The England Obituary, Part Four: Where Do We Go From Here?
In the fourth part of our look at England’s elimination, Rob Freeman suggests that perhaps we don’t need a post mortem of this team’s so-called failure, and suggests that England don’t need small changes here and there, they need a revolution beginning at the lowest level there is.
I’m not overly sure we even need a post-mortem. The coach is one of the best in the world. The squad he took wasn’t controversial – the big story was the omission of the desperately out of form Theo Walcott, and that wasn’t a bad decision. The teams selected were pretty much the best you could select with the squad. As it happens, the worst thing that happened to England was the injury time goal that Landon Donovan scored against Algeria, changing their opponents from Ghana to Germany. That Ghana look impressive (until you reach their first choice strikers), suggests that the second round was as good as it gets, and that’s pretty much what our squad deserved. In our World Cup predictions, I suggested the England could reach the semi-final if the avoided Germany, but Ghana and Uruguay (the two teams England would have needed to get past, in order to achieve a semi-final berth) have proven to be a lot stronger than most English-based pundits have given them credit for – especially considering that Ghana are without Michael Essien. That doesn’t mean that things don’t need to change in terms of the England setup, in fact some of the things that need changing are much more deep-rooted than that. While some things needs to change, some things need to stay the same. And with that, here are eight things that England need to do, in order to improve for future World Cups
1. Retain Fabio Capello’s services as England manager. This is vitally important, for the simple reason that right now, he is one of the top five coaches in the world. Now that Marcello Lippi has retired, Capello is the best coach in the world employed by a national side. If that isn’t reason enough, think about the replacements. Just as when Sven Goran Eriksson left the national side, the chances are that the FA, having seen the foreign experiment “fail”, will turn their attention to an Englishman, and if not an Englishman, a Premiership manager (or an out of work Premiership manager) from the United Kingdom. And who is on that list?
• Sir Alex Ferguson would no more want to manage England, that most Englishmen would want a Scottish manager.
• Harry Redknapp still has charges relating to an investigation by the Taxman hanging over his head.
• Roy Hodgson may be flavour of the month, but his career has been very inconsistent, having peaked with Switzerland and Internazionale in the mid-nineties. Would then-struggling Fulham really have been able to attract a man with such credentials as Hodgson’s supporters claim that he has?
• Mark Hughes hasn’t pulled up trees as a Premiership manager, and his tenure as Welsh manager is overinflated by a great result against Italy, and some good friendly results.
• Martin O’Neill is a very good manager of a big fish in a small pond, or a small fish in a big pond, however the jury is still out after two seasons at Villa that have petered out. England are a big fish (but by no means the biggest) in the largest pond of all, and O’Neill’s style would be regressive for the national side.
• Anyone seriously touting David Beckham, on the basis of what Jurgen Klinsmann, Marco van Basten and other relatively inexperienced coaches placed in charge of the national side, should give up even watching football. Klinsmann and van Basten have something that David Beckham, y’know, does not. Brains.
Not a single one of these managers (except the one that wouldn’t be interested) can hold a candle to Capello. Yes, Capello make mistakes, but these were few and far between, and can be rectified.
2. Resolve the Gerrard/Lampard situation. Gerrard has made it clear that he does not want to play wide, by his performances against Algeria and Germany (you may have had enough of FIFA’s heatmaps in my Slovenia preview/Algeria analysis, but here is “left midfielder” Steven Gerrard’s FIFA overview for the Germany game:
It should both silence those who suggest we should play Steven Gerrard where he wants to, because on Sunday, he did. Let’s be honest, Gerrard and Lampard are similar players, and both players have a style where they want to run into the same place, but it doesn’t work for two reasons:
• Not only do Gerrard and Lampard like to run into that space, it’s also the space that Rooney likes to drop into. Two into one goes, if one of the two is a striker, because you have the opportunity to switch, create gaps, and generally confuse the defence. Three into two, and everyone gets in each others way, no gaps get created, and the defence sits back and enjoys the fun.
