Another tournament, another heartbreaking exit for England in a penalty shootout. Again so close, an opportunity for England to say what if, but would we in Australia be better served by asking what now?
A few weeks ago we discussed on the World Game show the pervasive English influence on the Australian game, and moreover the almost complete absence of coaching philosophies from different, and more successful, regions of the world.
As on the show, it is time now to consider the repercussions our football ties to England, and ask if there are better alternatives.
Watch England and Portugal Quarter Final of EURO 2004 and the issue is glaring.
Portugal, comfortable on the ball, technically excellent, able to consistently play out of tight spaces, diamonds and triangles all over the field, support play excellent and when the situation demands, a very high level of ability to beat the opposing player. Not isolated traits but common across their players.
The French also possess similar traits. A developed understanding of creating space and angles allows play in tight spaces with one touch under any scenario, in attack or defence. Confidence to maintain possession under pressure mastered at young ages, something that is almost certainly as alien to Australian youngsters as it is to the English.
And let?s leave aside any discussion of the Brazilians, shall we?
Contrast England. A propensity to hurry play, eagerness to play forward sacrificing pass quality, difficulty maintaining possession in tight areas and a lower level of technical ability. Wall passes and intricate play less common as support players are further apart rather than in small triangles like the French, South American and Continental European countries. More balls played from back to front and less ability of midfielders to run with the ball and beat players. A propensity to spend long periods under pressure as superior ball possession of opponents forces retreat.
Strong in passion and heart, like Australians, English players of world class are isolated gems like Rooney is, and Gascoigne was. Technical excellence is not a general trait, nor one valued, just ask Glenn Hoddle. England has arguably lacked a genuine playmaker of technical excellence since Gascoigne. Lampard is in supreme form , but would you take him over Figo, Rui Costa, Zidane or Pires? The choice, for me anyway, is a clear one.
The Premier League lies at the heart of the English style. Thrilling, but not conducive to developing English players to the most demanding International standard. Play is rushed with early balls forward behind high defensive lines. Maintenance of possession is not generally stressed tactically. The problem for the English is that Premier League crowds and a global TV audience expect excitement above all else. Even Arsenal, with an almost total Continental influence, play at lightning speed with at times scintillating play, yet how much does this cost the club at Champions League level?
English commentators lament the influx of foreign players, yet the best of them add a creative brilliance lacking in the English player. Henry, Okocha, Djorkaeff, Bergkamp, Van Nistelrooy, Cristiano Ronaldo and Pires to name a few. The question is, and one we must ask of ourselves, why are the English not producing these players themselves?
These points may rankle with some English fans who are rightly proud of their team and country. They will argue naturally that the World Cup ?66 is proof enough, as is consistent World Cup Quarter Final berths. This is as it should be, but my criticique is grounded in reason not prejudice.
It may surprise some English fans to learn that the English FA is itself altering its junior development systems after recognising a dearth of technically gifted young English players.
Midway through a ten-year plan, an attempt is being made to increase the technique and tactical flexibility of their next generation, producing attack minded, skilled footballers capable of competing equally with the most successful nations.
One of the considerations necessary to developing young players is the formation used to teach the type of attacking patterns sought, and the English have now adopted a version of the Dutch 433 across all of their youth development squads from U14-21, abandoning the inflexible and predictable 442 with balls played down channels and pressing tactics.
The English are adapting to modern trends by looking to others, and we must do the same.
There can be no doubt that over the last 50 years the prevalence of English coaches in our development system has profoundly influenced our style of play as well as the way we coach young players.
The similarities in style are obvious. Counter attack football with little playing out from defence, no emphasis on maintaining possession against world class teams, a game largely based on athleticism rather than ball mastery and invention, a generally lower level of technical ability than the world?s best nations, and a lack of measured build up and tactical awareness.
Again, Australian fans may see this assessment as harsh, but we must ask ourselves how good we really are. We too produce gems like Kewell, Viduka and Bresciano, but they are an anomaly not a targeted outcome, and while we produce good results against the best nations are we truly their equal?
I state these points not to criticise the standard of our players for I was one, but rather to ask, given our Australian sporting aptitude and adaptability, just how good they really could become if given the right technical education.
Football is played with a philosophy that shapes decisions, both of coach and player.
And it is this football culture which we have borrowed from England which must change if we are to compete with the best.
We must learn to value and stress individual skill above all else and adapt all our coaching systems to the development of technically gifted footballers.
We insist in some States on playing eight and ten year olds on a full pitch, with some lucky to ever touch the ball, let alone actually develop skill! Juniors play for points, encouraging coaches to sacrifice learning for results. Skilful players are routinely discouraged to keep the ball and take risks by beating players and we are encouraged endemically to pass and run rather than take on a player. We are taught to value the passion in effort, rather than the artistry in skill, a long ball and powerful shot over brilliant individual skill or an insightful pass.
Methods and philosophies must be imported from South America, France and Holland. Coaching Systems based on principles of small-sided games, ball contacts, ball mastery, diamonds and angles in play and valuing possession of, and skill with, the football.
We should encourage more South American football on TV and import quality players and coaches from successful nations for our new National League.
It is time to recognise that the English acknowledge the failings in their past methodology to meet the requirements of the modern game, set our own objectives for the prototypical modern player, and implement a nationwide development plan.
In short we need to sever our ties with the mother country and strike out in search of football excellence.
South America is the most successful region on earth in both developing players and winning World Cups. France, Germany and Italy are all more successful than England on the World Stage, and yet we have rejected their philosophies for that of our forebears, the English.
That, my friends, as the Englishman said to the Aussie way back in 1788, is criminal.