Wednesday, 23 June 2010

England's problems run deeper than a few bad games

In this rather long blog, i try and work out why can't England perform on a national level and what seems to hold the players back?

Obviously we are all aware of England's situation and just how poorly they've been playing, although they were criticised for the USA game i felt that until Rob Greens' howler they were playing about as well as most teams did in the first game but that mistake clearly knocked the stuffing out of them which they then took to the following game against Algeria which, in all honesty, they were awful in. The game against Slovenia was a marked improvement but if you strip away all the hype and the 'should have scored more' and the fact is England beat a team 17 places below them in the world rankings by 1 goal and could very easily have drawn had it not been for some last ditch defending. Yes the performance was better but its not hard to perform better than they did against Algeria because that was atrocious - the truth is England should be performing better than they did in any of the group games and need to step up against Germany otherwise it might be a sad night for England fans.

The problems with the England team run much much deeper than simply some players not turning up for the group games - the last time England made a real impact was Euro 1996 and obviously that was held in England so the home advantage we see in these tournaments can help count for that. Before then you have to go as far back as Italia 90 - that's 20 years ago which for a team & country like England just shouldn't be acceptable, here is that record

Italia '90 - Semis
Euro '92 - Group Stage
USA '94 - DNQ
Euro '96 - Semis
France '98 - 2nd round
Euro '00 - group stage
Japan & Korea '02 - Quarter Finals (beating Denmark in 2nd round)
Euro '04 - Quarter Finals
Germany '06 - Quarters (beating Equador in 2nd round)
Euro '08 - DNQ
South Africa '10 - ???

If you gave this record to a football fan without telling them the team and asking if they were a big team in international terms you would more than likely get a resounding no, and this is part of the problem - the pressure & expectations on the team are over whelming and the players know if they don't live up to the expectations set by the fans and the press they will get hammered, until the new season starts and all is forgotten until they pull on the England shirt again. Jamie Carragher wrote in his auto-biography that he didn't enjoy playing for England because playing for his club carried less pressure as an individual and at first i just dismissed this as a bitter player lashing out but the more i think about it the more it makes sense, if you need to look any further look at people like Steven Gerrard or Frank Lampard - 2 players who we constantly see excel for their clubs but never hit the same heights for the national team. So why is pulling on the England shirt such a problem for the players? Is it the weight of expectation? Is it the different surroundings and different players? perhaps its the different management & style?

Of course a massive problem is the outrageous expectations placed on England by the media and fans, and this can be seen as a double headed monster. A lot of 'average' fans who drive around with flags on their cars and appear every major tournament are the ones that start going on about '66 and how its our time and we just have to turn up because we're England and we should easily make the semi finals and then with a bit of luck win the thing - these are the kind of fans that said we should beat the USA because 'what do they know about football?' without realising that the Americans are actually a pretty solid team! This problem is fuelled by the media who constantly run things like 'Maybe, just maybe' or 'This year could be the year' yes individual journalists say things like 'if we get to the semi finals it'll be a good tournament & great achievement' but they are one voice in a media scrum of unrealistic expectations. As if to prove my point the sun's 'chief sports writer' Steve Howard has written an article today titled 'Why we'll beat them' when in every other country we are perceived as under dogs against Germany because we've performed so badly! Another problem with the media is they will only attack certain players - why? Because journalists rely on certain players being friendly with them so they can get exclusives or get friendly with players and live on their coat tails which is wrong. Even after the Algeria game Heskey was attacked, Aaron Lennon was given a rough time but rather than go for the serial under performers like Gerrard, Lampard, Rooney or the media darling JT they then round on Capello?!

