Diego Maradona: All 5’5″ of him.
So England, rather unshockingly, bowed out of another major tournament on penalties. The best you can say about the team is that it was gutsy, hard working, it was a team, and they were united in their cause, but sadly, they lacked the raw skill on the field to get the job done and were simply out-classed by the Italians. That England failed to progress to a semi-final for the first time since the 90s should be no real surprise, but I could not help but look at England’s failure and see the future of the US National Team. The descriptors are much the same when it comes to the USMNT – athletic, hard-working, gritty, and the US tend to grind through competitors much more than they romp around them.
The similarities are unsettling because while England as a footballing power are in decline, the US are slowly on the rise – and somehow destined to the same future of frustration. In England right now, the focus will be on foreigners in the Premier League, on the need to reform the FA – to start again, or to give Hodgeson time. It is the same wash, rinse, and repeat cycle after every competition, but underneath it all, England’s failure and the future of the Americans are manifestly joined because they are making the same fundamental mistakes when it comes to the preparation of players.
We could look at the Barcelona side as a role model of sorts (the charge against them, however, is they are simply able to purchase talent, but that completely flies in the face of their willingness to also develop players), but let’s not – let’s look at the Spanish team itself. They play the modern international game as well as any team ever has, and with the exception of the Germans, are the uncontested kings of the hill at the moment. Their walk-in-the-park victory over the French in the quarterfinals of Euro 2012 was branded boring by many, but having scored a goal, they simply possessed the ball in a way that made it almost impossible for the French to get back at them.
Despite the fact that France looked about as toothless and unambitious as any team could at that stage of the tournament, the Spanish simply were on another level. They key was not only in their passing and the ability to find space, but the technique they possess that allowed them to still control, retain, and offload the ball in when they were under pressure. One-touch football when you are under pressure and able to still weave triangles around the opposition makes it tough for anybody to compete. You can’t if you do not have the ball, and as much as England were dominated by Italy, it could have been a real embarrassment for the English if they were pitted against the Spanish.
England were the polar opposite. They have been for some time. They get the ball and the tempo goes up, their movement isn’t fluid, and counter attacks are betrayed by an inability to get good first touches and passes off. Instead of flowing into attack, patient in their ability to pick around a defense until an opportunity presents itself, they run, trying to utilize barely existent pace and strength to create goals. There is no patience, and more often than not, England’s attacks simply served to feed the ball back to the Italians. I see the same pattern with the US, and it is not the way that England or the US wish to play.
In the USA, we like to make excuses about how the best athletes are all pulled off to play in other sports, but I’m not buying it. We have plenty of American talent and we have an immense population, much of which plays soccer from an early age. I get the argument, I do – it’s a logical, rational argument and I’ll submit that it has an impact, but Landon Donovan was never going to play in the NBA or the NFL, neither was Clint Dempsey or Tab Ramos or Brian McBride – these are fine players with as much or more ability than some of those wheeled out for England. I’d much rather have had Landon Donovan running the wing for England than James Milner, and I don’t really think anybody would have complained too much if the English had Clint Dempsey in midfield or up top. It may be a stretch, but the US has and does produce talent. There is nothing inherently more talented about Brazilians or Spaniards when it comes to the game than Americans, and when the greatest player in the world stands at a whopping 5′ 7” after having growth hormone therapy because he was a stunted little runt, I’ll submit that maybe we are looking for the wrong things when we start assessing talent.
Messi is clearly an exception, but if he had been born in the USA or in England, he would probably have been dismissed as too small, too frail, and never really given the chance he was when Barcelona picked him up, moved his family to Spain, and paid for the treatment he needed. Instead, in the US, we hear about the new breed of players coming through, how strong they are, how athletic they are, how finally these specimens are choosing soccer rather than other sports, but the reality is we are breeding Altidore and Bunbury and Sapong and while they all have their moments, they would not stand a chance of making it into a Spanish team of any consequence. The same happens in England, not that these attributes are as desired so much as “the engine” that lets Scott Parker run and run and run to no good end or the strength and determination that can elevate the Rooneys and Beckhams of this world to international prominence.
What is lacking in these discussions is focus on technique, intelligence, tactical mastery. When you can brand these traits onto players, the athletic side is less important. You certainly need to have it, and when you get a player like Cristiano Ronaldo who has both sets of virtues, it is simply devastating.
