Month: September 2012

Problem Position to Embarassment of Riches

Cast your minds back a little over a decade and you will remember the English national team’s problematic left side. The left-midfield role was scarcely contested, and without much quality too. Nick Barmby and Trevor Sinclair benefitted hugely from this.

The left-back slot was just as much of a problem. After Stuart Pearce’s long reign as England’s regular number 3 came to an end, Graeme Le Saux was a natural replacement during Glenn Hoddle’s spell in charge. Hoddle’s favoured 3-5-2 formation with wing-backs on either side ensured the position was Le Saux’s to lose as it suited his game down to the ground.

Moving on, Kevin Keegan struggled to find a consistent performer at left-back. More often than not, Keegan played Phil Neville in a position which, despite claiming it as his favourite position, is not a position he was ready to play at international level at that time.

Surprise call-ups

When Sven Goran Eriksson took over in 2001, it kicked off several months of England caps being given out to any available, English, Premier League left-back. Chris Powell made 5 appearances for his country during this time and Michael Ball won a solitary cap. Gareth Barry was also trialled in this position but failed to make the position his own as he was still finding his way (and his best position) at Aston Villa in his early years as a professional.

Ashley Cole thankfully came along and made sure that number 3 shirt was his for years to come. Initially the lack of competition may have had something to do with it. But the improvement in his defending, rather than showing a reliance on pace to get himself out of trouble, in the last few years has seen him become one of the best full backs, defensively, in Europe.


Only now does Cole have real competition for his place.

The maturity of Leighton Baines over the last 12 months has been a joy to watch. He has always been a player of great quality on the ball. He showed that in his time at Wigan. At Everton, Baines has grown in confidence year after year and formed an unrivalled partnership with Steven Pienaar down the left of Everton’s improving team. He is better technically with the ball at his feet than Cole, with crossing ability to put Cole to shame. What perhaps lets Baines down in his challenge to become England’s left-back, is his lack of experience in big games. Rightly or wrongly, players at clubs taking part in the Champions League are always more likely to be picked for England. The rumoured move to Manchester United this summer didn’t materialise, but had it done, it would’ve been interesting to see how much closer Baines would be pushing Cole for that England place by now.

Cole’s understudy at Chelsea is 23 year old Englishman Ryan Bertrand. At 23, Bertrand would have no doubt been hoping to have played more 1st team football than he has done. But on the other hand, he has played in a UEFA Champions League final. And he has the winners’ medal to show it. He played that night as a left-midfielder, as he has done on several other occasions, but he’s also an adept left-back with a similar playing style to that of Ashley Cole. He’s pacey, quick to get forward and he covers the centre-backs well when needed (essential as John Terry shows no signs of getting any quicker). This season Bertrand already seems to be trusted with more game-time by club manager Roberto Di Matteo. And this trust in him by a manager who is clearly confident he is ready for top-level football should see him really improve between now and next May.

The 4th contender for the England left-back position is Arsenal’s Kieran Gibbs. The youngest of these 4 players, Gibbs has made a brilliant start to the 2012/2013 season. He appears far more confident and composed in possession. He is playing like he now believes he deserves to be playing at this high level. And last but by no means least, he will be benefitting from the addition of Steve Bould to Arsene Wenger’s coaching team. Bould was a part of Arsenal’s original famous back four and is already receiving many plaudits for the current side’s defensively solid start to the season. Gibbs will no doubt improve his education in the art of defending with Bould around. The 22 year old is already now keeping Andre Santos out of Arsenal’s team, despite the Brazilian only arriving from Fenerbahce 12 months ago. He will now be looking to add to his handful of England caps.

The future

So England have gone from throwing caps around like confetti in desperate searches for left-backs, to now having real competition of quality players in this position. And whilst these players aren’t necessarily all at the peak of their powers at present, the coming years will see the best of the three challengers to Ashley Cole’s number 3 shirt.

Pictures courtesy of Allsport,, Getty Images and

Parents – The Key to England’s Improvement

Written on 26 June 2012.

Another international tournament. Another penalty shoot-out defeat. Another tournament showing the same deficiencies in the English game as the five tournaments before this one.

More questions asked. Fingers pointed. Blame apportioned.

At least in 2012 there is more of a sense of realism amongst England fans, in that more people are realising that England just aren’t as good as they have been built up to be. They’ve been built up by the British media, from the tabloid press to the pundits on any T.V. station showing football. Sometimes the players haven’t helped these unrealistic expectations spiral out of control as they’ve always, before this year it must be said, gone along with the “We can win this” quotes in the daily red-tops.

