Another tournament, another quarter final exit, another defeat on penalties. Maybe we’ve just become immune to it all, but the reaction across the media this morning seems to be a little less hysterical than normal. Of course, expectation coming into the tournament, with the untimely departure of Fabio Capello and the late replacement with Roy Hodgson, was at an all time low, with anything better than getting out of the group stage regarded as a bonus. Hodgson delivered, got the squad organised and focused, so there is nothing really to complain about. Thankfully, barely a mention of Harry or Rio either.
I sat down to watch the game yesterday rating England’s chances of progressing at 50/50. The Italians were always going to be technically the better side, but if England were organised defensively, and had a few special moments offensively, then there was a realistic chance of progression, as I also felt that our European rivals had not really hit top form. As it was, once our best spell midway through the first half was over, we ran out of ideas, failed to prevent Italy’s main creativity in Andrea Pirlo from dictating the game, and were pushed back to the edge of our own 18 yard box for the remainder of the match, any hope of our counter attacks causing problems often dashed by our inability to maintain possession. Was I particularly distraught about the defeat? Not as much as previous times. I had been fearing the build up of unrealistic expectation that had flickered into life after England’s turnaround against Sweden, and had we beaten Italy, I feared a backlash after the semi-finals where I just couldn’t see us getting close to a very strong German team.
So now, Roy Hodgson and England’s thoughts turn to qualification for the World Cup in 2014, sure to be a tougher test in Brazil. There are the usual calls for a clear out of the “Golden Generation” and to push some of the youngsters through (overlooking the fact that the dominant player in our most recent game is 33). For me, it’s a case of until the English game is focused towards building a decent national team, we will always be battling against the odds. Let me take you through a breakdown of where I believe things need to improve to make England contenders for a major competition.
Looking at the England team yesterday, there were a number of issues as I saw it. Firstly, the depth of the squad. England had been deprived of several key players due to injury, and some of the players who came in were sorely lacking in international experience. Secondly, I remember one point early in the second half where a mate of mine who follows Italian football texted and said “Pirlo will run out of gas soon”. After extra time, Pirlo still had the energy to cleverly outfox Joe Hart from the penalty spot having completed a total number of passes during the game roughly equivalent to a third of that completed by the entire England team. The England team looked knackered. Scott Parker was withdrawn before the end of the 90 minutes, captain Steven Gerrard had been suffering from cramp from midway through the second half of normal time. This wasn’t the first time that England have played in games or tournaments post Premiership season and looked tired. Thirdly, England were technically inferior to the majority of teams in the competition, and while their excellent set up and organisation ensured progression against less competent teams, when they came up against quality opposition, their deficiencies were laid bare.
The first issue comes from a couple of problems. It seems to be the fashion these days to “retire” from international football, with the reason often being the player in question wants to concentrate on prolonging their club career. Understandable when the player is in the twilight of their career, not so much when they are much younger. After the announcement of the squad for Euro 2012, it is clear that some players had the hump with their exclusion, and made themselves unavailable even as standby players. Playing for their country seemed to mean very little to them. In addition, it is questionable how many truly international class players this country produces, and so this point crosses over with my third issue regarding lack of technical quality. To look at all three problems a bit deeper, we need to go back to the early 1990s.
England had produced a performance at the World Cup in 1990 that had got the nation excited about football again. Although there is little doubt that England had enjoyed a fair amount of luck in the competition, the team and squad were focused and had been united by an ongoing battle with the press, the nucleus of the side was very strong, with a well organised and experienced defence, emerging quality midfielders in Platt and Gascoigne, creativity in Barnes, Beardsley and Waddle, and a high class goalscorer in Lineker. Following on from this, came the formation of the Premier League, with one of the key selling points being the assistance that would be provided in creating a stronger national team. For example, the league would be reduced from 22 clubs to 16 or 18, therefore meaning fewer domestic fixtures so less chance of players running out of steam before major tournaments. Take a look at the Premier League now, 20 clubs, and no chance of a reduction. Although La Liga (Spain), and Serie A (Italy) both have the same numbers, you could look at the Bundesliga, from a country in Germany who have developed a strong national team and see a league of only 18 clubs. And, the majority of those clubs also make a profit but that’s another story.
Added to this, the top clubs no longer play in a simple knockout European competition, but a much more commercialised product with a league structure; the Champions League. The main focus of all of these competitions of course, is money. And it’s a problem that’s no closer to being solved, not that clubs seem to have any intention of solving it, bearing in mind the outcome of the latest TV deal. Clubs are more than happy to fulfil a long, hard campaign if it brings its commercial rewards. Add into this, that a lot of clubs also spend several weeks of preseason preparation on the other side of the world, again, not to benefit the development of their team, but to improve the commercial side of things. The demands on the players mean that playing for their country is quite a way down their list of priorities, after all, you’re not going to bite the hand that feeds you (ie who pays your wages). In addition, the sort of media attention playing for England often gets, no doubt puts some of them off as well.
The solution that seemed to work for two sports where England have done reasonably well at, rugby and cricket, was central contracts, where the national team had the rights over the players. However the balance of power in football is such, that you really can’t see the Premier League agreeing to any such proposals.
The Premier League does seem to have recognised the need to improve the development of young players, and have put together the EPPP (Elite Player Performance Plan). There is much to be positive about within this, however, only if you are a Premier League team. Again, the grass roots of the game where top players often begin their careers has been woefully overlooked. Take the eleven players who started the game yesterday and where they effectively “learned their trade”. Joe Hart, believed to be on his way to becoming one of the top European goalkeepers started at Shrewsbury, Joleon Lescott spent much of his early career at Wolves, Ashley Young at Watford, Scott Parker at Charlton, James Milner at Leeds. It isn’t just the top 20 clubs in the country that develop players, and the grass roots of the game needs to be invested in if we are to produce technically gifted players. The problem with the EPPP is that is allows the top clubs to cherry pick the top players from other youth academies with little compensation. This will only discourage smaller clubs to bother with youth development, as financially it simply won’t be worth it. This will have serious consequences further up the scale.
Fortunately, the FA’s new proposals for youth development at grass roots, with the emphasis on small sided play and technical ability seems to be moving forward, and with better development of coaches at this level, hopefully in years to come the national team will reap the rewards. The next couple of major competitions are unlikely to see any benefits, but the FA has to start somewhere, and at least in one area we are finally moving in the right direction.
That said, the fact remains that the focus, particularly commercially, of the English game, is too heavy on one competition (or two if you count the Champions League). To really create a strong national team, the country’s young players needs to be developing better technique to be able to match players from other countries, and there needs to be a wholehearted desire to allow the elite players every opportunity, and remove all possible obstacles, to achieve greatness as a team. With the demands on them, and therefore their focus so heavily on club football and the financial rewards that go with it, I really can’t see anything changing.