• Gerrard and Lampard excel for their clubs (if you exclude Gerrard’s form last season) for one reason. They go forward, two stay back. In Chelsea’s case Essien and Obi Mikel stay back while Lampard moves forward. In Liverpool’s case (before last season), Mascherano and Xabi Alonso stayed back while Gerrard moved forward. Replacing Alonso with the incredible injury-prone invisible Aquilani was the main reason why Gerrard failed to produce to his usual standard at club level. For England, we expect Gareth Barry or Michael Carrick or Owen Hargreaves or sometimes nobody to do the covering work for them. If we want the best out of either of them, we have to drop the other, and give the remaining one the same setup.
• Personally, I’d drop Gerrard, based on last season, and his lack of positional discipline over the past few weeks. I’d also choose Lampard on the basis that throughout the whole time the two have played together, Lampard’s position has stayed constant, where as Gerrard is the one who was touted as “the defensive midfielder because he can tackle” until it was realised how poor his tackling was, “better on the right”, except he didn’t want to play there, “a supporting forward to Rooney”, only he’s not a forward, Regardless of who is chosen, it would be the one position in the team there would be the most pressure on keeping your place, providing that the one who misses out doesn’t have a strop and retire from international football.
3. Have a more realistic press. This one is as unrealistic as it gets. There are millions of people who only really care about football when a major championship comes around and get their information from the media. The media rely on “we’re going to win the world cup” to increase circulation/viewing figures/etc. “We’re pretty average at the moment, and we’re not going to win it” isn’t going to hype up the nation the way the media wants to. Once the team are out, the media turn on them, in an attempt to hide the scapegoat, even when there shouldn’t be one. This time round, the press rounded on Fabio Capello before the tournament began over his confrontation at the England training camp, after certain press reporters were found snooping in the player’s hotel. The media decided the players didn’t like their boss. How many players do? In football, more than in any walk of life, managers have to distance themselves from players. The media decided that only telling the players who was starting two hours before the game, was an issue, because “the players need to prepare”. These are supposed to be professional footballers, it’s their job to be prepared. With 23 man squads, you start the tournament with 11 players, and 12 substitutes – and those substitutes can appear at any time. Should the keeper who isn’t picked not bother to prepare, because he won’t be involved? Italy needed to substitute their keeper in the first match. He looked like he’d prepared. The press fired words at David James at a point when he was off-guard, with the intention of trying to get a story, but it could just as easily have created a rift within the camp, not that any of them would have accepted responsibility. 22 years ago, the press didn’t have to snoop around the hotel to get a story, or catch a player off guard, because they stayed at the same hotel. They’ve lost that, they’ve lost the team being announced the day before (so they could talk about the team, rather than speculate), they’ve lost pretty much all the access they had, and because the press had this in the past, this is considered an entitlement. It’s not just Alan Green who moans and gripes about any minor dislike of his job, he’s just less subtle about it.
4. Recognise exactly where we are as a nation. Tricky, and we need the media’s help on this one. Oh well. This time round we probably had our weakest squad ever at a major tournament. The closest thing we have to a world class player in their respective positions are Ashley Cole and Wayne Rooney. John Terry, Rio Ferdinand, Lampard and Gerrard, are all very good players, but a world class player should be able to adapt to different team-mates, formations and opposition in a way that none of the current England crop have managed. Ferdinand’s injury was a major blow, because of the weakness of the side. If we look at the first XI, it doesn’t paint a pretty picture:
• Goalkeeper: David James finally became England’s number one at the age of 40. There is little to choose from between him, Robert Green, Ben Foster, Paul Robinson, Scott Carson. Joe Hart only became a serious contender when it was too late to try him in a competitive game (and if he was that great at the start of the season, why would Manchester City loan him out for a year?). If there is one position where you cannot afford to throw someone in at the deep end, it’s goalkeeper. Look how Carson fared during his England tenure.
• Left back: Ashley Cole. We need to look after him more than any other player in the country. Why? For one, he’s the best wide player we have by a country mile. Also, his understudies are Stephen Warnock and Leighton Baines. Good club players, nothing more.
• Right back: Glen Johnson. If proof were needed about how weak we are as a footballing nation, Glen Johnson is our best right back. Our second best right back doesn’t bear thinking about.
• Central defence: John Terry and Rio Ferdinand. More than good enough. Their understudies, less so. Ledley King’s knees have never allowed him to fulfil his potential, Jamie Carragher can hopefully retire from football again, and then there’s Michael Dawson. Dawson is being touted as the cornerstone of our defence for the future in a lot of quarters – he is 27 years old, and has yet to be capped. Think about how many players have been given caps under the last three managers, and how such a “cornerstone” could be overlooked. Form is temporary. Dawson has been Matthew Upson’s deputy the rest of the time for a reason.
