Rainbow Laces and Homophobia in Football

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After the success of last year’s Stonewall Rainbow Laces campaign, I took a bit of a step back from this year’s activity so that it became less about one person’s involvement and more about football’s commitment as an industry. It was great to see so many clubs and so many players get involved, and I think that’s made it more impactful, and helped us reach more people. It shows that football cares about its supporters and key issues in society, we’ve helped to shine a light on something that affects huge numbers of fans around the world.

Increased involvement in the Premier League

I’m really proud of what QPR did with last season’s campaign, but the majority of Premier League clubs were slow to get involved. This year though, many more Premier League clubs have supported the campaign, and Arsenal have been leading the charge. They worked with Stonewall to create a pretty funny promotional film, and they somehow managed to get Samuel L Jackson, Eve and Lewis Hamilton to turn up for a bit of publicity.

LGBT Supporters’ Groups and Teams

Arsenal have also led the way in helping to celebrate the diversity of their fans by setting up The Gay Gooners – their official LGBT supporters group. It’s been around for just over a year and they were the first club to have an official presence at London’s annual Gay Pride parade. Arsenal staff also got involved in a game against Stonewall FC, one of an increasing number of gay and gay-friendly clubs participating in the London leagues. West Ham have also just set up a similar group, and the number of gay-friendly teams and leagues across the UK is on the rise too. Thanks in no small part to the work of the Gay Football Supporters’ Network.

A gay spokesman for the campaign

We all know that openly gay footballers are about as rare as hen’s teeth, so it was good to see one of the only high profile players to have come out publicly getting involved in the campaign. Thomas Hitzlesperger did a great job as a spokesman: doing the rounds with all the newspapers and media outlets, and giving the campaign the added relevance and integrity that a straight player could never have done. It’s worth stating though that he had to wait until he was retired before he came out, and the only active player I can think of to have come out was Robbie Rogers – who then promptly retired. So while there are big positives to be taken from the success of the campaign and the fact that players from the Arsenal first team all the way down to hungover lads playing Sunday League are supporting the campaign, and that people in the stands are debating the issue, there is still a lot to do. Some of the comments on this blog I wrote a while back prove that!

Casual homophobia on the terraces

Over the years a lot of work has been done within the game to get rid of racism, and we’ve made great strides. 30 years ago racial abuse from the terraces happened every week, but now you can’t imagine anyone using the n-word, chucking bananas on the pitch or making monkey chants at a ground in this country. Not even at Millwall! That sort of behaviour is just no longer accepted by the authorities, and most importantly, it’s not accepted by the fans. But casual verbal homophobia is still rife in the stands. Pull out of a tackle and you’re a ‘poof’. Overplay an injury and you’re told to stop ‘acting like a fucking queer’. And I’ll be honest: it isn’t just the fans. Players use the same type of language on the pitch and on the training ground. It’s this off-the-cuff linguistic intolerance and thoughtlessness that makes the football industry in general, and football stadiums specifically, so intimidating for LGBT fans. I can’t imagine a gay couple feeling so comfortable at the acceptance of the football community that they’d be happy to wander down Wembley Way hand in hand, can you?

Stonewall Fans Survey

A few years back Stonewall conducted a fan survey that looked at anti-gay abuse and the game’s failure to tackle it. It came back with some interesting findings:

• Three in five lesbian, gay or bi-sexual fans think football is anti-gay
• 63% of fans think that fear of homophobic abuse from the stands is part of the reason that there are no openly gay players in English football
• 70% of fans have heard anti-gay abuse on the terraces in the last five years
• 49% of lesbian, bi-sexual and gay fans would be more likely to attend matches if their club tackled anti-gay abuse

It’s certainly a big issue, and something that needs to be tackled in the game. As always I’m interested to hear your thoughts on this, so leave a comment below if you’ve got something to say and vote on the poll too. And if you fancy being part of the solution, you can download the Kick It Out app.

 

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My Champions League Three to Watch

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Everyone knows that Ronaldo, Messi, Fabregas, Gotze, Kross and pretty much every other German you can think of will shine during this year’s Champions League group stages. But here are three players who I think could steal some of the limelight from the big boys.

Ivan Rakitic at Barcelona

Rakitic was one of the star performers in La Liga for Sevilla last year. His stats were up there with the very best. He scored 12 goals. He laid on 10 assists. He had 27 shots on target. He created 78 chances. He made 55 tackles and 27 clearances, and with 80% pass completion rate he was one of the most accurate midfielders in Spain. He also captained Sevilla to UEFA Cup victory. So what does all that prove? For me it says he’s a complete box-to-box midfielder and leader. He can score. He can create chances. He can get stuck in, and he has the ability to balance a team overloaded with attacking talent. He’s tasked with being the man to take over from Xavi, which was never going to be easy. But he’s started well so far. He’s made two appearances and played the full 180 minutes. He’s made 211 passes (30 more than any other La Liga player), set up two decent opportunities and has a pass completion rate of 93.36% – and an unheard of 100% pass completion rate in his own half of the field. If he gets the time on the pitch over the course of the season, he could be one of the shining lights of La Liga and the Champions League. And Barca got him for only £16million – or half-a-Cesc as they now call it in Catalunya.

Philippe Coutinho at Liverpool

Coutinho played a huge part in Liverpool’s impressive season last year: he created more chances for Liverpool (65) than any player except Gerrard and Suarez. His vision, creativity and passing ability will be instrumental in filling the void left by Luis Suarez, and if he gets the opportunity to play in the hole behind Sturridge and Balotelli he should be able to supply the ammunition they need to progress past the group stages. He’s also just been recalled to Dunga’s new Brazil team. His stats last year were pretty impressive: five goals, seven assists, 23 blocked shots and 81% pass completion, and he’s started brightly this year too. The only problem is that Liverpool have signed a lot of good attacking players in the summer, and he’s no longer guaranteed a place in the starting line up. But if he does manage to establish himself in the first 11, I fancy him to make a big impression.

Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain at Arsenal

Alex had an awful year last year with injuries and only made 14 league appearances for Arsenal, which is a real shame because when he did play he played well. His strength, pace and control make him a real handful: he won around 50% of his one-on-one duels last year, he scored a couple of good league goals, he set up a couple, he had five shots on target and seven more blocked, he even won six of the eight tackles he went in for. What I like about him is that he seems to have a taste for the big games. His performance bursting from midfield away to Bayern in the Champions League last year, his goal at the Maracana and his performance against Liverpool in the FA Cup make me think this could be his year… If he can stay clear of injury. With a starting place for England up for grabs, he’ll be looking to nail down a place with some decent displays in Europe.

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England: transition, tackles and touring

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I wasn’t too excited about the England v Norway game and for the first time in a long time I watched an England game with a degree of detachment. It seems like quite a few other England fans feel the same, because ticket sales were so low that Wembley Stadium wasn’t even half full, and they closed off the whole top tier. Obviously, this lack of excitement is a hangover from a massively disappointing World Cup. But the Norway was just as bad for me, and despite sitting down to watch it with low expectations, I was still disappointed. Just as in Brazil they struggled through the game without any real fight, creative ambition or passion for the shirt. I found myself thinking “Has anything changed since that game against Costa Rica?”… and here are my thoughts.

