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Friday, 29 June 2012

Viva la Roy-volution


Hodgson's true test as England manager begins now


"Partridge: Oh I read your article in the paper. I loved that phrase you used 'Revolution, not Evolution'." Hayers: "No it was the opposite 'Evolution, not Revolution'." Partridge: "Well you know whatever. Because that is me. I evolve, but I don't...revolve. Or vice versa."
Whilst classic comedy quotes such as the above from Alan Partridge are not the first thing you think of after England’s meek and mediocre exit from another international tournament, the same sentiments used - by Partridge, not his erstwhile boss Tony Hayers - are now the key motto for Roy Hodgson to adopt to avoid becoming known as a failure as England manager.
England’s next tournament is the World Cup in Brazil, 2014. Two years away. The old guard will only get older, with the majority of the senior players likely to be past their peak for a tournament in the Brazilian heat, with games coming at a high intensity and frequency. Steven Gerrard will be 34, John Terry 33, Joleon Lescott and Phil Jagielka both 31, Scott Parker 33, Frank Lampard 36, Gareth Barry 33, Jermain Defoe 31 and Rio Ferdinand 35. The only possible exception is Ashley Cole who, despite being 33 in 2014, *might* still get the nod. However, the argument for younger blood may see even Cole spared for the tournament.
Which begs the question, why not start the revolution early? Why not now? The qualifying group that England face consists of Euro 2012 hosts Poland and Ukraine, Montenegro and minnows San Marino and Moldova. That’s 10 games likely to be testing at best. Throw in the confirmed friendly matches against Italy, which comes in two months time, Scotland and Sweden, and England have at least 13 matches between now and the start of the World Cup (should the qualification be as straightforward as it appears) in which to mould a young squad into a concise, tactically astute and familiar group of players.
The qualifying matches would present Hodgson (more on him later) with an opportunity to gel some of the country’s best young players with those in the current squad who aren’t nearing the climax of their career. I’ve looked at the current England squad, plus the U21s, U20s, U19s and the rest of the English set up, including some of the young players heralded for a big future, to produce a 57 man national pool of players to be considered for the ‘revolution’.
All are under the age of 28, which means they will be 30 or under come Brazil 2014. All are not a part of the old guard, so no real association with past failures can be drawn. And all, importantly, (though perhaps irrelevant with a staunch 4-4-2 supporter as manager) are perfectly suited to the 4-5-1/4-2-3-1 formation which achieves arguably the greatest results. So then, these players...
Goalkeepers (age in brackets) club in italics

Joe Hart (25) Manchester City
John Ruddy (25) Norwich City
Jack Butland (19) Birmingham City
David Stockdale (26) Fulham
Ben Amos (22) Manchester United
Alex Smithies (22) Huddersfield Town
Jason Steele (21) Middlesbrough 

Defenders

Gary Cahill (26) Chelsea
Glen Johnson (27) Liverpool
Micah Richards (24) Manchester City
Chris Smalling (22) Manchester United
Kyle Walker (22) Spurs
Leighton Baines (27) Everton
Phil Jones (20) Manchester United
Martin Kelly (22) Liverpool
Kieran Gibbs (22) Arsenal
Steven Caulker (20) Spurs
James Tomkins (23) West Ham United
Jon Flanagan (19) Liverpool
Zeki Fryers (19) Manchester United
Jack Robinson (18) Liverpool
Nathaniel Clyne (21) Crystal Palace
Ryan Bertrand (22) Chelsea
Ryan Shawcross (24) Stoke City

Midfielders
Theo Walcott (23) Arsenal
Adam Johnson (24) Manchester City
Jordan Henderson (22) Liverpool
Ashley Young (26) Manchester United
Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain (18) Arsenal
Tom Cleverley (22) Manchester United
Jack Wilshere (20) Arsenal
Jack Rodwell (21) Everton
Josh McEachran (19) Chelsea
Aaron Lennon (25) Spurs
Scott Sinclair (23) Swansea
Nathan Dyer (24) Swansea
Tom Huddlestone (25) Spurs
Jonjo Shelvey (20) Liverpool
Mark Albrighton (22) Aston Villa
Wilfried Zaha (19) Crystal Palace
Ross Barkley (18) Everton
Gary Gardner (19) Aston Villa
Raheem Sterling (17) Liverpool
Ravel Morrison (19) West Ham
Nathan Redmond (18) Birmingham City
Jack Cork (23) Southampton
Nick Powell (18) Manchester United

