Monday, 11 August 2014


I'll be taking a bit of a break from the blog. Two weeks ago I became a father and, as you will either know or can imagine, this has left me previous little blogging time.

I shall return.


Friday, 25 July 2014


It is, Lord help us all, my 32nd birthday today. A little present from me to those happy band of brothers and sisters who still log in to see what drivel I've written.... a video of Dejan Savicevic dribbling. Enjoy!


Saturday, 19 July 2014

A thing of beauty

This blog isn't usually one for kit porn but the new Universitario kit is a thing of beauty. The 26 stars represent their 26 league titles. Wonderful stuff.


Tuesday, 15 July 2014

A quick post on Germany

Lots will be written in the coming days about any number of aspect of German football that England should replicate - the ownership of clubs, the number of youth coaches, the promotion of young talent at big clubs, the trusting of that talent rather than acquiring superstars globally and so forth. 

La Masia is out of the window as a model. As is Clairefontaine. As is Coverciano. The new model must be German. Unless and until someone else wins something. We need an English solution to this English problem - taking things like magpies from around the world and adapting them.

I won't add to that juggernaut. I will merely note that like all other leading nations German footballers are far more global in their outlook than English footballers. If everyone else is doing something and we aren't maybe that should be the place to start? I know I bang on about this but the point is obvious - we import but we don't export.

From the squad which won the World Cup, seven players play in major leagues elsewhere in Europe (Mertesacker, Özil and Podolski at Arsenal and Schürrle at Chelsea in England, Klose at Lazio and Mustafi at Sampdoria in Italy, and Khedira for Real Madrid). 

To that number, Toni Kroos will start next season at Real Madrid whilst both Boateng and Zieler have played overseas whilst the likes of Hummels, Reus (injured but he would have gone but for that) and Draxler are also subject to interest from clubs around the continent.

Outside the squad, ter Stegen and Gomez are playing abroad. Younger players like Can, Kreuzer, Gnabry, Yesil and Jesgarzewski.

England? At the highest level, Mancienne, Defoe, Cole and Dier. We need to up our game.


Monday, 14 July 2014

The LBITCR Team of the Tournament

So it is over - a joyous, reinvigorating World Cup is done and dusted. For some lucky devils that was their first ever World Cup. They will be in love for a long time yet and, in twenty years time, they'll be reminiscing over James Rodriguez, Lionel Messi, Alexis Sanchez and co.

Who will be this year's Viola - the best player on the pitch in the 1994 World Cup Final (for the 14 minutes he was on the pitch) but never heard of again?

Will there be players who had a fine tournament but who will be forever defined by their moments in Brazil? Surely there must be. Skuhravý, Polster, and Schillaci all had fine careers but it was their exploits in Italia '90 which will see them remembered.

Who will be the Saeed Al-Owairan - the scorer of a wondergoal but now little more than a footnote in footballing history*?

Will Higuain become synonymous with a sitter missed? The van Vossen, Rosenthal or Smith for the Snapchat generation.

There is plenty to write about this World Cup - hopefully a hundred or so bloggers will write a piece entitled 'in defence of Messi' - but today let's celebrate the stars. Who, if we were in the position to pick the best team of the tournament, would we pick?


Before the final most observers thought that Keylor Navas of Costa Rica was the goalkeeper of the tournament. After the final, when Neuer didn't save a shot and, in my opinion, should have been sent off the punditariat thought that Neuer should win the golden glove hands down.

On balance, this shift to the winner is right. Neuer was overlooked earlier when he had been immense throughout. He looked, at points, like he was inventing a position (not really - Jongbloed played a similar role 40 years ago. There is nothing new in footbal).

Neuer is everything one would want in a goalkeeper and rather a lot more. Numerous other goalkeepers performed well - Navas, Howard, Ochoa etc - but Neuer was outstanding. There's an argument, whisper it quietly, that he will be mentioned in the same breath as Yashin, Banks, Zoff and Maier.


Equally gifted was the German captain. Guardiola noticed that Lahm could play in the midfield as well as on either side of the defence - he was the outstanding throughout, barely putting a foot wrong. Like Neuer, and Muller, Lahm is redefining what players in his position can do.

On the other side, Daley Blind. It was his deep crosses that defenestrated Spain - first for van Persie's wonder header and then for Robben's goal. A solid defensive player who added so much to the Dutch going forward.

The only Brazilian in the 11 is Thiago Silva. He was impressive throughout the tournament but it was in absentia where his true value was shown. Without him, Brazil looked like schoolboys. With him, they looked like potential winners.

The team that charmed the world was Costa Rica. There standout player, particularly against the Dutch, was Giancarlo Gonzalez. The Group of Death barely troubled him at all and, over the course of the tournament, the defence he organised let in two goals. Against the Dutch, his performance was outstanding - one of the best of the tournament.

Central midfield

It is always difficult looking into the eyes of a player whose team lost the World Cup final. That was particularly true of Mascherano. He was the best player in the knock-out stages of the tournament - wonderful in the semi-final and final in particular - and if there was such a thing as desert in football one would say he deserved a winners' medal. The German team which won out was a superb attacking team at points. They eviscerated Portugal and Brazil. That they were limited to so few chances against Argentina was largely down to Mascherano's reading of the game, vision and work-rate. The vision was a two-way thing - not only did he have a radar like quality to snuff out attacks his passing was, at points, outstanding. No one was more offended by the ''one man team' jibe that was often levelled at Argentina - they were behind, in the entire tournament, for 7 minutes. The last 7 minutes..

