As Albert Einstein once said ‘Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results’. England’s performances based on this quote and on the opinions of football fans across the country would merit the term ‘insanity’. Over the last few decades England fans have had to become accustomed to mediocrity, in every sense of the word. Performances have not been fitting of a country which claims to be the father of the beautiful game. The current U21 European Championships have epitomised the England of the last decade, they lack imagination, identity and worst of all progress.
England’s squad heading into the championship was embarrassing. While England do possess some genuine young talents, very few can be seen in Israel. Jones, Welbeck, Chamberlain were all absent from that squad, called up instead to full England duty for friendlies against Brazil and Ireland. While playing against Brazil will undoubtedly give these players experience it can surely not compete with that which a tournament could provide. Not one player in our squad played in a top four team last season, and, by extension, neither did they compete in the Champions League. The Dutch team contained players with 56 caps worth of full international experience while the Spanish squad contained four players from Barcelona alone. These two sides, who are rightly considered favourites for the tournament, are demonstrating how it should be done.
As well as the Dutch and Spanish contingents the other clear rising force has been the German team. Looking back at the German U21 squad from 2009 they boasted players such as Neuer, Howedes, Boateng, Khedira, Ozil, Schmelzer, Marin and Hummels. However the origins of this current outstanding group of players were borne from their very own crisis, a situation not too dissimilar to England’s current plight.
After Germany’s early exit from Euro 2000 the German FA invested an annual £16.5m into their youth systems. They were struggling to produce enough talent, forced to exploit the tenuous German nationality claims of Erich Ribbeck and Paulo Rink, both signs of clear desperation. A transformation of their youth system was created which can be accredited with the development of today’s stars.
366 training centres were developed alongside 46 academies while all Bundesliga and Bundesliga 2 were forced to build youth academies. Furthermore 14,000 youngsters aged 11-14 receive extra tuition through the implementation of weekly two hour sessions. This was followed by a dramatic increase in the number of qualified coaches available in conjunction with an extensive database system allowing for the analysis of nearly all of the youth players.
What I believe was most effective about this setup was the link and cohesion with the Bundesliga sides. This ensured that young German footballers received quality coaching and that those sides would be more eager to promote from within. Statistics from the last season show that Manchester City, Chelsea, Swansea, Stoke and Wigan all failed to field an English U21 player. This for me is unacceptable and, especially given two are top four sides, will greatly harm our chances.
The reason behind this alarming stat can be diagnosed, whether it can be altered is a different matter. Two of the aforementioned teams have rich owners. These owners have been pumping money into their clubs at a disturbing rate with internationally renowned stars gaining preference over younger academy products. In addition the cut throat nature of these owners and the harsh expectancy of positive results impacts on the managers themselves. They are less likely to take the risk of promoting a young player with the implications of a bad result meaning they lose their job. Thus the young players don’t get a look in.
Johan Cruyff was presented with this problem at Barcelona. Faced with the absence of Guillermo Amor he was under pressure to buy a replacement. However his approach was to turn to youth team player Pep Guardiola to fill the void. Guardiola went on to make the position his own and the confidence that this would have given not just him but also the entire youth system must have been incredible. This has been continued even today at Barcelona and is a key factor behind their recent dominance.
Another recent criticism of the England team has been the distinct lack of technical ability or imagination in their side. Still of persisting with a 4-4-2 they neglect the technical abilities of players creating a rather static and old fashioned system. Most of you will remember Paul Scholes being played on the wing, a tragedy for a player of his technical ability who should have been running the game. Moreover we had the embarrassing phase of believing in the ‘Big Man, Little man’ tactic up front, one lacking any subtlety. This is a poignant reminder of our tactical naivety and it is of little surprise that Scholes was driven to a premature retirement.
All countries have their own unique styles which are passed down from the national side to the youth teams. Cruyff began this in Barcelona with his insistence that all youth teams be coached in the same style and with the same formation. In this way, when they are ready for the full side, they can fully understand the roles they are given. Having witnessed the opening games of the U21 championship, despite many negative comparisons to the national side, I could see little resemblance in style to Roy Hodgson’s team. Each national side has their own identity and England needs to find theirs.
One significant parallel could be drawn and that was their domination by a technically gifted deep-lying playmaker. For England in Euro 2012 their nemesis was Pirlo as he dropped deep to dictate the play, this time it was Verratti. The PSG man made 120 passes on Wednesday evening while the top English player, Jordan Henderson, made 44. Verratti would drop deep to receive the ball and then be given time by the English players to look up and find the right pass. However this should not have come at a surprise to England. Verratti has had a breakthrough season and alerted all of Europe with his impressive displays. In addition England could have learnt from the German teams, Dortmund and Bayern, who, when faced with playmakers such as Pirlo and Alonso, pressed high and man marked them out of the game.
When Klinsmann and Loew took over the German national side they decided on the philosophy they would bring not only to their side but to their country. After consultation with coaches across the country they settled on attacking and proactive football. They then presented their views to the Bundesliga coaches, encouraging them to replicate it. It was proactive in every sense, thus enabling them to imprint their footballing philosophy on the rest of the country. They were also aided by new footballing laws from their governing bodies. They increased the age to U13 where players would first experience full side matches. This allowed them to hone their technical skills and passing abilities under pressure on small condensed games in their formative playing years.
However up until 2012 in England children aged around 10 and 11 were playing in full XI a side matches. Moreover the standard of coaching is significantly behind that of Germany. A recent report revealed that Germany has 28400 coaches with a UEFA B licence, Spain around 22500 but England only 1759. If young players are to develop there skills, qualified coaches to aid them are needed. Rio Ferdinand added some rare wisdom on twitter last year: “One thing our kids coaches don’t do that foreign coaches do is teach them to pass the ball to a player under pressure then coach one-two. How to protect the ball under pressure, foreign players do that much better than us. One reason why they keep possession better. FA coaching courses need a right old shake up in my humble opinion if we are to move forward, some real good bits but some ancient bits too.”
The conclusion is simple; a lot needs to be done and fast. Changes of attitudes and of approaches need to formalised for the future, otherwise we will find ourselves left further behind. By working hard today we can produce tomorrow’s stars. ‘Suffer now and live the rest of your life as a champion’