• Left midfield: In some respects Gerrard was the best option. James Milner (a utility player in the best tradition of not being good enough in any one position) had a shocker against the USA. When Capello finally gave in to the calls from sections of the fans, the press and John Terry, Joe Cole looked knackered as he entered the fray for the first time. For some, Joe Cole is proof that we don’t trust “flair players”. For me, Joe Cole is proof how far a nation we have dropped, to consider Joe Cole a “flair player” in the first place.
• Right midfield: An embarrassment of averages. Shaun Wright-Phillips, Aaron Lennon, Theo Walcott, and James Milner are pretty much interchangeable. You pick the one in form, and hope he’s okay on the night.
• Central midfield: I covered this earlier, but once the decision is made between Lampard and Gerrard, two defensive midfielders need to be chosen. Jack Rodwell looks a good prosect in that position, but unless Owen Hargreaves regains fitness, he’ll have to partner Gareth Barry.
• Forwards: If we’re playing three in central midfield, only one can play up front. Rooney was carrying an injury, and had abysmal service, but that should not excuse how poor his touch was in South Africa. Peter Crouch’s surprise factor seems to have waned, and Jermain Defoe and Darren Bent have never looked like the answer. Emile Heskey has a usefulness in holding the ball up, and bringing others into play – he’s the best English player at doing it, and when you play that role, your goalscoring numbers are going to be low. You’re not there to score goals, you’re there to enable others to do it.
5. Be careful what we learn from our opponents: Some of the national papers have been comparing squads between England and Germany, and suggesting we should take our lead from the side that knocked us out. Germany have become notorious in recent major tournaments for fielding aging sides, but this time round have been one of the youngest teams in South Africa – the third eldest player in the team that started on Sunday was 26 year old Philipp Lahm, with Mesut Özil, Thomas Müller, Jérôme Boateng, and three other members of the squad (Holger Badstuber, Toni Kroos and Marko Marin) all still eligible for the Under 21 side. Four of the team (Boateng, Sami Khedira, Manuel Neuer and Özil) were in the side that won the European U21 Championships last summer. This has seen certain “experts” suggest that we should also fast track players into the national team on the same basis. However, there are things that we need to consider:
• Their U21s outclassed our U21s in the final, and won 4-0.
• The players that have been elevated into the German national side, have made that step up on merit. You could argue that Khedira is only in the first team because of Michael Ballack’s injury, but he would have made the squad regardless.
• Of the beaten England team that day: James Milner was in the squad for South Africa, and only put in one performance that could be classed as above average (against Slovenia). Theo Walcott was rightly omitted from the 23 at the last moment. Adam Johnson only cemented his first team place at Middlesbrough after they were relegated, and is still adjusting to being a regular started at Manchester City. Micah Richards, like Glen Johnson was rushed into the England squad so soon, it affected their club form so much that they lost their England place. Of the rest, only Lee Cattermole, Fabrice Muamba and Mark Noble are Premiership regulars, and none are England quality. Jack Rodwell (a late substitute that day) is the best prospect of all those players, but plays in the one position that needs experience before throwing him in an the highest level.
6. There aren’t too many foreigners in the game: The Daily Mail excuses (I’ve not read the Daily Mail, it’s just an educated guess) will almost certainly be aimed at the foreigners. The one in charge, the officials, the ones we were playing against, and the ones keeping “our boys” out of the team in the Premiership. At the last count, 44.3% of players playing in the Premiership were English, while 51.4% of players in the Bundesliga were German – which considering that the number of Scottish, Welsh and Irish players that have traditionally played in the English top flight, means that the similarity between the two is not really cause for concern. After all, if a foreign player is keeping an English player out of the team at club level, it does not bode well should those players meet each other at International level. The only way for the number of English players to increase in the Premiership, is to have better English players in the first place. And there’s a good way of doing that….