Sadly, it’s the same problems that have been England’s downfall. An inability to keep possession of the ball has ultimately led to the England players becoming fatigued far quicker than their opponents as they’ve spent the majority of matches chasing the ball whilst squandering it themselves.

Yes, England undoubtedly looked more solid as a group than in previous tournaments, and only conceded one goal in matches against two good teams in France and Italy. But England still never looked comfortable in possession and were never able to keep it for prolonged periods in any of their four matches. Too often an England player in possession only has one option to pass to, and not enough players within reachable distance for a short pass on the ground. This leaves a predictable pattern of play that the opposition can read in advance and close down the avenues available easily, often forcing England defenders into playing the ball high and long into the channels or for a striker to challenge in the air with a centre-back.

Not enough movement off the ball. Not enough players really wanting the ball. Not enough patience on the ball and willingness to play simple passes to keep the opposition moving.

The FA are finally doing something about this. At the end of May this year, FA shareholders voted with an 87% majority to redevelop youth football in England. The changes will see:

  • 5-a-side football for under 7’s and under 8’s,
  • 7-a-side football for under 9’s and under 10’s,
  • 9-a-side football for under 11’s and under 12’s,
  • 11-a-side football only introduced at under 13’s level.

The changes are long overdue and still won’t be fully phased in as mandatory changes until 2014/15. But at least it is a step in the right direction. It will see young children playing more enjoyable games on smaller pitches where they will get more touches of the ball. It will develop their technique with more touches encouraged by the appropriately sized pitches and smaller-sided games. It should improve their mental approach to the game too, which should be more noticeable in their adult years. This will be in the form of comfort with the ball at their feet. A calmness on the ball and an instinct to pass the ball rather than the average approach you will see in kids football in England – kick it and chase it up a pitch that is far too big for them so that the bigger, stronger, faster kids excel (or appear superior anyway).

The issue of a lack of quality, qualified coaches in this country is another obstacle that needs to be overcome. There are less than 3,000 UEFA qualified coaches in England. This compares to 35,000 in Germany and 25,000 in Spain. I’ve believed for a long time that the FA’s pricing of courses seems to price out many people from average walks of life that would have the knowledge, intelligence and enthusiasm to be great coaches. It seems to favour ex-professional players, many of whom aren’t exactly students of the game and don’t understand the tactical side of the game or the correct way to coach children to improve their game. What’s more, ex-professional players that are members of the PFA actually get discount off the cost of their course with the help of the PFA, so the ones who can probably afford it on their own are the ones getting the financial help towards it.

The number of coaches will always be increasing. And with social networking sites helping aspiring coaches share ideas and philosophies over the internet, the quality coaches could see their ideas and approaches adopted as best practice on a broader scale before long. The changes the FA are making to grassroots football can only help. I say it can only help, it will only help if the parents of the young kids playing junior football get on board with the idea too.

Too many parents are loud on the touchline, screaming at their kids. They want them to win the match, the league, the cup and come home with medals/trophies. Maybe some see it as a chance to relive their own youth where they weren’t quite good enough. Maybe some think the more trophies their kid has, the better chance they have of making it as a professional. The truth is, most of the stuff shouted from the touchline by these overzealous parents is absolute rubbish and is detrimental to the development of the kids on the pitch.

“Get rid of it!”

“Put in the channel!”

“Get if forward!”

It is bad enough when you hear the above three commonly used phrases shouted at a professional football match. But to hear it at junior level, screamed at kids as young as 8 or 9 years old, is shocking. There’s no wonder so many English lads grow up to have no confidence in receiving the ball under pressure, no patience when they’re on the ball and play in games where they spend most of it running about without having many touches of the ball.

Many parents would be delighted when their kid comes home on a Sunday having won 15-0. Why? How will that make him a better player? The winning team and the losing team both get nothing out of a game like that, despite the short-term opinion of the usual majority that think the winning team is great and destined for professional careers.

Most parents would rather their kid be involved in a match where his team wins by 7 or 8 goals than a match they’ve drawn but played some excellent football. What the focus should be on is how the kids played. Did they enjoy the game? Did they get plenty of touches of the ball and look to pass it to team-mates? Were they patient rather than hoofing it up the pitch for the big striker to chase?

Too many parents start to moan when the team their kid plays for isn’t winning. It isn’t about winning at that level. Or at least it shouldn’t be. Let the kids play. Let them enjoy themselves. When they enjoy themselves they will get on the ball more often and not be afraid to make a mistake. They will try new things and start to be creative and imaginative.

The parents of the next generation of footballers need to let the coaches coach. Encourage the kids to play well rather than to win. If they take the changes on board and embrace them, it could be a winning combination. And we could begin to see the results by the time the 2020’s come around.