It's amazing how quickly we blame the manager, Sven was blamed saying he could only take the team so far, McClaren was chased out of England by fans & press alike only to go on and prove that clearly he has something about him, if being assistant to a treble winning team or taking Middlesbrough to the UEFA cup final wasn't enough in 2 seasons he broke the usual top lot in Holland and finished 2nd then 1st in the Eredivisie, and although its not a strong league everything is relative, its the equivalent to Aston Villa winning the league. Even now people are trying to blame Capello for things like not announcing the team enough in advance or not doing certain things, this is complete rubbish because Capello is one of the best managers in the business today and if he can't do it we should really start worrying about the future of the team. Of course Capello was almost declared a deity after England qualified with the media, fans and even players declaring what Capello had done was responsible for the excellent qualifying campaign but suddenly the things he was praised for doing became the problem after just 2 games into the tournament? Talk about knees jerking furiously because we played a game and a half of poor football! Capello's tactics & strategies have bought him league titles in Italy and Spain as well as a Champions League medal in one of the most surprising finals of all time (A 4-0 beating of favourites Barcelona in one of the biggest upsets seen in a CL final)

So if it's not the manager that's the problem is it the players? As we all know from when Sven started in 2002 till when he left, and even during McClaren's reign it was pretty much the same squad with the same starting group every game, which of course allowed the players to slip into a comfort zone and become complacent which culminated in the failure to qualify for Euro 2008. Obviously the players were under the spotlight but look at the team, even the squad, and its still very similar despite people praising Capello for making players not feel as secure & comfortable you look at the team sheet now and the team sheet 2 years ago, even 4 years ago and the spine of the team is still very much the same. Whilst Capello may have bought a new mentality to some players the usual players know they are assured of their place and i feel this was personified by John Terry's recent very public outburst against Capello and some of his tactics and substitutions.

In football there are certain unspoken rules you abide by and JT managed to break one of these prime rules which is not mentioning players names in press conferences relating to private discussions - whats said in the dressing room stays in the dressing room basically. If Capello came out saying what was said in his meeting with JT when he stripped him of the captaincy people would go crazy, so whys it not the same way around? Why is it when JT criticises the boss everyone describes it as 'brave' or 'passionate' or 'honorable'? John Terry is not a stupid person, despite his previous long list of misdemeanors, he knew what he was doing, he knew that right now was a perfect time to vent his simmering frustrations over losing the captains armband because right now England need JT more than JT needs England. However this isn't just about JT, its about the collection of ego's in the dressing room and here is another problem that has haunted the England team certainly in this generation. Wayne Rooney also displayed the attitude problems with his comments to the camera after the Alegeria game which was also unacceptable because these fans have spent thousands of pounds travelling to South Africa, some even quiting their jobs to watch them and when they play that badly the fans have a right to express their frustrations.

When you look at teams like Spain, Brazil and even Argentina they clearly don't have this problem, Dunga has picked most of his team based on how well they get on in a group and their loyalty to him because players like Elano or Michelle Bastos shouldn't be in the team over people like Ronaldinho or Marcello but he trusts them and knows they aren't disruptive. He tried to stand by Adriano but he became to much of a problem and was dropped from the squad, likewise Ronaldinho who many people felt both in and out of Brazil should have gone to the world cup didn't make the squad because Dunga was fed up of carrying him and his attitude around.

Maradona has done the same with Argentina with Gutierrez a prime example - he doesn't play in a top league and he's not exactly a world class player but the work rate he puts in and the attitude he brings can never be underestimated. People in Europe where surprised when Maradona didn't take Javier Zanetti or Esteban Cambiasso to the world cup but it's a well known that these 2 where considered 'disruptive' by Maradona a thought that was proven by Zanetti when as captain he told players to ignore Maradonas tactics and follow what he was saying - this lead to a 'heated' discussion between coach and captain and Zanetti was omitted from the squad. When you look at the problems this summer with the French team a lot of this can be put down to bad attitudes and ego problems which have dogged the French for a very long time, in 1998 though they had immense team spirit and this has been credited as one of the reasons they won the tournament because they put there bickering and infighting to one side for the good of the country and the team. Italy also have a lot of problems along these lines as well with certain players being unhappy with selection or tactics and they also crashed out early on.

Whilst I'm not saying every single England player has a massive ego or thinks they are the main man i think the main spine of the team is so confident and assured of their place that they feel they can say what they want and do what they want, again personified by John Terrys attitude and 'apology' which in my opinion wasn't really an apology it was more a 'this is what my mates have told me to do' type thing - reports say he still acts like the captain and many people have said both privately and publicly he still doesn't see what he did wrong over the whole Wayne Bridge affair (apparently he still hasn't apologised to Bridge). Someone like Steven Gerrard knows if he puts in a bad shift for England its OK because he can go back to his club where he is idolised and just forget about it, the same can be said of John Terry, Ashley Cole or even Wayne Rooney.

