Fabio Capello is a top coach in international club football. He is someone who understands tactics and developing young players. For a nation like England who are in dire straights in both regards (tactical flexibility and player development) he is a smart hire. Capello as many of our readers know actually spent several hours in September discussing a role with the US Federation in a meeting with Sunil Gulati and Bob Bradley. Something about England was more attractive to Capello than coming to the US as a technical director. Perhaps it was the reported £6.5 million or simply the opportunity to be a Head Coach again, something that was apparently not on the table in the discussions with the United States. But I figured this was as good a time as any to compare the national set ups of both nations, the two national teams the majority of our readers follow regularly.
England has far more talent than the United States. Make no mistake about that. I don’t believe England’s talent pool is as deep as the American pool but honestly Landon Donovan is the only American field player who would ever have a chance of cracking an England starting XI. In fact, Donovan is probably the only American field player who could crack a 23 man tournament squad list for England. (For the record let me state that I believe on his day Donovan can be better than any English player or just about any player in the world, but those days seem to be further and further in the rear view mirror as of this writing.) Again, the US probably has more players that they could field on an international side, a deeper player pool but no question exists in my mind that among the top thirty players or so England is far, far ahead of the United States, with the exception of Landon Donovan.
Obviously American keepers are superior to English keepers, but absent a proven international keeper like Brad Friedel (retired from international football) or the ageing Kasey Keller the US advantage is substantially minimized. Sure Tim Howard is better than Rob Green or David James, but not by the margin someone like Freidel was over the top English keepers in his prime. Keep in mind Kasey Keller once was beat out to be Spurs top keeper by none other than Paul Robinson. At one time the US had keepers like Mike Amman, Juergen Sommer, Tony Meola and Zach Thornton all of whom would have been decent #2s for England behind David Seaman struggling to get a game with the US. In other words, the US goalkeeper talent pool isn’t as deep as it once was.
Where the US has a distinct advantage is in facilities and training techniques. I don’t want to insult any of our readers, but England’s non qualification for the Euro 2008 Finals isn’t because of Steve McClaren but simply the culmination of years of neglect by the FA. Fabio Capello should change that, but here is where the US and most nations with decent football governing bodies have a huge advantage.
England’s failure to keep open a national training academy owes itself both to a culture where club football has taken precedence over the welfare of the National Team and where player development has taken a back seat to importing foreign players for the domestic league. In other words, the success of the Premier League has hurt England’s National Team and not having a strong FA has made matters worse. Consider the US’ position. MLS has until recently been a fairly weak league whose reason for existence was specifically to develop American players. Combine that with the full time residency academy US Soccer has in Bradenton, Florida and it is no wonder that despite inferior talent, the US teams look more like a unit rather than a ragged group of individuals like England’s team. The American players often times have known each other since they were 14 or 15 and understand each others game. While Flourant Malouda’s more outrageous comments were out of line a few weeks ago, I do agree with the part about players brains freezing in the middle of Premier League matches. I see that all the time and always see it with England’s National Team as well. Tactically English players and coaches aren’t flexible whereas American coaches are, something we’ll get more into shortly.
Then there is the subject of having adequate training facilities. For many in England it is alright to borrow these from the clubs, whereas the United States has its own facility at the Home Depot Center. Again, the US has a clear advantage in this department and beyond that an understanding of how you succeed in international football. Borrowing facilities from a club like Arsenal for the English FA is just flat embarrassing. England from my understanding doesn’t even have a team doctor or a meeting place for the national team. This is all very reminiscent of the status of poorer Football Federations in the third world, not of the footballing power that England should be.
Finally the subject of tactics is very critical to our discussion. Bob Bradley has reversed Bruce Arena’s years of tactical negligence by implementing a clear philosophy with the national team. These tactics have actually won the United States the last two friendlies on the road we have played in. This is something Capello should be able to work on for England, because even in the Sven years when he’d have a tactical approach, all too often the English players would become undisciplined and begin playing route one football out of some desperate desire to score quickly or simply out of habit. The opposite can be said for Bob Bradley and going back a bit to Steve Sampson. Both coaches I routinely saw make tactical changes, formation changes, early substitutions during matches that appeared to be getting away from the US. Not only do we never seem to see this with England’s National Team, but in the Premier League many coaches seem to submit their team sheet and then wait for the postgame interview. If England can learn one thing from Fabio Capello it is tactical discipline and flexibility. Sven had the tactical savvy to succeed but not the discipline to enforce his strategy on an unwilling group of players, not the willingness to sit a top player if they weren’t playing the game the way he had prepared them to play. Capello will be different, and he may be successful. But his success will depend on the willingness of the English to break their current mold and develop a national team program befitting of such a great footballing nation.