Nothing much has changed on the pitch

There were a few players that played to a decent level, Sterling particularly, Sturridge to a lesser degree, but their style of play made it hard for Rooney to play his normal game – they take his spaces and his selfless team play sees him operating in an almost supporting role. Just as at Manchester United, Rooney doesn’t get to play in his preferred position and his, and the team’s, effectiveness is reduced as a result. We shouldn’t allow that to happen to our best player. The retirement of Lampard and Gerrard has meant that England need to find a new midfield partnership, and it is looking like that’s going to be Jack Wilshere and Jordan Henderson. While Henderson’s form for Liverpool alongside Gerrard has really earned him a place in the England set-up, Jack Wilshere has been a shadow of the player who burst onto the scene a few years back and seems to be earning his call ups on reputation. He needed a big performance, but he didn’t deliver. His passing and forward runs were nowhere near where they should have been, and he seems to pull out of tackles too much for me. If you’re going to play two in midfield they both need to be able to get stuck in, and they both need to be able to create. Obviously some players will excel in one area or the other, but a basic level of aggression and willingness is a prerequisite in an England shirt. Only one of them had anything like that desire last night.

Things have changed off the pitch though

The insipid performance in Brazil has been blamed for the low attendance at the Wembley game, but I think that record low of 40,181 was indicative of something larger and more divisive in the game. For me, Team England has become an expensive, elitist and very much Southern club. You can’t expect people to shell out for travel down from Newcastle or Liverpool or Newcastle or Leeds, and then find the money  for a few beers, some dinner and a 60 quid ticket to watch the mediocrity what was on offer. Obviously, it’s never gonna happen due to the huge debts the FA built up building Wembley, but I think the England team should be a touring team – just like Germany or Spain. If that game had been at St. James or Goodison you would have had capacity crowds and an enthusiastic and vocal crowd. When a team is down and struggling for their best form, they need to the support of a crowd. They won’t ever get that at a half full Wembley.

The future is still quite bright though

With all that being said, any hope for excellence in England’s future will come from the abundance of talented youngsters knocking at Roy’s door. I was thrilled to see Everton’s John Stones handed a starting place, and I’m looking forward to seeing how Sterling, Lallana, Barkley, Shaw, Oxlade-Chamberlain and Sturridge progress over the next few years. For me it’s essential we build the team around hungry youngsters who are willing to fight for the shirt and are capable of playing well within a chosen system, rather than indulging a team of talented individuals as has often seemed the case in the past.

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My weekend predictions

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Had a look at the fixture list for the weekend, and thought I’d knock out a few quick predictions on some of the bigger games. It goes without saying that I fancy QPR for a win against Spurs, but here’s my take on a few of the others.

Villa v Newcastle

Prediction: Draw

Opta fact: Newcastle were the only team not to hit a shot on target on the opening weekend.

Despite my affection for Newcastle and its fans, I can’t see past a draw for this one. I think as the season progresses Newcastle will get stronger, but at the moment I think their attacking players need a little time to gel, and Villa’s central defensive partnership of Vlaar and Senderos will be enough to keep it tight at the back. Coloccini, Janmaat and Williamson look decent at the back for the Toon too, so it’s got a draw written all over it.

Everton v Arsenal

Prediction: Draw

Opta fact: Last season Everton opened with two draws; they drew their opener last week at Leicester.

Everton were my boyhood team, and I fancy them to get a draw out of this. While Arsenal have quality players in every position and will no doubt be pushing for the title at some stage of the season, Everton have a solid back four, and some excellent players going forward. I can’t see this being a nil-niler, but I think Everton have enough going forward to cancel out any damage that Arsenal can inflict, especially after a testing midweek game.

Chelsea v Leicester

Prediction: Chelsea win

Opta fact: Cesc Fabregas has assisted 50 goals in his last 104 Premier League appearances.

This is gonna be a tough game for Leicester, and I can’t see them getting anything out of it. Chelsea had a good team last year, but the addition of Fabregas, Costa and the returning Drogba gives them the added firepower they were missing at times. If Leicester avoid a hammering they’ll have done well, and Kasper Schmeichel will have had an outstanding day between the sticks.


Sunderland v Man Utd

Prediction: Manchester United win

Opta fact: Manchester United have conceded just two goals in their last seven trips to the Stadium of Light in the Premier League.

As everyone has acknowledged, this is far from a vintage United team. But with the addition of Rojo at the back, and after the wake up call against Swansea last week, I fancy them to get a result against a Sunderland team that could only draw against West Brom last week. I think Rooney will take the step up as captain, and I fancy him to score this weekend and lead the team forward over the course of the season.

City v Liverpool

Prediction: Manchester City

Opta fact: Liverpool have conceded as many goals (10) in their last four league trips to the Etihad as they had in the previous 11.

I fancy City to get a result against Liverpool. They have strength in depth in every area of the field, and in Aguero and Silva they have players capable of breaking open the tightest of defences. Lovren and Skrtel look a decent central pairing for Liverpool, but they’ve only played one game together so far so it’ll be interesting to see how they deal with City. I think it’ll be tight, but I really fancy City to edge it by the odd goal.

 

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My Championship Promotion Predictions

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Over the last few years I’ve gained a pretty solid insight into what it takes to get promotion from the Championship. I won promotion through the play-offs last year with QPR, and back in 2010 I was part of the Newcastle team that won the Championship title. So with the Championship kicking off this evening I thought I’d knock out a few quick ideas of what it takes to go up, and pull out a few teams and players that I think will do well.

Consistency is the key

So what does it take? The biggest thing for me is consistency. You need to be able to hit the ground running and grind out results week in week out. That sounds simple, but in March 2014 QPR had eight games. We won four, drew two and lost two. A pretty decent return but due to the competitive nature of the league that allowed other teams to claw back a few points on us. That followed a February where we won only one point out of 12, and a January that saw us win four on the bounce in the league. This lack of consistency saw us drop out of the automatic promotion places and have to fight our way out through the playoffs.

So the competitive nature of the league and the need for consistency requires a team with a strong central core, and a squad with enough quality to step up whenever the opportunity arises. With that in mind, here are my top picks for promotion this time around. If you bet on them and they don’t come in, don’t start tweeting me for a refund!

Derby to win it

After playing them in the play-off final last time around, and sharing the six points over the two regular season games against them, I fancy Derby to win the Championship this time around. McClaren is a top coach, he’s already got a solid team in place, they’ve got an excellent academy that could bring through a few fresh faces when the team needs it most, they’ve managed to hold onto their best players, and Steve and Chris Evan’s links to top European clubs have helped them land a couple of decent young Spaniards from the Madrid clubs. They’ve also kept hold of Chris Martin who scored 22 goals for the last year and their player of the year Craig Bryson – a good midfielder who could have left this summer to play in the Premier League, but signed a five year deal with the Rams instead. That’s 39 goals they’ve got in the locker. And young Will Hughes will be a great asset this year too.

Some Opta stats to back that up

Derby scored more goals (84) than any other team in this year’s Championship

They had higher possession (55.5%) and pass completion (79.5%) than any other team in the division… except QPR!

The battle for second

Wigan

We beat Wigan in the semis last year and it was proper scrap. I think they have what it takes to do really well this year. Last year they had the distraction of playing in the Europa League, and progressed to the semi-final of the FA Cup. So if they don’t have those kind distractions and squad challenges, who knows what they can do? They’ve lost Jordi Gomez to Sunderland, but they’ve done some decent business with Cardiff to bring in Andre Taylor and Don Cowie, but their biggest signing so far may well be Oriol Riera. The Spanish forward started out at Barca before plying his trade in the Spanish lower leagues, but his return of 13 goals in 37 games for an Osasuna team that got relegated is pretty decent. If he can gel with Callum McManaman and get some decent service, you’d imagine he’d be able to get a decent goal haul in the Championship.

