Thinking football I fear for England when we're always dumbing down
22:57 GMT, 28 October 2012
How does the standard inquest into the state of English football go again We haven’t got a player like Andres Iniesta. We haven’t got an Andrea Pirlo. Oh, woe is us.
Did you see the Chelsea and Manchester City games last week We haven’t got Christian Eriksen of Denmark, either. We haven’t got the best player in Armenia.
His name is Henrikh Mkhitaryan. Armenian player of the year for 2009, Shakhtar Donetsk’s player of the year last season. UEFA rate him among the top 100 footballers in Europe. He was leading scorer in qualifying Group B for the 2012 European Championship, in which Armenia finished third and won 4-0 in Slovakia. He would walk into Roy Hodgson’s England team.
Dream on, England: Shakhtar Donetsk's Henrikh Mkhitaryan (left) showed his class against Chelsea
It was a sobering week for English football, as much as for English clubs. The technique on display in Donetsk and Amsterdam was so far in advance of our own that it is possible to fear not just for England’s fate at the 2014 World Cup, but for the prospect of even getting there.
We kid ourselves with these searches for football’s El Dorado, the hope that we will pass like Barcelona if we could only keep Jack Wilshere fit. Watching Mkhitaryan pull the strings for Shakhtar on Tuesday was to marvel at how far we have fallen. Wilshere did not waste a pass in the first 45 minutes of his return to the Arsenal side on Saturday but he cannot do it alone.
Mkhitaryan was surrounded by nimble, technically able players such as Brazil’s Willian, who is not even a regular in his national team. Then it was on to Amsterdam where Eriksen destroyed the Premier League champions. At the end, Micah Richards, an England international, blamed the defeat in part on being required to play an unfamiliar system.
Do you think Eriksen, Mkhitaryan or Willian would worry about that Shakhtar’s second goal was taken beautifully by Fernandinho, ostensibly a defensive midfield player, who also can’t secure a place for Brazil. He stuck doggedly to his duties but, given one opportunity, knew exactly when and how to break. That’s football. Thinking football. Could Fernandinho be wrong-footed by a tweak to Shakhtar’s system
Great Dane: Christian Eriksen gave Manchester City the runaround in the Champions League last week
Richards is meant to be one of our new wave, too. He came through the Simon Clifford futebol de salao schools, a form of football education credited with producing many of Brazil’s greatest footballers, including Ronaldinho. Yet Richards’s international career has stagnated because his defensive thinking and strategy are poor. His admission that a simple switch to a back three left him puzzled is startling.
Roberto Mancini was right to say that the next time Manchester City played that way, Richards could watch from the bench. It is probably a moot point after his unfortunate knee injury on Saturday, but Richards is under increasing pressure from Pablo Zabaleta and Maicon, players from South America who do not balk at the thought of modification. Neither is fit right now but, when that changes, whom will Mancini turn to if he desires flexibility
Why do English players find it so hard to adapt Steve McClaren was as good as run out of town for playing three centre halves in Croatia. He was never brave enough to try it again. Yet Holland, Brazil and Germany all do it, or can if necessary. And clubs throughout Europe, including Barcelona, freely switch between three and four defenders without everybody getting the vapours.
Welcome back, Jack: But Wilshere's return alone will never be enough to transform England
Mkhitaryan is not a defender, nor is Eriksen, but they come from football cultures in which thought and expression is expected, from the front to the back. English football continues to dumb down.
Glenn Hoddle got Swindon Town playing three defenders 20 years ago, with Paul Bodin and Nicky Summerbee as wing backs. Try it now with the best players in the land and see what happens. Any deviation from military straight lines is considered heresy and the current England manager is hardly the type to cry revolution.
Meanwhile, the rest of the world catches up and speeds past. We flatter ourselves by yearning for the English Iniesta: Brazilian reserves, the best young player in Denmark, the pride of Yerevan, capital of Armenia, this is what we haven’t got.
Get over it, Bhoys
It was not heartbreaking that Celtic lost at the Nou Camp last week. It would have been heartbreaking if Barcelona, with 82 per cent of possession, leading 10-1 on shots on target, 10-3 on shots off target and 15-1 on corners forced, had not earned more than a point. Defensive football is purely result-driven: the end justifies the means.
Nobody would have felt sorry for Chelsea had they lost to Barcelona last season, because Barcelona were the better team. /10/28/article-2224514-15B6598A000005DC-378_306x459.jpg” width=”306″ height=”459″ alt=”On the touchline: Norwich's Chris Hughton” class=”blkBorder” />
On the touchline: Norwich manager Chris Hughton
It doesn’t do him any favours with the fans of Norwich City, who now believe he is disloyal and will ditch them at the first opportunity, but that isn’t the point. A box must be ticked and Manchester United are ticking it.