Forwards
Wayne Rooney (26) Manchester United
Danny Welbeck (21) Manchester United
Andy Carroll (23) Liverpool
Danny Sturridge (22) Chelsea
Jay Rodriguez (22) Southampton
Connor Wickham (19) Sunderland
Benik Afobe (19) Arsenal
Will Keane (19) Manchester United
Harry Kane (18) Spurs
Adam Le Fondre (25) Reading

From this pool of players, using a 4-2-3-1 formation (with two less attack-minded central midfielders acting as a foundation for the forwards, a set of wingers/inside-forwards and a playmaker/trequartista in the spot behind the striker) I have devised England’s first, second, third and even fourth strength squads:
First XI: Hart (c); G.Johnson, Jones, Cahill, Baines; Rodwell, Wilshere; Walcott, Rooney, Young; Welbeck
Second XI: Ruddy; Walker, Smalling, Caulker, Gibbs; Huddlestone, Henderson; Lennon, Oxlade-Chamberlain, A. Johnson; Carroll
Third XI: Butland; Richards, Kelly, Tomkins, Robinson; McEachran, Cleverley; Dyer, Shelvey, Sinclair; Sturridge
Fourth XI: Smithies; Flanagan, Fryers, Shawcross, Bertrand; Cork, Barkley; Zaha, Powell, Redmond; Rodriguez
Making Joe Hart the captain would seem, to me, to be the wisest choice. Goalkeepers as captains just seems to work. Ask Spain with Casillas, or Italy with Buffon. There are arguments for giving the captaincy to Rooney or Wilshere, but in doing so it is likely to force added pressure and unwanted responsibility on their shoulders, despite both possessing arguably the most natural ability that an English player has had since the mercurial Paul Gascoigne. Stick Rooney as vice-captain, with Wilshere third choice. Make them both key players in the team, through the role they play and also through leading by example.
Jack Wilshere is set to become a key figure in the national team

Now we have the teams, we need the tactics and the management. Step forward Roy Hodgson. 4-4-2, as we have seen, just doesn’t work the way that Hodgson has England playing it. Two banks of four, with no pressing, and long ball football is archaic, ugly and unsatisfying to all concerned. Full-backs need the licence to roam forward. A 4-2-3-1 becomes a 4-5-1 in defence, with, say, Rooney dropping deep to press the ball and the wingers tucking in to create a narrow five man midfield ready to harass the opposition, win the ball, and then assume the dominant position.
All four of the England teams I’ve chosen work on a system where the defence is balanced and structured, with full-backs that like to get forward. This is supported by one (or even two) of the central midfielders having a natural ability to drop deep to anchor the midfield (Rodwell, Wilshere, Huddlestone, Cleverley, Barkley). There are creative midfielders who like the ball at their feet and are comfortable just passing the ball rather than thrusting it forwards aimlessly (Wilshere, Rodwell, Henderson, McEachran).