Some stats to back that up

They’ve got two of the best keepers in the league in Scott Carson and Ali Al Habsi

Only the three promoted clubs and Brighton had more clean sheets than Wigan’s total of 16

Forest

Stuart Pearce took over at the City Ground in July following a pretty solid season for Forest that saw them finish 11th. While they were one of the better teams in terms of possession and passing, they lacked a little something at either end of the field. You can’t help but think that Pearce will be able to organise them a little better at the back this year (especially now they’ve signed the massively underrated Michael Mancienne from Hamburg), while up front they’ve brought in a highly rated young striker – Britt Assombalonga who scored 24 goals in League One last year. In Jamal Lascelles and Karl Darlow they’ve got some of the most promising players in the League (despite the fact they’ve been sold to Newcastle and loaned back to Forest for this season), and the addition of Michail Antonio who knows how to get down the wing and get some crosses will give their forwards the ammunition they need to get the goals they were missing last time around.

Some stats to back that up

Despite none of their players scoring more than 10 league goals Forest were the 7th highest scorers in last year’s Championship.

Forest were 7th best passing team, and enjoyed the 6th best possession stats. so imagine what they could have done with a goalscorer or two and a decent defence?

 



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My transfers of the summer so far

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There have been some big moves so far this summer. Suarez moving to Barca. Kroos going to Real. Rio Ferdinand and Steven Caulker coming in at QPR. Ander Herrera and Luke Shaw moving to United. Fabregas and Costa going to Stamford Bridge. Lallana and Rickie Lambert going to Liverpool. PSG have signed Side Show Dave for £50m. And Southampton have sold their entire first team.

For me, the two best defensive signings have come in at QPR. The idea of playing in front of Rio and Steven really excites me, and I can’t wait for the start of the season. But here are my pick of the top midfielder and striker deals – have a read and then vote on the poll.

Barca and Real must have decided that they didn’t have enough world-class midfielders, because they were on the phone to me all summer. When I said I was settled in London, they went out and picked up two other superstar midfielders – James Rodriguez and Ivan Rakitic.

James Rodriguez

Pub fact: James Rodriguez registered 12 assists last season in Ligue 1 – more than any other player.

After his displays at the World Cup, Rodriguez was always likely to move on from Monaco. How much fun can it be playing in front of an average home crowd of 9,400? The figures attached to the move are spectacular: he cost 80million quid, 45,000 people turned up for his ‘unveiling’ ceremony and within 48 hours of him signing Real sold 345,000 replica shirts with his name on. But his performance stats are what count – he scored 6 goals and laid on 2 assists in five games at the World Cup. He made more assists (12) than any other player in Ligue 1 last year. He knocked in nine goals. He created 85 chances. And completed 81.46% of his 1,636 passes. You’ve gotta feel that he will fit in beautifully into a fluid, free-moving front four with Bale, Benzema and Ronaldo.

Ivan Rakitic

Pub fact: Rakitic was the only midfielder last season in La Liga to register 10+ goals and assists

While it was Rodriguez who stole all the headlines in La Marca, over in Catalonia Barca signed their own midfield genius – Ivan Rakitic. He isn’t a marquee signing like Suarez or Rodriguez, but he is a true class act. While captaining Sevilla last year he scored more goals in La Liga than Rodriguez managed in the far easier Ligue 1. He made more passes (1,740). He had better shooting accuracy (18.75%) and was only marginally behind in the chances created (78), assists (10) and dribbles (72). But where he really stands out for me is the way he combines the creative aspects of his game with the destructive, combative elements. He made 27 clearances, 63 interceptions and 55 tackles in La Liga last year. For me he looks the complete midfielder, a leader, a general and a maestro all in one. After the death of tica-taca at the World Cup maybe that is what Barca needs.

Luis Suarez

Pub fact: Suarez scored 10 times in December, becoming the first Premier League player to reach double figures in a single month.

Despite taking a chunk out of Chiellini’s arm at the World Cup and being banned for four months, Barca were still happy to pay £75m for Chewy Luis. We all know he has a few problems with aggression on the pitch, but he is one of the best goalscorers I’ve ever seen. Last season, and in the Uruguay v England game in Brazil, he was practically unplayable. He knocked in 31 league goals, laid on 12 assists and formed a great partnership with Sturridge. If he can behave himself, and get a little expert help, he will form a scary partnership with Messi and Neymar. Especially with Rakitic behind them.

Romelu Lukaku

Pub fact: Romelu Lukaku scored 32 Premier League goals before turning 21, only Fowler, Owen and Rooney have ever managed more.

He didn’t have a spectacular World Cup. He didn’t fancy playing the odd League Cup game at Chelsea. But he did fancy moving to my boyhood club – Everton. He knocked in 15 goals on loan for them last season and was a big part of their success, and the attractive and stylish way they played. With 20.55% of his shots going in he was more accurate than Suarez, he chipped in with six assists and because of his height he comes back into the box for corners and helped out with 18 clearances. He’s still only 21 years old so he has the ability to become a great player and a huge asset for Everton.

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Football, Futsal and The Future

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Despite Brazil’s humiliating defeats in their last couple of games at the World Cup, I believe that young players in the UK can learn a lot from futsal, the five-a-side football format made famous by all of the Brazilian teams that didn’t play under Big Phil. I started thinking about all of this when I was out in Brazil for the World Cup, and then when I was doing my UEFA coaching badges in Ireland a few weeks back, I began thinking a little more about how we can increase technical ability coaching and integrate the lessons that futsal teaches with the more athletic and tactical training we offer in England. Now I’m away with the lads in Germany, I’ve had a chance to pull the laptop out. So here goes…

I don’t pretend to have all the answers, so if you lot have any thoughts on the issue, or if you have experience of futsal, or technical training in other countries it’d be great to hear from you.

The rules of futsal in brief

The game lasts 20 minutes and is contested by two teams of five – one keeper and four outfield players. The ball is smaller and slightly heavier than a football. You can have unlimited substitutions, keepers have only four seconds to get rid of the ball and there are no offsides. You can see the full rules here.

A very brief history

Futsal is derived from the Portuguese phrase futebol de salao, which translates roughly as ‘hall football’. It started around 80 years ago in Uruguay and gradually spread through South America and across into Spain and Portugal. Many of the world’s greatest players (as well as Neymar and David Luiz!) started out playing futsal – Pele, Zico, Socrates, Messi, and Christiano Ronaldo to name just a few.

The current standings

These days most countries have fully-fledged futsal associations, and FIFA runs a Futsal World Cup every four years. There have been seven so far, with Spain winning two and Brazil winning five, including the last tournament in Bangkok in 2012. Obviously, those two teams top the futsal world rankings, but there are a few surprises in there too: Iran are 7th, Azerbaijan are 10th and England are 73rd – just three places above Chinese Taipei and 29 below Kyrgystan. That’s worth a bit of a laugh, and it’s a good pub fact, but it highlights something a little deeper for me – that England lacks gifted technical players with the ability to improvise, create and thrive in small spaces with the ball at their feet.

What futsal teaches young players

I read a really interesting article the other day on the BBC website by Ben Smith. It’s definitely worth a read, and shows just how many top international players have come through the futsal system, and how Brazilian academies integrate futsal into their training programs.

It’s widely regarded that the rules of the game, the smaller pitch, the need to play the ball along the floor and the tight marking all help players to become more technically adept in tight situations. In the article, Ronaldo, Messi and Robinho all talk about the difference futsal made to their games, but for me the telling quote came from Pele: “futsal was important in helping to develop my ball control, quick thinking, passing… also for dribbling, balance, concentration… futsal was very, very important, no doubt”. In short, futsal gave arguably the best player ever all the skills he was known for.

As well as the South American nations, Spain, Portugal, Italy and Germany have been getting involved in futsal for some years now, and that’s helped them to lead the development of a more technical style of European football over the last decade or so. The opportunity for futsal to lead innovation in style and technical ability can be seen in Ben’s description of the role of futsal in Brazil’s academies…

“[Futsal] is played in all Brazilian football academies, and is part of what distinguishes coaching in the country, where the biggest fear is over-coaching its next generation of boys and girls, not under-coaching them. Coaches are discouraged from giving players formal positions until they are 14. Talent is allowed to breathe, to find its natural path in games such as futsal. From the age of seven to 12, young players tackle futsal three days a week.”