Khedira, Schweinsteiger and Kroos could all sit next to Mascherano but Schweinsteiger was the pick of the bunch. A deep-lying destroyer, like Mascherano, who showed that sumptuous skill can be allied with determination and grit. For years, he has been under-rated but that has changed forever.

Attacking trio

Given the passing, solidity and work-rate in the base of midfield there is a bit more freedom up front.

James Rodriguez had the tournament that many of us wanted Messi to have. Running games, running past players and playing football with a grin plastered across his face. His goal against Japan was the finest in the tournament - yes, there were some wonderful blasts from distance (including one from Rodriguez) - because it was so nonchalant. Few players make scoring so beautifully so easy. He was the Cruyff of this tournament.

At points people seemed to think he had arrived from nowhere. That wasn't true - he's been a wonderful player for some time - but he announced himself to the world with a series of jaw-dropping displays.

Lionel Messi starts alongside him. If only the genius had won the tournament! Then we wouldn't have to listen to the blowhards forever more about him not being an all-time great - they are to be despised. It was he who scored the late goal that won against Bosnia, he did the same against Iran and then scored two against Nigeria. It isn't inconceivable to think that Argentina wouldn't have got out the group stage without him. Instead they finished with 9 points.

Against Switzerland, he set up the winner with a sumptuous pass. He started the move that set up the goal against Belgium and played, in that game, one of the finest passes I've ever seen played at a World Cup. Admittedly, he wasn't at his best against the Netherlands or Germany (though there were flashes of his genius in both games) but he seemed to be labouring - either under pressure or fitness. The latter seems probable. Some will argue he should have won Argentina the World Cup. Others will point out that he seemed to be struggling with injury, did a Baggio in getting Argentina out of the group stages, and it wasn't as if the team that beat Argentina were a bunch of duffers.

Next to him is the second Dutchman Arjen Robben. There will be some who will never forgive him his diving but the man is a phenomenon on the football pitch. A whirling dervish who, at various points, was utterly unplayable. Some players - too man wearing the white of England - shrink in their national shirts. Robben, like most of the Germans and like Alexis Sanchez, seems to perform at his absolute peak when playing international football.

Up front, we pick the man who isn't quite a striker but who can't stop scoring goals: 
Thomas Müller. Few other players globally have his sense of awareness and sense of space. Where others chase the ball, he senses where the ball be or, if not, opens the game up for others. Probably the cleverest and cutest player playing the game. He's a one-off.

So the team is:

  1. M. Neuer (Germany)
  2. P. Lahm (Germany)
  3. D. Blind (Netherlands)
  4. G. Gonzalez (Costa Rica)
  5. Thiago Silva (Brazil)
  6. J. Mascherano (Argentina)
  7. B. Schweinsteiger (Germany)
  8. J. Rodriguez (Colombia)
  9. L. Messi (Argentina)
  10. T. Muller (Germany)
  11. A. Robben (Netherlands)

Subs: Medel (Chile), Boateng (Germany), Kroos (Germany), Herrara (Mexico), Valbuena (France), Neymar (Brazil), Navas (Costa Rica)


*No insult to Al-Owairan there. Most of us would crawl over broken glass to be a footnote in the history of this game!

Wednesday, 9 July 2014

Brazil - the end of a long era

There are times in football when a defeat is more than a defeat - it is a disintegration that, over time, becomes a recurring nightmare that changes how that nation thinks about football.

England against Hungary in 1953, Scotland against England in 1961, Netherlands against Germany in 1974 and - now - Brazil against Germany.

These results don't have to be huge reverses. They don't even need to be games where the loser is comphrehensively outplayed. Netherlands lost narrowly in 1974 and weren't outplayed. The result, though, echoes down the generations. English football still smarts at the name 'Hungary'.

Brazil were humiliated last night - outplayed, out thought, out fought, and thrashed hopelessly at home in a World Cup semi. It is difficult to think how it could have been worse - in the final, perhaps, or against Argentina. It wasn't the booing that would have hurt but rather the Brazilian fans applauding German passing late on in the game. That is the moment that Brazil changed forever.

Some have criticised Hansen for his comments that 'this was a low point' for the game. He was right. Not in terms of quality - Germany were magnificent and it  is scary to think Draxler, Schurrle, and Gotze on the bench (and Reus elsewhere) - but because the idea of Brazil is important to the game and that idea has been destroyed. Those who cherish that ideal will feel low today even if you are applauding the German magnificence - they were as far from the stereotype as Brazil were. The Germans were as brilliant as the Brazilians were woeful.

They are supposed to be joyous, supposed to play a certain way, supposed to be brilliant. They were rotten and wretched last night. They were leaden. They couldn't pass, couldn't tackle, couldn't organise themselves and - at points - looked as if they didn't know how to play the game. These are Brazilian players who play in some of the top sides in the world and they were amateurish.

Many will note Brazil haven't really played like Brazil since the Socrates, Eder, Falcao, Zico and Cerezo team of 1982. I was born in 1982. They haven't played as we feel they should in my lifetime. There have been great players and there have been very fine teams from the men in yellow but when did they really make the heart sing? When did they play differently from the rest of the world? No. The last truly Brazilian team was 1982.