Then, into the attack, there are the natural wide players who have pace, trickery and a goal threat, who are equally adept at pulling full-backs and central defenders out of the middle as they are at cutting inside to terrorise a defence with pace (Young, Walcott, Lennon, Johnson, Dyer, Sinclair, Zaha, Redmond). Couple this with players who provide a brilliant link between midfield and attack (Rooney, Oxlade-Chamberlain and youngsters like Shelvey and Powell) then England’s strikers (Welbeck, Carroll, Sturridge) will have a supply chain behind them ready to provide goal-scoring opportunities, as well as take them on their own merit.
The pool of players does come with a few wildcards. Many of the young players are still on their development path, so the likes of Sterling, Shelvey, Robinson and Flanagan at Liverpool, Powell and Keane at Manchester United, Zaha and Clyne at Crystal Palace and Redmond at Birmingham, whilst highly rated, still have some way to go. And unknown quantities Le Fondre, Cork and Rodriguez, who are all set to hit the Premier League this season with Reading and Southampton alike, have a great chance of making a name for themselves. Rodriguez and, in particular, Le Fondre, have a great goal record and are still young enough to make their mark on the England setup, while Cork’s upbringing at Chelsea and now playing in a fluid Southampton team is likely to earn him a number of new fans.
By giving these young players the next two years to bed into the team, Hodgson can use the World Cup as a perfect launch pad for the future of England. There is little chance that England will win in 2014; no team from outside of South America has won the World Cup when it has been played there, in six attempts. So two years of qualifications and friendlies, an international tournament of high regard and then a European Championship qualification group will give Hodgson’s new team four years and around 30 matches in which to become a cohesive and impressive unit, by which time England should be amongst the favourites to win Euro 2016. Either that, or we’ll be having the same discussions in two years time. Hopefully I won’t see you then...

Wednesday, 25 January 2012

Short-termism... football's long-term problem?

The recent return of football icons Paul Scholes and Thierry Henry to the clubs where they were (and still are) idolised has been heralded as a welcome boost to the fortunes of both teams, by the majority of fans who are able to sing songs bearing their names once more.
However, for some, including more sceptical followers of Manchester United and Arsenal, the moves to reunite their team with an aging player either on his last legs (Henry) or seven months into retirement (Scholes) is a desperate signal of the lack of quality and cover available in their squad.


