The FA Fiddles as the Three Lions Burn
With a few weeks perspective after another predictable and disappointing quad-annual collapse by the latest version of England’s best-team-in-a-generation, the FA is starting to weigh in. In article published yesterday in the Mirror, the FA revealed its new strategy – groom an English coach to take over for Fabio Capello in two years, bring a few more youngsters into the team and look at the way the Spanish national team trains.
Sorry, but that just won’t do the trick. The sad truth is that England is a long way from producing a team that approaches its fans’ overinflated expectations. Without a radically different approach, the FA is dooming the Three Lions to a permanent position as one of the middling European squads – closer to Denmark or Switzerland than to Spain or Germany.
So, where to start? First, let’s dispense with the easy quick fixes that will have no real impact. Whether Fabio Capello, Steve McClaren or the reincarnated ghost of Brian Clough, the name of the current coach has a modest impact on the result. National team coaches are not like club team coaches whose job is to spot, develop and nurture talent. Great club coaches excel at making their meal from scratch. National team coaches must reheat a dinner that has already been prepared by others.
Similarly, other insta-cures will also mean little. Winter breaks, different formations, and more/less access to the WAGs during the tournament may make for good copy but do not really change the results. None of these actions will lead to a significant improvement for the Euro 2012 or World Cup 2014. Instead, what is needed is a complete revolution in English soccer training from the youth on up that can yield a better result in 8-10 years.
First and foremost, increasing the number of skilled, trained coaches in England is vital. These numbers have been bandied about over the past few weeks, but they need repeating:
Number of coaches by country possessing UEFA’s top coaching qualification:
Germany – 34,970
Italy – 29,420
Spain – 23,995
England – 2,769
Of those smattering of top-qualified English coaches, the majority work with senior players meaning that only a small handful are even available to work with England’s next generation. With their major rivals having 10 times or more the amount of top coaches, that means that ten times the young players from those nation can receive quality training and develop and hone critical ball skills. If the FA has any role to play, this would seem to be the most obvious and critical – to commit to increasing the quantity of qualified coaches.
Once those coaches are in place, what should they teach? Ball control, interior passing and possession retention. Watching Spain, Holland and Germany move the ball down the pitch like they are PlayStation athletes should be a revelation to every English fan that wants their team to do better. Who is England’s best dribbler and passer? Damned if I know. I do know that watching the English team move the ball around as if it was filled with mashed potatoes rather than air is simply painful.
In a recent interview with The Times, Real Madrid’s Xabi Alonso had a fascinating observation. He said that when he played for Liverpool, he would occasionally go to their youth academy for meetings with their future players. He would ask the young midfielders what their greatest skill is, and more often then not, they would be most proud of their ability to tackle.
Alonso believed that tackling is a useful skill, but it is the skill you employ to make up for a failure of position or possession. If a midfielder is positioned well and dribbles and possesses to affect, they never need to leave their feet. These new, better-skilled coaches need to train the upcoming generation on smaller, tighter fields where hoofing it forward will have no benefit and where maneuvering the ball is the only path to success.
This entire enterprise will require the most precious commodity that exists in soccer and one that is in short supply in England – patience. If England had all the good coaches it needed today, the benefit would not be felt for years. I strongly doubt that the FA has the stomach for such an effort and seems more comfortable devoting resources on white elephants like a national training center and inflated salaries for celebrity managers.
What will it take for the FA to seriously plan for the future?
It may take another Euro/World Cup of despair before the FA really gets serious. The current generation of Terry, Lampard, Gerrard and Cole are considering retirement rather than going through another cycle of scorn playing against teams they fully realize are their superiors. The next generation, with the odd exception of Jack Wilshire or James Milner, hardly look like the equals of the current one.
I fear that the English fans will have to demand this change after an even greater humiliation than South Africa 2010. At some point, England is in danger of losing its top seed for tournament draws and may miss out qualifying for a significant tournament. Perhaps at that point, the FA will be willing to concede that the problem with their house will not be solved with a new coat of paint – nothing less than a restructuring of the foundation will suffice.