It began on Wednesday night, during the Barcelona-Inter match. Watching, I thought it a fascinating game of great tactical interest. Yet, on the BBC’s live text service, two things showed either that I’m mad or that some people just don’t get it. Firstly, an Arsenal fan had texted in with “I wish this Barça had turned up against Arsenal”, a comment so moronic that it barely deserves a response.
More important, however, was Chris Waddle’s assertion that Xavi “doesn’t have that bit extra” in reference to his failure to break down Inter’s nine-man defence. What is ‘that bit extra’, I wondered – concluding that Waddle defined it as ‘the ability to receive the ball thirty yards out, make a lung-busting run through the defence and smash a piledriver into the top corner’.
The problems of English football are largely down to the obsession with players who can do just that: Sven’s midfield of Beckham-Gerrard-Lampard-Scholes illustrates this point. Until people in Waddle’s position – i.e. those in the media – encourage kids to play another way, coaches in England will always find it impossible to produce an English Makélélé or Xavi.
On Friday, it was reported that Liverpool’s academy is two years away from producing players of EPL standard. Rodolfo Borrell, a youth coach at the club, said that “the under-18s had no centre forward, no balance. They had no tactical level, no understanding of the game.”
This raises questions of the previous regime. I seem to remember there being a great deal of admiration for Steve Heighway when he was in charge and even more sympathy when he was removed. Heighway may have won successive FA Youth Cups, but how many current EPL players has he produced?
Steven Gerrard and Jamie Carragher spring to mind, but the next name that comes up is Neil Mellor of Preston and ‘That Goal Against Arsenal In 2004’ fame. Robbie Fowler made it in the past, but his almost overnight transition from deadly finisher to outmoded has-been only proves that Liverpool’s youth training has failed to equip their most talented players with the requisite intelligence and adaptability to reach their full potential.
The idea that Gerrard in particular is one of the world’s best players has always been nothing short of offensive. Arrigo Sacchi famously and correctly described him as “a great footballer, but not a great player”, and I had initially planned to write this using his backpasses against France in 2004 and Arsenal in 2005/06 as evidence of his lack of the most basic intelligence – but yesterday he went and did it again versus Chelsea.
As soon as I read Borrell’s comments on Friday my initial reaction was that it explained everything about Gerrard’s uncultured, up-and-at-them style of play. Much like the revered Wayne Rooney, he is commended for his drive, passion, commitment, desire and all other synonyms that Alan Hansen can think of, but he has always lacked an understanding of how football works tactically, preferring to play a sort of professional playground football.
Those who say that when his legs go he will do as Paul Scholes has done are wrong: Scholes’ game has always been built on intelligence and reading the game; Gerrard’s is founded on powerful surges from deep and his even more powerful right foot. If Borrell is correct, then this is because he was never given the proper education. Given his exposed performances for England, where Javier Mascherano and Xabi Alonso/Lucas aren’t around to cover the holes he consistently leaves, this is very easy to believe.
Gabriele Marcotti has often said that the way to judge an academy is not on how many Steven Gerrards or Wayne Rooneys it produces, but how many Phil Bardsleys. Natural talent will always rise to the top level: it is when clubs teach those without it how to play football that they succeed. He is right, but I can’t help but wonder how much better Gerrard and Rooney would have been if they’d learned how to play under the correct tutelage.
Their natural athleticism and talent has brought him great success and acclaim, but the basic flaws in their respective games often go overlooked until they do something as stupid as present Didier Drogba with an open goal in a match that the whole world is watching. Rooney’s recent improvement is down to the penny dropping with regard to his positional responsibility, a flaw that Messrs Ferguson and Capello deserve great credit for rectifying. However, Steven Gerrard’s lack of footballing intelligence aged 29 shows where coaching in England has prevented their best players from attaining true greatness.