By Martin Samuel
The Daily Mail (UK)
How does the standard inquest into the state of English football go again? We haven’t got a player like Andres Iniesta. We haven’t got an Andrea Pirlo. Oh, woe is us.
Did you see the Chelsea and Manchester City games last week? We haven’t got Christian Eriksen of Denmark, either. We haven’t got the best player in Armenia.
His name is Henrikh Mkhitaryan. Armenian player of the year for 2009, Shakhtar Donetsk’s player of the year last season. UEFA rate him among the top 100 footballers in Europe. He was leading scorer in qualifying Group B for the 2012 European Championship, in which Armenia finished third and won 4-0 in Slovakia. He would walk into Roy Hodgson’s England team.
It was a sobering week for English football, as much as for English clubs. The technique on display in Donetsk and Amsterdam was so far in advance of our own that it is possible to fear not just for England’s fate at the 2014 World Cup, but for the prospect of even getting there.
We kid ourselves with these searches for football’s El Dorado, the hope that we will pass like Barcelona if we could only keep Jack Wilshere fit. Watching Mkhitaryan pull the strings for Shakhtar on Tuesday was to marvel at how far we have fallen. Wilshere did not waste a pass in the first 45 minutes of his return to the Arsenal side on Saturday but he cannot do it alone.
Mkhitaryan was surrounded by nimble, technically able players such as Brazil’s Willian, who is not even a regular in his national team. Then it was on to Amsterdam where Eriksen destroyed the Premier League champions. At the end, Micah Richards, an England international, blamed the defeat in part on being required to play an unfamiliar system.
Do you think Eriksen, Mkhitaryan or Willian would worry about that? Shakhtar’s second goal was taken beautifully by Fernandinho, ostensibly a defensive midfield player, who also can’t secure a place for Brazil. He stuck doggedly to his duties but, given one opportunity, knew exactly when and how to break. That’s football. Thinking football. Could Fernandinho be wrong-footed by a tweak to Shakhtar’s system?
Richards is meant to be one of our new wave, too. He came through the Simon Clifford futebol de salao schools, a form of football education credited with producing many of Brazil’s greatest footballers, including Ronaldinho. Yet Richards’s international career has stagnated because his defensive thinking and strategy are poor. His admission that a simple switch to a back three left him puzzled is startling.
Roberto Mancini was right to say that the next time Manchester City played that way, Richards could watch from the bench. It is probably a moot point after his unfortunate knee injury on Saturday, but Richards is under increasing pressure from Pablo Zabaleta and Maicon, players from South America who do not balk at the thought of modification. Neither is fit right now but, when that changes, whom will Mancini turn to if he desires flexibility?
Why do English players find it so hard to adapt? Steve McClaren was as good as run out of town for playing three centre halves in Croatia. He was never brave enough to try it again. Yet Holland, Brazil and Germany all do it, or can if necessary. And clubs throughout Europe, including Barcelona, freely switch between three and four defenders without everybody getting the vapours.
Welcome back, Jack: But Wilshere’s return alone will never be enough to transform England
Mkhitaryan is not a defender, nor is Eriksen, but they come from football cultures in which thought and expression is expected, from the front to the back. English football continues to dumb down.
Glenn Hoddle got Swindon Town playing three defenders 20 years ago, with Paul Bodin and Nicky Summerbee as wing backs. Try it now with the best players in the land and see what happens. Any deviation from military straight lines is considered heresy and the current England manager is hardly the type to cry revolution.
Meanwhile, the rest of the world catches up and speeds past. We flatter ourselves by yearning for the English Iniesta: Brazilian reserves, the best young player in Denmark, the pride of Yerevan, capital of Armenia, this is what we haven’t got.
Share on Facebook