Pass masters would not pass muster in England
PERHAPS THE most depressing indictment of England came from Wigan manager Roberto Martinez in those moments after the trophy had been presented, and it felt legitimate to wonder whether the imbalance of talent now represents an unbridgeable gulf.
Spain had not only confirmed their credentials to be recognised as the most devastating side there has ever been, but they also emphasised how far England have fallen behind.
For Martinez, watching Andres Iniesta and Xavi Hernandez put on a midfield masterclass, one thought occurred. “Iniesta and Xavi would never have made it six years ago in a British team,” he said.
“The first selection is ‘not tall enough, not strong enough’.”
It was the same, he said, for a young David Silva, the scorer of Spain’s first goal, and others, too, from the culture where passing the ball and being technically gifted is deemed more important than size and power.
Yet Martinez, an Anglophile now to the point he refers to England as “we”, believes it is more a question of attitude than talent. “I hate it when people say England’s players cannot be as technical as the Spanish. If you look at what we’ve done in the last five years, the English player is technical.
“The English players at the top five Premier League clubs are technically very gifted and I have a player [Victor Moses], who could have played for England, who is, technically, as good as they get.
“It’s in the age of 18 to 21 we have to improve because, up to 18, we are as good as anyone in the world. But from 18 to the first team, there is a gap that only a few make. It’s a real gamble.
“Ability on its own is not enough. It is the player who is the better professional who gets through.”
Martinez stopped short of talking about a drink culture but he did refer to the fact up-and-coming players in England “play reserve games on a Wednesday, which means they have all the temptations any teenager faces on a weekend – it is a danger.”
In Spain, he said, it was different. “If a player makes a mistake, he’s out. It’s such a competitive environment the ones who get through are winners and ready. Between 16 and 19 years old they might all show you what they can be, but the ones who are going to win games and be successful are the consistent characters.”
Reflecting on a tournament when England’s first lesson was that they need to take better care of the ball, Martinez is among those pinning a great deal of hope on the young shoulders of the Arsenal midfielder Jack Wilshere.
“When you look at a player, you speak about the technical ability, the tactical knowledge, the physical aspects, the lifestyle and the mental side,” the Spaniard said. “When you go to play for Bolton [on loan], fighting to avoid relegation, that gives you an incredible experience, mentally.
“It made Wilshere a player for Arsenal. He got out of it an understanding that it’s a survival business.
“He realised he was fighting for his career. All of a sudden, it makes sense. It makes you humble. You realise that life and football has a meaning. And that’s what we’re missing from 18 to 21.”
Others might argue there is something very flimsy about relying so heavily on a 20-year-old who has not played for an entire year because of an ankle injury and reputedly may also miss the start of next season.
Martinez takes the point and accepts it is a long-term rebuilding job. “You look at what Roy Hodgson did in a short period of time and it was a football miracle to get the players understanding the way they were going to work and make them competitive,” he continued. “What he’s done with England is come up with a set-up which is very, very hard to beat.
“We need to develop a team which is better on the ball and outplays other teams, and having that philosophy rather than trying to keep a clean sheet.
“But that’s nothing to do with this English side.”