So how are we producing athletes and not artisans?
It starts young, when we decide that players are not big enough, or fast enough, or tall enough, or strong enough. When at 9, 10, 11 years old they are playing 11 a side football on full size fields. It starts when there are trophies to be played for, city, state and national championships up and down the age scale and the focus is on breeding winners rather than incubating talent. The big field sizes with acres of space do nothing to encourage quick thinking or fleetness of foot, you watch youth football and you see long passes to flying forwards who blow by dawdling defenders and welly the ball into the net almost unchallenged. The better the athlete, the better the progression.
When you watch Teal Bunbury you see it. When you watch Jose Altidore you see it. They are big and fast and you know that at high school and college they simply ran and scored, and ran and scored, and ran and scored. Then they get drafted in MLS where they are taught to run and run and run and run and by the way, it’s a physical league, so you are going to need to man up a little bit and pack on some muscle. In England, it is much the same, with a couple of notable exceptions. At school, the game is played at every available opportunity; kids play on breaks and they play organized football. The school-based leagues and boys’ clubs play competitive football, kids are eventually scouted out and pushed into youth systems, and all but the most exceptional of talents make it through the kicking competition that kids are measured against.
Their ability to play in the million-miles-an-hour pyramid, or ultimately the Premier League is all based on physicality. The same mistakes are made: if Pirlo had turned up on trial at Burnley as an 18-year-old trialist, he’d have been shown the door. He isn’t fast enough, big enough, gritty enough – he’d be getting measured against his ability to survive Nigel De Jong or the clubbers that dominate the lower leagues. He dominated England yesterday.
Dominated. He controlled the entire game, the pace and the ice water in his veins on his penalty underlined that he had been prepared and groomed to be exceptional as a player and not an athlete.
“The sort of cool, calculated way that Pirlo had the confidence and chipped the goalkeeper is something you either have as a player or you don’t,” England coach Roy Hodgson said yesterday. “There is no amount of training or coaching that can teach a player that.”
Yeah, whatever, Uncle Roy.
With the way football is thought in the USA and the UK, we are not giving ourselves a chance. Then again, maybe we get the players we deserve. Instead of dropping the competitive focus on youth football, we have embraced it. The products of it are the hard-running, workman-like players that dominate both squads, and the football we see in MLS and England outside of the foreign legion is all about fire and pace. We don’t like players that stroll around; coaches want forwards to tackle back and help defensively, wingers to to cover defenders, and defenders to motor up and down the field into attack like they are battering rams. Players that do not do this are branded lazy. To hell with a guy like Blanco, who was tubby and out of shape and getting the job done in MLS for the Fire, and yet the fat Mexican proved more than a point or two over the years in MLS didn’t he?
I’d put the US up against any team in the world when it comes to fitness. We can run and run all day. We simply can. The athletic side of the argument to me is fundamentally weak, but until we shift the focus at an early age, drop the 11-a-side football, and start focusing on technique over victories, the level of success won’t change. Short field needs to reign, or we’ll never win the game on the big one – by the time they get to Klinsmann and Hodgeson, the players are already spoiled; that is, if they haven’t been told they’ll never make it by another coach brought up in the same tired old mold.
Yes, I am calling for a cultural shift away from competitive youth soccer, and yes, I’ll be shouted down for it maybe, but that is the way I see it. Small field football, with the mental speed needed to adjust to things, the ball skills you develop when you are constantly under pressure, the ability to finish when you have no time, a tiny goa,l and the ability to make short, precise passing are exactly the traits I admire so much in the Spanish. They are the kind of conditions that street kids play on when they have 25-a-side going with a tennis ball, and the way we used to play as kids in playgrounds in England. The difference, of course, is that in England, they’ll pick a 6’2” oaf like I was and give him a contract, and leave all the kids that used to run circles around me on the outside looking in.
Both nations have the talent. We just have to stop weeding it out by forcing children to play a man’s game focused on athleticism because we have the misconception that “we are not as good as they are”. We are, and I truly do wonder how many special players we have turned away because they didn’t “have the tools” we often look for. We cannot work our way into the top 4-5 football nations in the world, they work hard as well, at some point, the emphasis needs to switch to something more than the physical or the gritty.