Thursday, 26 June 2014

The Usual Suspects

The soul-searching after England's long drawn out exit from the World Cup has mostly been rueful, even apologetic. With the exception of 'Arry and his mates, few have the heart to berate the players or manager. The consensus is that the country simply lacks enough top-drawer talent at present. The eagerness to blood youth reflects a hope that another (and slightly better) Golden Generation may be just around the corner, which can be thought of as whistling to keep your spirits up (the evidence of the last match against Costa Rica suggests a long wait). While the inquiry has been half-hearted, it has still rounded up the usual suspects, so we may as well mosey through the identity parade.

The Premier League remains a popular villain, specifically in respect of the number of foreign players "taking our boys' jobs", but no one seriously expects the money juggernaut to change course. After all, if you can't shame Richard Scudamore into resigning over his sexism, what hope is there in an appeal to his chauvinism? There is also an acknowledgement that other countries seem able to overcome similar challenges. Fellow bag-packers Italy also have a high percentage of non-native players, and were pioneers in the use of imported talent in the domestic game, but they've also won the tournament four times, embarrassing defeats to various Koreas notwithstanding. You can't put this down to Fascism or "wiliness" alone.

With the exception of a few snipes at Greg Dyke, the FA has escaped blame, largely because of the increased professionalism of recent years and the tangible investment at Burton and Wembley. Dyke's recent 4-point plan was reduced by an unsympathetic media to the slightly desperate proposal for Premier League B-teams, but the key idea was actually to ban non-EU players outside of the top flight, which is a recognition of the symbiosis between the different divisions. Before the Premier League, lower division clubs operated by selling-on promising youngsters to higher division clubs and by extending the careers of older top-division players, using the latter to help develop the former. They now act more as clearing houses for Premier League academy rejects. The downward flow of old pros has reduced to a trickle, as players can retire rich after a decade in the top division, with the void being filled by cheap imports of developed players in their mid-20s. This has increased the non-native population, but there is little evidence it is reducing opportunities for native youngsters, and some evidence it is increasing quality overall.

Another popular culprit is the corrupting influence of TV money, which has funded the high-churn academies, pushed up wages (thereby attracting quality imports), and encouraged club owners to buy success. The insinuation by 'Arry that some players don't fancy the hassle of playing for the national team feeds the popular prejudice that they're all spoilt brats. However, that theory sits oddly with the greater success of Italy and Spain since the 1980s, despite the dominance of TV money (heavily biased towards the larger clubs) in those countries. As is clear from the regular stories about youth player poaching between English and continental clubs, the top European teams are operating in a single market, even without taking the Champions League into account. If money has had an effect over the last 25 years, it has been in facilitating the greater homogenisation of playing styles, evidenced in the seamless movement of top coaches between countries.

The decline of school playing fields and council facilities is sometimes fingered, but this is probably more a symptom rather than a cause. The root problem looks like the recasting of secondary education as a constant slog, with regular testing and exam anxiety depriving both kids and teachers of the hours needed to invest in organised sport. Added to convenient distractions such as multi-channel TV, Facebook and FIFA14, the issue may be a lack of bored kids as much as a lack of playing fields. That said, the grassroots game continues to produce plenty of raw talent, which is eagerly snapped up by the academies. As the Dyke commission noted, and with the happy coincidence of England winning the Under-17 European Championships this year, the problem is not producing talent at schoolboy level but progressing it between 17 and 21.

One possible explanation for this stunted growth is cultural isolation, with few English professionals playing abroad and international loans of young players limited to the non-English. Joel Campbell of Arsenal has now had spells at Lorient, Real Betis and Olympiakos; his London-born clubmate Chuks Aneke has had spells at Stevenage, Preston and Crewe. But the idea that English youth is missing out on advanced coaching makes little sense when they can rub shoulders with the World's best players in the Premier League and benefit from the tutelage of managers such as Wenger, Mourinho and (shortly) van Gaal. It's also worth remembering that Roy Hodgson has been anything but insular in his managerial career. The fact that neither he nor Capello could get England to look like a team that enjoys keeping the ball suggests that the problem is not poor coaching.

