Monday, 31 January 2011

The FA's direction: Part 1

Brooking spoke recently to the BBC about the path the FA will take in terms of developing youth. See the video here.

Nothing is new in what he says but it is important the ideas are articulated to the biggest stakeholder in English football: the fans. I have written about the FA's failings in its approach to developing youth. I stand by those points. It is still too reactive, and still paralysed by fear. The strength of the Premier League is bad for the development of English players who can't get the exposure they need and the football world is still too insular. Policy is still reactionary and hearing Trevor Brooking speak of a time frame of 10 years is worrying as other more experimental, bold nations (like the KNVB in Holland who have always accepted the need to be innovative, having a population of just 16 million) will have moved ahead.

However in the wake of the World Cup the FA is starting to realise what needs to be done. This comes down to two key points: competitiveness v other motivations ('competitiveness' loses!) and having a playing philosophy. I'll tackle the second point in this piece, and the first in the next.

Brooking says "English youngsters can pass the ball as well as anyone, if we spend the time cajoling it out of them". You only need look at the top players we have produced over the past 15 years to know that this has not happened so far. Scholes, Lampard, and Carrick are perhaps the only genuine passers of the ball we've produced. Of those Scholes is a true phenomenon, perhaps the most undervalued midfielder of the past 20 years. Zidane said,

“He’s almost untouchable in what he does, I never tire of watching him play. You rarely come across the complete footballer, but Scholes is as close to it as you can get. One of my regrets is that the opportunity to play alongside him never presented itself during my career. He was an extremely tough opponent to play against. You didn’t get any time on the ball when he was around. He would close you down and make your life ­terribly uncomfortable. He is the type of player you want on your side, not in ­opposition because he could do so much damage. He is very gifted. He makes the game look easy because he’s so much natural ­ability.”

I urge you to click here for a simply phenomenal list of quotes praising his talent. That the top midfielders and players of his generation have come out with such glowing praise highlights how far off the media can be in their appraisal. Make no doubt, Scholes is respected and yet we still gravitate towards the flash bang of a Ronaldo or Messi with jaws agape far more readily than a player with the more subtle, all round class of a Scholes. And yet with Scholes being English we should have every reason to want to extol his virtues.

Our lack of appreciation for a player so universally acclaimed is ridiculous and symptomatic of our failing to appreciate true class.

Zonal Marking makes a similar case for Carrick being underrated. He has many faults but his passing is strong.

And that leaves us with Lampard, whose passing range is superb and yet in the hustle and bustle of the Premier League will be known for being a box to box, goal-scoring midfielder.

Sure I know a moment does not a player make and the youtube fallacy is profligate on the web (if a player has a good compilation video on you tube he must be a good player), but Lampard genuinely has class. And despite being highly rated, it is not for his passing qualities, but his big balls and spectacular goals. He has the second highest number of assists in Premier League history and yet praise is too often misallocated.

And yet it is not that we do not appreciate good passers. Xavi, Iniesta, Arteta and Xabi Alonso are just four of a multitude of strong passers we appreciate in the Spanish team. Pirlo, De Rossi and Montolivo are respected Italians. Rui Costa, Tiago and Deco in Portugal. Zidane, Pires, Toulalan in France. Sneijder, Bergkamp, Seedorf. I could go on, but the point is clear.

English players are not trained from a young age to pass the ball, to be patient, to have awareness for what goes on around them. There is also little external reward for playing a good pass. When we see the players glamourised in the Premier League (the place top English players first break through) we see players who have any combination of pace, goals, desire and directness. Ashley Young, Wayne Rooney, Joe Cole, Steven Gerrard, Ashley Cole.

These players are not intrinsically bad but they rely on having players around them who can do the simple things well. Ronaldo, Rooney, and Tevez worked so well because they had some combination Scholes, Carrick, Anderson, and Giggs behind to keep the ball moving and release them intelligently. Arsenal's directness when they were winning things was tempered by the ability to keep hold of the ball when necessary. Mourinho's sides are best characterised by intense pressing to win the ball and then "resting" when in possession i.e. slowing play down and keeping possession. Successful sides know how to speed up but they also know how to slow down.

If England are to have any success going forward then the FA's plan to produce players who can pass the ball from the back is to be welcomed.

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