International football, it’s a funny old game

When fans, players and the media compare great players of the past they will often look to what these players have achieved on the international stage. Pele and Diego Maradona both led their teams to World Cup victories. Some argue that until Lionel Messi performs to his potential at a World Cup he cannot be considered in the same class. So what makes a player both world class domestically and world class internationally and is it a simple transfer of skills? In this article I will be looking a little closer to home looking at what is required to be an International footballer and what this means to England. Why do some players adapt and why do some not, and what about those players who are great for their country but cannot produce week in week out for the club that pays their wages.

I think that the first thing to be considered is the different style of play. International football is much slower and more methodical than the top Premier Leagues, meaning players will often get more time on the ball and technique rather than brute force  and work rate, although they are still qualities of importance. In fact, Germany possessed a great deal of energy and pace when they destroyed England in the last World Cup but then were undone by Spain’s technical brilliance. This, some would argue, has been England’s downfall.

Many suggest it is the stark contrast between the Premier League’s tempo and that of international football as the reason England under-perform. In a league played at 100 miles per hour the England players play reactively, without having to think, however give them time to decide what to do and they dither, not sure exactly what to do. I think it is fair to say that many of the England players lack intelligence. I am not talking about being book-smart, Rooney remains one of our few players with a true world class footballing brain, I am talking about the ability to decide what to do with the ball when he gets it. Players like Glen Johnson, James Milner and Theo Walcott all have great energy but give them time to make a choice and you can almost see the cogs moving. Even Football Writers player of the year Scott Parker seemed out of position and lost in his defensive midfield role against Switzerland unable to intelligently play his position. To be fair to Parker he has spent the last nine months running manically around the pitch flying into tackles and driving his lacklustre team forward, international football is an entirely different prospect.

So why is this an excuse for the English players? The Premier League is home to many starting internationals such as like Didier Drogba, Carlos Tevez, Nemanja Vidic, Fernando Torres, Michael Essien, Cesc Fabregas, Robin Van Persie, Patrice Evra, Nicolas Anelka and Yaya Toure. Do they all suffer when they play for their country? The automatic answer is ‘No’. However as I wrote this list it dawned on me that many of these players seem to have lost their way internationally or are now quite injury prone, the exception being Toure who has only been in the Premiership one season. So maybe the Premier League does ruin players, but that is a discussion for another day.

The number of foreigners in the Premier League and in leagues all over Europe does bring me to another potential factor in adjusting to international football; experiencing different styles of play. Many of the world’s top players travel to different leagues, play against different styles and with different types of player. Whether consistency breeds perfection as the Barcelona model would suggest or whether many benefit from the experience changing clubs and leagues brings, I am not sure, but it is an interesting aspect to consider. The entire current England squad have never played outside of England, considering that this league is possibly the most different in style to international football. I would argue that this can only be a hindrance on the squad’s development and also offers them the comfort of being big fish in a small pond. Maybe a trip abroad might add a bit of culture and class into a squad that at times seems more interested in sleeping around than in football.

The next element to consider is adjusting to new players. It may be that Messi feels at home amongst his Spanish teammates at Barcelona than his countrymen at Argentina. Every season we see players unable to fit in at a new club or find cohesion with the new team around them. For some, international football may feel like this on a smaller scale every time they go to a tournament or play an international. It is undoubtedly one of the reasons Spain are such a formidable force, half their team play together every week. One would think that this factor would help England form some cohesion. All the players play in the same league and many on the same team. In fact Manchester United, Chelsea, Liverpool and Arsenal have been in Europe’s top ten clubs for the past ten years so the calibre should also be there. Gerrard, Rooney and Lampard, until recently have been three of the best performing players in the Champions League, yet their form for England has been less than inspiring, and no-one seems to be able to explain this. If you are looking for an answer in this article you will not find it.

My final observation is tournament or one-off game pressure. Over a domestic campaign you are able to build up momentum and form, you can put runs of games together and if you lose a match you can win the next five and get back in front. In tournaments this is not the case. Even in the group stages a draw can be disastrous, and at the knock out stage the pressure increases ten-fold. I do not think it is any coincidence that England are terrible at penalties and in the knock-out stages of tournaments, of course both go hand in hand. The Germans on the contrary excel at both. I do not think it would be biased to suggest that there has not been a huge difference in the standard of the players performing for England and Germany over the past decade, yet Germany have done considerably better. This comes down to mental strength, intelligence and technical ability, in these areas the Germans win hands down.

It is the pressure of not getting a second chance that I think makes it hard for some players to make the jump from club football to international football. Take Darren Bent for example, his domestic record cannot be questioned and he is a natural goal scorer. I was delighted for him when he got the nod against Switzerland, but like many there is just something in the back of my mind telling me that he will not perform at thia level, and when he missed the open goal he well and truly cemented that notion. Ironically, the man who it was rumoured had retired from international football, Peter Crouch, will miss more than he scores for Spurs and would not be a man you would rely on at domestic level to bag you more than ten goals a season, but for some reason he scores for fun in Internationals. Fabio chose to leave him out this time regardless of his record which brings me to the question of whether club form should be the basis for international selection. Why should Michael Owen be excluded because he cannot get in the Manchester United first team? No other England striker would get picked ahead of Javier Hernandez and Dimitar Berbatov, and we know he can still finish.

There will always be examples of those who play better for club and those who play better for their country. Ian Wright was prolific for Arsenal but a wash out for England. Current Porto superstar Falcao who also struggled internationally has scored a remarkable 72 goals in 85 games for Porto, yet mustered just seven for Colombia, six of them coming in friendlies. These are just two examples of many, but I think it does show that for any manager it is a difficult task deciding who to pick and what the basis for this selection should be.

Of course this is all assuming that England are in fact under-performing. One might argue that England, currently and perhaps generously ranked 6th in the world, should not be surprised getting knocked out of recent tournaments by Germany, Portugal, Argentina and Brazil as all are higher or similar in the World rankings. It is the England fans and English media hyping the team up to something they may never be, in my lifetime anyway. Funnily enough when we at out lowest ever World ranking, 27th, in 1996 we also produced, what many consider to be, out best tournament performance since 1990. Of course it did help that we were playing at home.

With today’s England squad I do not think that Fabio Capello should make sweeping statements by ruling players out dependant on what their club status is, or still ruling them in when they are not playing (historically he has done both). The most important thing is to stick to his guns on what he believes is right and not pander to the media, that is of course as long as we win, otherwise he will be wrong whatever he does.

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