches and we immediately throw in the town. We committed errors in regard to tactical principles that we should never had and helped Russia to continue to grow as the match progressed.
“The most important factor for us at this stage is to see players develop individually and prove that they can play for the national team.
“All national teams are playing under one philosophy of play and some players need time to adapt, particularly if with their club are playing a completely different system and that is why they need time.”
“That is why I emphasise that the performance of the team is more important than the result as if you put in a good display consistently positive results will be a natural consequence.”
Next up for Malta U-21 are two away trips against Lithuania and Slovakia and Agius admitted these will be two completely different challenges to what the team has faced so far.
“Lithuania and Slovenia will be two matches with completely different challenges for us,” the Malta U-21 coach said.
“They have a completely different style of play and we are doing everything we can to be well prepared for these matches. Lithuania will be a new challenge in the group as they are a different kind of team to Northern Ireland and Russia.
“The Lithuanians may have lost against Slovakia but then produced a very strong display in their defeat to Spain and have some very interesting players.
“Our focus is on Lithuania and we are trying to prepare the team in the best way possibly, physically, mentally and technically for these matches.”
Since Devis Mangia took over as national teams head coach, all selections are playing one style of football to help players make their transition from one group to another much easier.
Agius said that for his squad of players who are still in their first year practising this style play they need time to adapt but said in the long run it will pay dividends for the Malta FA.
“If you have a young player who starts learning this philosophy from when he is U-15, by the time he arrives for the U-21 side, he would have spent four years and that surely helps his progress massively,” Agius said.
“For this group, the players are still in their first year so it will take time but we have a number of players, born in 2002 who will be able to play at this level in another competition so time is on their side.
“But as I said with need to be patient and give these players time. Luckily, this system is yielding great performances and results from the senior national team and that will encourage our players to believe in the current playing philosophy.
“The most important thing is that we continue to work hard and if the players continue to follow our instructions we can build a bigger pool of players. With every call-up we are always bringing in new players to help them taste the system so hopefully we will have a larger selection pool.”
Agius said that one key element to build a competitive U-21 team is to have more players enjoying regular football in the top-flight.
“The more players you have that play in the Premier League the bigger is the pool of players one can choose from,” Agius said.
“I always believed that if you have a good player, irrespective of how old he is, his club will play him. Unfortunately, the number of Maltese players playing regularly in the Premier League has decreased.
“But I believe that if our youngsters work hard and reach the required level of performance I am sure they will be given their chance.”