If there’s been one thing that’s stood out about watching Barcelona and the Spanish national team over recent years, it has been the immaculate ball retention. They have quite literally passed teams in to submission and created success in doing so.
If you drop down a little further, the Spanish under-21’s are doing it, Barcelona’s youth sides are doing it and if you take a step back, the majority of Spain’s new generation are doing it.
Perhaps there has been a slight cultural obsession with the way the Spaniards have gone about their business over the last few years and so it’s important to point out that Spain surprisingly aren’t the only ones coaching their youngsters to treat the ball as their best friend.
Hop over the continent to Germany you will see a generation of talent emerging that is already supplementing the tried and tested brilliance of a young side that lit up the 2010 World Cup. The likes of Mesut Özil, Thomas Müller and Mats Hummels are being joined by Marco Reus, Julian Draxler and Toni Kroos.
In truth, some of these names are just a drop in the pond of emerging talent and it is fair to say that England too does have some fantastic young players evolving. The difference in environment in which these players are nurtured however, are worlds apart.
Despite some fantastic and very long overdue changes to the grassroots structure in England recently, there are still old attitudes and practices that our game has to face up to before advancing to a new stage of development.
Patience and education are the essence of this development but this is not something that the fans of the English game seem to have in abundance and this attitude towards the game seems to be an ‘old dog, new tricks’ scenario for many of the old guard of our national game.
At the weekend, a newspaper column was written by ex-Footballer and media pundit Stan Collymore entitled: “Why I’m not convinced Welbeck and Cleverley are the future for England”.
The point of this piece is not a ‘comeback’ to Collymore’s article but this piece is just a mere example in the bigger picture of the problems our culture faces in terms of developing attitudes within our game. Nor is it an attempt to show how Collymore is displaying an ‘anything but United’ outlook.
One of Collymore’s first statements in his piece was:
“As for Cleverley, his passing was a bit off against San Marino on Friday and I’m not certain he has the guile and imagination to be a real star of international football”.
Whilst ignoring his opinion, it is important to point out that Cleverley completed 141 out of 145 passes attempted during the game, albeit against minnow opposition.
Whilst Stan is entitled to his opinion on whether Cleverley can succeed at International level, it is for nobody to say for sure whether this can be the case. Only time will tell. What the real travesty is of such statement is the petulance to change.
For a decade, the England side has bemoaned perceived failure at International level with the current older generation of stars, now of which some are fading away from the scene (namely John Terry and Rio Ferdinand).
With a transition in progress for our national game to move on the likes of Lampard, Terry, Ferdinand and Gerrard and usher in Cleverley, Welbeck, Wilshere and Walker, there needs to be tolerance of the alterations to our game.
Alas the 4-4-2 formation is slowly becoming outdated in the modern game, although this is not to say it does not work. The aforementioned flagship teams operate in more fluid systems and are interchangeable in these formations, But what they do share regardless of their shape is one characteristic. Patience.
The patience is not just limited to the transition between the generations of players but also to the style of play in which they will bring with it.
England’s next crop are bringing new attitudes with them in their emergence but perhaps it is not the old guard of fans, players and coaches that are ready for this new path.
Wilshere, Caulker, Cleverley, Smalling, Zaha, Welbeck. These are players that love the ball at their feet. They are comfortable in possession and demand the ball when not on it. These are the types of players we should be breeding if we want to keep up with other countries who already have an identity in terms of style.
England’s style has always been perceived to be passionate, all guns blazing and physical. Whilst not removing any of those traits, it’s fair to say that these traits alone are not able to handle the ball retaining games that the continent has to offer.
The likes of Scott Parker whose passion can never be questioned does have limited ability on the ball. Forever will the sight of Gareth Barry chasing Mesut Özil around for 90 minutes during the World Cup defeat in South Africa, live with many. What the German’s showed that day is that ability and guile on the ball will always overbear the inferior of this attribute.
Michael Carrick at 31 years old seems to only now have appeared to the rest of the country as a cultured ball retaining midfielder. The statistically incorrect myths such as “he only passes sideways” have become more silenced over the past 18 months.
While it has not only been fans outside of Manchester who required such an education in to Carrick’s abilities, it is a shame that England have wasted a player so adept in coping with various styles of play (as he has done at club level). Similar can be said about Paul Scholes who called time on his England career at 29 after bemoaning being sacrificed out wide to accommodate Lampard and Gerrard who never quite took England to the desired heights.
Whilst there are very few fan bases that do not become restless whilst their club teams sustain long spells of possession to tire the opposition (cite Swansea and Arsenal), this attitude needs to spread, and rapidly if the young talent of our country is to succeed.
Breaking down the teams at the top of the world’s game won’t be easy and it will require serenity from the masses.
Whilst our slowly burning insolence’s of ‘hoofing it up to the big man’ are dying out, the confidence needs to be instilled in to our mentality that possession is key and it will provide the steps to unlock opposition defences.
So, Mr Collymore and any others who feel reverting back to a failed old guard of players is the way forward, it’s not. Going into Rio De Janeiro in 2014 with young players who have not experienced the game enough at international level would be foolish and I dare say disastrous.
Have the patience in the new guard who are still learning and so far succeeding in the uphill battle. Whilst Cleverley and many of our other young stars are yet to cut open Spain and Germany, they are building fine foundations in adapting this country’s game to the top.
That alone needs to be commended and will require absolute time, for patience is a virtue…