Monday, 28 June 2010

England's World Cup Exit and the Myth of "Quality"

In the wake of the 4-1 battering by Germany which brutally ended England's World Cup campaign, fans and the media alike are currently going through what might be termed the Five Stages of Football Grief.

First is the denial. This kicked in about 30 seconds after Frank Lampard's 'phantom goal' was missed by the match officials in Bloemfontein. "This can't be happening, we should be level!" we all shouted. This was surely denying the fact that had Germany taken all their chances, England would have been dead and buried and Lampard's shot would have been an irrelevance.

Second comes anger. Most of us are actually still there. Fingers are being pointed, voices are being raised. Former England midfielder Chris Waddle was magnificent on BBC Radio 5 Live yesterday, practically foaming at the mouth at the final whistle.

The stages left to go are bargaining (probably concerning negotiating down Fabio Capello's inevitable £12m pay-off for the last two years of his contract), depression (for at least the next two years) and, eventually, acceptance - i.e. that England are not a team with a God-given right to reach the finals of major tournaments.

The thing about this World Cup exit is that it feels like a game-changer. In previous tournaments in my lifetime - France 1998, Euro 2004 spring to mind particularly - the England team have gone down in a blaze of glory, or at least have been able to blame others (match officials, winking Portuguese wingers) for defeat.

Now there is nowhere left to go. It has become obvious to all that systemic failings within the England team - perhaps even within English football - have contributed to the abject performances in South Africa. This is football grief at its most raw.

Everybody with a stake in English football is today pouring over the evidence in a bid to isolate the causes and suggest remedies. One of the most often-cited points is that England lack strength in depth, that going down to grass-roots level England does not have the coaching expertise to produce "quality" players.

It is a point that rankles (and not just because "quality" is a noun, not an adjective). 

England's youth squads have been on an upward curve - the Under-21s reached the European Championship final last year, and the Under-17s went one better earlier this year, winning the trophy. With all the money sloshing around the Premier League, more and more potential players are being taken into professional academies and provided with access to coaching of the highest standard.

No, it's not that England don't produce "quality" - it's that we fail to recognise the "qualities" that make a top-class footballer. Intelligence, technique and discipline - in my view the hallmark of a good footballer -  seem to have been thrown out of the window at the expense of pace, trickery (which are luxuries) and that truly nebulous term "spirit".

This last is epitomised by John Terry's performances in the last fortnight. If there is one thing Terry can't be criticised for it's his spirit, however grudgingly: one has to accept that the Chelsea captain wears his heart on his sleeve. He cares deeply. However, when England have had their backs to the wall, Terry has not provided the calming influence, nor the intelligence needed. 

His desire to put his body on the line for England's cause masks errors. The now infamous attempt to block a Slovenian shot with his head during England's final group game is a prime example. Preventing the opposition from having a shot is far more important than throwing yourself haphazardly in the way of them. And Terry has lacked positional discipline, exposed so cruelly when he meandered upfield for a Lampard free kick with Germany leading 2-1, only for the Germans to counter, taking advantage of Terry's absence, to put the game beyond England.

Picking Terry out is unfair though. Some players apart - Milner and Barry would probably qualify for this in my book, though this is open to debate - every England player has suffered from similar tendencies in South Africa: and this, despite their apparent "world class" status.

If we learn one thing from the World Cup so far, it is that teams with an apparently limited supply of "quality" in playing staff can achieve more than the sum of their parts through intelligence, technique and discipline. New Zealand, Slovenia, Japan, perhaps even Uruguay, do not boast the talent pool which their World Cup performances would suggest. Instead, they have relied on good preparation, appropriate squad selections, some fine coaching and a few fine individuals - many of whom would fly below the radar in England.

The England's Under-21 team which lost to their German counterparts last year included the likes of Mark Noble, Fabrice Muamba, Lee Cattermole and Michael Mancienne. Yet none of these players would get a look-in for the World Cup. I seriously doubt that's because they are not "quality" players - more, it's because they don't fit the current paradigm of what a successful international player supposedly constitutes. 

That needs to change. England have a wider talent pool than people give them credit for. Not only that, but as this tournament has proved, sometimes selecting the best individuals produces inferior performances than selecting the best "team" - by which I mean eleven players who co-operate and understand each other the best.

It's time for us to re-assess what makes a good England international. Is it purely about selecting the best eleven individuals and throwing them together? Or is it about finding players with the "qualities" to work together at international level? I think the evidence of Sunday's match against Germany suggests the latter route might be one worth taking in the next few years.


helloemptyroom said...

This article if far too rational, articulated and reasoned. You'll never get anywhere with this attitude... but really, an excellent read.

Adam said...

Spot on. I also get frustrated with the argument that England simply aren't enough "quality" players.

I think the key point is the one you make in the penultimate paragraph about selecting the best team rather than the best individuals. The major international tournaments of my lifetime have been plagued by English managers trying to fit square pegs into round holes. The selection policy has largely been to pick the biggest 11 English names and worry about the formation later.

Now, compare that to the most successful international team of all time and largely the opposite is true. Brazillian teams have always focussed a lot more on the system and getting the right balance rather than making sure that the biggest names play. In fact, two of Brazil's best players at this tournament so far have been Elano and Gilberto Silva who don't play in major European leagues. Ronaldinho hasn't even made the squad.

Apply the English selection philosophy to that team and you'd have Adriano on the right wing and Ronaldinho playing at left-back!

Ally said...

I agree this feels like a game-changer. And that's why I'm sort of glad we got hammered yesterday rather than squeaking out 2-1 and blaming the linesman.

If English football were a business, with these sort of setbacks they'd re-group and develop a long-term plan, accepting some short-term failure in exchange for getting the building blocks in place for long-term success. There are plenty of sporting parallels too - American professional sports teams do it all the time (although the draft system helps!). But closer to home we've done it really successfully with the Olympic sports - planning from 10 years out, targetting promising talents early on and ensuring they get the support they need.

And I think that's what we need to do football wise, setting realistic targets. We're hoping to host the World Cup in 2018 - shouldn't the aim be to win that and 2012 / 2014/ 2016 considered merely warmups? We should be starting now to blood in some of that U21 team so that they will be the veterans by 2018. The U17s will of course want to play in the Premier League, but they should be encouraged that a year or two out on loan in other European countries first will broaden their skill base far more than playing in the reserves. Giving them mentors from amongst former England players (Brooking, Lineker, Platt, Pearce etc) to provide an alternative source of confidential career advice might help with this, as well as trying to persuade them not to just sign the big money contracts only to watch them wilt away on the bench (Joe Cole, Shaun Wright-Phillips etc). And finally targetting FA funding in to good youth setups, finding ways to incentivise clubs to bring through players who aren't just good for the kick and rush of lower league football but for the sorts of qualities needed on the international stage. It's not too late - a star for 2018 might only be 11 now. If every club had Crewe's youth setup for example...

But of course none of this will happen because the English media and population won't tolerate the idea that we might not win the next match, never mind the next tournament. And so I'm pretty confident we're doomed to repeat the same cycle of failure.

Christian said...

I agree.
I am from Germany and here we had a quite interesting discussion about a similar subject as our national coach Löw nominated players who had some problems in the last season like Klose and Podolski. Klose just scored 3 goals last year and did not play very much for Bayern...
But "Jogi" did not listen to the criticism about not giving Kuranyi a new chance who had a great season wit 18 goals at Schalke. He trusted more in the team spirit the team has shown.

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Always glad to hear your thoughts. Be nice now! James