In the longer perspective, England may simply be finding its natural level as a middle-ranking football power: somewhere between Belgium and France. The story of the twentieth century can be divided into two periods: denial up to 1953 (the famous defeat by Hungary at Wembley), and delusion thereafter (1966 was a fortunate victory, and not just because of the Russian linesman). However, England's poor record compared to the likes of Italy, France and Holland suggests that it is objectively under-performing. Perhaps the problem is psychological: the weight of national expectation and the fear of failure. But the suspicion that a hyperbolic and frequently vicious press isn't helping runs up against the counter-argument that it is no worse than the media in other countries. This week the London papers have been tame in comparison to the outpourings of rage and self-doubt in Spain and Italy.

The general air of "to be honest, we didn't expect much" among England fans suggests that they had already mentally invested in a transition period before the flight to Brazil. Gerrard and Lampard are now history, and I doubt Rooney will be wearing the captain's armband in Russia except as a sentimental cameo. The clamour for youth looks particularly harsh on Leighton Baines, whose window of opportunity between the limpet-like Ashley Cole and the puppy-like Luke Shaw has been quickly shut. In the cases of Chris Smalling and Phil Jones, the promotion of youth looks frankly reckless. It is some achievement to make Gary Cahill and Phil Jagielka look good in comparison after only one match. Hodgson would do well to have a chat with van Gaal before he boards the plane back to London, to establish if either centre-back has much of a future at Manure.

Though most commentary has focused on the inadequacy of the defence, the real cause for concern should be the lack of midfield creativity. At this elite level, where defenders are well-organised and mobile (not England, obviously), you need a decent short ball-player or two, not a through-force-of-circumstances "quarter-back" like Gerrard launching long. Wilshere showed promise against Costa Rica, but struggled due to the lack of clever movement up front. Sturridge remains a player who thrives in the confusion caused by others (yes, I'm thinking of "Chewy Louie"), but is unable to unbalance defences on his own, while Sterling is a player who makes eye-catching runs because he often starts from a poor position. Ross Barkley appears to have inherited the mantle of "strong lad with quick feet" bequeathed by Gascoigne and inadequately worn by Rooney, but lacks guile and subtlety. Naturally, 'Arry suggests England build their team around him.

In the 70s and 80s, the serial under-achievement of England was put down to too many blazers at the FA, the insularity and arrogance of coaches, and the technical backwardness of the players. This produced a style of play on the pitch that was unique to England and impossible to confuse with any other nation (even Scotland and Wales managed to look more continental). The paradox of the last quarter century, from the false dawn of Italia 90 through the hyper-professionalism of the Premier League and the reform of the FA, is that an England team, made up of highly-developed players who regularly hold their own with the world's best at club level, still looks like England.


  1. If this had been a serious professional attempt for England to do well in the World Cup would there have been a place for Gary Neville in the setup?

    However it could get worse

  2. Out of interest, any thoughts on England based players who can't get
    a game for their club but do well at World Cup? Campbell at Costa Rica? Some Iranian who couldn't get a game for Charlton? Brazilian kerper? Do we go for players at big clubs who are actually carried by international stars? (Sterling/Suarez)?

  3. I doubt any large club is actively scouting at the tournament, as opposed to using a player's performance to talk down (or up, if selling) his price mid-negotiation. Everybody knows everybody these days, from U16 upwards. Aaron Ramsey didn't need Wales to qualify to get on the radar of every top European club.

    As to whether Campbell or others could hack it in the EPL, I doubt 3 good games is enough to tell. After all, Jeff Cameron of Stoke has been pretty impressive for the USA, but I doubt Milan or Barca are about to swoop on the Britannia Stadium.

    Though we kid ourselves that the World Cup is the best football on the planet, the reality is that any compressed tournament like this is a poor guide to likely performance in a league (though I've a suspicion that Diego Costa is about to join the long-list of forwards who regress after signing for Chelski). It's a bit like assuming the best 5-a-side team will win an 11-a-side game.