The 55-man shortlist for the FIFA team of the year 2018 was recently announced and the only Englishman who appeared was Harry Kane.
An unjust decision or the honest truth? Bar an honourable mention to Dele Ali, I would side with the latter school of thought.
Let’s start with Kane – Is he up there with the best? He has scored has an average of 1.16 goals per game in 2017 (best in Europe) and secured his second golden boot in a row after scoring 7 goals in the final 2 games of the season. This form certainly justifies his selection on the shortlist but he is up against some of the best ever, and if he wants to be held in the same regard, he simply has to win trophies, something which has eluded him up to this point.
Don’t write him off making it into this team though.
Moving on to the real reason I am writing on this topic – my dismay with English football and our constant lack of preparation.
At the World Cup in 2006, England took a really strong looking team into the finals, which ultimately ended in disappointment, but at least it looked like we had a chance.
Our starting team when we were knocked out by Portugal contained players from Tottenham, Manchester United, Chelsea, Bayern Munich, Real Madrid and Liverpool.
Without showing too much disrespect for both players and teams, our latest world cup qualifying squad does not hold anywhere near the same weight, and with the tournament at the end of the season, there is not particularly long left for players to establish themselves as their countries number one.
I am all for giving young players a chance at the top level as it allows people like Marcus Rashford to flourish, but you would hope that they would have some established senior leaders on the pitch to look up to; I don’t think this is the case and my fear is that if a team like the one noted above struggled at major tournaments, how is our current squad going to fair.
Why has this happened?
Three players I have singled out up to this point (Kane, Ali, Rashford) have all come through the ranks and have a lot of promise; this is something that is becoming increasingly hard to do. Television deals and sponsorship mean that the clubs in the Premier League are in a better position than ever to bring experienced foreign players in, often at the expense of young English talent that is never given an opportunity. Coupled with the fact that managers are under more pressure than ever to provide results, young English talent is being stifled.
In the Bundesliga, home league of the current World Champions Germany, teams must have 12 locally trained players in their squad of 25 of which 4 must be club trained. Premier League teams only need to have 8.
Part of the problem lies in the fact at the bigger clubs, there tends to be less English players who are getting regular game time. These are the clubs that compete against the best players in the world in the Champions League meaning there are not many English players with a wealth of experience at the top level. When it comes to it, and this inexperienced England side is thrown in at the deep end in Russia next Summer, I will be extremely surprised if they can get a result against one of the big sides.
Can we solve the issue?
I used to get excited about big international tournaments (I never bought the car flags); this time more than any other, I am genuinely expecting disappointment.
It seems we are in a constant transitional phase. After each tournament, England fans are told we will rebuild and come back stronger from another disappointing outcome. Expect the same again after Russia, but this time here are a few suggestions around how we could actually improve:
- Create a core – build the team around young talent like Michael Keane, Dele Ali and Harry Kane and allow these players to gain experience so that when the next tournament comes around, they know what to expect
- Give English players more of a chance to flourish at club level – I understand rules around selecting homegrown talent is tricky but if clubs were further incentivised to give them a chance, the England setup would benefit
- Simple one – Employ a manager with at least some experience at the top level
- Get the country behind the team again – England games are basically only played at Wembley these days; England should travel to give fans around the country the chance to see them play
Anyone who sat through the painful game against Slovenia that secured our qualification deserves a medal themselves. There would have been a better atmosphere at a Sunday lunch between Wayne Bridge and John Terry which doesn’t bode well.
England football needs to have a look in the mirror (again); unlike rugby, where internationals are the highlights in the season, international breaks in football are looked at with dread as fans wonder what they will do on the weekend.
I would look at Russia 2018 as a lesson for this team; hopefully tournaments further down the road can be looked at with a bigger sense of realism.