Going forward young fans will not think of the Brazilian greats even the recent ones like Ronaldo and Kaka or the current ones like Neymar. They will just think of them as what they are: a team with a stellar history and the occasional mesmeric player. They will be remembered as a team who lucked and tricked their way to a semi-final where they were shown to be a sham. It is sad for those of us who enjoy the idea of a Brazil but this humbling has been a long time coming.


Tuesday, 1 July 2014

Ryan Gauld - a hero to us all

It looks like young Ryan Gauld - featured on this blog a few months ago - might be signing for Sporting Lisbon.

I've lamented often that our footballing culture is too introverted. My last piece went into some depth on it - it isn't too many foreigners that is killing our game but rather our utterly inward approach. In this regard (and without entering the stultifying referendum debate) Scotland and England are remarkably similar - Scottish youngsters tend to aim for the Old Firm or England. English youngsters tend to aim for England. Too few dare to leave This Sceptred Isle.

When a young talent eschews the Old Firm and the Premier League we should praise them (in the same way Bale should be applauded for his move to Real Madrid) and hope they succeed.

A failure for Gauld, I'm sorry to say, will only reinforce negative attitudes. Remember what happened to Gauld? Just go to Cetic, son. He'll get the smug knowing looks from men who have achieved nothing in their lives and who say 'aye, kent he wouldn't do it. Telt you'.

We don't want to give them any sustenance. We won't to shut them up. Aim for the sky, boys, aim for the sky!

So let's hope it works out for young Mr Gauld - for him, for Scotland and for England. He might very well spark a trend. That, my friends, would help both England and Scotland in the future. We might stop losing.


Tuesday, 24 June 2014

This Little England

When, exactly, did the rot set in?

Was it when Liverpool, in 1892, fielded a team of Scots? Was it Max Seeburg starting for Spurs in 1906? Was it Bert Trautmann winning player of the year in 1956? Was it Ipswich signing two Dutchmen in the late 1970s? Was it Jan Molby? Was it Jesper Olsen? Was it Pat van den Hauwe? Was it Erik Thorsvedt? Was it the Premier League kicking off?

Or is it impossible to point to a specific moment? After all, who amongst us can point to the precise moment that a gibson turns into a dry martini. We can't but we know that it has. So it might  be that there is not a precise moment where, those who view that there are ''too many foreigners'', can point to but they think foreigners at some stage went from being a charming addition to ruining the entire barrel.

The first thing to acknowledge is that English football has always had a large non-English element.

In the old days that was largely Scots, Irish and Welshmen (though not exclusively). There is little doubt that the numbers have grown but this is part and parcel of the game. We are all richer, and our game's heritage, is richer for having seen the likes of Trautmann, Best, Law, Souness, Cantona, Henry, van Persie and Suarez. The view of some in our game though is that the sheer numbers of foreign players have gone from beneficial to pernicious. It isn't Henry, Drogba, or van Persie that are the problems - few would argue that they have given us much enjoyment during their time in England - but rather the average plodders that clubs buy as squad players.

But why all the fuss? Because plenty of people have, in the aftermath of England's defeats to Italy and Uruguay, turned their ire on foreign players. Coming over here and ruining our national game just like Paddington Bear came over here and ate our marmalade sandwiches.

My own view is that this isn't a problem. It is merely a convenient excuse.

Listening to some of the views on this matter one would believe that there was some golden age of English football where we dominated the world, where we happily gathered World Cups and European Championships. Nations lay at our feet as we bestrode the world. We were the Brazil of the North. The All Blacks of football.

The problem is such a golden age hasn't been curtailed by foreign footballers because the golden age didn't really exist. The closest we got was a few happy years in the late 1960s which was largely down to happenstance which England exploited. As we shall see.

Before the Second World War, we were too aloof to enter the World Cup. There is a case for saying England would have done well at the three pre-War World Cups but it isn't a given that we would have won them. Anyway, who cares? We were too damned pig-headed and we didn't enter. The decisions are made by people who turn up. Unsurprisingly, tournaments are won by the chaps who decide to kick a ball rather than those who decide not to do so.

After the Second World War, at our first world cup - and with a clutch of legends of the English game in the squad (including arguably the finest ever England player, Sir Tom Finney) - we were beaten by the USA in Brazil.

A few years later we were humiliated home and away by Hungary. The Puskas dragback is still, arguably, the most important moment in English footballing history - it was the moment we realised, albeit briefly, that not only had the rest of the world caught up they were actually some way ahead. When people argue that English players are not as technically adept as those from elsewhere in the world the depressing thing is we've been saying this for over 60 years. Remember that the leading striker in the English game at the time was a Chilean.

Interestingly, though, England went from humiliation in the early 1950s to World Champions in 30 years. How and why? And why does it matter in this debate?

Between 1965 to 1970 we were one of the best teams in world football. A relatively short period of time but we were a genuinely world class team. It wasn't just the World Cup win. We did well at the 1968 European Championships and were one of the finest teams to grace a World Cup and go out early in 1970.
The late 1960s saw success in European Club Football too. In the years between 1965 and 1970, two British clubs won the European Cup (Celtic 1967 and then Manchester United 1968 whilst Celtic lost the final in 1970). West Ham won the Cup Winners Cup in 1965, Liverpool were runners up in 1966, City won it in 1970 (and, in fact, the next three years saw Chelsea win, Rangers win, and Leeds lose). 
Why was British football so comparatively good at that point? Because the stars aligned across Britain. This wasn't, and isn't, the natural state of things (as we have come to believe). We lucked out.

