How far with the lesson of Germany reach?

Self flagellation has always been popular in English football and when the national side returned home from a World Cup 4-1.5ing by Germany the press and players had already begun to whip itself in a freeze of internalised loathing showing the defining characteristic of the media approach to the game: That the game is played by England and other sides are the subject of that.

So when England play well – nine out of ten in qualifying – it is because of our abilities and when we lose it is the lack of those which is the problem and credit is never extended to the opposition. Watching Germany ram four past Argentina though could cause cause for a pause. However poor one might feel England were either Argentina (and Australia) were equal to that or – perhaps – there is something worth noticing going on in Joachim Löw’s side.

There has been a consensus that the Germans – who played a central five in the midfield with an average age of just under 23 years old – have stolen a march on the World because of that youth and freshness and there is much to be said for the way that they have blooded their younger players. 25 year old Schweinsteiger is on his second World Cup. So is Wayne Rooney, scratch that idea then.

Much is also made about the formation which Fabio Capello – and Diego Maradona – employed compared to Löw’s Germans and suddenly the word “fourfourtwo” is becoming something of a negative in the English game. One can almost hear now managers up and down the country being charged with the idea that they – like Capello – lack the imagination to play a more exotic tactic and one can expect three months of randomly thrown together formations up and down football.

Freakish results will mark the start of the season as teams who deploy something more “characterful” than the 442 which has fallen from fashion. As Clough said “There is a lot of rubbish talked about tactics by people who would not know how to win a game of Dominoes.”

Not that this will effect Peter Taylor who has signed the players and settled on a 433 at Valley Parade and City can make hay as League Two players are deployed in fanciful ways to little effect. Finding a way of playing and sticking to it is perhaps the most important thing.

On the fourfourtwo one can say that while it may have faults when playing three games every four years in the World Cup in the cut and thrust of two games a week for nine months the simplicity, adaptability and ease of the approach is the reason for its enduring popularity. Week to week football requires not a surgeon’s tool but a Swiss Army Knife, which is what fourfourtwo is.

The German’s 4231 – originally a formation played in Portugal because of the freedom it gives to the kind of attacking midfielder that that nation excels in producing such as Luis Figo, Joao Pinto and his brother Sergio – is nothing especially new.

The lesson of the Germans is not in tactics but in the deployment of players within those formations. The heart of the German side is Schweinsteiger and Sami Khedira who play the deep set midfielder role in a revolutionary manner. Popular conception has it that the two in a 4231 should be holding midfielders and ball winners but Löw’s pairing are more box to box players capable of tackling and getting behind the ball for sure but also able to be used as a spring board for attacking play.

For Schweinsteiger and Khedira there is no need to look for a passer after taking the ball – the pair are equipped to play in the three more forward midfielder – increasing the speed of the counter attack and its accuracy. What they loose in not having a Claude Makelele they gain in rapidity of play creating a nod to total football ideology. As Schweinsteiger plays the ball forward so Mesut Özil or Lukas Podolski or Thomas Müller can drop back and tackle.

This is a stark contrast to the approach that many – myself included – have to for example the English midfield which agonises over the choice between attacking players like Frank Lampard and Steven Gerrard and ball winners like Gareth Barry. The roles are as split as centre forward and full back but not for Löw’s Germans.

There is a plan for sure and positions – this is not total football Dutch style – but the less rigid assignment of player roles gives a fluidity which England, Australia and Argentina have been incapable of living with. The jobs are done in that German engine room but – crucially – the players who do them have the ability and remit to do each other’s tasks.

Even Lionel Messi and Javier Mascherano – as fine a pair of specialised players as one could see – looked old fashioned and stolid in comparison and as Schweinsteiger surged to the left touchline and set up a second goal it seemed obviously that if Germany could prevent Messi emulating that then Mascherano simply would not attempt it.

The granularity of positions – especially in the midfield – has become something of a mantra for modern football and one recalls Lee Crooks and Marc Bridge-Wilkinson but struggles to think of them both as “midfielders” rather one as a holder, the other as an attacker. The same could be said about Dean Furman and Nicky Law although perhaps not about Michael Flynn and Lee Bullock.

Indeed whatever lessons are emanating from the German side at the moment Peter Taylor seems to have adopted. His midfield trio next season are Flynn, Bullock and Tommy Doherty and none of them fit easily into the idea of being players only able to – or only ready to – performing a single role.

It remains to be seen what lessons the game as a whole take from World Cup 2010 and if those lessons create a path to success but City seem to be ahead of a curve that is coming and should that bring the same rewards for the Bantams as it has for the previously unfavoured Germans then next season could be a good year indeed.

What type of England team do we want?

One which beats Germany, obviously, but in the last two weeks the England team has been questioned and answered those questions on the field with a good performance that deserved more than the 1-0.

The adjectives directed at England after the win over Slovenia were muted in comparison to those tagged to the team when playing poorly. Most of these can be crossed off against each other with every “Worst. Team. Ever” being the opposite of “World Beaters” and cancelling each other out.

What we are left with though are comments like “overpaid” and “arrogant” of which there is are no counter-balances. After beating Slovenia no one said that the players earned their wages, that they seemed humble, that they were good value for money.