7. Scrap the National Football Centre: And it doesn’t involve the NFC at Burton. On the face of it, it sounds like madness. Surely the best way to improve the chances of our future England teams is just to invest in them, and that is true, but this is not the way to do it. If the NFC opened it’s doors today, the youngest player who would get the benefit would be probably be fourteen year old Sheffield United goalkeeper George Willis, Manchester City midfielder Shay Facey would be the only other player born as recently as 1995 who would get any access to it. The NFC is for the England squads from the national side down to U16 level. The suggestion is that Burton would become the equivalent of the Clairefontaine Academy in France, however Clairefontaine is not a national academy. It’s one of eight regional one, and in twenty years, it has produced ten French Internationals (as well as three full Internationals for other countries), but these include Hatem Ben Arfa, Jimmy Briand, Philippe Christanval and Jerome Rothen. Rather than group all their talent into one place, the French Football Federation spread it around. Fabio Capello has suggested that the NFC is needed as an equivalent of the Italian Coverciano, but the Coverciano doesn’t produce players, as the FA are claiming that the NFC will do. In short, the NFC will be the replacement for Lilleshall. Lilleshall was open from 1984 to 1999, and offered 16 scholarships per year, Lilleshall helped produced a 1994 European U18 Championship win (at Home), and a semi final in the full version two years later, and while it’s alumni included Sol Campbell, Michael Owen Andy Cole, Nick Barmby, Ian Walker and John Curtis, as a centre it was nowhere near as successful as it’s foreign equivalents, and that was because players arrived at places such as Clairefontaine already advanced of those at Lilleshall.
8. Use the money not used for Burton to help develop coaches at all levels: This is where we, as a nation fail the most, and we have to be brave, because this is not going to bear fruit for a generation. In that respect it’s a huge risk, but at the same time, it’s the only way that we can truly catch up. We have eleven year olds playing 11 a side on full size pitches, with parents “encouraging” from the touchline. At the same time, children on the continent are being taught about touch, ball skills, finesse, and how the game is played, and only when they reach 12 and 13 years of age, do they get start playing competitive games in leagues. Over here, the most important player at that age is the tallest kid with any talent, who has the ball kicked to him while everyone else runs around aimlessly. It’s a slight paraphrase, but there is truth to it. We need a revolution in this country. Kids should begin learning the skills as young as they can, and Kids shouldn’t be playing in leagues until they are 12 years of age, they should’t be playing on full size pitches until they are at least fifteen years of age. That’s not to say that kids cannot play games as part of their development when they are between the ages of eight and eleven, and there’s nothing wrong in kids learning the difference between winning and losing, but those games don’t need to be win at all costs, and they certainly don’t need to be playing in Leagues, with the temptation of hoofing it long if they are losing. Hoofing it up to the big man can be taught in ten minutes at any age. Genuine football skills need to be taught – a great example of this, are the Spanish players that have played in the Championship and below over the last 10-15 years. Players such as Roberto Martinez, Pablo Counago and Alex Calvo-Garcia have become cult heroes at their clubs, because of their skill and technique, yet back home, they aren’t feted at the same level, because (with all due respect to the players concerned), the skills, technique and everything else that their English fans laud, are ten a penny, because every Spanish kid that plays football is taught those same skills. As side product of this, is that adults should not be allowed to coach kids (or even attend kids matches, even if their child is playing – especially if their child is playng), unless they have UEFA standard coaching qualifications, at least until we get the culture of route one, and touchline bullying out of the system. There are around 2,500 UEFA standard coaches in the UK, and most of these are attached to professional and semi-professional clubs. The figure in Spain, Italy and Germany is around ten times that amount, in each country. That is astonishing, considering that there are more registered footballers in England than there are in any other country on the planet.
The game was invented in England, and it is that fact that sees a streak of arrogance through the game. The fact of the matter is that, most of the rest of the world caught up, and overtook us decades ago, and teaches their players the finer nuances of the game before a coach at a professional club usually spots an English player of the same age. We must learn from the successes of other countries, and then, and only then, is it worth building a National Football Centre.
As an addendum, I’ve found the figures regarding the number of coaches that hold UEFA A, B and Pro Licences – courtesy of Owen Gibson’s report on Sir Trevor Brooking’s plan to improve coaching for players once they’ve been spotted by professional clubs (so we’ll only be three or so years behind instead). England has 2,679, Spain has 23,995, Italy has 29,420 and Germany has 34,970.