Off the Cuff – Reality fails to bite once again for England

by Ed Diggins

As the dust settles and another England team travels home from a major tournament with tails between their collective legs, a sense of doom and gloom once again descends over the future of football in the land. Three insipid performances, two goals scored, one goal scorer, no reality.

This was supposed to be the team that the future of England was to be built on. Chris Smalling and Phil Jones the new Terry and Rio. Jordan Henderson and Jack Rodwell the new, errm, Lampard and Gerrard!  With Henderson completing his big money move to Liverpool in the last two weeks and the Jones to Manchester United saga finally ending on Monday of the week just passed, the expectations of a nation were high, nothing new of course.

Despite Danny Welbeck’s late equaliser against the elegant and fluent Spanish in the first round of fixtures, the gulf in class was phenomenal. Spain had the ball for two thirds of that match, men against boys.  Sleek, crisp, high tempo passing and movement, England restricted to long punts and working off scraps. Champions League final all over again.

After ten minutes of that game, something quite obvious came to light. If the likes of Henderson and Jones, good players and all, cost a combined £36million depending on who you believe, what price would Thiago, Juan Manuel Mata, Javi Martínez and their compatriots be or even should be? The reality is, not a whole lot more, possibly less in fact. So, why are English clubs still willing to fork out millions on local talent that are severely unproven, overrated and overpriced in comparison to their continental counterparts?

Blackburn wanted upwards of £20 million for Jones, with United willing to go no further than £16 million. Jones looks a real prospect and had a fine tournament, but let us look at Gerard Pique and his transfer to Barcelona in May 2008. He was third in the pecking order behind Ferdinand and Vidic at United. Other players may have been content with this and willing to wait their chance, but Pique was confident in his ability and knew his level was above the bench at Old Trafford. Barcelona forked out a miserly £5 million for him, an absolute steal for a 21 year old who has now gone on to be rated one of the top defenders in the world.

Now take the Andy Carroll transfer earlier this year. £35million for a player with 11 top flight goals to his name and barely a ball kicked at International level, even at u-21. Compare to Giuseppe Rossi whose career was at a similar stage to Carroll’s when he moved to Villareal in 2007. They both had pretty much an identical goal ratio, with Rossi having 15 top flight goals for United and Parma. So, why should Carroll be worth £28.4million more and why are English clubs willing to take that risk?

Barcelona want Rossi and are willing to pay figures similar to what Liverpool paid for Carroll, yet it took 3 years and almost 80 goals at Villareal to reach this. Carroll can go on to be a success for Liverpool, but compared to what is out there, the deal baffles and his British passport (plus the deadline day drama) have seen the move overpriced by about 60%. Rinse and repeat for practically every British based transfer.

Sunderland are believed to be willing to spend £14million on Welbeck while Ipswich rate unproven Connor Wickham above £10million. Arsenal would need to pay a similar fee to lure 17 year old Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain who spent last season playing in League one.

It is difficult to put a price of course on the home-grown rule and the difficulties associated with foreign players settling in. Phil Jones would not be found wanting on a cold Tuesday night in Stoke they say, that’s worth an extra £5 million surely? But judging by his performances in Denmark, Henderson may struggle at the Britannia. Indeed there is a strong case to say that only Jones and Chris Smalling left the tournament with their high reputation intact of the “big” names in the England squad. Two defenders.

The Spanish academy’s philosophy is the yardstick now for global football. If as expected they capture the U-21 tournament over the next week or so, the foundation for many years of football dominance will be solid, it already is.

Many claim the Olympics in 1992 were the catalyst for the extraordinary transition in sporting regimes not only in Barcelona, but Spain as a nation. 19 years on, the practices that were conceived in the aftermath of the event have set the tone for a new way of nurturing young talent, a new mentality. The first crop of players saw the emergence of Xavi, Iniesta, Casillas, Torres, Villa and the like. The latest batch is just as frightening and the gap will continue to grow between them and everybody else, England included.

Despite capturing the 2010 UEFA European Under-17 Championship, there are fundamental flaws in the coaching structure in England. The focus in England is very much on speed, strength and intensity where as in Spain they focus on ball retention and movement.

In the aftermath of the Champions League Final, Sir Alex Ferguson spoke about the coaching restrictions in place in England and how they were hindering development of young players. Coaches are only allowed to spend 7 and ½ hours a week with each prospective talent, no such restrictions are in place in Spain. These players must be located within 90miles or 90 minutes of their home.

While the big clubs in Spain can draw the top talent from all over the nation, the likes of Wickham and Oxlade-Chamberlain could be missing out on key, top level development. Part of a cunning plan or mindless bigotry from the suits in the F.A.?

With London the home of the famous Olympic torch for 2012, can the English respond and adapt the necessary changes online with the revolution we have seen in Spain? They need to.

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