Paul Scholes returned from retirement after just over seven months


These transfers are not unique. Henry’s path from the MLS back to the Premier League has been echoed by Robbie Keane and Landon Donovan, two of LA Galaxy’s three marquee players (Beckham being the third of the golden triangle), joining Aston Villa and Everton on short-term loan deals in their domestic off-season. For Donovan, it is the second time in three years he has made such a move, and Keane’s return comes only months after he left for a new beginning across the Atlantic.
In a similar fashion, Liverpool’s summer splurge of Fenway Sports Group’s wealth was supplemented with a free transfer move for Craig Bellamy from his status as surplus to requirements at Manchester City. Bellamy’s return to Anfield has proved successful so far, with the Welshman hitting seven goals despite long-standing knee problems limiting his input in a somewhat stuttering start to Kenny Dalglish’s first full season since returning to the Liverpool helm.
These transfers all share a few things in common. They are, firstly, involving players with renowned Premier League reputations and abilities, bringing much-wanted experience and understanding to managers who feel, for whatever reason, that their return would be a boost to the club. They are also financially beneficial; with the clubs only having to pay wages and perhaps, in the case of Henry, Donovan and Keane, a small loan transfer fee for their services. Another benefit is that they are recognised by all fans, new or old, sceptical or not, as players with an ability; something that is seldom the case with some signings made either as a building block in the summer or a quick patch-up job in January.
One aspect that the deals also share is that of being painfully short-term in duration. Scholes and Bellamy aside, the MLS loans are all for a period of roughly six weeks, with their parent clubs keen to stress that their men return for pre-season training to schedule. And even with regards to Scholes and Bellamy, both free-transfers with no other club commitments, their respective ages (37 and 32) dictate that neither man is likely to be a part of their manager’s long-term thoughts.
So why then do these moves continue to take place, when their benefits have expired before too long? Short-termism is a habit that football, and many other sports, would do well to avoid paying too much lip service too. A quick look at how many young players make the grade in the Premier League will tell you everything about the squad-building strategies at clubs throughout the division, not just the top teams.
The return of Scholes was the signal for Darron Gibson to leave for pastures new at Everton, and his departure seems to be not the only one due at Old Trafford. Highly rated youngsters Ravel Morrison and Paul Pogba are linked with moves to Newcastle and Juventus respectively, following Sir Alex Ferguson’s desire to keep them away from the first-team setup. Both are undeniably talented players, though Morrison admittedly comes with an enfant terrible tag, but Ferguson’s preference for a retired Scholes over a player who, if successful, could be a focal point of a United team for years to come, is low-risk and frankly uninspiring to a generation of footballers. Does Sir Alex remember the success he had with a certain batch of youngsters (Scholes included) almost 20 years ago?
The same too can be said at Arsenal, with the likes of Benik Afobe and Ryo Miyaichi restricted by Henry’s return. Also, Nathan Delfouneso, an England U21 international striker, has found himself resigned to a loan move to Leicester to find first-team football this week, following Keane’s move to Villa Park. And Liverpool’s Bellamy signing saw Dani Pacheco leave on loan, with fellow young stars Raheem Sterling and Suso patiently waiting in the wings for a chance. Everton too, as seen with the likes of Leon Osman, Wayne Rooney, Jack Rodwell and the recent development of Ross Barkley, have a well respected youth academy, so how much has Donovan’s arrival stemmed the development of Jose Baxter, summer signings Apostolos Vellios and Magaye Gueye, and young Connor McAleny?
McEachran (right) is already a key part of Stuart Pearce's England U21 side
These young players are seeing their path to first-team football halted by players with a short lifespan, limiting their opportunities to games in the failing and frankly worthless reserve league, where disinterested fringe players and fitness-seeking players returning from injury ply their trade, or the alternative of a loan spell to the Football League. One player who has grown impatient with the chances available to him is Chelsea’s talented midfield architect Josh McEachran, a cultured midfielder who has just joined Brendan Rodgers’ Swansea. The Welsh outfit resemble a Barcelona-lite style of football that is currently impressing fans and pundits alike, and McEachran, despite being 18, possesses a confidence on the ball that should see him slot effortlessly into Rodgers’ plans.
The ideal scenario, in an ideal world of course, would be to see these young players, like McEachran and Delfouneso, both highly rated and already in the international setup at youth level, be given first-team football at regular intervals at their parent clubs. Why their managers choose not to do so may vary, but the benefits are there to be seen if they persist with a long-term strategy. More home-grown players, as well as helping to abide with FIFA squad requirements, adds an identity to the team that fans can relate to strongly. Also, the culture at the club is likely to benefit, as more players develop through the same system with the same ideals and an understanding that is born at youth level and allowed to flourish with time, patience and encouragement.
A move to a long-term outlook would also be cost-effective too - another major fillip with UEFAs Financial Fair Play (FFP) laws requiring a more stringent financial rule over clubs and their owners. In the Premier League era, many hundreds of millions have been spent bringing top class players to these shores, to the delights of fans. But it is not so much the big names who push out the young players, as it is the journeymen, the Bosman signings, the squad players, where the question surely must be; would it not be better to give a young player a chance? After all, that’s how the likes of Paul Scholes were given their break.

Monday, 23 January 2012

Arsene Wenger v the fans

Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain. A name with considerable length and belonging to a player who has already achieved a lot in such a short space of time since beginning his career. 43 games and 10 goals for Southampton between his debut at just 16 years and 199 days old on March 2nd 2010 and August 2011, when he left for Arsenal in a £12m deal. He has also represented England at under 18, 19 and 21 age groups, with seven caps and three goals for Stuart Pearce’s side. However, since joining Arsenal in the summer, he has made only limited appearances in the first-team, with Arsene Wenger keen to protect his latest wonder-kid from the hype of a thousand eyes.

