The State of English Football: Part Three

There is no topic as widely discussed within England’s football community as the national team. It is nothing short of an obsession. Interest in the side is practically forced upon youngsters as soon as they are capable of following football. Following the 2010 World Cup, it is a widely-held opinion that thorough changes have to be made in order for England to compete in the coming years – the way that football is reported being among them. Indeed, the media’s collective overexcitement has become as familiar and unsavoury as England’s knockout-stage exits. Although the righteous indignation that follows such events is the most memorable aspect of the coverage, more important is the baseless culture of constant hype that has come to characterise reporting on English players.

Part Three: Improving the National Team: a Cultural Revolution in the Offing?

Above all other issues, the fact that the coaching of English youngsters is stuck in the 1980s is the most concerning. Whilst the Premier League has benefited from the presence of foreign players and continues to do so, one can watch any match from the Championship and below and see a culturally, technically and tactically inflexible brand of football which has no place in the twenty-first century. It is this that truly demonstrates how football is played in England. Pundits and writers alike will argue that the national team has world-class footballers but it is simply not true: they have players with natural talent, but with an innate understanding of football in a form that no longer exists at the highest level.

Whereas the modern game is based on measured tactical movement, passing triangles and the exploitation of small spaces, English football remains obsessed with power, strength and tempo; with physically imposing players, relentless forward movement and heroic sliding tackles. It does not work anymore. It is no coincidence that Frank Lampard played his best football with Claude Makélélé behind him and Didier Drogba in front. Nor is it a fluke that Steven Gerrard was at his most effective with a perfectly configured pairing of Javier Mascherano and Xabi Alonso covering and supplying respectively. Therefore, the fact that Lampard and Gerrard consistently fail when taken away from their drip-fed club lives and made to play with each other is also completely logical. Despite this, they remain national icons, held up as role models for future generations of footballers. In terms of popularising mediocrity, England is miles ahead of the competition.

The belief that English player development is lagging behind has gained significant momentum in recent years. Sir Trevor Brooking has done an admirable job of publicising the issue, and while the Red Tops and reactionaries were busy blaming Johnny Foreigner for the national side’s showing this summer, more rational thinkers opined that England’s Stone Age performances were the direct result of the way young talent in this country is coached – or, to put it more accurately, not coached.
According to the Guardian, ‘England has 2,679 coaches holding UEFA's A, B and Pro licences: Spain has 23,995, Italy 29,420 and Germany 34,970.’ With fewer coaches spending less time developing young talent than their supposed rivals, it is no wonder that England’s title challenges exist primarily in the output of a vacuous and jingoistic media.

Some will say that the media is an easy target to apportion blame to. Although it is not the broadcasters and journalists who actually train players, the Sky Sports and Match of the Day teams probably have as much contact time with youngsters as their coaches. With the situation as it is, objective reporting would benefit English football. It does no-one any good when pundits with no real knowledge stir their audience into heightened and unrealistic expectation. To take a memorable example, the BBC’s pre-match coverage of England’s 2006 World Cup quarter-final saw Ian Wright – a paragon of pompous ignorance if ever there was one – state that he could not see how England could possibly lose to Portugal.

It is not as if the potential for more enlightened commentary does not exist: Gary Lineker and Andy Gray, for instance, have shown that they are capable of perceptive analysis and yet both let emotion get the better of them when covering England. Both suggested that Fabio Capello’s nationality was a deciding factor following England’s defeat to Germany in this year’s World Cup. Gray commented that an English manager would have achieved more than Capello and went on to suggest that Alan Shearer or David Beckham succeed the Italian. His justification? “I don’t know what Joachim Löw’s playing career was like,” he said, “but I know it wasn’t very good.” With this verdict, Gray inadvertently imparted to his audience an important lesson: How Not To Think About Football. This is a recurring theme during broadcast football coverage.

The media are responsible for problems greater than blatantly subjective analysis. The recent elevation in status of Andy Carroll, Jack Wilshere and, above all, Joe Hart, is symptomatic of what Jonathan Wilson recently defined as England’s
Messiah Complex. Regardless of whether the above are the real deal or not, the Messiah Complex is a media-driven phenomenon which instead of giving players protection and confidence exposes and destroys them. The routine is close to inevitable: established England international drops clanger – is pilloried; youngster emerges with relevant skill-set to problem position; makes impressive progress with club team; plays mistake-free match for national side – becomes Fleet Street darling; eventually drops clanger – is pilloried.