After the Second World War, there were a series of occurrences which caused a talent boom

Rationing during World War 2, and for several years afterwards, created the best-nourished generation of British children there'd ever been. Add to that the mindset which put a huge societal emphasis on sport for all: this mindset, and a general obsession with football, meant more boys played more football than ever before. Participation levels were vast. Speak to men of that era - stories of schools putting out five teams per year at school are not unheard of. They are routine.

This was all supported by Governmental activity - the Education Act 1944, the creation of the NHS, and the provision of fruit juice and milk at schools all added up to healthier young folk.

The result: Lots of healthy boys playing lots of football who then exploded into football teams across the UK in the late 1950s and throughout the 1960s. They were helped, no doubt, by the fact the managers at the top end of the game became better. Chapman was a colossus before the war but consider who was managing in English football in the 1960s - Busby, Shankly, Revie, Ramsey, Catterick and a young Clough. Add to that Stein and Ormond in Scotland. It was a unique time - likely, never to be repeated.

The important thing to note that is that this wasn't just a brief golden age for English football. 
 It was a brief golden age for British football. Wales had some fine players in that era (Cliff Jones, John Charles, Ivor Allchurch), Northern Ireland too (McParland, Blanchflower and Best) and Scotland (well, more names than you could shake a stick at. They produced the best side not to qualify for a World Cup. The Scottish team of the mid-1960s was frightening). 

(As an aside: One wonders what English football, in particular, might have done at the 1958 and 1962 World Cups with Duncan Edwards, Tommy Taylor, Roger Byrne and David Pegg who all lost their lives in the Munich Air Disaster. It is also interesting to think what a Team GB would have done in 1958, 1962 and 1966. If England won the World Cup that year, a combined team would have walked it)

So the golden age we hark back to was a boomtime for British footballers but it was never going to last forever. Other countries developed structures and caught up (or surpassed) the UK teams. England's genius was that she took advantage of circumstances. The signs of decline were there in the mid-1960s when Shankly's men were humbled by a young Cruyff and Ajax. The end was signalled before we'd begun to enjoy ourselves.

The problem is the British game - the English game in particular - has never got its head around why they were so successful in the 1960s and, having failed to understand the why they were successful, has assumed that was the natural state of the world which in some sunny future we will return to. If only we have an English manager for the England team. If only we play 4-4-2. If only, if only, if only. 

It may seem a digression but it is fundamental to our understanding of the game today. The golden age was fleeting and we took advantage of the situation. But the very existence of that fleeting golden age skews our view of today. It casts a shadow over everything. We think we can return to those happy days. We can't.

Ways in which this manifests itself include we think there are too many foreigners in the game, we have a superiority complex (which happily seems to be subsiding) and we think we need an England manager. The last is the most baffling. Henry Winter at the weekend claimed that 'the argument has been settled' on that issue. Really? Settled? Forever?

On foreigners coming into the game the view is: here is a trend that has happened and, it seems, at the same time England have got worse. QED. This trend is holding us back.

Of course, that isn't to say that English clubs, in this day and age, do not sign overseas players. They do - and they do so in great numbers (and, even, in greater numbers than ever before). But why?

In a global market, it is possible to find players elsewhere in the world that can do the job you want them to do more cheaply than a homegrown equivalent. It is usually cheaper to buy a seasoned international than it is to give a younger player a run of games. This is as true in Italy, France, Spain, Germany or Mexico as it is in England. Why does it seemingly hurt England so much more than other nations?

There are a number of reasons. Partly the Premier League's success. 
Partly the nature of English football. Partly the rules of the game.  Partly the nature of English life. They all interconnect.

The Premier League's success - in generating money particularly from television rights - has led to clubs of all sizes being able to spend significant amounts on players. This is hardly revelatory (we all know the team that finished bottom of the Premier League got more in TV monies that the winners of the Bundesliga). This means it is more efficient and effective for Cardiff, say, to buy Gary Medel than to buy an English or Welsh equivalent. It means that Liverpool buy a player like Iago Aspas, with a fine season under his belt in Spain, rather than promoting their own youngster or buying a talented player from the down the divisions.

The money that swishes around the Premier League also means it has a particular draw that few other leagues can match. It might not have the weather of Spain but the money available at a mid-tier English club is likely to be better than a Spanish equivalent.Given the Premier League's global success it means that even moderate success in England will put a player in the shop window more obviously. We are a magnet to talented players around the world.

This is a good thing. We get to see world-class players play football.

Whilst English clubs, and English fans, have benefited from this globalisation some would argue that our national team hasn't. (This might not be true, of course: this World Cup has been disappointing but we have qualified for five World Cups in a row for the first time in our history. We didn't qualify in 1974 or 1978. We didn't qualify in 1994. On one reading, we are producing enough talent to qualify relatively easily each time but not enough talent to win the tournament).

What is striking though is in an import/export market, England does a lot of importation but does not really export. That is the biggest issue in the game and one we don't ever talk about.

England, little, insular England.

