March 23, 2017

What’s next for England?


As I sat, perched on my couch, watching England get dumped out of the European Championships by Iceland in Nice, I said to myself “Same old England”. For too long England have flattered to deceive and left many disillusioned with the national team. It’s not just the manager’s fault either, despite the blame often being laid at his feet.

I have not really been bothered about England since 2006 when Steve McClaren took charge. Now, I know how unpatriotic this may look but I am not the only one who has given up on the national side. This is now common ground for plenty of us. I have been there, cheering on England, hoping that this time it can be England that are going through to the latter stages but as always we fall, fail and end up flat on our face making the national team journalists dream to write about.

Roy Hodgson is a good manager, who has a top CV and a plethora of experience in many different leagues but the warning signs were there from the beginning and in Brazil, we were absolutely abysmal, finishing bottom of the group, 1 point and only 2 goals scored. He should have gone there and then.

He was given until after the European Championships in France and the less said about that the better. He resigned straight after the team were eliminated and even had some words prepared: this suggests that he expected England to be eliminated himself. Turning up to the press conference claiming he didn’t know what he was doing here, he was broken, a beaten man, the strain of the national team had claimed another victim.

Managers come and go, but one constant is the FA, the governing body for the beautiful game here in England and this is where the real problem lies. This is the reason I fell out of love with the international game.

There is a long list of disappointment, but the one that sticks out is the handling of the John Terry and Anton Ferdinand incident. After John Terry was found guilty in a court of law, not the FA, he was ordered to pay a fine and serve a four-match ban, although he was the reinstated to the squad and as captain, Rio Ferdinand was no longer selected. That doesn’t say much for the Kick it Out campaign that the FA support, really.

Another area where the FA have let us down is with our youth development policy or grass roots as it is more commonly known. We do develop players but do we develop enough elite players? Absolutely not. For every player we develop who is elite, nations like Germany or Spain produce three.

Our young talent that we have produced are usually tied down on huge contracts, with massive amounts of money thrown at them and this culture of getting rich quick is something that is hindering young players. How do we combat this? Salary caps dependent on age would be a start. Other nations around Europe produce massive amounts of quality youth players. The Germans seem to have a conveyor belt of talent that keeps rolling off; this can also be applied to Spain who’s golden generation seems to keep on going.

The Dutch have always produced amazingly talented footballers, footballers that entertain and dazzle. “But Holland have never won a World Cup,” you may say. True, but they usually go further than England in tournaments, especially in recent history, and they play amazing football while doing it. Example? Beating Spain 5-1 in the Arena Fonte Nova. The Dutch were simply devastating. When was the last time England were devastating in an international tournament?

The Belgian FA after the 1998 World cup exit instantly noticed they had a problem, so set up a 12-year plan called the Sablon blueprint. It was a Belgian coach, Bob Browaeys, who helped develop it and pull through their very own golden generation. Tapping into philosophies from neighbouring countries like Holland and France and also clubs like Ajax and Barcelona, the youngsters were developed. Every Belgian national team, no matter what age, would play 4-3-3 so as when a player stepped up to a different age group, they would know the exact job role they would take on.

A new national football centre was built in Brussels, focusing on developing these players, a local university was used to audit the player’s development and so on and so on. Has it worked? Look at the players that currently play in top leagues around Europe, not least the Premier League. Jan Vertongen, Eden Hazard, Kevin De Bruyne, Axel Witsel, Toby Alderweireld, Romelu Lukaku, Divock Origi, Thibaut Courtois and the list goes on.

Roy Hodgson got the job because he agreed with the FA that we needed to look to the future and bring through the young players; we then adopted a similar approach as the Belgians. St. George’s park has been built for a start but it’s not enough. We do develop players but these players’ development stalls. We have players like Andros Townsend, Theo Walcott, Raheem Sterling and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, all have one similar attribute: speed. But their crossing is not the greatest. We also have the curious case of Jack Wilshere.

I was sat in a bar, in Turkey, enjoying my summer holiday in 2007 absolutely craving football when I started watching the Emirates Cup, the annual tournament set up by Arsenal during preseason, and it was here where I first caught a glimpse of Jack. Reminding me of a young Paul Gascoigne in his early Arsenal career, gliding past players, using both feet, graciously picking passes, flair, it was beautiful. Now injuries have taken their toll and he has struggled for fitness and his career is stagnating.