Whilst the cycle is similar to a regular club career, the intensity rises exponentially when applied to the national team and this is another huge problem. The fear of a ferocious and likely unscrupulous backlash can only serve to hamper performance on the biggest stage. As much as every England player remembers the image of Bobby Moore lifting the Jules Rimet trophy, current generations have grown up with the tradition of biennial witch-hunts. Although Ashley Cole may not be the go-to guy for a quote that accurately reflects ninety-nine situations out of one-hundred, he illustrated the Messiah Complex’s effect on today’s internationals when he was driven to say: “I hate England and the f**king people”. Simply put: the media overstep their mark, influencing England matches when they should simply report on them.

This plethora of problems must be addressed by serious reform of football’s current infrastructure. First and foremost, there should be a qualified coach in every school in the United Kingdom, working with youngsters at as early an age as possible. They should accept that football is dynamic and must teach the latest ideas in football theory, thereby breeding well-rounded players who better understand the sport’s mechanics. The proposed National Football Centre at Burton is a must-have: it would facilitate the proliferation of coaches and give the most talented teenagers a platform to step up their learning.

Additionally, the next generation of youngsters needs a more patient, scientific culture to grow up in. If better analysis were available to them they could identify appropriate role models and refine their natural talent. Those who grow up copying the likes of Wayne Rooney and Steven Gerrard are doomed to inherit their failings. Lastly, this process should be allowed to run its course without its products being subjected to the debilitating pressure that currently stalks the national team. The media being an entity realistically detached from the football world, this may be the hardest change to implement. However, to create the atmosphere in which to modernise coaching and give England a chance of joining the world’s footballing elite, it has to happen.

Chicago Fire 1-1 Los Angeles Galaxy: de los Cobos’ gamble pays off, Galaxy fail to shine

Football Fans Know Better
The starting lineups.

A slow-burning Major League Soccer game ignited with two late goals, and the Chicago Fire were unlucky not to come away with all three points after a resounding tactical victory. After an even opening twenty minutes a red card for Gonzalo Segares put the Fire on the back foot. Chicago coach Carlos de los Cobos then took a tactical gamble – and Los Angeles played right into his hands.

The recent trend of 4-2-3-1 has not passed MLS by, although in this game Chicago’s interpretation of it was somewhat dynamic and could perhaps be described as closer to 4-3-3. Brian McBride was the lone striker, with Patrick Nyarko and new Designated Player Nery Castillo starting in wide forward positions and John Thorrington as the most advanced of the three central midfielders. Logan Pause and Mike Banner took up more reserved midfield roles.

The Galaxy’s formation was fascinating, and reminiscent of Dunga’s Brazil in that both hinged on an unusually lopsided midfield. Edson Buddle was up front, with Landon Donovan just behind. Tristan Bowen was almost permanently stationed in a very advanced position on the right flank while Alex Cazumba, the left-sided midfielder, shifted inside a little and allowed left-back Todd Dunivant to do most of the work out wide. Jovan Kirovski and Dema Kovalenko, two experienced MLS players, provided the shield in front of the defence, and had little attacking brief to speak of.

Football Fans Know Better
The Galaxy's lop-sided midfield.

Left Back in the Dressing Room
The early stages of the match were fairly unremarkable, rather cagey and with each side sounding the other out, as is to be expected in such as important game. Just before the first-half’s midway point, however, Gonzalo Segares was shown a straight red for elbowing Galaxy defender Leonardo. Unsurprisingly, this produced the turning-point of the game – not the resulting penalty, a weak Donovan effort comfortably saved by Sean Johnson, but rather the huge gamble taken by Carlos de los Cobos.

The Fire coach did not respond to the sending-off by sacrificing, say, Castillo or Nyarko for another defender (in fact the Fire’s first substitution was not until the 68th minute). Instead he effectively gave Mike Banner the task of performing the defensive functions of the absent Segares while also continuing to fulfil his own role as a central midfielder. The front three was retained, meaning that Chicago could still use the width of the pitch going forward. In fact the only defensive change was John Thorrington limiting his forward running, giving the Fire a very compact, deep-lying midfield - though Nyarko also helped out by dropping back and carrying the ball out of midfield when Chicago regained possession.

Football Fans Know Better
The Fire coped with Segares' sending-off by using Mike Banner in a dual defensive and midfield role.

Banner Flies as Fire Extinguish
Given Chicago’s narrow 3-3-3 formation, the task for the Los Angeles Galaxy became to use their numerical advantage to drag defenders out of position. As much as the Fire defence and Mike Banner in particular were excellent, Galaxy coach Bruce Arena played right into their hands. The Los Angeles attacks were mostly focussed down the right side, where it quickly became apparent that Banner had the better of Tristan Bowen. Bowen also suffered from a lack of support – the right-back and Chris Hughton lookalike Sean Franklin didn’t venture forward at all despite the acres of space left in wide midfield positions by Segares' absence.