Of the 23 men in the England squad, only Forster plies his trade outwith England (and even then he still hasn't left the UK). Only Russia is less globalised (with all of its squad playing in the domestic league). If one scans around the 'possibles' for England only Jermaine Defoe is playing outwith England and, even then, it is arguable that a player moving towards the end of his career to a league at the MLS' stage of development is what we are looking for. Not one of the current squad has played outside the UK. At Under 21s, only Eric Dier is playing outside England (in Portugal) whilst, again, other nations are more global in their U21 outlook.

Look at the squads: France, Germany, Chile, Netherlands, Spain, Colombia, Brazil, Uruguay, Mexico and Argentina. All have sizeable cohorts playing around the world in numerous leagues. Even Italy, traditionally a country that doesn't export huge numbers of players, has a clutch playing at PSG and has other players (Aquilani, Balotelli, Cassano) who have played in other major European leagues. Those around the squad include Criscito (Russia), Giaccherini, Borini, Osvaldo (England) and Diamanti (China).

As young players from around the world come to England (often to finish their footballing education), our young players do not go the other way. This is partly due to cultural aspects no doubt, partly down to the belief that it is only the Premier League that matters, partly down to money (you'll earn more here on the bench than playing in Belgium, son) and partly down to languages. (The same is true of managers - when managers complain they don't get the big jobs in England you rarely seeing them try and manage overseas... as Pochettino, Martinez et al have managed with aplomb). 
English footballers do not, therefore, give themselves the best chance but we do not help them. 

To be fair to English clubs this isn't necessarily their fault. The way the market has progressed we know that English players are massively overvalued in the market. This inevitably puts off foreign buyers whilst there are clear benefits to clubs to buy home-grown players (partly because they are necessary under UEFA rules) but partly also because clubs know that home-grown players are unlikely to leave overseas and they, for whatever reason, retain value.

As with all debates about immigration those who complain about player migration are worried legitimately and it is wrong to cast them as loons (as many do).

It would be far better, in my view, to accept that the lack of English footballers at the highest level is a worry but then also accept that the highest level is wider than the 20 clubs in the English Premier League. This could include - gasp - the Championship but it must include encouraging players to play football globally. This used to happen (look at how many of the England 1990 squad played abroad - Walker, Platt, Steven, Waddle, Gascoigne, Lineker etc) but it seems, at the peak of a young players career, to be all but extinct. Let us hope Sterling, Barkley and co are a little braver on and off the pitch than some of their forebears.

Gareth Bale is an admirable exception to British isolationism but surely more of our talented youngsters could make it in the top divisions (if not at the very top of those divisions) around Europe. Ultimately, if a young Italian international can play for Sunderland why can't a young English international play for Genoa? 

So what can we do? 

I'd suggest that young English footballers should, as part of their footballing development, learn one or potentially two languages. The worst that happens? They get released into the wider economy when they are 18... and can speak numerous languages. For those who make it in football but not at the highest level? They open up football leagues across Europe as a potential direction. For our youngsters trying to break through? Loans become more obviously viable. And, heaven forbid, some of our players might do what players from the rest of the world do all the time: make their career abroad.
We need to be more open to new ideas. Consider how Sir Clive Woodward was treated by Redknapp when he was trying to innovate in the game. Consider how the English media hate cleverness. Consider the smirking grins when the likes of AvB and co fail. It is better, isn't it, when Harry and the boys are in charge. Except it isn't?

We also need to think globally. We need to stop this isolationism, be open to the idea of a foreign manager and be open to our players and managers going around the world. Those that do so should be celebrated. Are we really saying - as Winter hinted - that we wouldn't hire Mourinho? Is that the culture we want to foster? We need to think about this. We need to be better.

What sort of footballing culture do we want? We can choose. Because so much of our debate is doesn't help. It only perpetuates this England. This little England.


Friday, 20 June 2014

No time for scapegoats

The scapegoat must be found!

That is the mantra for England at football tournaments. In the same way that Cato the Elder used to finish his speeches with 'Carthage must be destroyed' regardless of what he was speaking about, England fans - regardless of the manner of exit - begin looking for someone to blame. As with the original scapegoat, it doesn't really matter if they were to blame but, rather, they just need to be able to be blamed.

Look at the discussions on social media, listen in the pub tonight as sorrows are sunk: the story is people blaming someone. Manchester United fans point their finger at Gerrard, Henderson and Johnson. Liverpool fans point at Rooney. Other fans point at other players or at the manager. The whole nation is accusing someone of doing something wrong and costing us the World Cup. An angry nation jabbing each other in the chest and saying 'no, it was Jagielka's fucking fault you mug'. I'd like to say we were better than this but the evidence suggests we aren't.

The simple problem is that we cannot accept that we weren't good enough
 or acknowledge that an opponent has done something extraordinary. We can't even admit that we just came up against a better team on the night. There is no shame in not being good enough but trying your best. There is no shame in being bettered by someone.

There is, though, something in the English psyche that stops us computing this information. It may be some lingering superiority complex. It may be that we believe the hype of the Premier League. Whatever it is, over the years England have fielded very fine football teams but generally those teams have not been fine enough. As good as they have been someone, somewhere has been better. This is what football is all about - our teams are rarely the best. It is why, in those fleeting moments when they are, it is so sweet.