Which paints the picture of the England side we have. It is considered arrogant and over paid but as long as it does not under perform then we tend to be happy enough. Outside of World Cup years – and in the cases of clubs like Manchester United inside them too – no one much cares about the England side on a day to say basis. As long it can harbour optimism while the club sides wend their way on then everyone seems content.

Content but not happy. John Terry’s life over the last year has not be plain sailing either in or away from football. His tabloid exposure earlier cast him low and he had the England captaincy taken from him but he won the league and cup double with Chelsea and his rehabilitation was enhanced as he dove headlong for a face-tackle to put England into the second round.

While John Terry was putting his head in the way of the ball Wayne Bridge was at home counting his money. Not hard to see why Terry is coming back to the national heart, if not being held close.

Alas though the nation seems set to keep England away from its heart – the place where Cheryl and not Ashley Cole is, the place where Gary Lineker was and Wayne Rooney might hope to be – and continue with the adjectives.

Arrogant, over-paid, under-performing. The England side hold the same position in our culture that Gladiators held in Ancient Rome. They were cheered and lauded whilst being loathed and looked down upon. We are invited to look at laugh at Mr and Mrs Rooney and the gaucheness of their lifestyle but he is expected to perform for our delight and be a target for our anger.

Perhaps then – as Fabio Capello takes his team to play the Germans and hyperbole awaits regardless of the result – it is worth considering what kind of England team the national heart would want to see.

Firstly there is the count of being arrogant which would be easily solved by the FA adopting a behavioural code which would cover anything considered to be “unbecoming of an England player”. This code would be as changeable as the charge of “bringing the game into disrepute” but in essence a group of men in a room at the FA would pass judgement on the play and lives of the England squad.

So John Terry would be out – conduct unbecoming of an England player – and most probably Rooney would be too as a result of his fiery temper in Manchester United games. Frank Lampard left his wife for a younger woman and would no doubt also be guilty of conduct unbecoming of an England player should there be a sense of moral outrage and perhaps too so would Ashley Cole for his reported womanising.

A moral stand to render the squad of humble – or at least strike of those who are not – and as a result the quality of the side would suffer but the national heart would have a team it could invite round to tea.

Ridding England of the idea that the players are overpaid is tougher but not impossible. If we take the idea that £30,000 is a reasonable wage for a man on the street who is doing well and multiple that figure by four for the lifespan of a footballer then the FA simply make a decision that no player who earns more than £120,000 a year – £2,300 a week – can be picked for the England squad.

Pretty much all of the senior Premiership and the Championship players would be ruled out of representing for the Three Lions and to be honest a few of the clubs at the top of League One would probably pay more than that but probably half the way down the third tier of English football one would find no shortage of people who fancied paying for England – provided they behaved – and would be immune to the idea that they are over-paid.

One could add to that a good few young players from the top two divisions too and one would have an England side which – along with the behaviour rules – would be well behaved and paid what would be considered a fair wage and thus be immune to those criticisms. They would probably also be immune to World Cup qualification too with the majority of sides in Europe taking their players from the leagues we would ignore.

Nevertheless there would be a kind of glory in watching the honourable side battling to finish above Wales or Northern Ireland – who would provide good examples of the quality of squad we would have – and as a bonus the FA could offer centralised contracts which would allow them to loan these players to clubs and take them back for lengthier England meet ups.

The team would be unrecognisable but it would be free from the criticism of being paid too much, being too arrogant or under-performing although that would be largely because it would not be expected to perform nor would it have the capabilities to. Most games would have the feel of the third round of the FA Cup and any point would be hard won. Performances could be good, better than the sum of the parts, but it is highly unlikely the side would even get to a play-off for the World Cup.

Victory is the key – victory in qualifying, in friendlies, in the World Cup – and the accusation of under-performing will continue should these victories not be frequent. The English play Germany on Sunday and punditry has it that after that we will play Argentina and then Brazil which represent the only three teams in the World the English side are allowed to lose to, and only in the case of penalties with the Germans.

Everyone else England must beat or be under-performing so high are expectations although meeting those expectations. The glorious exit or – perhaps – the victory and we answer the question “What type of England team do we want?” saying “This one, for all the faults.”

On the defensive

For much of Bradford City’s 2008/09 campaign, I felt frustrated by the number of visiting sides who adopted negative defensive tactics at Valley Parade. It was often nine men behind the ball, very little ambition to even cross the half way line and, most frustratingly of all, too much time-wasting. Although City had a good home record, that almost half the matches ended in draws showed such defensive tactics succeeded too often.

But as much as the sight of Chester supporters and players celebrating a 0-0 draw perplexed, the real frustration came from City’s failure to overcome such tactics. As much as we want it to happen, it’s obviously too fanciful to expect opposition teams to set themselves up for a defeat; and if they believed going for a victory against better players was unlikely to succeed, you can’t blame them for taking a point. When City have been higher up the leagues, we’ve often done something similar to others – equally frustrating their players and fans. It’s down to the so-called better team to earn the victory.