Spain are a perfect recent example of how a big name has to be cut for the sake of the team, Raul being dropped helped them break the shackles of being perennial under achievers. Prior to Spain's shock 3-2 defeat against Northern Ireland Raul had played 102 times for Spain and scored a record 44 goals but Luis Aragones decided that the whole Madrid/Barcelona split was the root of the problems within the camp, despite the fact Iker Casillas is a Madrid boy born and bred he would frequently mix with Barcelona stars such as Puyol, Xavi & Iniesta but Raul was seen as a disruptive influence and a divide in the camp. One of Aragones' most famous quotes was just before the Euro 2008 tournament when a journalist asked him if he would pick Raul, he simply turned around and said 'Do you know how many major tournaments Raul has played in? 3. Do you know how many he's won or even performed well in? None.' As if to prove the point Spain won Euro 2008 and the atmosphere in the camp is said to be the best its ever been at, and now no-one really mentions the Raul matter, even the notoriously pro Madrid Marca paper.

Sadly England's problem at the moment is if these players are dropped their is no one to step up and replace them, I'm not suggesting its as simple as dropping this generation of players but what i am saying in this case is that there is no one challenging them if they under perform and here lies another problem - the English infrastructure.

Trevor Brooking is frequently campaigning for better youth structure, investments in grass roots and a central football school for youngsters, his vision is to have a 'finishing school' like the french Clairefontaine which is widely acknowledged as one of the best football academy's in the world and is seen as one of the main reason's they won the world cup in 1998. In England youngsters get picked up from as young as 7 or 8 and are put through a teams youth ranks before either breaking into the team, rotting in the reserves or ending up at lower league clubs and never fulfilling there true potential. For the last 9 years whenever the question is raised with the F.A the immediately promise to pump more money in to grassroots and hide behind the National Football Centre in Burton (renamed St. George's Park) that has been in the works for years. This Centre desperately needs to be completed so that there can be a change in mentality as well as developing a better ability to keep the ball and work together as a unit because when these problems are usually identified to late in a players development and its much harder to break problems for these players at this point. When Fabio Capello first came to the F.A he was shocked to find out that no such centre was already in existence and that the plans were still on the drawing board after nearly 9 years of planning and talking, he has said since he joined that this must be a priority for the English game to develop. The major problem with this is that, if we take the French example, it will be about 8-10 years before we reap the benefits which leaves us with nearly a decade of wondering where the new generation will come from?

England did win the U-17 championships this summer (before the World Cup) but the main players in that team, Benik Afobe, Connor Coady, Josh McEachran, Andre Wisdom & Nathaniel Chalobah all play for Liverpool, Chelsea, Arsenal or Man Utd and i would be amazed if even 2 of them became first team regulars with in the next 4 years for these teams. People like Connor Wickham (Ipswich), Saido Berahino (WBA) & Bruno Pilatos (Middlesborough) all play for championship clubs where they could get a break (Wickham has already played nearly 30 games for Ipswich) but they have all been linked to top flight clubs recently and Wickham is expected to leave Ipswich this summer for Spurs, where he will have at least 4 strikers in front of him at the moment and thats before they buy players with CL experience. These players should be protected and nurtured properly with clubs they will be able to get first team football with and develop their talents, a team like Crewe are a perfect example, Dario Gradi says it is a great tragedy that so many of his youngsters get poached by big teams and never fulfil there full potential because rather than being coached on a specialist basis knowing they have talent they are put in a pool of about 20 players and just get swallowed up in the group.

I think that the problem with England lies much deeper than this generation of players just not performing, and i think that until we have a much larger talent pool, less pressure and, as painful as it is to admit, technically better players then things will improve but i think the biggest problem is the mentality & attitude of the players and all of these things will take many years to correct and its not just an overnight fix.

As always thank you for reading, if you agree or disagree please feel free to leave comments and thoughts either below, on twitter (buster_5265) via e-mail ( or on the facebook group 'football fan'

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