Given this approach to the game, it is natural that we blame one of our own rather than acknowledge the geniuses who beat us. It wasn't Seamen's fault in 2002 nor was it Beckham's fault for jumping out of a tackle. We just came up against a Brazil team with Ronaldinho in it. Yes, players made errors but football games are littered with errors - geniuses exploit them.

But, no!, it cannot be down to the talent of others. It must be down to an error we made. If only we hadn't made an error (show me a game where a team makes no errors, by the way) we'd have won. If it isn't some catastrophic error by one of our own (who will be in the pillory stocks until the next time) then it must be a referee who cheated us. If it isn't that then it isn't the genius on the other team but rather the cheat - Maradona, Simeone, Ronaldo, Neuer et al.

Rather than acknowledge we did our best but that best wasn't good enough our blame must be focused and personified. It is easier to blame Bekcham, or the referee, or some dastardly foreigner than it is to question ourselves. We aren't asking 'why can't any of our players make a pass like Cavani did to Suarez?', 'why can't we produce a player like Pirlo?', 'Why, when we do produce a player like Pirlo, do we monster them?', 'would an English striker have scored that chance Suarez plundered to win the game?'; 'why do our players look like they shrink when they get into an England shirt?' or 'does the way we talk about the team hinder them?'. Those are difficult questions and ones that aren't easily answered. They are the sorts of questions that one answers alone late at night with a large whisky. It is far easier to say - 'enough of that thinking, it was Gerrard's fucking fault'.

And, boy, can we find a scapegoat. Pearce, Waddle, Taylor, Southgate, Beckham, Neville (P), Beckham again, Gerrard, Vassell, Rooney, Ronaldo, Capello, Young, Cole and, well, take your pick from last night. In 2014, as Costa Rica have knocked us out before facing us, it is going to be Jagielka, Gerrard, Rooney or Hodgson. Take your pick. It matters not who it is, it merely matters that there is one.

Sadly, a
few weeks ago, England fans - for once - were generally accepting of their fate. This team was not as fine a vintage as the 1998 squad or the 2006 squad. There was a crop of young players - Sterling, Barkely, Oxlade-Chamberlain, Wilshere - who might just be the core of the next fine England team but, perhaps, not quite experienced enough as a group yet. 
The defence - usually a strong point of English football - was comparatively weak. Remember the days when King, Woodgate and Carragher couldn't get past Campbell, Ferdinand and Terry? 

There was an acknowledgement that the only player who could reasonably be considered world-class was Wayne Rooney (Gerrard was once but in his advancing years isn't quite what he was). Even with Rooney the jury on that accolade is still out - as fine as he has been in qualification for England and as fine as he has been for Manchester United at the highest level he has never really shown it for England bar a few brief moments in 2004. Rooney's greatest sin is that he isn't as good as we hyped him to be (extended thoughts here

There was even an acknowledgement that we had draw a group of death - Italy centred around the imperious Pirlo and Uruguay, with the geniuses of Cavani and Suarez. Costa Rica were largely unknown by the footballing populous here in Belait but regardless many thought it was possible that England would fail to get out of the group given the strength of Uruguay and Italy. It looked, for once, as if we had grown up. 

But, of course, we hadn't. We were just pretending. In the first game, the blame was levelled against Rooney. Yes, he set up a goal but he did little else right and plenty wrong. He dragged a shot wide when he should have hit the target. He wasn't in the game. Here was our scapegoat! But then Johnson, Baines and Cahill had poor games too.

Many will ask - legitimately - why did he start on the left? But they forget he has played in a similar role for Manchester United successfully before. 
Many will ask - legitimately - why he didn't start centrally as that is where he works best?

Few who do ask such a question notice he played there last night and wasn't much better and, in fact, played there for much of the second half against Italy (at the expense of the fine Sterling). Few question the man who made the call to start Rooney on the left. Few question starting Sterling in a position he hadn't played for England before and asking him to do so in his first competitive start. Few are asking why Hodgson set the team up in the same way for two very different opponents? Few have noticed that the substitutes seem to have been made before the match rather than on what was happening on the pitch (particularly last night). Few have asked why Baines got a second run out after a shocking show against Italy. Few are asking why Hodgson played a two man midfield against Marchisio, Pirlo, Verratti, and de Rossi. Few are asking why, when playing a compact Uruguay side, we went out of our way - as the game went on - to make ourselves more narrow. Few questioned picking players who weren't in the squad (!) in warm up games. It seemed that Roy was experimenting too late. Experimentation is good - but the time to do it might not be against Italy in the World Cup.

That though is searching for a scapegoat in Hodgson. He made errors - hell, on reflection, he made rather a few (the biggest not taking Ashley Cole) - but ultimately his team played pretty well against Italy. Last night, the focus probably did turn on Hodgson because England didn't seem to have a coherence. It was like they were trying to replay the Italy game without noticing that Pirlo's magnificent beard was elsewhere. We always fight the last battle. That's the British way. The English way.

With Rooney scoring last night though, the focus for a scapegoat must be elsewhere. Never mind the two chances missed. His slate is clean.

The natural choice for the scapegoat seems to be Gerrard. He was, partly, at fault for the first goal - he gave the ball away which started the move. That neglects the errors of Johnson and Jagielka in that move. We focus on the errors but, as above, we do not ask 'why can so few of our players play a ball like Cavani did to Suarez?'. Much easier to blame the error than ask why the other side is better. That gets awkward, you see.