Young players are all well and good but there needs to be a perfect mix of youth, experience and prime players in any squad if you want to succeed. Cast your mind back to Germany, 2006. Italy won that world cup with the perfect mix.

The young players in that squad like Daniele De Rossi, Christian Zaccardo and Albert Gilardino combined with players at the height of their powers like Andrea Pirlo, Francesco Totti, Gianluigi Buffon and Gennaro Gattuso and then the experienced heads such as Marco Materazzi, Alessandro Nesta and Fabio Cannavaro helped ensure that this perfect mix helped Italy claim the World Cup for the fourth time.

If England is to be successful in major tournaments then there need to be some old heads in the camp to help this. Currently, Wayne Rooney is seen as the elder statesman and he is only 31 and is currently out of favour due to falling down the pecking order at Manchester United. There need to be seasoned professionals such as Jermain Defoe, who is currently the leading English scorer in the top flight, playing at Sunderland, and Michael Carrick who seems to be maturing like a fine wine.

Yes, Carrick will be 36 going on 37 when Russia arrives, but the point is that players like Carrick, as with Gerrard and Lampard before them, they don’t lose their class, they can still play on at the very top level as Carrick is proving this season with Manchester United.

The next man in the England hot seat, albeit to start temporarily, is Gareth Southgate, this again was a bit of a shambles by the FA making him interview for a job he was already in, almost as if they was waiting to see if anyone else was available after the Sam Allardyce fiasco. Gareth is a very passionate man, especially when it comes to the national team you can see that when he manages on the touchline, but he’s also methodical in his preparation and a calming influence off the pitch. Is he mentally tough enough to cope with the demands of the job or will he end up broken, drained like so many of the previous managers? Only time will truly tell.

However after watching England in the 5 games, he has been at the helm for there have been some positive signs, including a resounding win over rivals Scotland and a very assured performance (last 5 minutes aside) against Spain that gained a creditable draw. The other night’s result against Germany in Dortmund was disappointing but the performance from England was encouraging.

Southgate started with a 3-4-3 formation showing his willingness to adapt and it looked to work fairly well. Players that can interchange between positions and link up stretched the German defence all manner of ways, but it was the finishing that let his side down last night and the goal that won the game was as fitting as the man himself on Lukas Podolski’s last appearance for the national side; a great player for the German national side over the years.

Whilst England played very well last night there was an element of testimonial for the German players who themselves had some big names missing, England had plenty of chances to really make them pay for an experimental side but failed to convert any of them. This will surely be something that Gareth Southgate will look to address.

Gareth does also have the advantage of his extensive knowledge of the youth system with the England setup. His team selections have shown that he likes to give young players a chance. Last night saw senior debuts for Michael Keane of Burnley, Jake Livermore of West Brom and Nathan Redmond and James Ward-Prowse of Southampton and deservedly so after some fantastic performances at club level from all of the above.

Southgate also has a good young batch of players that are not even in their prime yet. Players such as Eric Dier, Jack Butland, Harry Kane, Luke Shaw and Raheem Sterling. He also has, in my opinion, two potentially world class players that should be nurtured through to bring out their full potential in Dele Alli and Marcus Rashford. Tottenham Hotspur and Manchester United both, luckily, have managers who know how to harness this talent so it’s all up to Gareth to unleash this on the national stage.

If over the next 12 months these players can develop properly, here are some possible lineups for Russia in the summer of 2018…..

A really good mixture of youth, prime and experience, not to mention the depth we would have in the squad, Rooney, Ward-Prowse, Barkley, Bertrand, Smalling and even Phil Jones who looks like he has overcome the injuries that have plagued his last 18 months along with the managers flexibility on tactics could see a potentially exciting tournament for England in Russia.

Over the next 12 months, I will be watching England closely in all of the remaining qualifying games and the friendlies. I will be seeing if Gareth Southgate really has the metal the get this mixture right and give players who deserve call-ups a chance and if he does he may just make the nation and myself fall back in love with the national team. I might even bring out the England shirt and start cheering on the boys again.

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