Thursday, November 18, 2010

French lessons for the crème anglaise

France 2, England 0.England 1:2 France - International Friendly, Wembley, Att 85,495.

Another false dawn for England. Another French dressing-down. The euphoria following the Three Lions' impressive Euro 2012 qualifying wins over Bulgaria and Switzerland has been replaced by a familiar torpor.

A dismal 0-0 qualifying draw at home to Montenegro followed by last night's 1-2 friendly reverse to France have sharpened the Fleet Street knives once more for Fabio Capello. The opposition was pertinent. The French team collapsed in mutiny in South Africa, were eliminated by a weak host nation and flew home before the cartes postales. England had it bad but France a lot worse and are still lacking aces Franck Ribéry and Patrice Evra, in exile alongside bête noire Nicolas Anelka, who has probably played his last game for his country.
Yet Laurent Blanc's men played yesterday with verve and élan, like they had turned over a brand new leaf, and showed hints of a real renaissance for a soccer nation that was on top of the world a decade ago. The hosts on the other hand were still warbling from an old hymn book of tired tunes.
To be fair to Capello, it was a friendly and not an eliminator, but the warning signs were loud and clear once more, a mournful drone of English shortcomings echoing around the vast arena. Ball control, positional awareness, tactical acumen, imagination - why are these skills still so hard for English footballers to learn? We should not blame the players - they have not been taught properly. The youthful replacements drafted in fell short with the exception of Newcastle's Andy Carroll, who had a mature and promising debut as a lone target man, bagging air superiority from the off and troubling the French defence at low level on at least one occasion.

The 4-2-3-1 showed Capello had learnt the lesson of Bloemfontein and
ditched his static 4-4-2, but too many of its practitioners failed to function. Theo Walcott again showed he has pace and control but little else, Kieron Gibbs and Jordan Henderson proved they had been fast-tracked into the national team too quickly while Gareth Barry, not long ago the subject of a great transfer tussle, was as lethargic and ineffective as he had been in South Africa.

The insertion of Ashley Young and Adam Johnson on the wings after the break, along with Peter Crouch's goalscoring cameo, helped turn the blue tide but equally showed the talent pool is rather shallow at the Football Association. The fact is England need ten Jack Wilsheres pushing for selection.

A (French?) revolution is what is required, with a huge increase in the number of coaches and a wholesale shift in mentality to emphasize skills acquisition and tactical intelligence above winning at youth level. Dennis Bergkamp, exquisitely gifted in a way most Englishmen are not, believes the ages of 8 to 12 are the key ones for developing talent, years when most English kids are not being properly schooled in the game. At Wembley, the blue shirts did the basics bett
er than the whites - controlling and distributing accurately at speed while being aware of the movement of their teammates. English football is still obsessed by the individual instead of the collective, as a cursory glance at any tabloid's back pages will confirm.

"Skill-wise at the moment, the English players are really, really, not at the level", David Ginola said to the BBC post-match. Quite so, England had no-one with the sublime dribbling skills of Samir Nasri, the elegant playmaking of Yoann Gourcuff or the penetrative power of Florent Malouda on display at Wembley.

The morning after the debacle brought a modicum of hope with the belated announcement that the National Football Centre had at last
been given the green light after years of stasis. France's Clairefontaine site has acquired mythic status, with Italy's Coverciano not far behind. St George's Park in Burton-on-Trent will be a huge advance from previous bases at Bisham Abbey and Lilleshall, with the ambitious goal of its coaches training a quarter of a million people to teach football by 2018.

The only hope remains in the future. For the next couple of tournaments we can reasonably expect the motherland of the game to show flashes of hope but then hit that invisible forcefield known as the quarter-finals, while fans and media alike blame particular players or coaches for another England disaster with its roots in youth coaching.

(c) Sean O'Conor & Soccerphile


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