Where are all the Englishmen?

Watching those superb German teams, Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund, contest the Champions League final got me thinking, and worrying, about the state of English football. Or, to be precise, the England national team. From a former, proud, England international centre-forward’s point of view, the most significant statistic of the final at Wembley was that the two teams sported no less than 12 Germans in their starting line-ups. And there were others, either on the bench or injured, who would have graced either side. Could any two of our Premier League teams have come anywhere close to fielding 12 Englishmen in a showpiece duel? I don’t think so. Manchester United v Manchester City might produce six or seven. Chelsea v Arsenal, three or four at best. It is a fact that should concern every Englishman and particularly those at the FA charged with managing the development and success of the national team. I look around the top division and wonder where are the next generation of players who might end England’s 47-year trophy drought.

With the current England team in transition and, frankly, short of world class performers, the scary thing is I don’t see much evidence that our Academy system is producing the youngsters who will remedy that situation. We are waiting to see if Arsenal midfielder Jack Wilshere will emerge as a player who can run an international match. He has the talent, but does he have the fitness? Wilshere has spent a lot of time injured the past couple of years. And where are the top class strikers and defenders we need if we are to challenge the Germans, Spanish, Brazilians and Argentinians on the big stage? I look at England and I fear for the future. Our best forward, Wayne Rooney, seems to be in a state of flux with his club career. His Manchester United and England team-mate Danny Welbeck scored only one Premier League goal last season! The two best central defenders of the past decade, Rio Ferdinand and John Terry, are now yesterday’s men. Midfielders Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard are in their dotage. Okay, in Joe Hart we have a world class goalkeeper, but there is no established No 2 in that position. Oh for the days when we had two or three keepers of similar ability. We are spending more money than ever, we have better facilties than ever and more staff than ever. Yet the talent doesn’t seem to be coming through. England boss Roy Hodgson has one helluva job on his hands and he will have worked a minor miracle if he achieves success at the European Championships next year.

As for Saturday’s spectacular night at Wembley, I think the German juggernauts produced an exciting, if not brilliant, match…a contest that was thrilling without quite reaching the heights of their semi-final showdowns with Barcelona and Real Madrid. It occurred to me how significant it is that the two teams have achieved pre-eminence in Europe without a superstar like Franz Beckenbauer, Berti Vogts, Gunter Netzer or Gerd Muller in their line-up. In other words, what an advert for the power, pace, athleticism and effectiveness of football in the Bundesliga. Having said that, I must make special mention of Bayern’s magnificent keeper Neuer, undoubtedly the world No 1, and his Dortmund counterpart Weidenfeller. Both players were the stars of the show. Full marks to Bayern’s Arjen Robben, who made their first goal and scored the winner, and his fellow winger Frank Ribery, whose backheel set up Robben for his superb finish. I must say, though, that Bayern might well have finished the match with nine men had Italian referee Niccola Rizzoli been more stringent. Ribery threw his arm into the face of ¬†Lewandowski, an act that merited at least a booking, if not a red card. And Dante’s penalty box lunge, which resulted in Dortmund’s equaliser from the spot, had to be a yellow card. Given that Dante had already been booked, that would have been the end of his final.

 

Bundesliga is best

img courtesy of 1600.iso - http://www.flickr.com/photos/1600iso/

Bayern Munich take on Borussia Dortmund in the Champions League final at Wembley on Saturday evening – and what a pulsating exhibition of pacey, powerful football we have in prospect. For, make no mistake, the fact that these Bundesliga giants are contesting the showpiece match of European football is clear evidence that the German model is the best on the continent. The Premier League keeps saying it has the best product, producing the best football, but such claims can be justified by the Bundesliga, where big crowds watch a brand of exciting, direct football week in, week out. Bayern and Dortmund have blown away all opposition in the Champions League, their unstoppable progress to the final culminating in the awesome semi-final destruction of the pride of Spain, Barcelona and Real Madrid. Don’t forget, en route to the semi-finals, Bayern had battered Arsenal at The Emirates and Real Madrid had eliminated Manchester United.

So, that tells me that not only are our top English clubs some way behind the Germans but now so, too, are the Spanish who, in Barca in particular, have dominated the European scene for the past few years. Personally, I’m delighted to see the German emergence because they play my type of game, a fast, direct style which should not be confused with long ball football. By ‘direct’ I mean putting the emphasis on moving forward with pace and hitting probing, positive passes. When I gave my team talks, my mantra to my players was: “When a team-mate makes a forward run don’t disappoint him…hit him with a pass.” This is what Bayern and Borussia are doing, what Barca and Real could not cope with. Bayern’s approach blew holes in Barca’s close-passing game, a style which is heavily reliant on Iniesta, Xavi and Messi and which, in my opinion, can be too ornate at times. Certainly, Messi and Co found Bayern too hot to handle and, don’t forget, Glasgow Celtic beat Barca in the Group Stage.

So, I think we are witnessing the dawning of a new brand of power play, one which the coaches in England, Spain and Italy may well have to adopt if they are to keep up with the Germans. These guys are big, strong and talented and have so much running power. Whether or not Bayern and Borussia will cancel each other out to some extent at Wembley remains to be seen. It will be fascinating to find out.