The Football Association recently revealed Greg Dyke as its new Chairman and he was quick to announce his intentions for the role; improving England’s floundering national team. After their capitulation in South Africa, England struggled through to the quarter finals, outplayed by a rejuvenated Italy. The next challenge for Roy Hodgson’s side has been qualifying for the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, a challenge England have hardly excelled against, with qualification going down to the wire, with a crucial match against Ukraine on Tuesday followed by a likely top spot decider versus Montenegro in October. Dyke was quick to point the blame at the feet of the Premier League, claiming that he and the others with a hand in its formation had no idea the monster they were creating and that the League’s expensive foreign imports were stunting the development of young English talent. This has been a common criticism in recent years, with every major tournament failure followed by numerous rants and articles bemoaning the greedy and self-serving Premier League. However, is this really a fair summation of the problems currently plaguing the England national team? The Premier League is an easy scapegoat, but pilling yet more blame at the feet of the country’s top clubs will not solve the national team’s problems and neither will ignoring the other systematic issues that are holding back the Three Lions’ progress.
During his time as manager of Barcelona, Johan Cruyff made many important decisions and changes, but one more than any other changed the face of Spanish football. It is surprising to hear now, but prior to Cruyff, the now world renowned La Masia Academy admitted players based on their physical potential, not technical ability; if a player wasn’t expected to reach a certain height then they weren’t admitted. Cruyff changed this, dictating that any player who was good enough was also tall enough and strong enough, it was a footballing paradigm shift and La Masia began to produce the likes of Pep Guardiola, Xavi, Iniesta and Messi; the beginnings of one of the greatest club sides of all time. Cruyff made these changes in Spain in the 1990’s, it is now 2013 and in England up and down the country, players are still picked in youth sides for their physicality, and we wonder why we are so far behind Spain in terms of the quality of our national side; it is because England are over 20 years behind in the way we produce and coach young players. Some small players are making it through the system; those who are truly and precociously talented still fight past this physical prejudice, but not enough. Also prevalent is an either or mentality. Players can be big and strong, or players can be small and technical, it is a fallacy that is holding English football.
There is a reason that throughout the continent and South America, young players all learn their craft playing futsal, because for certain players, an eleven a side match is simply too physical at the age of eight, nine or ten. This is no reason for these smaller players to be left by the wayside, nor is it a reason for stronger players to neglect the technical side of their game. Playing eleven a side matches is great experience for young players; it helps them grow accustomed to the physical demands of professional football, as well as learning the tactical side of the game. However, at is stands, youth coaching in British football is one dimensional and too many potential young players are falling through the cracks. This is an issue that has nothing to do with the Premier League. Greg Dyke can complain all he likes that the Premier League is too reliant on foreign imports, but perhaps if English clubs were producing more technical players of their own; the Premier League’s elite wouldn’t have to go shopping.
It is not just small, less physically imposing players that are falling through the cracks either. England is one of the most multicultural countries in the world. It is part of this country’s identity, part of what makes England great, yet the national side is not representative of this multiculturalism. In recent years, the world has watched as Germany has benefited from a policy of inclusion, accepting and actively recruiting from their immigrant communities to strengthen their own national side. Mesut Ozil and Sami Khedira of Turkish descent and Klose and Podolski of Polish descent have all chosen their adopted home over their ancestral one to become key figures for Germany. One has to wonder how well this wonderfully talented German side would have fared in recent competitions without these key, adopted players and how the likes of Turkey and Poland (who can also bemoan the loss of Laurent Koscielny to France) could have done if these talented players and chosen to play for the teams of their ancestors. Given the huge success of Germany, it is baffling how we in England haven’t followed suit. Young English players abroad are almost entirely ignored by national scouts, with Lewis Holtby the highest profile of players to pick their new home over England, with new Liverpool signing Tiago Illori another example. However, this problem also extends to players at home. England is a far more culturally varied country than Germany, which dozens of immigrant communities call their home, many for generations, but how many English-Indians are there in the England national team? How many third generation Poles? England has benefitted from certain players picking their new home, particularly from African and Caribbean countries, but how many have we missed out on such as Chelsea’s Victor Moses? And why does it seem to be that only particular cultures can be included in the national team? Why have we have had African and Caribbean Three Lions players, but no English players of Turkish or Pakistani descent? Or Polish? Or Brazilian? Or Romanian? It is a bizarre and disappointing situation, that out of all these cultures, that all have thriving communities throughout England and have done for generations, none have had players who have gone on to be English internationals. It is disappointing for footballing reasons, but it goes beyond that; the England national team should be a reflection of England and what makes this country and currently it unfortunately simply isn’t.
