England suffering at the expense of an ‘Exciting’ Premier League?

COS contributor Tom Smith asks if English footballs chickens are coming home to roost again at another major tournament.

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June 18, 2010 - South Africa - Football - England v Algeria FIFA World Cup South Africa 2010 - Group C - Green Point Stadium, Cape Town, South Africa - 18/6/10..England's Wayne Rooney.

Last Tuesday on these pages I wrote a piece raising the question of England and Fabio Capello succumbing to a national syndrome of mindless optimism which ultimately has adverse effects at a tactical and technical level.  Now, not to go over old ground again (and I admit that two bad performances certainly prove very little), but if we don’t ask questions now, it could very easily be all over by Wednesday.

England’s desperately poor performances against the USA and Algeria are not entirely surprising. Despite some ‘good results’ and a ‘solid qualification record’ on paper, England played a brand of football focused on the ‘3 points are all that’s important’ mantra borrowed straight from the premier league where performances and style come second to the results.

At either end of the spectrum, teams are vilified for their approaches, Arsenal are nice on the eye, but toothless and weak, while Stoke and Bolton et al are perfunctory and uninspiring but gets results.

Now it seems, English football is suffering from the very same unique feature that makes the premier league the most exciting league in the world.  The frenetic pace of the game in England, where all our players play, and the immense pressure and media scrutiny, on the top four teams in particular, has its consequences and they are coming home to roost. In fact, they do at every major International tournament but we choose to bury our heads in the sand.

English players like Frank Lampard who has scored a staggering minimum of 20 goals from midfield in each of the last 5 seasons (28 this season) are the epitome of this. Lampard is a permanent feature of the Chelsea side along with only 2 other English teammates, the rest of the team is made up of continental trained players who are comfortable on the ball and do what the England players either don’t do or can’t do.

The same is true at Liverpool where Gerrard, who’s season has been poor by his own admission, is allowed free-rain while their two other quality players in Mascherano and Torres try to inspire a squad of mainly foreign players who are average and workmanlike at best.

At Arsenal, Arsene Wenger it would seem has a natural tendency to trust, if not prefer, non-English players. And at At Manchester United, Wayne Rooney is the central pivot around a team that is in the perpetual generation transition, from the old guard of Paul Scholes and Ryan Giggs into Darren Fletcher, Micheal Carrick and Anderson. It is a transition that has certainly not proven easy in recent years for Ferguson at Old Trafford, his signing of Owen Hargreaves for £17 million from Bayern Munich could have solved this but for his injuries.

England and United, have missed Hargreaves, his class in central midfield is something no other player can produce. His absence may not have been felt straight away, for United it was not until the Champions League final against Barcelona last year when United where outplayed in midfield and the engine room procession game of Xavi, Inesta and Busquestes looked light years away from that years Premier League champions.

Granted, Ronaldo’s shoot on site attitude that night with one eye on the Bernabau was not the embodiment of team spirit, but the manor of that 2-0 defeat should have focused English minds more than it seems to have.

For England, the qualification campaign was rarely the test of footballing prowess the media built it up to be. With only England qualifying from a group that contained a waning Croatia, an average Ukraine, a non-descript Belarus team and Kazakhstan and Andorra who are ranked 129 and 201 in the world. Alongside these matches, in 2009 England were involved in some friendly matches against what we consider football equals. They didn’t go well; the Spanish gave us a lesson much like that administered by Barcelona to United in the Stadio Olympico with another 2-0 win.  Then a 1-0 defeat to Brazil and a 2-2 draw with the Dutch (after they were 2-0 up and a Jermaine Defoe equaliser in the 76th minute helped to save face) were hardly the basis for us to be considered favorites for the tournament.

The Dutch, Italians, Brazilians, Argentineans, Germans and the Spanish all have domestic leagues we consider poor and uncompetitive, but only Jermaine Pennant and David Beckham are the players of any note to be deemed worthy. English players are more expensive I hear you cry, well yes, but who knows why. Is our ‘passion’ (something that’s given far more credit than it deserves) that valuable?, is it more valuable to our players and league than the ability to keep the ball?

Receive, Pass, Offer, Receive, Pass, Offer, the three word mantra of the Massia repeated over and over until it becomes second nature is yet to be replaced on the terraces and pitches in England.  Before I ruptured my anterior cruciate ligaments playing for Hull Cities youth team 10 years ago, even at 18, the call from the sidelines to defenders and deep lying midfielders could be anything between ‘just get rid of it’ or ‘just put your foot through it son!’ Those players I played with have grown up to now be journeymen lower league players who it seems are passing on  the same tactical words of wisdom they received then – not exactly progressive.

I cant imagine that Welsey Sjneider, Cristiano Ronaldo or Frank Ribery were encouraged to do anything other than run with the ball or receive, pass, offer. How else would they have become so much better?  It’s a difficult answer to accept and more difficult to put right, but at least lets acknowledge our weaknesses.

Capellos English seems to have taken a convenient malfunction but before the Sven-esque tide of uncomfortable quasi-xenophobic tirades come his way, lets benefit from his neutrality and get a clear answer from him; are our players good enough?

It seems from his approach, we are not capable of playing a receive, pass, offer game. He has allowed England to ‘revert to type’, playing a big target man in Heskey and hoping the players who are luxurious midfield goal scores for their teams, play loosely in a formation and system that lacks any central premise. What type of football would he like to see us play? Or are we already playing it, its just our chickens have come home to roost and results are hard to come-by when teams are so organised and defensively mature.

We wonder why our ‘great players’ like Gerrard, Lampard and Rooney don’t play well for England, well its because we don’t have Mascherano, Drogba or Scholes in our England team. Hargreaves, remember was vilified by the moronic sections of the British tabloid press and its devout England fans before 2006 when he demonstrated his ability and worth to the team at major tournament. Only when more players follow in his footsteps, be it career-wise, or in on the field ability, will England be good to watch and able to mount a challenge not based on kick and rush football.