Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Should clubs really care about their country?

With the end of the transfer window and another International week upon us. There has again been lament in the English press as to the state of the national team and the prospects for squad members in the EPL.

Of course, Britain like nearly any country you could mention enjoys a large dollop of good old fashioned xenophobia when the mood takes it.

The Premiership has courted the world's wealth through TV deals, foreign ownership and by buying up the best talent wherever it can.

All of course with the FA's full blessing and not the slightest hint of irony nor hypocrisy. Let's not forget the FA was instrumental in forming the Premiership, wrestling the competition away from the Football League as they chased the money along with the clubs.

The logic that many footballing sages are deriving is that this resultant 'foreign armada' has led to a steep downturn in the fortunes of the England team.

However, to suggest that the England team is in decline is also utter tosh. England did not even qualify for the '74, '78 and '94 World Cups. There have also been a plethora of woeful performances at the Euros such as '88 and '92. The Premiership first season was '92-93.

Since that inception, England have only missed two major tournaments (USA '94 immediately afterwards and Euro '08) and have generally got through the group stages in the other tournaments.

The level they are at is generally the level they have performed at for the past 50 years.

What is undeniable is that English (or even British) players are playing far less minutes in the Premiership and are occupying far less of the key positions - especially for the teams at the top of the table.

Manchester United last season under Moyes were widely derided for their lack of ambition or ability in the transfer market. It was said that they could no longer compete against the Reals and the Barcas at the very top of the market.

This Summer, United have spent around 150M culminating with the signing of Angel Di Maria for circa 60M and Radamel Falcao on loan.

These two signings of a striker and a midfielder have prompted the departures of the very same, Danny Wellbeck and Tom Cleverley.

This has led to much wailing and gnashing of teeth in the press (the same press criticising United's transfer policy for not attracting the big names) that United are abandoning their traditions of developing youth.

Louis Van Gaal, whilst not possibly the coaching God that many profess him to be, strikes me as hugely pragmatic man.

He is faced with a United team staring at a horrendous decline, out of the Champions League and having suffered an awful start to the season.

Does anyone think that the two players that have been replaced have not been done so with big upgrades?

Danny Wellbeck is of course United born and bred. Teams would all love to have players who have come through their own systems born a few streets from the ground. Even removing the sentiment, it makes perfect sense for a variety of reasons.

But what if those players are not good enough? In Wellbeck's case it's maybe a touch harsh as the jury is still very much 'out'.

He splits opinion and many believe he's a fine player but the truth is he's a notch below the very best players that United covet.

English players usually carry a huge premium and the fact he went for 16M only indicates the top teams were not as a whole hugely interested in him. Arsenal will feel they have a bargain and time will tell whether Wenger can improve him greatly, if so they may well be right.

In Tom Cleverley's case, the fact that England fans arranged a petition to have him excluded from the team tells you everything as to the perception of how good he is.

Whilst at Ajax, Van Gaal oversaw a wonderful team with a plethora of Dutch talent, Reizeger, Blind, Frank and Ronald De Boer, Edgar Davids, Clarence Seedorf, Marc Overmars and Patrick Kluivert.

Whilst at Barcelona, he returned to Holland to take several of those players to the club as well as Cocu and Zenden. Barcelona required instant results and right now, so do United.

Whilst these various footballing experts rush to blame foreign coaches, foreign owners and anyone else not at least three generations English for the woes of the England team, they could consider that Johnny Foreigner actually provides the solution.

I firmly believe that the reason that English players are not flourishing in the EPL is because they are simply not good enough (and far too expensive).

That is a problem the FA needs to address through vastly improved infrastructure and coaching at a much younger level. The players are already too far behind the curve before they enter into the professional structure.

One way to attempt to combat this in the short term is for English and British players to be far more ready to move abroad. It is a singularly British issue that we are so reluctant to try anything new and the riches of the EPL make it too tempting to sit pampered on the bench.

