What if it’s the Players not the Structure?

17 08 2011

by Adam Bate

Even in a non-tournament year the summer inevitably brought scrutiny upon English football. A 2-2 home draw with Switzerland kicked things off and a winless European U21 Championship campaign sent the doom-mongers into overdrive. Hopefully you all had your checklists at the ready because the key points were dutifully covered ad nauseam. We need small sided possession-based games at grassroots level. Where are all the qualified coaches? And why was the construction of the national facility at Burton delayed for so long anyway? 

When there are legitimate factors such as these holding English football back, it can appear disingenuous to focus on more short-terms issues such as the players themselves. But could there be too much emphasis on strategy, systems and structures?

In 2001 the England cricket team once again suffered defeat at the hands of their Australia counterparts. It was a seventh successive Ashes series defeat and, quite understandably, saw calls for a complete overhaul of the English game. Graeme Wright, the editor of the 2002 Wisden almanack, gave this assessment:

“Some argue that the gap between county and Test cricket is so wide that another tier, regional cricket, is needed. It seems unlikely to happen, but its very presence in the debate is further confirmation that the county structure is failing England. There are simply not enough good young English players coming into professional cricket to sustain an environment that produces Test cricketers.”

Less than a decade later, England comprehensively defeated the Australians Down Under for the first time in over twenty years. It was a third Ashes loss in four contests for Australia and prompted a far-reaching review of their game. Losing captain Ricky Ponting said Australian state cricket would come under the microscope as he believed it was not as strong as it needed to be. He also pointed out that club cricket and junior cricket should be investigated. Ponting added: “I think the whole structure of Australian cricket needs looking at. At the moment it appears as though we’re not producing enough high-quality Test cricketers.”

It may seem trite to point out that the loss of Shane Warne, Adam Gilchrist and Glenn McGrath – three ‘once in a lifetime’ players – probably had something to do with it. But this is life. History is written by the winners. The losers are condemned to a period of introspection.

In the world of football, Spain currently leads the way. As a result, the tiki-taka style and Barcelona’s La Masia academy are now the key reference points for all that’s good about the game. However, it is perhaps worth remembering that not so long ago the French model was the one England aspired to. The 1998 World Cup win sparked countless articles extolling the virtues of the Clairefontaine academy near Paris.

Now, undoubtedly, the institution at Clairefontaine is a credit to French football. But the role it played in France’s success was curiously overplayed. Of the World Cup winning side, only Thierry Henry actually attended the facility. Players such as Didier Deschamps, Laurent Blanc, Marcel Desailly and Bixente Lizarazu were veterans of the failed attempt to qualify for the 1994 World Cup. There was also, of course, a genius in the ranks by the name of Zinedine Zidane. No matter. The narrative had been decided. This was a triumph for the French system.

In a world where results are everything, the notion that England can learn from France has started to fade. France’s failure to get beyond the group stages at the 2002 and 2010 World Cups has seen to that. Indeed, a statistic that often gets overlooked when people seek to herald the death of English football is that the national team is one of only four – along with Brazil, Germany and Mexico – to reach the knockout stages of the last four World Cups. Far from being under-achievers, England are instead a model of consistency.

For much of the past decade, the identity of the England football team has been shaped by the dual presence of Frank Lampard and Steven Gerrard in midfield – dynamic footballers who favour long-range passing and a high tempo approach. The national team now seems likely to go down a different route with the emergence of players such as Jack Wilshere, Tom Cleverley and Josh McEachran that can control the game from the centre of the pitch. All possess excellent technique and favour a short passing game. In other words, they are exactly the sort of players that English football is supposed to be unable to produce. 

This is not to say that England are suddenly going to become world-beaters. And yet, it does highlight the fact that key individuals can help define a football team. The infrastructure of football in England needs to be improved and it is certainly better to address that than merely shrug and wait for world-class players to come along. In the meantime, let’s just keep a bit of perspective the next time an England U21 side struggles to pass the opposition off the park.




2 responses

17 08 2011

Too many people look at it too simplistically. A great generation needs so many different factors to click into place over a 10-15 year period to get performances at the international level. Spain were perennial dark horses and under achievers five years ago, and they will be again but right now everything has clicked into place. A structure that is receptive to changes in the game and dynamic enough to maximize potential is necessary, but you also need consistency in coaching in the methods that utilize the talent pool effectively over a sustained period of time. English football is in the midst of an identity crisis but will soon adapt and start getting everyone pulling together. But even then, they could come into a competition that has a Greece on 2004 or a Denmark in 1992, the important thing is that it doesn’t mean you rip everything up every time.

17 08 2011

Sensible stuff Rob. I think what you say about an identity crisis is true. I think England are grasping for clues from others rather than having a clear idea of what they want to do.

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