But it’s a debate that rumbles on. The World Cup is a week old and, after months of over-hype, a collective sigh of disappointment can be heard over the so-far lack of drama. Every competing nation has now played their first game, and for the majority the priority was not to get beat. Defensive football has largely dominated, the edge of your seat barely required.

Why has this happened? Various theories have been offered ranging from claims there are too many small nations involved who stand no chance of winning, to the intense pressure on managers and players to avoid the indignity of a first round exit breeding negativity. England aren’t the only nation pinning arguably over-optimistic hopes of glory on the shoulders of their team, not everyone can meet their expectations.

As we’ve seen with the ridiculous situation of 545 people complaining about Vuvuzela horns to the BBC, the World Cup is widely considered as being more about the TV viewers than those in the stadium or even supporting their team. We want to see Ivory Coast v Portugal for free flowing football and to laugh at either Didier Drogba or Ronaldo finishing on the losing side, which is in contrast to the wants of the two managers trying to plot a win and keep their job.

We want to see small nations fit into our stereotypes, look grateful for the chance to be here but then roll over to the flair of the world’s better footballing nations. Not hold on for a dourly-achieved point or respectable narrow defeat.

Which is where football as a sport and football as entertainment are at odds. When Chester held onto that draw at Valley Parade in December 2008, 12,000 home supporters went home fed up at their team’s inability to break down weaker opposition and disappointed by the dullness of the occasion. When Paraguay kept men behind the ball and failed to allow Italy the space to play on Monday, we at home struggled to stay awake. Who cares that the 1-1 draw was a great result for Paraguay considering Italy are the best team in the group? New Zealand better be more willing to let them play in the next game.

But enjoyment of football should not only be measured by goalmouth action and number of goals. While so much of the focus can be on the spark each team’s star man provides, international football is almost always a team game and it can be fascinating to look at the tactics employed and the approach the opposition takes in endeavouring to overcome them. Don’t just write off a game as “two teams cancelling each out”, at least look at what each is trying to do.

Take Germany v Australia, universally considered to be the game of the tournament to date. Australia approached the game like so many other World Cup participants – a very defensive-minded formation designed to frustrate the opposition. Yet Germany passed through them at will, tearing them to shreds even before the task was made easy by Tim Cahill’s sending off.

But how Germany did it was the most impressive feature. They played the ball out from the back, knocking it between defenders at a sedate pace. The intention was to encourage Australian players to vacant their position to close down the ball, or just switch off for a second and lose the man they are supposed to be marking. Seeing the chance, a killer ball was played to someone now in space and, as other Australians then rushed to close them down, more room was created for other players to receive a pass. From the sedate beginnings Germany were suddenly playing at the speed of an F1 car, with the move usually resulting in a chance on goal.

What was interesting was how, during City’s 2008/09 season, then-manager Stuart McCall tried to get City playing in a similar style against defensive opposition. We often saw Rhys Evans roll the ball out to Matt Clarke or Graeme Lee – usually to screams of abuse from supporters who could not understand what was going on – and the central defenders would keep knocking it around until an opposition player tried to close them down. Space vacated, the opportunity to play through them.

It didn’t work as well as Germany of course – we don’t have the players and the narrow Valley Parade pitch suits teams who want to pack the midfield – but it did grind out a few wins that were looking as though they were going to be draws.

Although the other side of the coin that season was the naivety of upholding attack-minded principles on the road; most explicitly seen at Notts County, where the home side’s counter attack tactics saw them take advantage of too many away shirts bombing forward by scoring three first half goals from only three first half attacks.

McCall later admitted he should have been more prepared to approach away games with the view that a point would be a good return; and with City narrowly missing out on a play off spot, it’s questionable whether they came up short due to regularly failing to get the better of defensive-minded visiting teams at home, or because McCall did not try to play in a more similar manner on the road. Similarly a lesser nation in the World Cup is not going to go all out attack against teams with pacy players who thrive on space, as they would be embarrassed too.

As the new season slowly begins to feel closer than the end of the last one, it will be interesting to see if Peter Taylor does a better job of finding the balance. His track record and initial 18-game spell in charge last season suggests there won’t be a lot of high scoring games. City did not have a great season on the road last year, and it’s reasonable to assume taking a point from visits to some of the better League Two sides will often be accepted by Taylor.

Nor indeed is it clear whether City will have the attacking nous to overcome visiting teams playing more defensive-minded. Such tactics were rarely employed by visitors last season – a clear indication of League Two’s lesser view of us – but may be a regular feature again this season if City start well.

We know City will be organised and disciplined under Taylor, but what flair there is more likely to be displayed in the ability of Tommy Doherty’s passing rather than wingers tearing full backs apart. Much may rest on finding a goalscorer this summer.

But even if we do endure a few 0-0s, they surely won’t be as bad as some of the early World Cup games. The three game group stage makes any loss in the first two matches near-terminal to a team’s chances, and it’s understandable why the incentive of not losing is greater than risking a win.

For now let the commentators, pundits and armchair viewers complain. The sight of New Zealand celebrating a draw may not be anyone’s cup of tea, but for City fans it’s a more enjoyable sight than opposition teams celebrating the same result at Valley Parade.

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