Gareth Bale was already a wonderful player at Spurs but going to Madrid will almost certainly improve him.

Whilst in the gloaming of his career, Ashley Cole's move to Roma is a refreshing one. Far too few English players are prepared to take the great leap into the unknown. Likewise, Micah Richards' move to Fiorentina is a pleasant surprise.

I'm quite sure the almost complete inability of the Brits (I am one) to wrap their heads around a second language is a big hurdle and surely a player such as Tom Cleverley could have benefited from a move abroad.

Southampton are being lauded right now for their development of English talent and rightly so. A true cynic however could simply suggest that it is less than rocket science to figure out that concentrating on developing English talent that attracts a huge premium in the market is a very good way to run a business.

Southampton have cashed in big time this Summer selling English players such as Luke Shaw, Adam Lallana, Callum Chambers (also Rickie Lambert). They should be commended for both grooming them and the huge profits they have made.

The majority of the replacements they have duly signed are foreign. Spurs reinvested the Bale money heavily on foreign talent, to a degree Liverpool also with the Suarez fee, there is clearly a reason, or probably several.

Is it really sensible to suggest that the responsibility to develop players for the England team resides with Jose Mourinho and Arsene Wenger as one journalist suggested the other day?

It's a dreadful cliché but football is a results business and managers are employed to do what's best for their club.

If Van Gaal thinks United will do better this season and maybe next by employing Radamel Falcao instead of Danny Wellbeck and he has the required resources then should he really be thinking about England's fortunes in the Euro qualifiers?

Spain have enjoyed the most wonderful period in their history with a batch of players the envy of the world. Their stars populated Real and in particular Barcelona through their wonderful period of success.

A look however at the current Real and Barca line ups shows a slightly differing story.

Real's forward line boasts Rodriguez, Bale, Ronaldo, Benzema as well as a central midfield of Kroos, Khedira and Modric.

Barca's all star forward line is formed of Suarez, Messi and Neymar.

Whilst the two teams still boast the likes of Casillas, Sergio Ramos, Iniesta and Busquets, it's hardly suggesting that the situation is vastly different in Spain to how it is in England.

Both teams recruited almost exclusively foreign talent this year whilst selling Spanish players.

Spanish players however are far more open to moves abroad. The Premiership has seen Fernando Torres, Juan Mata, Xabi Alonso, Roberto Soldado, Pepe Reina, Alvaro Negredo and David Silva to name some of the best ones all to make the move to the Premiership.

Alonso has just moved again to Bayern where he will team up with the (injured) Spanish duo of Javi Martinez and Thiago Alcantara.

The Spanish are clearly taking a far more pragmatic view of things, if Real and Barca are full of top foreign talent, no problem we will go abroad ourselves. If we're good enough (and we seem to be) a top team will pick us up.

Now it is clear that just running through that list of Spanish players that the talent on offer in Spain right now is far and away beyond what is on offer in England but again, this illustrates that the problem is in youth coaching in the UK and not with the clubs being full of foreign players.

Spain has consistently taken prime young talent from South America as well as enduring the likes of Real's Galacticos policy yet still won three major tournaments back to back.

English players moving abroad would not offer a magic wand as the real issue is youth coaching and most of the damage will still already be done. It certainly couldn't do any harm however.

The young Scot, Ryan Gauld just this Summer joined Sporting Lisbon as he felt it was the best place to progress his career - he is a gifted diminutive attacking midfielder - rather than take the easy option of a big offer from the Premiership. It is refreshing but all too rare.

The English press will continue to blame Johnny Foreigner and the evils of money in the football for the woes of the English football team.

They will also extol the virtues of English football should one of these expensively assembled sides lift the Champions League.

The reality is that the problem lies at home firstly with the abject number and quality of coaches and with a marked reluctance of their players to try different footballing cultures.

Suggesting that the likes of Van Gaal and Mourinho have a moral obligation to wrong those rights smacks of newspaper selling copy through printing Nationalistic nonsense -  and we insist upon No Nonsense.