But now Chelsea have got wind of United’s interest in Guardiola and Roman Abramovich doesn’t wish to miss out. So he pays off Roberto Di Matteo and puts in a call. And Guardiola fancies living in London even more than Manchester. But Abramovich knows what he must do first. So he phones Chris Hughton.
And that is why the Rooney Rule does not work. We all know that black managers are under-represented in English football but there are better ways of affording opportunity than mere quotas at interview. Black faces are most urgently needed in boardrooms because this is about employers more than employees.
If every club had to have an ex-player responsible for diversity, with non-executive status on the board of directors, the influence of black footballers would grow. The implication of the Rooney Rule is that black candidates are being overlooked, but a lone name on a shortlist won’t change that. A senior presence, with a direct line to the men doing the appointing, might.
It is not unthinkable to consider Paul Elliott in such a role at Charlton Athletic, Patrick Vieira at Manchester City, John Barnes at Liverpool, Marcel Desailly at Chelsea.
Every club, from top to bottom, would have more than one candidate for the position, a former player who could be, not just an ambassador, but a positive influence, making it laughable that a serious black contender for a coaching role would not be considered.
The power is with the employers: it is there that the change must be made.
Fans could ditch ESPN
The best two sports events I watched on television last week were the World Series baseball, and Atletico Mineiro’s 3-2 win over Fluminense in Brazil's Campeonato. Both were on ESPN. Major League Baseball has signed with them for seven years.
Yet from next season, ESPN will have no Premier League football, and soon no Premiership rugby. They are also losing coverage of Italy’s Serie A, Ligue 1 in France, Brazilian domestic matches and Major League Soccer. This leaves them with the FA Cup, Europa League and Bundesliga to appease football fans. It is not much. They will surely have to drop subscriptions from next season, but even that might not be enough as subscribers switch to Premier League football on BT Vision.
At a time when every sport is looking to expand its global awareness one wonders whether baseball, for instance, regrets entering a long-term contract with an increasingly lame-duck broadcaster. The FA, too, tied in until 2015.
The need for competition, far from being a boon to armchair sports fans, has only meant bigger bills as the rights become fragmented.
Sports writers must have all bases covered: but you don’t, and probably won’t, once you see the spiralling cost.
A different ball game: Baseball is fun to watch, but is it enough to keep ESPN viewers happy
Authorities must get to bottom of Croft race case
Lee Croft of Oldham Athletic will face no police action over allegations he racially abused a ball boy at a match with Sheffield United. Croft strongly denied the accusation and an investigation by South Yorkshire police found no evidence such an event had taken place.
Not good enough. What actually happened that day The complaint was made by some Sheffield United fans. Was it fabrication or simple misunderstanding The club must take steps to discover the reality here.
If instances of racism are to receive lengthy statutory bans, as is correct and likely, then all aspects of the procedure must be regarded seriously. Victims should never be made reluctant to come forward, but nor should the accusation itself be taken lightly, if found to be false.
Andy for SPOTY
Andy Murray will not be present at the Sports Personality of the Year Awards in December. He has opted to remain in training in Miami instead. I want him to win it even more now.
Chips are down (and so pricey) at Arsenal
The economic strategy at Arsenal is plain. Instead of a very rich man investing his money, in return for excitement and glory, the fans are squeezed until the pips squeak. A club can only spend what it can generate, without external financing, so it’s 13.90 for fish and chips and the dearest season-ticket prices in the land.
There is a term to describe this phenomenon. It’s called financial fair play. Enjoy the future, everybody.
Show me the money: Watching the likes of Mikel Arteta in action for Arsenal doesn't come cheap for fans
The problem with QPR
Stephane Mbia, who let Queens Park Rangers down so badly on Saturday, says he thought he was signing for a Scottish club and that manager Mark Hughes had barely seen him play. And there is QPR’s problem in a capsule: too much, too soon, and too many just passing through.
The bottom line
The Manchester City team that lost to Ajax last week cost 175.1million. What a waste of money. Apparently, you can get spanked in Amsterdam for a lot less than that.
Further to last week’s column, Paul Douglas, chief executive of Rotherham United, has asked me to make clear that while manager Steve Evans was banned for six matches and fined 3,000 for using insulting words and behaviour with reference to gender, the part of the Football Association charge that referred to exposing himself to a female official of Bradford City was rejected.