||ESPNsoccernet: Euro 2012
Sunday, April 1, 2012
The new golden generation?
The English managers suggested by the press for the England job point out that the state of the FA's plans for succession have not progressed as desired.
The one internal candidate, Stuart Pearce, is not famous for his tactical nous. He's famous for a stuffed toy and a newsworthy brother. He's known for his commitment to England in the kind of vague way that Songs of Praise is. Most recently, he's known for a tactical limitation that ensured the collapse of the England Under-21 team from promising in qualification to incompetent in last summer's finals.
He's not the only underwhelming candidate. Sam Allardyce should be managing Real Madrid or Inter Milan, but in fact bosses West Ham in the Championship. Mick McCarthy wasn't even trusted to complete Wolves' relegation, and Glenn Hoddle's own karma is still haunting him. On the other hand, where the players are concerned, the next few years could be far more exciting. This is potentially the most football-literate generation of English players since 1990.
While the outgoing 'Golden Generation' has been soundly mocked, there's now scope for revision. Individually, they performed in some of the best teams of the late 1990s and 2000s. Steven Gerrard was central to Rafa Benitez's team and won the Champions League with him. Frank Lampard was feted by Jose Mourinho as the best midfielder in the world. David Beckham and Gary Neville won the Champions League. There was no lack of talent or desire but there was no technical and tactical superiority either. For that, other players were key. Claude Makelele, Roy Keane and Xabi Alonso were the brains of the best English teams. In the future, that may not be the case.
At Arsenal, there's Jack Wilshere. Injured, his absence made Cesc Fabregas' felt even more keenly. Mikel Arteta has great Premier League experience, but there's a reason that no prestigious team took a chance on him until Arsene Wenger was backed into a corner. The greatest tribute you could give to Wilshere is that, despite being English, he doesn't look out of place in an Arsenal midfield. A neat first touch, almost as comfortable receiving passes as he is making them, he would, however, look out of place in an England midfield.
At Manchester United, there's Tom Cleverley. It's an early stage of his career, where he displayed little more than reliability at Wigan, but in his early appearances for Manchester United, the team played some of their most compelling football, rarely matched since. His quick passing and quicker brain separates him at a stroke from Frank Lampard and Steven Gerrard in style. While his potential is not in question, he is currently less accomplished than Wilshere.
At Manchester United, there is another player who might see football differently from previous generations. As a striker, you would expect him to be less comfortable on the ball than the two midfielders, but Danny Welbeck highlights the idiocy of suggesting Carlton Cole, Darren Bent, Bobby Zamora or Andy Carroll as potential partners for Wayne Rooney. England have a chance to play to existing limits or discover new approaches.
The 4-4-2 formation may have its merits, but not the way England play it. Welbeck can play with Rooney too, but he is neither a merely honest runner nor a lump with a head. Though an able finisher, that is not his sole quality - it's the understanding of the game that he has to his credit. Capable of playing on the wings, in a front pair or a front three, he won't wait idly in the channels for a chipped ball forward. He knows the value of movement and space across the pitch.
There are other players with promise, who aren't praised simply for their blood and thunder, or their simple ability in the box. Josh McEachran is the rawest of the Big Four talents, but is spoken of in tones to suggest he might be the first Chelsea youngster to make it since John Terry. His loan to Swansea indicates that he's more mini-Xavi than mini-Frank. Or at least the next Leon Britton.
At other clubs there are English players perhaps more likely to be suited to another national team. Gary Gardner, at Aston Villa, scored on his first team-debut (for Coventry); he is yet another English midfielder with more going for him than his manager, Alex McLeish, can probably make use of. Ravel Morrison, for reasons not linked with talent, is stuck with Allardyce, a good manager, but not known for making the careers of youngsters.
And there's the rub. If not at club level, the limiting factor is not the brains trust in the team but at the top. Harry Redknapp is not the tactical naif he pretends to be but his struggles with Spurs suggest that he's not close to being an expert. Steve Bruce, Mick McCarthy and Alan Curbishley are out of work and obsolete. Alan Pardew has done well at Newcastle, but only in the Premier League, and with no revolutionary approach. Through lack of talent, opportunity or both, there is no outstanding England manager.
English football has never been able to handle its mavericks, and treated them with suspicion. Matt Le Tissier was a better player than Ian Wright yet was treated as if his talents meant little. Micky Hazard was criminally underused, as was Glenn Hoddle.
At the moment, we possibly have more innately talented young English players than in recent memory. They might still do no better than reaching the quarter-finals in the World Cup, but this is the first generation of England players to be more football intelligent than its managerial contemporaries.
• Alexander Netherton is editor of Surreal Football