For the second goal Gerrard can't reasonably be blamed. Reason, though, won't come into it. He went for a aerial ball in midfield and it flew off his head - those things happen (like Rooney hitting the bar with his header - those things happen). Jagielka, though, was in no man's land. He should have been in line with Cahill because, as a centre back, you've got to assume your midfielders might miss a long ball. This is basic defending. The sort of thing that would get a schoolboy subbed off.

That isn't to say Gerrard had a good game - he didn't. It was his poorest showing in a World Cup game and a world away from 2010 when he and Ashley Cole were the only ones who turned up - but the rush to blame him and absolve others is as unhelpful as it always is and will not help going forward. Very little good comes from seeking out one player to blame - that was true after Italy with Rooney, it is still true tonight.

Something that has been unnoticed is that Rooney and Gerrard were the only two England players who realised that the way to win the game was to stretch the Uruguayans. Both tried to play balls to the wingers and to the full backs on the touchline and tried, where possible, to switch play.

Unfortunately though too often England players were fighting each other for the ball - Sturridge (who came alive after 60 minutes) dropping into the channel with Welbeck. Rooney and Sterling doing similar and, later, Rooney and Barkley. At points the commentators claimed how good it was to see Rooney or Sturridge back getting the ball in their own half. Just where we needed them. The substitutions just packed the channels more. Rather than test Uruguay we played into their hands

How often did we hear 'the ball stuck in his feet', 'they've run into the same space' or 'he's taken that off Gerrard's toes'?

This was a nadir for England. A few days before they were a tad unlucky against a strong Italian team. The performance against Italy was, despite the result, a rare English exhibition of technical ability. Against Uruguay that seemed to be ditched. There seemed to be no plan. It was individual performances that kept England in sniffing distance not vision from the bench. It seems odd given the performance against Italy had Hodgson's DNA running through it. Something was awry last night.

England may argue that they were a little unlucky. The draw was a tough one but that is why you go to a World Cup. They probably should have had a penalty against Italy. They probably should have played for most of the game against Uruguay against ten men. But, as Jock Stein said 'if you're good enough the referee doesn't matter'.

Quite. England weren't good enough. There were glimpses from Sturridge, Rooney, Sterling, and Barkley that suggest the future may be a little brighter. Even Henderson, Baines and Johnson had their moments in the second half of the Italy game. Others will think if only Oxlade Chamberlain and Walcott had been fit... but all teams suffer injuries. I'm not a fan of Hodgson, he did make errors, but there was only so far this team was ever going to go. Maybe another manager would have eked out a win against one of those teams but does anyone really think England would have got much further?

This was a likeable England side whose best simply wasn't good enough. We shouldn't haul them through the press or over the coals. We should acknowledge that it is disappointing, thank those who retire for their service, and support those that will help us build for 2016. There is much to be excited about. We should acknowledge that the difference last night was that we haven't produced a striker like Suarez in generations. The scapegoating will only hurt us in the long run. We break our young men and then we wonder why they disappoint us next time.

We never bloody learn, mind. We are all reaching for our pitchforks.


Thursday, 19 June 2014

The Furious Rioja

Once upon a time Spain were the adorable scamps of European football. They always had talented players. They always went home early. They were the hipster team before hipsters existed. The cool kids in the playground would tip them for victories. In 1990, the hubbub was around Michel, Butragueño and co. In 1996, it was Alfonso, Guerrero and Hierro. 8 years later, it was Raul, Mendieta, Baraja and company. The sorts of people with odd beards, shift around uncomfortably in pubs drinking from dimpled glasses and ride unicycles are the sorts of people who would have adored Michel, Guti and Mendieta. If you have any sense of purpose, and any sense of joy in football, that very thought should make you reach for the stiffest drink you can find and, potentially, for your pitchfork.

Spain were the team that pundits always might win but never actually did. 
Always chock full of talent yet, somehow, always out-thought or out-fought by one of the powerhouses. Spain were the team that should win on paper but who didn't on grass. . It was a mental thing not a talent thing.  Zidane was right, well, almost when he said: 'The day Spain begin winning, they won't stop'. 

Of course, everything changed in 2008. All of a sudden they went from loveable but beatable aesthetes to loveable unbeatable ones. It looked like Zidane might be right. They weren't Spain anymore. They were unbeatable

And, whilst the team changed over the years, it didn't change that much:

The winning team that started in 2008 was: Casillas, Ramos, Puyol, Marchena, Capdevila, Senna, Iniesta, Fabregas, Xavi, Silva, Torres (The subs were Alonso for Fabregas, Cazorla for Silva, and Guiza for Torres).

The winning team two years later was: Casillas, Ramos, Pique, Puyol, Capdevila, Busquets, Alonso, Xavi, Iniesta, Pedro, Villa (The subs were Navas for Pedro, Fabregas for Alonso, Torres for Villa)

And two years later again: Casillas, Arbeloa, Pique, Ramos, Alba, Xavi, Busquets, Alonso, Fabregas, Silva, Iniesta (The subs were Pedro for Silva, Torres for Fabregas, Mata for Iniesta)

And the team that lost to Chile: Casillas, Azpilicueta, Martinez, Ramos, Alba, Busquets, Alonso, Iniesta, Pedro, Costa, Silva. (The subs were Koke for Alonso, Cazorla for Pedro, Torres for Costa).