Few attacks came down the left, where Todd Dunivant tirelessly dominated the touchline all game while left-midfielder Alex Cazumba shifted infield and pursued a useful if unspectacular shuttling role. When the Galaxy did attack down this side it usually resulted in a corner, a goalscoring chance or at least a meaningful foray into Chicago territory. That Arena failed to recognise the usefulness of the Dunivant-Cazumba partnership is curious - although trying to exploit the apparently vacant left-back spot makes sense, a better strategy might have been to use Bowen as a decoy - his advanced position on the right flank keeping the defence stretched while attacks are concentrated down the left.

The Hit Striker Guiding the Galaxy
Obviously, LA’s success or failure was always likely to depend to some degree on the performance of Landon Donovan. Penalty miss aside, the US international was largely kept quiet. Donovan, deployed just off Edson Buddle, generally drifted slightly to the right and was always looking to make runs into the box. Though his quality showed with some nice touches to bring others into play, he couldn’t provide an incisive pass to unlock the defence.

Donovan may have been better served dropping further back – the Fire sat so deep that there was plenty of space to dictate play from midfield and perhaps draw a Chicago player out of the rigid defensive line. It was telling that, when Mike Magee was brought on, the presence of two orthodox strikers occupying the centre-backs gave Donovan much more freedom to play in front of the defence and pick out the right pass. For the majority of the match, however, Chicago limited space between the lines very well, and Donovan was largely subdued as a result.

Stand back, I’m about to compare Los Angeles Galaxy to Barcelona
Dominating possession is too often equated with dominating the game. In last season’s UEFA Champions League semi-final second-leg, for instance, Barcelona had the lion’s share of the ball while ten-man Internazionale were quite happy to concede the ball and focus on controlling space. Barça didn’t dominate the game and never really looked like proceeding to the final, despite spending the majority of the match in Inter’s half. Mourinho’s tactical masterclass was such that his side could be said to have dominated that match.

It’s an extreme example, and one obviously taken from a much higher level of the game, but some comparisons are valid as Chicago tried to overcome their numerical disadvantage in a similar way. It could therefore be said that, in some respects, the Fire dominated this game. It certainly did not seem a particular injustice when Collins John curled a free-kick inside the far post and seemed to have snatched a victory for the home side, since Chicago had done all they could – restricted the Galaxy’s chances, stifled their best players and taken an opportunity when it fell to them. Although the towering Omar Gonzalez headed a late equaliser from a Donovan corner the tactical victory was still Chicago’s – showing that, in the aftermath of a sending-off, a demonstration of tactical versatility can be a more effective response than a knee-jerk substitution.

The State of English Football: Part Two

World Cups are always watershed events. Reputations are made or destroyed over the course of one month, and the next few years are largely founded on the principles of the preceding tournament. In Part One of this series, it was established that the 2010 World Cup highlighted the Premier League’s decline. Part Two will deal with the probable situation going into the 2014 tournament. Part One also saw criteria set out to define ‘a great league’. Essentially, there must be high-quality teams, players and matches at all levels of the division. With these attributes disappearing from the Premier League at some speed, it is natural to worry that before the next World Cup the division will resemble Ligue 1 between 2001 and 2008.

Part Two: Where The Premier League Is Heading

In terms of competition at the top, the Premier League’s next few seasons appear to be a foregone conclusion. With the correlation between budget and short-term success well-established, it seems obvious that Manchester United and Chelsea will almost certainly fall away, leaving Manchester City to dominate by default. Arsenal, Tottenham and Liverpool can try to stop the Citizens, but each must overcome significant problems to do so.

At the start of the next World Cup season, Manchester United will – barring a miracle – be without the services of Ryan Giggs, Paul Scholes and, most importantly, Sir Alex Ferguson. Although tightened purse-strings mean they currently have promising youngsters in abundance, none of them appear to be the next Cristiano Ronaldo. With the club in £716.5m of debt and the club’s owners themselves struggling financially, it is hard to see United sustaining the strength that has seen them dominate since the Premier League’s inception.

There are two ways they can finance the first team from now on: either a leading star is sold for truly exceptional money, or a number of products of the youth setup are sold each year. The first scenario seems unlikely. With there being only one player they could currently sell for the amount required to bankroll three or four years of spending, the damage the club’s reputation would take presents a significant obstacle. In any case, players will be sold to fund relatively modest additions to the first team – hardly the stuff that supremacy is made of. With the right manager it is possible to challenge using this business model, but whether a manager of sufficient calibre to replace Ferguson is willing to take the reins with the odds so firmly against him is yet to be seen. The words ‘poisoned’ and ‘chalice’ spring to mind.