Oxlade-Chamberlain has played nine games for Arsenal, scoring twice
Yet by throwing him into the bear-pit of the Emirates, whose fans were admittedly practically comatose until the 74th minute on Sunday against Manchester United, Wenger has unwillingly created a division between himself and the fans, with the young winger a pivotal part of the rift.
Oxlade-Chamberlain’s guile and direct wing play, a direct contrast to the under-performing and frustrating style of fellow Southampton graduate Theo Walcott on the opposite flank, was one of few impressive aspects to an Arsenal performance still showing an obvious hangover to the 8-2 drubbing seen at Old Trafford in August. The creator for Robin Van Persie’s equaliser, Oxlade-Chamberlain was seemingly untouchable and, with the enigmatic and puzzling Andrey Arshavin warming up on the touchline, it appeared to a man that the obvious withdrawal would be Walcott, not the lively newcomer. Yet just three minutes after Arsenal equalised following Antonio Valencia’s first half opener, Oxlade-Chamberlain was withdrawn from the game, to a chorus of boos and overall disapproval.
This disapproval wasn’t just left in the stands. Van Persie himself, captain of Arsenal and Wenger’s star man, key goal provider and a senior figure in the dressing room, was seen looking displeased with the tactical substitution, mouthing the word ‘no’ when the fourth official displayed Oxlade-Chamberlain’s number.
Wenger, however, has defended his decision by stating “I have to justify [substituting] a guy of 18 who’s playing his second or third game? I have to stand up for the substitutions I’ve made. I’ve been 30 years in this job and have made 50,000 substitutions and I have to justify every time I make a decision? I do not have to explain to you every decision I make.”
Arsenal fans first booed Oxlade-Chamberlain’s withdrawal, then rose to applaud the youngster’s exit from the pitch, an appreciative gesture for a sparkling cameo. Arshavin’s entrance was met, conversely, with boos, a fitting reception for a player who Gary Neville claimed after the match on Sky’s coverage to be “the most disinterested player in the league... Arsenal fans don’t want him out there.”
Wenger's decision to withdraw Oxlade-Chamberlain was met with boos

But is Wenger right? Do the fans have a right to criticise a manager’s tactical decision? Some would argue that a manager’s decision, right or wrong, should be respected. After all, he is in the position of responsibility afforded to him, so should therefore be supported with whatever decision he chooses to make.
There is another school of thought however, which says that the modern fan is well-versed in the tactics of the game, and knows when a substitution should, or rather should not, be made. The saturation of football on television means that fans are consuming more of the game, and therefore having a wider opportunity to discuss individual decisions and tactics in pubs, bars, concourses, offices, on forums and in homes across the country. Throw into that a stronger media focus on the tactical outlook of the game (the Guardian’s chalkboards, blogs, plus the excellent Zonal Marking website to name but a few) and even the fact that a generation of fans have grown up outsmarting friends and strangers on games like FIFA, Pro Evo and Football Manager, and the modern fascination with tactical decisions is born. The more knowledge an individual, or a collective, possesses, the more opinions they form and thus the more likely they are to contend any decision they would not have made. In Wenger’s case, this arrived on Sunday to a crescendo of boos at the hands of 55,000 Arsenal fans.
This incident aside, it isn’t the first time that a substitution involving Oxlade-Chamberlain has thrown Wenger’s tactical beliefs wide open. In the 8-2 defeat at Old Trafford, Arsenal were trailing 3-1 after 62 minutes. With the game delicately poised, and Arsenal managing to survive despite a growing injury list, Wenger opted to withdraw young central midfielder Francis Coquelin for Oxlade-Chamberlain, thus removing the one man who was shielding the Arsenal defence. Half an hour later, with Arsenal’s midfield disrupted, Manchester United had run amok and sealed a dramatic 8-2 victory.
In the recent 3-2 defeat at Swansea, Wenger tried to rescue the game with eight minutes remaining by withdrawing central defender Per Mertesacker for Oxlade-Chamberlain, resulting in an obvious reshuffle. Although no more goals were scored, Wenger’s decision to weaken the defence, and therefore the midfield, played into the hands of Brendan Rodgers’ counter-attacking Swansea side, who came dangerously close to adding a fourth. Arsenal were unable to grab a point, but Wenger did himself no favours in trying to provide confidence to the fans.
Arsenal fans have always been more than willing to support Wenger, given the brand of football he prefers and the philosophy he imposes. But two key grumbles, a lack of investment in the right areas of the team, and tactical decisions such as yesterday’s introduction for Arshavin for a sparkling Oxlade-Chamberlain, are starting to create significant cracks in the relationship between the two sides. Failure to hit the top four could be very bad news for Wenger.