27 March, 2008

France vs England – Behind the Scenes

With the Bosman ruling more than a decade old now, we’ve come to take freedom of movement within football for granted, but it got me thinking the other day when I saw Athletico Madrid were keen to sign David Bentley. With such an unbelievably high ratio of foreign players to English in the Premier League these days, you would expect a similar proportion of our national stars applying their trade on the continent, right? I cannot think of a single one. Even throwing the net wider, in recent memory the only ones that can be described as achieving anything approaching success abroad are David Beckham and Owen Hargreaves. Sure Michael Owen and Steve McManaman adequately kept the Madrid bench warm for brief spells, but do you think the likes of Figo and ZZ were pestering the ex-Scousers for tips and tricks in training? Similarly, Inter Milan splashed out ridiculous money on a young Robbie Keane, only for the Irishman to return with his tail between his legs a couple of years later for a cut-price fee, and two years of his career essentially just wasted.

The BBC yesterday ran a very interesting piece along these same lines, trying to work how precisely France built such an imposing football empire towards the end of the 1990s, winning back-to-back major International tournaments with relative ease, while England languished in mediocrity at best. Speaking to the Beeb, ex-Arsenal and France star Gilles Grimandi interestingly spoke about the French mentality to the Bosman ruling: It opened up borders for our players and enabled them to play abroad. More importantly it opened players' minds and gave them greater experience. When you go abroad it can be very challenging and that makes you stronger as a player and a person.” Describing this mature and ambitious way France’s up-and-comers embraced the newfound freedom, former FA technical director and successful Premier League manager Howard Wilkinson wisely agreed with Grimandi’s assessment:“France was the prep school. The rest of Europe became a finishing school for their top players.” Sure the likes of ZZ, Petit, Djorkaeff and Deschamps could naturally all play a bit, but undoubtedly experience with top-class European sides helped them make the jump from ‘good’ to ‘truly great.’ Now it is rare for France’s elite to remain in their national Ligue 1, with English, Spanish, Italian and German clubs clambering over themselves to snap up the prodigious new breed including Ribery, Diarra, Malouda, Benzema and Ben Arfa.

Howard Wilkinson further attributes much of England’s embarrassing international record to the contrast here: “culturally we've always suffered in that English players and coaches have not had any experience playing abroad that some of our competitors have had during their careers.” So why exactly is it that almost exclusively in England players want to stringently stay in their home country? Often it is here that people point to the Premier League top-4’s success in the Champions League, and question why any of the top players would ever want to take a pay-cut and enjoy less success abroad, all for the sake of an ‘education.’ As we’ve said time and time again though, the top-4’s European success is almost in spite of English involvement these days rather than propelled by it, with only 10 out of 44 regular starters for Manchester United, Arsenal, Chelsea and Liverpool in total hailing from these fine shores.

Given the money in our league these days, club success is virtually guaranteed, but it’s hard to look at parallel timelines of both national and international performances without seeing an inverse correlation over the last 15 years. In no way do foreign players ruin our league, far from it, but they clearly do affect the production of homegrown talent, and more specifically, their advancement to the very top levels of the game. It’s interesting that in addition to David Bentley finally another English player, Frank Lampard, is also apparently in consideration for a summer move to Europe, and to Barcelona in particular. Obviously STT have their own opinion of Mr Lampard, but even his biggest fan must realize that there’s no way he will ever keep Iniesta and Xavi out of the Barce side if they’re both fit. Are we left then with the depressing realization that no English players are abroad because they are simply not good enough? Perhaps; but it’s as much due to certain players’ desire to stay close to family and keep making the big bucks. If available, you can guarantee that many European heavyweights would want a fair few of our goalkeepers, JT, Rio, Hargreaves, Joe Cole, Stevie G and Wayne Rooney, but it’s very unlikely that these would ever risk the move to La Liga or Serie A.

Grimandi also spoke at length however about the approach to everyday training at the major club sides his compatriots played with during the 1990s: “I remember talking to Lilian Thuram, who I played with at Monaco, telling me about his time at Parma and the amount of time in Italy that was spent on tactical work. In France the emphasis was on technique and physical development, so when Lilian came to the national team he brought that experience back with him.” This melting pot of composite styles and innovative approaches is what gave France the edge to win their World Cup and subsequent European Championships. You get the impression though that the weekly Premier League grind dulls the tactical variety and application of even the sharpest coaches, Rafa Benitez and Jose Mourinho being obviously prime examples.

But at grass-roots level too the French seem to value different approaches to us, in fact favouring that suggested here last week, with the French Football Federation (FFF) concentrating on club-neutral technical academies. When a player who has been to a regional academy then signs for a professional club, that team pays compensation to the FFF for the two years spent at the academy, to keep the youngsters fresh and competitive, and also to keep plenty of money in the system. Grimandi continued, talking about the FFF’s flagship Clairefountaine academy: “It's a fantastic school for a young player and is an environment that prepares them for a life as a professional footballer - 75%-80% of players who attend these academies would join a professional club.”

So will the FA direct their planned £200mill towards this kind of set-up? Trevor Brooking, the current FA direct of development, cites his primary aim over the next 5 years to make sure our youngsters are simply more comfortable on ball by the age of 11, but what do the FFF have in the pipeline for next year’s academy influx at that age? Biomechanical training and computerized player simulation, as part of an individual-specific program of developing flexibility, balance and movement. Sounds like science-fiction in comparison to us right? So how do we consistently manage to be about ten steps behind everyone else? Surely that should be the FA’s primary concern now, because as is, this state of affairs is just baffling.