Futsal and English academies

My experience of English football academies when I was coming through 15 to 20 years ago couldn’t be more different; the focus was on physical strength and playing in a set role within a team, and it certainly didn’t look to bring out the individualistic, creative and impromptu elements of football that futsal seems to do. For me the way in which Brazilian academies integrate futsal into the development of young players encourages a greater degree of expression on the ball, a greater ability to improvise (how many times did we see Jack Wilshere run into dead ends and out of ideas?), to play confidently with the ball at their feet, and, perhaps most importantly, it allows players to trust in their own ability and to understand how their skills can benefit the team, rather than being taught how to reign in individuality and expression in favour of adhering to tactical discipline and a pre-defined team ethic. Obviously, the harnessing of individuals’ technical abilities into a team ethic (as personified by the Germans this year, and the Spanish for the last decade) becomes increasingly important as players get older, but the fact that in Brazilian academies kids aren’t allocated strict positions until later in their development process also allow them to learn the game as an act of passion and commitment, of desire and joy – they learn to play football from the heart rather than learning how to play left back from an FA coaching manual.

I’m really interested to hear what you have to say on this, as I’m still getting my head around it all at the minute. I’m actually thinking of doing an interview on this blog with a top futsal coach about what English football can learn from futsal. So add a comment below, and help a footballer with his brain in his feet get a deeper understanding of the game he loves.

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Boot Room and Soccer Bible

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Another quick chat with Soccer Bible while I was out in Brazil. A bit about boots. A bit about Gheorghe Hagi. A bit about sleeping in my Lottos. And a bit about why PUMA are the boot equivalent of the Lib Dems.

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A quick chat with The Sport Bible out in Brazil

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While I was out in Brazil I caught up with Sport Bible and they asked me a few questions. How I feel about being back in the Prem. My biggest achievement. My biggest regret. The best players I’ve played with. My future as a coach and whether Harry Redknapp is as scary as he looks. I just wish someone had asked me to change my shirt before the recording started.

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Could this be the best World Cup ever?

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World Cups past

My first experience of World Cup football was the USA World Cup in 1994.  I remember being mesmerised by Gheorghe Hadji, but as I was only nine at the time I was much more interested in getting a pair of his Lotto boots for Christmas than in-depth game analysis.

The ones that followed didn’t really live up to the expectations played out with your mates down the park. France ’98 was a decent competition: Owen scored that worldy against the Argies, Croatia spanked Germany 3-0, and then Zidane and Petite led the French to victory.

But 2002 wasn’t great.  Ronaldo sported that dodgy haircut, Italy had four goals disallowed, and Brazil, predictably, dominated the entire competition.

2006 was an improvement at least.  There were a few cracking goals (remember Philip Lahm’s opening goal against Costa Rica?) but they were few and far between, much to Blatter’s disappointment: “The football isn’t that bad,” he said, “but there aren’t enough goals – and when there are too few goals, the public isn’t very enthusiastic.”

Then there was South Africa in 2010. I don’t think there was a single memorable game. Most teams under-performed, the vuvuzelas droned incessantly, and the only interesting thing about the final was that psychic octopus predicting the winner.

Brazil 2014

This year, however, I’ve really enjoyed watching as many games as possible. I’m gutted I didn’t catch Brazil versus Chile first hand, as the Chileans’ work ethic has epitomised everything that’s been great about the tournament this time around. Despite the heat, the never-say-die counter-attacks of Chile, Algeria, Costa Rica and the USA have contributed to a whole host of gripping games.  As a result, large footballing nations have struggled to brush aside opponents that would usually be considered much weaker. The game between Holland and Costa Rica was a perfect example of this: it took a goalkeeping substitution and more than a little gamesmanship from Tim Krul to finally see of Los Ticos.

Close call 

While it’s been a competition of stars with players like Robben, Rodriguez, Messi and Neymar (yep, you heard me right!) no one team has outshone the others yet, and this makes for an interesting round of semis. Brazil will miss Silva and Neymar a lot, but the Germans play such a high line that the disruptive play of the hosts and their ability to break at pace give Brazil a decent chance of progressing to the final. In the other semifinal, Argentina are still to hit top gear, while the Dutch haven’t played to the best of their abilities since they murdered Spain in the first game. I genuinely get a feeling, that the semi’s will see one of these teams completely click. Should be very exciting.

Fighter’s mentality

So far this World Cup has provided the perfect spectacle as we’ve seen attack outstripping defence, so there’s been a bit more action than usual. Underdogs like Costa Rica, Algeria and the USA have come to Brazil with the kind of fighter’s mentality that England should have had, and as a result they’ve played much better football and lasted longer in the tournament than we did.  They’ve fought for every ball, worked as a unit, and while the USA squad might have lacked talent as individuals, what they did as a team was fantastic. They almost achieved the unthinkable, and that’s the story we should take from this World Cup: a little belief can go a long way. A team that plays to win is guaranteed to achieve more than one that’s struck by self-doubt and indecision.

Fast pace

With 159 goals already, the 2014 World Cup is threatening to take the record from France 98 for the total number of goals scored (171). This increase in goals has come together with a change in tactics. As Spain’s early exit has proved, the days of the false nine are over, and the sweeper is a thing of the past (unless you’re talking to Neuer).  Many teams are playing with two or even three strikers, as Argentina did against Switzerland a couple of days ago with Messi, Higuain and Lavezzi, so we’re getting faster-paced games with more shots at goal than we’re used to seeing. I think Gerard Houllier summed up the tournament perfectly when he said, “this is my ninth World Cup and the best one in terms of quality football and entertainment. Some games are like basketball, end to end, like Germany and Ghana, and the USA versus Belgium. I was struck by coaches saying, ‘because we’re here, let’s have a go, whatever happens.’ It’s a shame England didn’t have the same mentality this time, we’re in need of some serious shake ups if we’re to even consider progressing out of the Euro’s in 2016.

Stunning goals

The quality of the goals scored this time around is also setting a new benchmark. Here are my picks so far.

Messi broke Iran’s hearts with this sublime curling shot:

Rodriguez’s stunning strike against Uruguay had technique and class written all over it:

Van Persie’s header in the group stages is worth watching over and over again:

But the pick of the bunch is Cahill’s strike against the Netherlands. He didn’t try to smash it, just trusted his technique and got the correct positioning:

I reckon we’ll see a few more great goals in the final four games and hopefully the style and standard of this year’s tournament can roll over into France in 2016 and Russia in 2018. Lets just hope that England get a little bit better!

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My Top Picks from Brazil 2014

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christ_the_redeemer_over_rio

I’m just off to Glastonbury for the weekend and I’ve been up early because my little girl woke up at stupid-o’clock. She’s now asleep, but I’m wide-awake and the house is quiet, so I thought I’d knock out my thoughts on the World Cup so far.

Best Keeper

Ochoa’s display against Brazil makes him the standout keeper of the tournament for me. You don’t often have a game where the goalkeeper was MoM by such a long margin, but that is exactly what Ochoa was against the hosts. His save to deny Neymar at the far post was stunning and his overall display was a head and shoulders above anything else I’ve seen in Brazil. I believe he’s a free agent at the monute, but he won’t be for long. Got a funny feeling we’ll be seeing him in the Prem next season.

Best Defender

You’ll have to forgive me for my cynicism here, but my defender of the tournament so far is Georgio Chiellini. Italians are known for their ability to get away with roughing up their opponents. Baresi and Costacurta were perfect examples. And for me, the only reason Suarez cracked the other day was because Chiellini had been winding him up all match.  For professional defenders at the highest level it’s not just about clearing balls and blocking shots, it’s about owning the player that’s up against you. He did that on Saturday, and if the ref had been on his game, Suarez would have been sent off and Italy may well not have conceded that goal to Godin.