Chelsea are in a similarly precarious situation. In August 2013 the current contracts of Didier Drogba, Florent Malouda and Nicolas Anelka will have expired. Frank Lampard and John Terry will still have years to run on their deals despite having reached a combined age of sixty-seven, and will still earn a combined weekly wage of around £310k. Roman Abramovich’s finances are obviously somewhat healthier than the Glazers’, but he will not repeat the garish spending that defined his early years as the Blues’ owner. After all, 2009/10 was the season that the club was supposed to break even, yet in December 2009 Chelsea announced a loss of £47m. With their budget so inhibited by their owner’s sensibility and their icons’ salaries, Didier Drogba’s replacement, for example, will probably be coming from football’s equivalent of a bargain bin. With that in mind, a lot rests on the development of youngsters like Gaël Kakuta and Daniel Sturridge.

Inevitably, some will put Liverpool forward as potential challengers. Until the ownership situation is resolved, this notion is unrealistic at best.

As things stand, Arsenal set to be the only current challenger capable of matching City’s financial muscle. Of their current stars, August 2013 will see Thomas Vermaelen aged twenty-seven, Robin van Persie thirty and Cesc Fàbregas at Barcelona. Arsène Wenger has spent the last three or four years repeatedly praising his youngsters’ ability and those in the current squad should have combined talent with experience to sufficient effect to mount a genuine challenge 2013/14. However, there is with Arsenal a series of doubts plaguing their recent history, and consequently their immediate future. Above their predictable tactics, injury-prone players and stubborn manager, the club’s ownership will determine whether they challenge in the coming years.

The probable leveraged takeover that Alisher Usmanov or Stan Kroenke will undertake would have two consequences. Firstly, the club would take on debilitating levels of debt comparable to those of Manchester United. Their spending is currently limited by the fact that they owe £203.6m, but a takeover would see that number rise manyfold. Secondly, having seen his years of patient building ruined, Arsène Wenger would almost certainly resign. Usmanov/Kroenke will arrive with the familiar press conference, announcing the intention to make Arsenal the biggest club in the world and promising a myriad of big-money signings, but without Wenger, it’s hard to see immediate success following at Arsenal.

Contrast these situations with that of Manchester City and there is a very different outlook. In January 2010, Sheikh Mansour paid off the club’s £305m debt. They spent around £125m on players in the summer of 2010 alone. Despite posting a loss of £92.6m for the last financial year, Mansour’s practically limitless wealth makes the figure irrelevant. Unlike Abramovich at Chelsea, he has made no plans to turn a profit by a certain date. Even if this level of spending does not continue, the depth of their squad and backroom staff should see them considered as challengers for every trophy between now and 2016. If they spend another £125m next summer, the Premier League may as well engrave their name on the trophy there and then. It would take serious mismanagement to prevent their victory.

With the recent years’ most successful sides set so awkwardly, there will likely be openings to cement a place in the Premier League’s top four places. Although they certainly won’t win the title within five years, Tottenham are well positioned to become Champions League regulars in that time. The Premier League’s upper echelon was a closed shop until they stole in via the back door last season, and their squad looks strong enough to hold that position. Although Tottenham’s controlling company, ENIC, was affected by the global economic crisis, they carry less debt than their rivals.

There are, however, two important caveats. Firstly, that expansion will be unavoidably slow. Even with Champions League money pouring in, it would be irresponsible of Daniel Levy and Harry Redknapp to plan for anything other than domestic consolidation in the coming seasons. Secondly, with Manchester City set to dominate, Tottenham are the fifth contender for four Champions League spots – sixth, if Liverpool find a suitable owner before 2011/12. With such a challenge ahead, it is clear that 2010/11 will play a huge part in deciding their future.

Of course, all of the above is mere speculation. There is nothing to prevent a billionaire taking control of Liverpool at the end of the season, spending £200m on Lionel Messi, Gerard Piqué and Dani Alves and making the Premier League better than ever. Manchester City’s project could yet be botched. Tottenham could always revert to type and sink into mid-table mediocrity. However, the scenarios explained remain the most probable. Logic dictates that with so many of English football’s giants confronting severe economic problems, the decline in the standard of the Premier League will be accompanied by a decrease in competition. If things looked bad following the 2010 World Cup, just wait to see what lessons 2014 has in store.