Tuesday, 14 June 2011
War and Pearce
The results are in. The Root and Branch is officially over and luckily for Magic Spongers, it has achieved absolutely fuck all. Stuart Pearce gave us a glimpse into the future of English football at the very top level on Sunday. And it is marvellous, we have to say. "When you have reached pass number five, punt it long. You will then not see the ball for two minutes. In this time, show passion and pride; the Bulldog Spirit if you will. Get ball back. Repeat".
The Barcelona way of playing is, of course, impossible to replicate. That's why Juan Mata and Javi Martinez, of Valencia and Athletic Bilbao respectively, looked so much like their English counterpa... oh.
Of course, no one’s suggesting England can become Spain, or indeed Barcelona, overnight. No one’s suggesting that’s necessarily a likely or even desirable state of affairs. But it is time to stop making mindless, generalised excuses about foreigners, predominantly that they are all sneaky cheating bastards, while harking back to the good old days and saying that they can never match the English in terms of traditional values and so their success – or England’s defeat – is not really par for the course. At this juncture could somebody PLEASE explain to us how exactly one measures passion?
The biggest protagonist of this leading up to the under 21s game the other night was their coach, Stuart Pearce. Not exactly a progressive, admittedly, but successful enough with young English players. A bit of open-mindedness on the cards perhaps? Not a bit of it:
"To try to ask a different individual to play a Spanish style or an Italian style, or even an Italian player to play an English way, is not workable”, Pearce asserted. "You have to understand the strengths that you have within your squad and within your team and that's what we've continually tried to do over a number of years. That's why, at this moment, we're ranked No1 in Europe."
Now this would be very true, were it not for the fact that it is utter tripe. You can't play like the Spanish if you're not from Spain? So why are Lionel Messi, Dani Alves and Eric Abidal in the current Barcelona side? And here's one for you - that Barca side that beat Arsenal in the 2006 Champions League final had just three Spaniards in the starting XI. Three years later in the final against Manchester United, it was six.
Sure, you can’t turn an onion into an apple by sticking a stalk into its head and drawing a little appley face on it. But you can make it behave just like an apple by chopping it up and throwing it in your fruit salad. It might not be palatable at first, but wait until Heston Blumenthal gets his mitts on it and EVERYONE will be going nuts for onion pie. Pork and onion sauce. Onion turnover. You name it.
"We have a great team spirit", fans are often reminded by the national teams’ representatives. Oh right. In the absence of talent, it's nice to know they all get on. Even Martin Tyler couldn’t resist some misty-eyed reflection during the Spain game: "Older viewers will see that the old values are now no longer enough". Sorry Martin? The old values? That used to WIN US EVERYTHING? Do me a favour. Unless, of course, we are talking about those tournaments that took place entirely on paper, in which England were VERY successful.
So Spain were class in 1970, 1974, 1978, 1982, 1986 and 1990 were they? Only two of those are since my birth, but I’m fairly sure I’d have heard if they’d won anything of note prior to that. Before the Spanish won the World Cup last year, their record in the tournament since Italia ’90 was: quarter final, group stage, quarter final, last 16. Not completely dissimilar to England’s is it. So it WOULD appear, shock horror, that innovation CAN be made. A new style CAN be achieved. And that might seem like a bit of hard work, but the sooner people like Stuart Pearce are removed from this entrenched ‘English-ness’, the better. It is becoming an embarrassing excuse that simply does not hold any water.
If the denouement of the farce in Bloemfontein is ‘rely on passion to get you through’, the English are doomed. You will always have the Pearces of this world in charge at youth level whose greatest values are pride, passion, pace, strength. Technically deficient but REALLY proud. REALLY passionate. LOVES ENGLAND. Him and Ian Wright. They LOVE England. Get Wrighty and Brighty in, get them playing with passion. Passion seemingly being directly proportional to first touch and awareness.
The evidence against this blinkered view is stark. To call a certain style of play ‘the Barca way’ or ‘the Spain way’ is disingenuous. The ‘Barca way’ was a system put in place in the 1990s by Johann Cruyff at a specific club, though its precursor 20 years earlier at Ajax wasn't too shoddy either. The ‘Spain way’ (and this might seem obvious. BECAUSE IT IS) is different and it has to be – it’s not like Spain are meeting up more often than national sides elsewhere, for example. Some of Spain’s best players against England aren't at Barcelona at all: Juan Mata (Valencia), Javier Martinez and Ander Herrera (both Bilbao). Which while frightening, because they are ALL playing that way now, also proves it CAN be done across the board and not just in Arsene Wenger’s mind.
England exhibits a very peculiar form of protectionism on this. The whole setup appears far too stubborn to even try and implement a regime change in this country, even though ANYONE who's been successful in the last few years has embraced a new style or at least been prepared to try something different (Germany, as well as Spain, are the often-cited example).
The only way it could be implemented is if the FA took a massively more hands-on approach at centres of excellence – so the 'Arsenal way', to borrow a phrase, could be used across the board. The best thing that could happen to the country’s national setup is that Wenger becomes Director of Football in a similar way to Gerard Houllier in France back in the day.
But it would come as no surprise to see the power brokers of English football close ranks were this even suggested. Few fans outside of north London like Wenger; fewer still would have him in charge of defining their national identity. 'He's too soft. His players can't handle themselves. We'll get bullied in internationals. We need some steel and passion and experience to win something’.
The English obsession for playing big lads is partly an obsession that performance in elite sport somehow equates to physicality. Of course, international footballers should be fit. And strong, to an extent. But the game at the very top is scarcely designed for strapping strikers and commanding centre back presences anymore, although in the Premier League this invariably helps. In Europe and on the international stage, smaller teams like Spain (Argentina won’t be far behind here either) will just go down under any pressure and a foul is always given. Which, we’re fairly sure, defeats the object of packing your team with brutes.
The biggest lesson to be learnt here is probably in the misuse of Paul Scholes at international level. Supremely gifted and criminally underrated at his peak, though not by his peers, a succession of English managers shunted him out to the left to make more room for Frank Lampard and Steven Gerrard to try and work out who stayed and who went. The one man with the ability to take a ball under pressure anywhere on the pitch and whose immediate thought wasn’t to launch it 40 yards into touch and he’s stuck on the left wing. Incredible. This cannot be allowed to happen with the genuine talents of Jack Wilshire and Josh McEachran.
It would be apt to end with some words from that most Spanish of Mancunians. Speaking to Sky after the England v Spain game, Scholes explained: "When you see a team like Spain and Barca do five-yard passes, they’re not trying to do anything flashy but everything they do is effective. These players are so confident on the ball they’ll take the ball anywhere, and they’ll play all day and they can make you look silly."
"When I was with England it was like 'come on, let’s get stuck in to them, lets tackle them’. But you just can’t get near them to do that and as long as we carry on like that, there’s not much of a future for us.” Sobering sentiments indeed.