Best Midfielder

Tricky one for me this one. I thought Pirlo and De Rossi were fantastic against England, but they really tailed off after that. So for me it’s between Vidal and Pogba. They played together at Juve last year, and helped them to win the scudetto at a canter. They both play with tempo, commitment and precision that enables their teams to use them as a springboard for attacks. If I had to choose, I’d go for Vidal just because I prefer the way his Chile team play.

Best Attacker

While Messi, Neymar and Ronaldo were grabbing all the headlines and hefty advertising contracts prior to the World Cup, it’s Robben that has made the biggest impact at the finals. His performances against the Spanish and the Aussies were excellent, and with three goals already he’s gotta be in with a chance of the Golden Boot if the Dutch can progress past the quarters.

Best Team

Brazil, Holland, Argentina, France all look like they’re capable of winning the whole thing, but as someone who was told they were too small to play professional football, I’m gonna go for the underdog:  Chile. They have some really decent players, an excellent coach and the best midfielder in the tournament. They have a fantastic team mentality and their pace, power and their ability the press the ball and harass opponents is amazing when you take into account the conditions they’re playing in. I think they’ll give the Brazil a good game on Saturday. I’d imagine I hope I can find a quiet place to watch that game away from the Glastonbury crowds!

Best Coach

There are a few candidates. Van Gaal has done a great job with the Dutch and made some great tactical decisions and substitutions. Deschamp has sacrificed some of the more talented players in France in favour of unity and a team ethic. And the guy from Mexico just makes me laugh. But for me the manager of the tournament so far has been Jorge Sampaoli of Chile – they play excellent football and he’s the reason why.

Best Game

There are times in football when you can see the course of history change. New powers emerge and reigning dynasties fall. When Man City murdered Man United 6-1 at the Etihad. When Hungary beat England all those years ago. The day I first took to the field for City! Well, the Netherlands v Spain game was another example of that. Players such as Cassillas and Xavi, who had seemed untouchable and blessed with unique gifts and incomparable dedication, were reduced in the eyes of the millions watching worldwide. You’ve got to give credit to the Dutch as their attacking play, their finishing and their hunger were excellent, but the game will be remembered as the death of tica-taca rather than as the re-emergence of Dutch total football.

That’s my two cents, I’m off to get muddy in a field. Let me know what you think and I’ll try to respond to a few comments when I get back from Worthy Farm.

 

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Suarez, scandal, and serving time

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Italy v Uruguay - FIFA World Cup Brazil 2014 - Group D

The superior light held up against Luis Suarez flickered unsavourily yet again last night. He’s a fantastic footballer and certainly up there with the best of them. But despite his talent, and the fact he’s a player that most others could only dream of playing with, there’s no defending his actions last night. You can’t go around biting people, and you definitely shouldn’t make a habit of it.

Winning mentality

But what I would say is this: what Suarez lacks in decorum/self-control he makes up for with passion. Players who are desperate to win will use whatever means possible to get one over on their opponents, and it doesn’t always come from the most rational of places. I should know; I’ve been in that position a few times and each time I’ve felt the full force of the law, and rightly so.

As a previous connoisseur of the dark arts of madness, I can understand where Suarez is coming from, so I’m a bit more sympathetic to his cause than most. Personally, I don’t think his actions should merit a lengthy international ban, but it’s looking like he’s going to receive just that. Although FIFA aren’t under any obligation to consider Suarez’s record it’s quite possible that they will, and what with last night’s incident playing out on football’s centre-stage, a slap on the wrists and a ten-match ban probably won’t be enough to satisfy the critics. I’m guessing he might get two years for what he did to Chiellini, but we’ll just have to wait and see.

Stricter punishment?

All of this begs the questions: how does Suarez’s latest incident differ from other forms of assault that go on both on and off the pitch? Cantona was sentenced to two weeks in prison (later reduced to 120 hours of community service) after kung-fu kicking a Palace supporter. Duncan Ferguson got two weeks in prison for head-butting an opponent in ’95, and I got given a six-month ban and a stint in Strangeways after that regrettable incident in Liverpool city centre. So I guess the question I’m asking is: where do you draw the line, and what’s the fairest way of punishing footballers on and off the pitch?

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England, Italy and lessons we can learn

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Pirlo-JB-blog

After watching the England Italy game the other day there were a few things I wanted to discuss about our performance. I think there were a lot of positives, but there were also things that just weren’t smart enough. I only say these things as a proud Englishman who cares deeply about his national team and the health of our national game. I’m just sick of losing.

The stats tell a story

As a midfielder of some ability I couldn’t help but be amazed by the quality of the performance of Pirlo and De Rossi on Saturday night. Between the two of them they made 207 passes and helped the team achieve the highest pass completion rate (93.2%) of any team at a World Cup since 1966. England weren’t a million miles behind in the pass completion stats (90.8%), and they also had more shots (18), more shots on target (5) and more corners (9), but I saw a gulf in class, effectiveness and, most tellingly, experience.

Possession and short passing

Italy enjoyed 56% possession to England’s 44%, that’s not a huge difference until you look at what the teams did with their possession. Despite both enjoying around 93% short pass completion, Italy made 533 short passes while England made only 390. Italy made more short incisive, clever passes, they kept the ball close because they knew that in those conditions they didn’t want to be chasing the game and they were able to control both the tempo and the direction of play. As I said on Twitter on Saturday, it needs to be about “pass pass pass, not run, dribble, pass if you’re in a dead end”. In my opinion, we didn’t do enough with our possession and what we did just wasn’t smart enough.

Disrupting the routine

I also mentioned that we needed to disrupt the opposition in transition. Obviously, you can’t just belt around the park in conditions like the ones in Manaus, but you need to take up positions that nullify a threat, close off passing angles and make opposition players uncomfortable on the ball. Italy are a great passing side, but that is easier to pull off if there’s no one closing you down. That is what the Chileans and the Dutch did to such effect against Spain: they closed down every ball and shut off opportunities before they had a chance to become full-blown chances. Obviously, England couldn’t do that in the heat of Manaus, but in Sao Paolo for the Uruguay game the weather will suit us better and players like Henderson, Gerrard, Wellbeck and even Rooney will need to step up and get stuck in.

Cramp

I noticed that a fair few of the England players were getting cramp, and even though Italy’s players were older, none of them went down. I don’t think this is due to lack of preparation or fitness on England’s part, it’s just because Italy dominated possession and England had to chase the ball for long periods of the game. That is emotionally and physically taxing and you can see the effect it had on even the youngest and fittest England players.

Differing style

While Italy dominated possession for large periods, England had their fair share of pressure. They played more passes in the final third (31% to Italy’s 19%), they made more crosses (17 to 8), more corners (9 to 2) and more successful short passes in the final third (104 to 85). They just couldn’t put the ball in the net. Obviously some of that comes down to a bit of bad luck and some bad finishing, but player selection and positioning played a part too. I watched some of the coverage of the Chile Spain game and Danny Murphy mentioned that Chile make Alexis Sanchez feel like the man. Great point by Danny that. Strikers need to feel that love, and playing Rooney out on the left doesn’t do that. He needs to know he is the main man, and the only way to do that is to play him in his position. Number 10. Through the middle. He would then provide the platform the team needs to dictate and direct play in the final third, and he’ll be able to get on the end of a few chances. In terms of player choices, Henderson was deployed alongside Gerrard to nullify the threat of Italy, the Uruguayans don’t have that quality in the middle of the park. So I’d like to see Gerrard sat deep with Wilshere or even Barkley replacing Henderson. As the Chileans showed, attack is sometimes the best form of defence.

