After a recruitment process lasting all of three weeks, Sam Allardyce was last week confirmed as the latest England manager. Big Sam’s reputation is such that he is seen as something of a specialist in Premier League survival; and as such questions are already being asked about whether he is up to the task of managing the England team.
However, if we concede that, despite, or even as a result of, the untold riches of the Premier League, there remain fundamental issues with regard to the English game; and we accept that until these are addressed the England national team has no place among the elite teams of world football and will remain, at best, a ‘mid-table’ international side, then the logic of Allardyce’s appointment becomes apparent.
Big Sam’s track record tells us that the one thing he should be able to contribute to the management of the national team is tactical organisation and a foundation of being hard to beat, neither of which was particularly evident during the brief sojourn in France this summer.
Since the capitulation against Iceland and, prior to that, the failure to get out of the group in Brazil there has been a seemingly endless stream of opinion on what is wrong with English football, or more specifically the England team. It has been suggested that Hodgson’s team lacked a tactical plan or obvious playing style, that the players were burnt out, that the players are too soft and fragile mentally having had it all too easy throughout their careers, that the players are simply not good enough and that the Premier League is not as strong as it thinks it is. All of which probably carry some truth.
I am currently reading the excellent ‘Das Reboot’ by Raphael Honigstein which details the way in which German football reinvented itself in the wake of a disastrous showing at Euro 2000. One of the key thrusts of their strategy was to invest heavily in the development of young players with coaching and scouting systems rebuilt, a country-wide network of youth academies established and an ongoing compulsion for the clubs to invest in their youth development programmes.
Lacking the financial resources of the Premier League and La Liga, German clubs were forced to rely on these home-grown players rather than expensive foreign imports; thereby affording young players the vital experience required to continue their development, with a significant proportion graduating to Champions League level, whether with their home clubs, or after moves abroad. Thus the pool of quality players available to the national team grew significantly.
At the same time German football’s approach to coaching was being revolutionised: at national level by Jurgen Klinsmann and his assistant then successor Joachim Lӧw; and at domestic level by Ralf Rangnick whose adaptation of high pressing and positional play, drawn from Sacchi’s Milan amongst others, propelled Hoffenheim up the divisions and eventually inspired Jurgen Klopp’s gegenpressing/ ‘heavy metal’ football. The result was a fast paced game at both domestic and international level that ironically led to comparisons to the Dutch sides of the 70’s. The ultimate fruition of the strategy and the evolution of German football came in the Maracana in 2014 when Gӧtze’s extra time goal secured Germany’s first major honour since 1996 and their first World Cup win in 24 years.
By contrast, despite the staggering and seemingly ever-increasing levels of finance being generated by the Premier League; the England team’s performances remain underwhelming at best and in some cases quite frankly embarrassing. To me it seems quite apparent that the financial behemoth that is the Premier League, rather than forming the foundation of future success, is actually having a detrimental effect on the England national team.
The self-styled ‘greatest league in the world’ is actually starting to feel more and more like a global television extravaganza; contested by teams made-up of all-stars from across the planet; in many ways it is more akin to an American-style sporting competition than a traditional domestic football league.
Premier League clubs will point to the investment they have made in their academies but the playing personnel tends to comprise just as many foreign imports as local lads. It is also highly questionable how many Premier League clubs view their academy as a source of future first team players rather than as an additional source of revenue through selling the better ones on to lower level clubs?
In a strange quirk of pricing, the ever decreasing proportion of domestically produced players are available only at a premium and are more expensive than more technically proficient foreign players. The paucity of talent available to the England manager is further reinforced by the minuscule amount of players that seek to further develop themselves abroad in comparison to just about any other nation. The vast majority seemingly content to pick up their wages even without the opportunity of top level first-team opportunities.
As a result of this and the lack of any fresh new coaching ideas and input at youth level, whoever is unlucky enough to be incumbent in the England hot seat is left with a thankless task every two years, assuming we qualify, with a small pool of technically and tactically deficient players to pick from, with those that are judged fit enough for selection probably worn out from the demands of the season.
With all of this in mind it feels like Allardyce’s appointment should be seen as a pragmatic one, with his job being to stabilise and to try and develop a way of frustrating the big teams and being hard to beat, just as he has done throughout his managerial career. That of course is until, after one or two half-decent performances, we all start to believe that we are capable of winning the World Cup in 2018!