Fewer chances for younger talent in a culture of fear
FOCUS: ENGLAND'S EXIT:SO WHAT will England do? Change the tip of the pyramid and sack Fabio Capello, or examine the entire structure which lies underneath and see if it could serve Capello better?
Interestingly, England may have come to a crossroads with this World Cup. Most polls being run in the thoughtful end of the English newspaper market had football followers voting to retain Capello. Undoubtedly he made mistakes before and in South Africa, but he draws from the shallow end of a quite unhealthy football pool. English football has failed Fabio more than Fabio has failed English football.
Imagine, for instance, that you are Sam Hutchinson. Nobody has heard of you but you are in your late teens and quite a talented defender. Been with Chelsea since you were a nipper. England Under-19s, England Under-21s. All good. A few injury problems over the last year or two but you are still part of the cream of the crop.
Nineteen years old and you have made just a couple of first team appearances. So should you be picking out your Ferarri? Should you be alerting MTV that they might want to be featuring your crib in a year or so? Will you place an ad in the personal columns of Wag Weekly?
Probably not, because the downside of playing in the so-called greatest league in the world is that the debt-ridden corporation you turn out for is unlikely to take a chance on you when it has a shedload of expensively acquired foreign talent ahead of you in the queue. Look around you son. The last home-grown player to make it at Chelsea was John Terry.
Or you could be Kieran Gibbs at Arsenal. Tipped for greatness, but not before Gael Clichy breaks a leg and Arsenal can’t find an established international to replace him in a hurry. Then you might get the 20 games or so needed to bed yourself in.
Now imagine your name is Thomas Mueller and you are a few months older than Sam Hutchinson. And you are at the World Cup. You came to Bayern Munich as part of a youth scheme which specialises in gathering in players from Munich and its environs. Six of the current first team are from the city or just outside.
You came through one of the club’s talent weekends when up to 500 local kids will play in street league-style games while coaches look for those with natural technique and an understanding of movement.
They raised you to play within the club’s 4-3-3 system and coached you how to play in a couple of different positions. Coming through the system you trained at the same venue with the senior side, played a season in Liga 3 for Bayern’s second team and continued on stream.
You played 52 first team games for Bayern last year, yet another product of a youth system which has produced Thomas Hitzlsperger, Philip Lahm, Bastien Schweinsteiger, Piotr Trochowski, Andrea Ottle, Toni Kroos and Holger Badstuber, as well as up-coming phenomenons such as David Alaba, the youngest ever Austrian international, and Diego Contento.
By the way, 52 games Thomas? Shouldn’t you be as exhausted as the English lads? How come you covered 8,296 metres in the course of the Ghana game then? And just short of that in each game since? What’s the matter with you? You play in a league with a smattering of foreign talent but one which draws excellent crowds and depends on local players. You play for a club which turns a profit, owns 80 per cent of it’s shares (Adidas and Audi own about 10 per cent each ) and which is run by football men like Uli Hoeness and Karl Heinz Rummenigge. And this World Cup is becoming your stage.
In those two stories lies England’s football problem, a problem which having a manager who is paid twice as much as the next best paid manager at the World Cup cannot solve.
The quality end of the Premier League is the place where English players need to be if they are to thrive and develop properly. The top end of the Premier League, however, is a festering pile of debt-ridden clubs hooked on foreign talent and desperate to keep their lips close to the teat of Champions League action.
The English influence on its own league decreases annually.
The so-called golden generation of English players who travel home from South Africa in what is by now a familiar gown of ignominy are victims of a football culture which leaves them under-prepared for the game at the highest level and a media culture which overhypes them.
The Premier League, with its 100mph game and its dire financial management, is a poor learning ground at the best of times. Two-thirds of the clubs live in fear of the financial calamity that is relegation; the rest live in fear of the tsunami which is failure to qualify for Europe. In a culture of fear and overspending, managers take fewer and fewer chances on what young talent they do produce.
We know that well looking in from an Irish perspective. Gifted player after gifted player has been denied the break and the time they needed. Richie Partridge was once the next big thing at Anfield. He played one senior game for the club, a 7-0 win over Stoke City. Not enough to earn a second game. Willo Flood in his Man City days, Graham Barrett and later Anthony Stokes at Arsenal. Liam Miller when he moved to Manchester United. The list is endless.
Now with England’s golden generation trooping off into the sunset the pool of youngsters to replace them is shallow and (like Theo Walcott with England) mistrusted within a culture of damage limitation. Where else would you get a player like Michael Dawson, 26 and still uncapped and yet being talked about in some circles as the England captain for 2014?
English clubs play the ball so quick and with such an air of desperation that players bred on the old British virtues of heart and bravery struggle when the game is slowed down and things become more cerebral.
Before Sunday’s cruel dressing down by the Germans England had demonstrated a worrying tendency to give the ball away unnecessarily. The Fifa stats for the competition confirm this to be more than just a vague impression. For instance, while most of the German players maintained at least an 80 per cent completion rate for their passes through their four games to date (with Per Mertesacker up there with 86 per cent), a figure as central to England’s hopes as Steven Gerrard had a 64 per cent completion rate out of 250 passes: that is, he gave the ball away 90 times in the course of four games. John Terry was the only English player even to hit the 80 per cent mark.
When you start with such a level of technical handicap that your star midfielder gives the ball away one in every three times he gets it things are all uphill from there. Incidentally, Toni Kroos, the young German, has had limited exposure so far but is a statistical oddity: he has a 100 per cent completion across the board.
The English game is like the Wall Street of two, three years ago: storied, the brand leader at what it does but on the brink of collapse because all its castles are built in the air.
It would be no harm to be able to afford fewer and fewer €170,000-a-week foreign stars, no bad thing to legislate for the phasing out of mass debts, a good idea to look at ownership issues. It’s necessary to look at the national coaching policy with the aim of producing less muscle and more imagination. The dearth of truly creative players coming through England’s youth academies is alarming. It can’t be there aren’t kids with creativity in them; just, in a culture of fear, the risk has to be taken out of the football and the kid must be strait-jacketed into a system.
The scant dividend of a palsied football culture was what England experienced in the last four games, the shuddering realisation that technically they were no better than the best of the weakest of the teams they faced. Fabio Capello can’t change that, he can only work with what he is given.
The task is to change the cloth and not the tailor.