Whilst there has been subtle evolution there has been a level of understandable resistance to change - hell, Cazorla was a sub 6 years ago and he was a sub last night!). As they kept on winning the need to have a clear-out of players seemed unnecessary, unhelpful even. If they had lost the final in 2012 we might have seen Casillas and Xavi, amongst others, consider their futures in red. They didn't so they didn't need to do so.

Many outwith the Spanish squad simply cannot understand why Casillas has continued to be selected for the national team even though he rarely played in La Liga last season (especially when there are goalkeepers as talented as de Gea, Reina and Valdes all playing regularly). That underestimates the influence of Casillas to the team, to the Spanish squad and to Spanish football. Yes, he was dropped at Madrid but he played often in the Champions League (including in the final). This is a man who has seen it all, done it all, and won it all.

Xavi, the spiritual leader of this Spanish generation, is 34 and cannot play the vital role he was .
Those saying Chile killed off the this Spanish generation don't notice that del Bosque dropped Xavi. Maybe that was an admission that things must change? That, perhaps, was the coup de grace, the Marquis turning the sword on himself rather than choosing to fight the bull that he knew would win. Xavi used to be the man who kept the plates spinning, the man who ran the show, the man who made the carousel work. He isn't what he was and Spain could not replace him - few could, he is one of the finest players the game has ever produced - but without him at the height of his powers Spain could no longer function at the top of theirs.

As ever in football there are two opposing forces at the same time. Much of the Spanish team, and their approach to the game, seems to have been preserved in aspic - the high-pressure pressing game is still the ideal but the players are that little older, that little leggier and that means the system cannot work as it did.

At the same time as that system was preserved, the supremely gifted - though clearly not at the top of fitness - Diego Costa, newly arrived from Brazil, has found his way into the team. For years, Spanish football was all about in the system and that meant, on occasion, eschewing a forward. In trying to preserve the system, whilst shoe-horning this devilish force into the team, the system was undermined as was, to be fair to him, Costa. With hindsight this seems incongruous. Perhaps del Bosque knew that this team was on the wane and hoped that Costa, in Brazil, would drag the old boys through?

Those who came to hate the stultifying nature of Spain's football, who found tiki-taka boring, will rejoice today. They will be delighted that daring and dashing teams have found that the boa constrictors of Spain can be defeated. There will be a many an article that tiki-taka has died. Long live, erm, something else.

Of course, tiki-taka isn't dead. All that has occurred is that as Spain developed (and they have changed since 2008 in various ways) other teams have worked out how to beat them. Tiki-taka is still a clever way to win a game of football and teams playing such tactics will, in my view, continue to do well. The difference is that there is now a way to beat it as, after all, there is with all tactics.

Spain may be a laughing stock today but they will come back. Faces will merge out of the squad - Casillas, Xavi, Alonso, and Torres - whilst fresh talent will come in. There is plenty of talent at Under 21 level (Carvajal, Munian, Moreno, Isco, Deulofeu, Morata. There is plenty of talent outwith the squad - few other teams would have a fourth goalkeeper as gifted as Valdes. Others not selected for Brazl include Jesus Navas (injured), Thiago Alcantara (injured), Javi Garcia, Asier 
Illarramendi, Fernando Llorente, Alvaro Negredo, Michu and Tello. I wouldn't be surprised to see them challenging for the European Championships in two years time.

And yet many in Spain will be cursing their luck. If, ah that horrible little word, David Silva had put away his chance against the Dutch they would, likely, have won that game comfortably. They would have gone into the break 2-0 up and the second half would have been the ever so familiar - Spain keeping the ball as the Dutch ran after it endlessly (NB: If there is a nation that Spain should be thankful for to for their success over the last few years it is the Dutch). There are any number of moments in footballing history where a club will say 'if only'. If Silva had scored my guess is that Spain would be in the second round of this tournament. The beautiful Silva has a lot to answer for.

Instead of that, Daley Blind then ruthlessly exposed the high defensive line with two fantastic passes that have been entirely overlooked largely because of the genius of the two finishes. As Spain chased that game the Dutch picked them off with ruthless efficiency.

Without their majestic conductor, last night Spain were playing all the right notes but in the wrong tune. Of all the teams in world football that Spain could play yesterday, Chile - their speed on the break, their approach to attack - surely would have been one they wanted to avoid.

But, an era looks to have ended. If the Spanish do well at the next tournament it will be a different Spain with some similar players - it will be another version, it won't be part of this beautiful vintage. Rarely has a team dominated high-level football so completely for so long. Perhaps changing manager between 2012 and 2014 would have meant more shuffling of the pack. Perhaps del Bosque should have been more ruthless, a little braver yet it is difficult to be ruthless to men who have delivered you the Earth. Perhaps he shouldn't have gambled on the old warhorses. Perhaps, if de Gea hadn't been injured del Bosque would have been (after all he did drop Pique and Xavi so is the thought of dropping San Iker so out there?). And then, perhaps to develop, Spain needed to lose. This jarring jolt may be the moment that wakes them up and makes them rebuild. There will be catharsis, recrimination and retribution yet. I wouldn't like my team to face Spain when they decide to cut loose.

This is Spain as they used to be. Players that we love. Players who, for their clubs, rule the roost. Players who don't win. That isn't Spain over these last few years. I'd wager it won't be Spain for very long. You can tell your kids you saw this team. You've been lucky.