Sunday, 21 October 2012

The English Problem: Why the national team always falls flat

Following the bore draw away to Poland pretty much every fan, pundit and former player has had their say on the state of English football.

It was the manager's fault. Or was it down to the players? Maybe the FA? The Premier League? Or maybe, just maybe, we are not anywhere near as good as we think we are.

But who really is to blame?

The players

First things first, the starting 11 put out by Roy Hodgson should be performing better. Conditions in Poland were clearly difficult, but not impossible.

Every single member of the England squad is capable of passing, moving and, in extreme examples, doing them both at the same time. The weight of expectation may sit heavy on their shoulders but, in all honesty, when has an England team ever played without that external pressure?

The likes of Wayne Rooney have simply not performed to the levels expected of them. Regardless of the pitch, the formation and where they find themselves within that, experienced Premier League footballers should be able to do the basics better. There can be no excuses.

The manager

The fact that the entire English football supporting public was demanding the appointment of Harry Redknapp was clearly a myth, perpetuated by the tabloid press.

However, it is equally fair to say Hodgson was not everyone's first choice. Personally, I welcomed his appointment. If the manager had to be English (which I don't understand why) then Hodgson had the best credentials. The fact that that may say more about his potential rivals than his ability does not disguise the fact that Hodgson has more experience of international football, and European club football, than the likes of Alan Pardew, Redknapp or, heaven forbid, Sam Allardyce.

He can only pick the players he has available to him and there are few really controversial selection issues outside the Terry vs Ferdinand saga other than perhaps the lack of a call-up for Peter Crouch.

The former Fulham boss seems to have abandoned his habit of selecting two defence minded central midfielders, instead asking the likes of Steven Gerrard and Michael Carrick to play deeper and collect the ball. Carrick does not look a string-pulling top international but other than left field call-ups for the likes of Leon Britton or Everton's underrated Leon Osman there are not a lot of obvious options available to him.

Jack Rodwell faces a struggle to get regular football at Manchester City. Jonjo Shelvey has not yet fully flourished and, lest we forget, Hodgson is still having to make do with the country's brightest midfield prospect in Jack Wilshere.

Some will parrot the popular call for a motivational style manager. The last tubthumping boss England has was Kevin Keegan. And we know how that turned out. The fact that Stuart Pearce - a man who once pushed David James into attack for Manchester City and had a pre-printed outfield shirt for him - seems to be being groomed for a top job at the FA is worrying to the extreme.

Beating your chest does not help a country make the leap from also-rans to genuine contenders. Tactical nous does.

Whether Hodgson has that in abundance enough remains to be seen. But the English public has showed how it views recruiting top European managers to the England hot seat, so cannot really complain when we end up with Hodgson.

The FA

Early this month the FA opened its much-heralded St George's Park facility which, the footballing powers that be claim, will vastly improve the state of football in this country.

The hope is it act as a hub to develop an army of top coaches to trickle down into the game. But Clairefontaine it is not.

Nobody is expecting a production line of top young talent to emerge from within the site - quite simply, that is not what it is geared up for. The FA should be worrying less about the current England set up and instead focus its attention on the players of the future. And not just the next few years.

Part of the problem is clearly the way the game is operated at grass roots level. The governing body has done well by establishing small sided games at the most junior of levels but more still needs to be done.

As a youngster I did not play competitive league football between the ages of eight and 11. But, in those pre-internet days, that did not stop the manages of some clubs from ringing round all the other teams to find out how they did and mock up their own 'unofficial' league tables.

That is the not the FA's fault, but perhaps it needs to do more to make sure the people in charge of coaching the youngest players in the country are more responsible.

I recall seeing one opposition team lined up at half time on a particularly cold morning and having the ball kicked in their backs one at a time. The manager shouted "Don't turn your back on the ball, don't turn your back on the ball." I was about nine years old.

Other managers of that ilk turned their back on actually coaching a team, or encouraging all the players in favour of building a team round one star player. The upshot is that that player never learns to be part of a team and the others lose interest. Success at junior level, sadly, often seems more important to the manager than the players and certainly more so than helping the youngsters grow to love the game and appreciate and build on their own talents.

Another game, this time when I was around 12, saw the oppositions star player walk from the pitch in tears because his team was losing and his manager was very vocally blaming him. The fact he had already scored seemed to pass his coach by. He was the star player, they were losing, therefore it was his fault.

Other problems are far less intentional. Many youth teams rely on someone taking the team because, quite simply, there is nobody else around to do it. Support for reluctant managers like this should be more readily available from the local leagues.

Parents of course have their own part to play in this but the lead has to come from the top. Junior clubs and their coaches should have more guidance and support. Until we get football right at the very earliest stage, we won't see the results at the coalface of the professional game.

The Premier League


Too many foreign players forcing our best young talent down the football pyramid or into the reserves. So goes the popular line.

It is true that the Premier League and the big clubs have too much power. But, to say the influx of foreign players is behind the national team's problems is short-sighted.

Quite simply, if the players are good enough, they will play. If not, they will not. No Premier League team is going to play a developing young English player week-in week-out in place of an experienced international. And those same fans who bemoan the state of the national side would soon be moaning if their club team's form suffered as a result of playing English players who were not up to the standard.

And, a fact that is often forgotten in the midst of this argument is that there is nothing stopping our players from moving to France, Germany et al to play in THEIR leagues.

A reluctance on the part of the players to leave the financially rich Premier League for perhaps lower wages but first team football elsewhere is just as big a stumbling block. Learning a new language and adapting to a new culture seems far more of an issue for English players than our European, African and South American cousins.

Are our young players perhaps lacking in the hunger of some of their foreign counterparts? Far easy to sit in the reserves and get relatively rich than up roots and play abroad.

The lack of top English players playing abroad also has a wider impact on the state of our national team. International football is not like Premier League football. It is played a slower tempo, more tactically aware and based on possession and technique. The fewer players we have experiencing this style of football, the harder it is for our national team to produce it.

The Premier League is rightly lauded as one of the most exciting leagues in the world but how many of its teams play a possession based system akin to that of international football? The fact that Swansea City caused such shockwaves with their approach last season speaks volumes.

Quite simply, the players play one way for their clubs and struggle to adapt to the other method for England.

Expectations

The majority of fans in this country expected England to easily overcome Poland. But why? The Polish side has players playing in the Bundesliga which is producing teams every bit as capable at a Champions League level as the best English clubs. Just because we do not watch it on a weekly basis does not mean it is any less deserving of our respect.

We don't have any real world class players. Rooney is often held up as one but would he genuinely improve any of the top world nations? I would argue against it. Ashley Cole is probably the only England player who would stand a chance of getting a starting spot in the Spain, Germany et al squads. Joe Hart has suddenly become the best goalkeeper in the world among people who clearly never watch Iker Casillas, Manuel Neuer or any of the top Italian stoppers.

Quite simply, we are not as good as we think we are, or ought to be. Until the supporters and the press realise that and adjust their expectations accordingly, we will always be disappointed and the England team will always be judged to be one defeat away from a crisis.

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