In conclusion

Having had a bit of time to think about England’s performance, I don’t think we were a million miles away. And with a few tweaks to personnel (Wilshere for Henderson), tactics (closing down the ball more aggressively in the middle) and positions (Rooney through the middle, and both full backs pushing on), England should have enough to get out of the group. The fact that it’s going to be wet and cool in Sao Paolo will also help. Sometimes simple things like that make all the difference.


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Simplicity in football is genius

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Barcelona v Sevilla - La Liga

I was fortunate enough to get to both Arsenal and Man City’s Champions’ League games during the week; City welcomed Barca on Tuesday, with Arsenal hosting current champion’s, Bayern Munich, the following evening. The stage was set for the Premier Leagues’ strongest, versus, arguably, Europe’s elite, as both English clubs had the unenviable prospect of facing opposite that have a share of nine European trophies.

Strains of the Premier League

Whilst we consider the Premier League to be the major league in the world, you cannot help ignore the factors that contribute towards it being such a entertaining league; such as the constant mental and physical challenges that make it so appealing worldwide, yet it also creates a hinderance on our team’s progress in such competitions as the UCL.

A couple of things struck me about both European superpowers. Firstly, how little they seemed to run compared to their English counterparts. And secondly, how simply they passed the ball. It’s easy to make a case for the physical data; less possession equates to more running, therefore increasing the distance both City and Arsenal covered. In addition to this, they both went down to ten with plenty of time still to play; even more running to cover the positions left by those players dismissed.

Just pass it simple!

The second point is difficult to make a case for. Short, simple, accurate passing. Why is it English sides cannot do this as well as the stronger European sides? As a player, I certainly fall foul of this, particularly getting the ball forward far too early. If you think of the British mentally towards passing, you only have to think of the unfair criticism aimed at Michael Carrick. Carrick never risks the ball, he’s often considered a negative kind of player as a result – which I strongly disagree with – because if he was a foreign player, particularly Spanish, he’d be seen in a different light. He’d certainly be honoured and appreciated for his role within the national setup, think of him as a Busquets – if anything Carrick possesses better attributes than the Spaniard in my opinion.

Curious to find a correlation between how Europe’s top sides passed the ball, I spoke with friends over at @Prozonesports and here’s their findings.

UCL-Passing-Analysis.xlsx

The data above, supports what I saw during both games:

  • More passes per minute from Barca and Bayern
  • A higher percentage of successful passes between Barca and Bayern
  • Fewer forward passes, but more successful forward passes from Barca and Bayern in comparison
  • However, I didn’t notice the increased number of touches per possession (2.55 vs 2.00)

In summary, Barca and Bayern passed the ball quicker, more often, shorter, simpler and more accurately than their English counterparts. I’d argue the success of both these teams is partly due to the manner in which they tire out their opponents, because the likelihood of making a mistake increases when you’re fatigued. People may argue that this data is biased based on the fact both English sides where reduced to ten men, and whilst I agree both English sides had spells within each game, in a competition over two legs, I think the percentages favour the stronger European sides.

Look at the City Barca stats here in detail. Pre and Post, Demichelis seeing red.

Barca v City

Lets focus on Barca. Most of their passing stats remain roughly the same before and after the red card for City. The only significant difference is the amount of passes before a shot is taken by Barca players (401.0 vs 145.4). The data also suggests Barca weren’t forceful in playing the ball forward (6 shots post sending off, we’re inside City’s area!).

Believing in your ability

The data helps to support Barca’s beliefs in their own philosophy – that keeping the ball is key to their success. There were no dramatic changes to their tactics after the sending off; other than they became more accurate and had slightly fewer touches per possession – a likely indication they were moving the ball around faster as a result of the extra space.

For me, as a player, it was a privilege to see Europe’s elite. Not once did I see players attempting to dribble past 3-4 players, doing lollipops and nutmegs. What I did see was players passing and playing simply, supporting the player in possession and not being afraid to play backwards in order to keep their team in control of the ball. It will certainly effect the way I approach the art of possession going forward as a player, now, and a potential coach for the future. Short, sharp, accurate passing is an admirable playing style that captures the essence of how football should be played, and that’s why the likes of Barca and Bayern play some of the world’s most entertaining football.

Simplicity is genius. It was my pleasure to watch these modern football genii at work.

A special thanks to everyone over at Prozone Sports for providing this week’s data.

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Football needs to evolve with cultural change

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hitzlperger

Whilst news of another public figure openly announcing he’s gay is a stride towards tackling homophobia in football, stigma continues to inject fear into those wanting to ‘come-out’ whilst still playing the game. “We still have a long way to go” Hitzlsperger told BBC Radio 4, “because we fear a reaction and we don’t know what will happen”.

Attitudes must change

I find it remarkable that in this day and age, this remains topical news. We’ve come a long way since 1990, when the first British footballer, Justin Fashanu, faced abuse for his sexuality, but it would be ridiculous to claim the issue is cured. Only yesterday PSG’s Alex, narrow-mindedly commented on homosexuality, saying ‘God would’ve created not Adam and Eve but Adam and Yves’. Alex has the power and presence to impact and improve the publics’ opinion, but instead he’s adding fuel to the fire for those individuals that Hitzlsperger was afraid of throughout his own career. No wonder the likes of Hitzlsperger and Robbie Rogers came out after retiring for fear of a backlash during their career.

I’d like to think Alex’s comments were isolated to himself, but based on my experiences, do I think there’d be an issue in the changing room if a player came out? I’d like to think not. I get that’s not an objective answer, it’s only from my experience. But I’m confident that my teammates would judge a player purely on his field ability, his skill and his character. A player’s sexuality doesn’t affect the way we work as a team, so it shouldn’t and needn’t come into question.

How would fans react?

I am however, sure that a club would reconsider signing a player on learning his sexuality. I say this because of the potential discrimination that player may face. Of course there’s no certainty a player would experience homophobia, purely, as Hitzlsperger pointed out, “we haven’t seen a gay footballer in the Premier League or the Bundesliga…we would have to wait and see”. The sad truth is, until a current player comes out, we can’t comprehend the size of the issue. In the UK, I’d perhaps envisage some aggressive fans on occasion, but more likely would be the method of Twitter abuse. Cowards tend to hide behind their phones and laptops, believe me, I’ve been on the receiving end enough!

We need to join forces

I remain optimistic, and don’t think we’re a million miles from creating a positive football culture, accepting of all diversity. The stigma attached to the game is present, but not unstoppable. Individuals like Hitzlsperger, Rogers and Tom Daley have faced the issue head on and provide light for those having to live in fear, which in today’s society is f*cked up.

It’s all well and good speaking about an idyllic culture, but how can we get it? The way I see it is simple; you’re not only responsible for what you say but what you don’t say. People with social impact need to speak up. I felt encouraged as I saw awareness raised during the Rainbow Laces campaign , but that was just one event. What we need is to make that awareness grow until homosexuality is accepted, by football and each person involved in it.

This subject will always remain a huge talking point, so let’s hear your thoughts.

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England’s World Cup hopes are dead before a ball’s kicked?

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Roy Hodgson

Let’s be honest, I’m critical of Team England so there’s an element of the pot calling the kettle black here. The difference though is I’m not employed by Team England.

No question, England’s drew two difficult teams and one that you’d expect to brush aside with ease for next year’s World Cup. Uruguay and Italy possess the biggest threat for us reaching the knockout stages, but nor are we sat with Germany or Brazil. Yet Roy Hodgson’s comments following the draw, certainly didn’t help to lift spirits of England fans already expecting the worst possible outcome of not reaching the knockout stages.

Of course I can’t deny that it’s not the group we would have plucked out for ourselves’, said Hodgson.

Where’s the leadership?