This lack of identity extends to style of play. English clubs are feared across Europe for their fast and direct approach, but the English national team is not. The players that make up the England squad are all used to dominating teams with their club squads, playing a high tempo and direct possession game. Yet when they turn out for the red and white of England, an inferiority complex seems to prevail. The fallacy that England can’t match the world’s best is pervasive, this pathetic false belief that our only option against other international sides is to play a negative and conservative counter attacking game. The occasional performance aside, watching England in past seasons has been laborious, with possession conceded against the world’s better sides before a ball is even kicked in anger. It would be ridiculous to suggest that England should attempt to play like Spain, however, it is also ridiculous to suggest that with the likes of Carrick, Wilshire, Rooney, Gerrard and Lampard in the side England should be reduced to a counter attacking side. Furthermore, with the wealth of pace in the English, the slow tempo with which the Three Lions play is infuriating; Fridays match against Moldova was the first time England had scored at Wembley in the first 20 minutes during this qualification campaign. It is telling that England’s last four permanent managers have a combined age of 250, England are stuck in the past, with no invention and no progression.
It was refreshing to see Southampton’s Rickie Lambert earn his first caps against Scotland and Moldova, and whilst it has been almost universally accepted that he has earned his caps through his performances in the Premier League last term, many fans have been quick to add a caveat; that at 31 Lambert is not the future for England. Except that he is. Lambert himself is never going to break any international records and if he does manage to make it on the plane to Brazil, it would certainly be his first and last major tournament for England. What makes Lambert the future for England, is what his call up could represent; picking players based on form, regardless of age or how fashionable the club they play for is. One only has to look at the selections of Young and Milner. These are undoubtedly two very good players, however, they have not been playing regularly for their clubs, nor have they impressed when they have made appearances. Meanwhile, Leon Osman and Adam Lallana of Everton and Southampton have been consistently churning out appearances of great quality and do not get a look in. It is hard to understand why these players only have one cap between them, is what sets Young and Milner above Lallana and Osman really a gulf in quality? Or is it that Young and Milner play for the two Manchester clubs and have a reputation to match. Unfortunately Lallana and Osman are not rarities; with Gerrard, Lampard and Wilshire all having suffered through poor form and injuries lately, what does Leon Britton have to do to earn a cap? The England national team should be made up of those players who are eligible for the team and are displaying the best form, not who has the biggest reputation and plays for a fashionable club. Of course there are going to certain players who are so invaluable that they are picked even if they are low on form and fitness, but the current state of affairs goes way beyond that. The England set-up has become way too cosy, the same established so called stars are almost guaranteed a place in the squad and so have little incentive to perform with the only competition coming from whatever young ‘wonderkid’ happens to be the flavour of the month.
Many have delighted in the call ups of Barkley, Zaha, Sterling and the like, but whilst of course it is great to see excellent young English prospects, these call ups are indicative of how hugely England have misused the under 21 system. If German or Spanish, these players would not have earned senior caps yet, but instead properly matured through the various age groups. These countries take competitions in the lower age categories seriously, not rushing players through, but allowing each age group to progress naturally, gaining competitive experience at every level so they are ready when they finally make the step up. There is an outdated arrogance to the English national team, one exasperated by a disregard for youth competition and a tedious predictability in the management, with appointment to the senior posts almost always elder, past their peak and in the zenith of their careers. What England needs is progressive coaching and a clear footballing identity, from grass roots, right the way up to the senior side of the national team. Until this is established and complacent stars are spurred into activity by the selection of in form players, England will continue to underperform regardless of Premier League. The fact is Mr Dyke; young players are getting chances in the Premier League. For all of the league’s expensive foreign imports, at Southampton Luke Shaw is an established starter at eighteen and has been joined by James Ward-Prowse this term, over at Everton Ross Barkley has shone and John Stones will be pushing for a start, Liverpool have a host of young English stars, with Raheem Sterling just the pick of the bunch, the list goes on with Zaha and Chalobah at Manchester United and Chelsea, or Will Hughes at Derby, the players are there, but the system is failing them. (http://bit.ly/150IQ5q)