England’s national team is undergoing a difficult period; Greg Dyke’s commission and future development plans need defining, on field performances have been lacklustre – particularly worrying as we head into a World Cup year – and now most recently, I’d suggest there’s a severe lack of leadership from the manager. Roy’s basically saying we’re done? Have you ever heard Mourinho or Sir Alex say things like that? Where is the quiet confidence, even just the promise of us taking our best game to Brazil, I’m not asking for misplaced bravado and chest-beating.

This is most damaging because Hodgson is England’s front spokesman and leader. He’s the one person, despite all the fallout behind him back at FA HQ, you’d expect to convince fans his squad’s heading to Brazil to do this nation proud. I didn’t say win – I said PROUD. Instead, his excessively pessimistic comments – despite going into the draw unseeded and therefore anticipating difficult opponents – provides feeble excuses for an already non-expecting nation needing few reasons to even bother watching.

‘It’s difficult to put a positive spin on the quality of our opponent because even Costa Rica, who’re maybe the least known, are a very, very strong team’, continued Hodgson.

Embarrassing support

And if you think it’s just Hodgson that lacks optimism, then think again. Greg Dyke’s right, ‘England won’t win the World Cup’. No s**t. But what kind of message does this send to the squad and fans alike? So what WILL we do, Greg? Let’s talk about what we can control and what we will do this time around.

For me, it’s incomprehensible the FA’s chairman feels it necessary to openly criticise England’s chances in such a blasé fashion – that’s my job! It further shows how out of touch the individuals currently running the FA can be at times, here’s Dyke’s reaction to England’s World Cup draw. Baffling.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KZrTiQ4VCPg&feature=youtu.be

Let’s embrace it

Granted, there’s a chance we won’t make the knockout stages, but instead of dwelling on the quality of opponents, the unbearable climate and the thousands of miles the players must travel, we need a leading figure and a team that focuses purely on the positives. The opportunities and chances to test England’s future prospects. It’s the World Cup, a tournament we need to embrace and whilst we won’t win it, let’s go at it full throttle, have some fun and exit in a blaze of glory. Give the fans something to cheer about, something this country hasn’t enjoyed since Euro ’96.

Ability without honour is useless: Cicero

Something to get excited about

But despite all the negativity currently bouncing around England HQ, a rare ray of light came my way a few days ago in the form of a tournament predictor tool, which predicts England is most likely to WIN their group stage of the tournament, but will eventually be knocked out by Columbia in the knockout stages. I’d take that!

fananalytics

The guys at @FootyFanalytics told me:

The predictions are based on running 1 million simulations of potential interactions between the teams (including all the different scenarios/permutations that could happen), which we did immediately after the draw on Dec 6th. We calculate a team’s likelihood of winning based on our team strength model, which uses historical results and match data from all international games and applies a unique algorithm to benchmark the relative strength teams and subsequently provide a ranking of all competing teams.

Perhaps if Hodgson spoke about our chances with data, with a degree of quiet confidence, with a knowing about what is possible in tournament football, then it may work towards getting the nation behind him and not on his back – an inevitable action should he continually disregard our chances.

The fans, squad and FA are viewing this tournament as a write-off. That’s not a reason to barely show up come June 2014. As ever – let me know your opinions in the comments below.

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Spot-fixing scandal – who’s to blame?

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Joey - betting scandal snap

Recent allegations surrounding the spot-fixing scandal, in which a number of current professionals have been arrested, is a stark reminder of the continued corruption within sport, worldwide. I’ve created a short video below that addresses the issue further.

What are your thoughts on the matter and who’s to blame?

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=17rwWGlOwtA&feature=youtu.be

 

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The inevitable death of England’s national team

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England fans

Tuesday’s game against Germany was yet another stark reminder of the troubling times our nation’s football faces – a direct consequence of the Premier League.

Back in August 1992, 177 players (73.1%) featuring in first-day Xl’s held English nationality, however this year that figure fell to 75 (32%). This decrease of over half has left the Premier League trailing significantly behind the rest of Europe when it comes to showcasing home-grown talent, which is particularly relative as England approach Brazil 2014, unseeded.

Focusing on finance

Premier League teams are over-relying on the services of overseas players and to some extent, understandably so. Imports are often considered more affordable; Stewart Downing (£20m – Liverpool), David Bentley (£19.5m – Spurs) and Andy Carroll (£36m – Liverpool) all fitting examples of what English talent costs. So buying abroad and deterring the development of youth talent – which can be costly and a gamble if no players succeeds – seems financially logical to many EPL clubs. So, the fact only 32% of players in the EPL are English, now begins to make sense.

Learning from England’s failure

The EPL‘s become the World’s greatest footballing product with; vast foreign talent, heavy financial backing, big rivalries and hugely competitive fixtures. Brazil, one of the World’s greatest-ever footballing nations, is desperate to reform its domestic league after decades of mismanagement. The CBF (Brazilian Football Confederation) has expressed their desire of not emulating the EPL structure for fear of weakening the national team. Toninho Nascimento, Brazil’s national secretary summing up the EPL simply with, “it’s a great league, but it’s very bad for the national team”. Fortunately for Brazil, their ability to churn out world-class footballers means they’re not only one of the best footballing nations, but also amongst the most entertaining. And with 93% of Brazilian’s making up the domestic leagues, it seems the CBF is happy to shun financial gain for the success of their national team. It’s worth noting that 10 of the 11 starting players that faced Chile Wednesday night are now playing in Europe. This alone highlights, that whilst Brazil’s elite are no longer playing in their home nation, the sizable numbers produced allows for greater choice and enhanced quality. This year, Brazil provided Europe’s 478 top-division sides with 515 players, almost double than the second biggest exporter, France.

You could argue that Brazil’s 200m population gives them a wider scope for talent in comparison to England (54m), but it’s incomparable to other successful footballing nations; Spain (46m) and Germany (80m). These numbers are further irrelevant when compared to Uruguay (3.2m) and Bosnia (3.6m) who qualified for Brazil next year. You could even look at Iceland – losing 2-0 to Croatia in Wednesday’s knockout match – whose population of 325,000 is microscopic compared to our own. So what does this mean in terms of creating rich home-grown talent? Well, nothing. The development of players, regardless of a country’s size, is fundamental to a nation’s success. Deny home-grown talent the chance to prosper – as currently experienced in England – then you run the risk of restricting growth.

The figures – league

Curious about the number of players still playing in their country of birth across Europe, I delved a little deeper.

England – (EPL) – 32%

Italian (Serie A)- 47%

Germany  (Bundesliga, 1 and 2) 55% 

Spanish (La Liga) 77%

It’s little surprise that La Liga has over twice as many national players compared to England’s 32% – a figure the FA’s aware of and continues to decrease season after season. Unfortunately, their inability to offer a worthwhile alternative to Greg Dyke’s recent commissioning programme is a huge worry for our national team and as mentioned in my blog last month, focus must be placed on defining the issues surrounding the development of youth in England. Particularly, if there’s any hope of increasing that 32%.

The figures – Champions’ League

In fairness to most Premier League teams, they’re desperate for overseas players because the standard of those coming through the English ranks isn’t good enough. This got me thinking about that 32% even further; particularly the number of players that represent clubs from their country of birth in European competitions.

Based on last Champions’ League round – number of starting Xl representing clubs from their country of birth

(English players)

Man U – 3, Arsenal – 1, Chelsea – 2, Man City – 2

Total= 8

(Spanish players)

Barcelona – 5, Real Madrid – 4, Real Sociedad – 8, Atletico Madrid – 5

Total=22

(Italian players)

Juventus – 5, AC Milan – 4, Napoli – 1

Total=10

(French players)

PSG – 1, Marseille – 6

Total= 7

The Premier League finds itself in a situation whereby the top teams has very few English players actually competing with the rest of Europe’s elite. In fact, only 19% of players representing England’s teams in the last round of the Champions’ League were English, which if you compare to Spain’s 50%, is remarkable. English talent makes up over a third of players in the EPL, but these figures continue to dilute the further you head up the table, particularly with Arsenal, Man City and Chelsea.

Worrying future

The huge sums of money that rule the Premier League is all too visible, clubs are continually shunning undeveloped English talent in favour exports and it’s seriously harming any chance of England becoming a dominant footballing nation. The figures above suggest change is needed and fast, particularly as the current wealth of English talent is reaching its conclusion and the intended replacements just don’t cut it.

England’s national team is experiencing one of its most difficult to date; the current team will inevitably fail at next year’s World Cup and the lack of meaningful decisions coming from the FA is restricting youth development. But hey-ho, all in the name of the Premier League, right?

 

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Broken football – focus on fixing the real problems

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Debate surrounding the state of English football’s been rife recently, with many of these conversations now being muted a little following England’s qualification for next year’s World Cup. But whilst England’s immediate woes might have elapsed, there are real problems that continue to hinder the future of our national game, at every level. A matter that the Football League’s chairman, Greg Clarke, believes has reached a ‘crisis point’. I agree.

The Premier League product is throttling the English game

Since 1992, the Premier League’s developed into a fantastic, global product that brings a fortune into the UK market, no question about it, and I’ve loved my career in it. A powerful brand that other markets want to buy into. Unfortunately, despite this wealth, the Premier League remains focused on its economic growth, it’s own product and brand, often at the expense of the wider health of the game. I don’t think this is unusual for any corporate machine – no different to a Microsoft or Coca-Cola. And whilst the FA’s shown encouraging signs of improving the game at a grassroots level this week, the FA have little influence over its prized asset, the Premier League, they at best only have the ability to fine and ban players. They get little more than a seat at the boardroom table of a much bigger corporate machine, which they created.

Greg – please clearly define the problem before you fix it!

Our country’s inability to produce more homegrown, global stars is alarming. Greg Dyke must take an honest view on the quality and quantity of players currently coming through the ranks. The issue here starts with asking the right questions and defining the problem before you go trying to fix it (if only our national leaders would do this, too). Instead, the FA commission is currently proposing the introduction of ‘B teams’ in the lower leagues, which would be catastrophic to an already struggling homegrown system. I don’t see how applying early ideas makes sense when the actual issues don’t seem to be clear. I’d be more incline to discuss the FA thoughts, on the development of coaches, particularly the importance of nurturing great coaches. As it stands, there’s an obvious void in this space for younger coaches and it needs addressing. But that’s for another time.

A lose-lose-lose-lose scenario

One of the main issues experienced during my time as a professional, is that Premier League teams are zapping the lower leagues, in particular the Championship, of their most talented and prosperous players. They’re taking players who’re destined for success and maturing at that right level, and assimilating them into their academy setup too early, thereby robbing them and the league of valuable experience. For most, academies will never prepare a player for real football, here’s why everyone loses:

  • The player: loses out on hunger and a determination as well as a valuable playing experience
  • The lower league club: loses out on income by selling early and having playing talent to help them succeed and aim for promotion to the Prem
  • The Premiership team: loses out by hindering the growth of the very asset that they wanted to be successful
  • Team England: loses out by having limited British talent to chose from and experiencing poor performances in tournaments
  • The fans: lose out because they have to sit and watch the gulf between the Prem (and everyone else) and Team England (vs everyone else) get bigger

We create a scenario for a young player where it’s ‘sink or swim’. Like a Rooney or a Wilshere, some will swim, a lot more will sink – name true sustainable, British talent from those academies – you’ll struggle, but it’s easy to name matured and expensive foreign imports – there’s too many to mention. Young players under pressure are more sensitive to drops in confidence, they are suddenly exposed in lower leagues, return to their Prem club, drop down the pecking order, they go back to their clubs again and confidence is less.

Realistic alternatives

I don’t think we will ever forbid clubs from buying young talent, it’s such an unrealistic achievement – what player wouldn’t want to play for one of the top teams after all? The FA should however, seek alternatives. Particularly, those aimed at protecting young talent from the big clubs. Whether, it’s a way of creating a breeders premium for the clubs that develop the talent and if the youngsters signed aren’t given sufficient playing time, then money’s pumped back into grassroots. Or pump some of the transfer fee back to the seller, this way they can invest in replacing their recently lost asset. A no brainer for the lower league clubs dependent on additional income.

Wilshere and Cleverley are two recent examples of an academy system working well. But Chelsea’s 20-year old Josh McEachran, who’s worked his way through Chelsea’s academy system, is a much more common example of a player going the opposite way. Despite playing 11 games for Chelsea and making his debut in the Champions’ League at just 17, he’s struggled to establish himself in Chelsea’s star-studded squad. Inevitably, McEachran’s gone back out on loan to the Championship, this time with Watford. Three different loan clubs, in three seasons and he’s only played 11 games for his parent club. Chelsea’s established themselves as a major European team, with a vast squad and McEachran’s future looks bleak with Chelsea as a result. So a permanent move to the lower leagues is probably best for the young lad now. Let him establish himself in the Championship and if he’s good enough, a Premier League team will come knocking – and pay properly for him – everybody wins.

The Championship is weak

The Championship is our second tier league, I’m playing in it – it’s an exciting league though much more like a third or forth tier when realistically compared to the Premiership. The lack of strong Champ players improving that league only helps widen the gap between the Championship and Premier League – the gulf in performance and monetary terms is now enormous.

Academy football does not prepare you for when mortgages are on the line (irrespective of the league that you’re playing in), that’s where the devilment is, when the Championship’s notorious heavy hitters want to kick the living daylights out of you and you have to find a way round it. Youngsters, who’re left to incubate in the academy have that stolen from them.

Why do the FA, The Premier League, and those Prem clubs do it then?

The answer lies in that they have different, short term, income orientated goals. It’s not right or wrong; it just is what it is. So if we’re happy with that then let’s not pretend to solve the problem. Importing lots of foreign players works too:

  • Signing names is good for the Premier League brand – a global league in every sense
  • A global merchandise opportunity at every level occurs from fans buying shirts to TV license deals selling to foreign TV stations
  • Money explodes – it’s TV, along with selling merchandise, where the income lies
  • Premier Clubs start to look at where the money comes and focus on that – gate receipts start to look small in comparison, so the local fan is less relevant in direct cash terms. It’s increasingly a global fan base, not a local one
  • Team England is an after-thought – a consequence that is hard to fix

The above scenario is not wrong, it’s just a genuine conflict of interest created by the trappings of a globally successful brand, the Premier League.

Give young players time to earn their stripes

Premier League teams are able to offer youngsters dream moves, more often than not these dream moves are nothing but a nightmare where everybody loses out. If I were on that committee I’d be inclined to suggest that we deter the bigger clubs from snatching the Championship’s up and coming stars, make it impossible even. Leave these players where they are, in lower leagues for longer, let that awesome talent of a 13-year old grow and play every week from 16 or 17, to mature properly, to get used to the life. Let those Premier League clubs then part with proper money, to pay a fair price, at the right time and pass some of that mega wealth downwards to lower leagues in the process. Everybody wins. Sure, Premier League clubs may have to fork out a few extra notes to buy a player of 16-17 years old, and currently they’re paying tens of millions of pounds for overseas stars anyway – this way you’re keeping the money in the country and within our national game.

At a time when England’s current generation of world-class players; Gerrard, Cole and Lampard, are close to retirement, and Greg Dyke’s claiming he’s up for useful change, rectifying the real issues have never been so important. The thing is, the FA needs to be prepared to take the right medicine. Over to you, Greg.

 

 

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