Tag Archives: football

Southgate’s England Teams

You know how when you watch the England football team, it feels as though the players have never even met before? You wonder why there’s no anticipation of each other’s passes or movement, why crosses arrive into barren wildernesses, hopeful 60 yard balls bounce into touch, and it seems like the ball has one of those security devices installed in it that supermarkets use to prevent their trolleys from being stolen – it looks like it can only travel sideways or backwards. As for tempo, have you ever listened to a Nick Drake album?

There’s a very simple explanation for this; the players quite possibly haven’t met on the pitch before. During the 12 matches that the current England manager, Gareth Southgate, has been in charge, he has averaged four changes to the starting line-up from one match to the next. As Joe Hart has played in 10 of the 12 games, these changes have almost always been to outfield players. Consequently, almost half the outfield team is different each time the national side plays – and often more so.

Surely though, to steal the hapless Prime Minister’s slogan, strong and stable leadership on the pitch should be able to overcome this to some extent, you might be thinking? Maybe so, but unfortunately Southgate has switched the captaincy eight times during his tenure. Wayne Rooney, Jordan Henderson, Joe Hart, Gary Cahill and Harry Kane have all had a play with the skippers’ armband – none of them more than four times.

But this doesn’t account for why our top class attacking players haven’t been able to establish a working relationship and hammer home the goals against very weak opposition, you may rightly suggest. Of our attack-minded players, only Dele Alli has begun more than half the matches (nine) since Southgate took over. Harry Kane and Raheem Sterling have both started six times, Adam Lallana five times, Marcus Rashford four times, Daniel Sturridge three times, Jamie Vardy twice and Jermaine Defoe once.

In fact, only seven outfield players have started more than half the games (and not necessarily at the same time) and only one outfield player has started more than 75% of the matches (Gary Cahill).

These statistics are devastating for multiple reasons. Motivation and team spirit are built around feeling like part of a team – as is a players’ respect for the manager. If you are constantly being dropped, you are likely to feel resentment toward both the manager and the player(s) replacing you. In such a haphazard selection system, a player is also less likely to feel an affinity with the shirt or play his heart out to retain it when he gets his chance, partly no doubt due to fears that he will be dropped next time, regardless of his performance. If England caps are made to feel like a lottery, don’t be surprised when performances resemble a lucky dip.

Bizarrely, as shown above, these problems are only exaggerated when a light is shone upon the forward selections, and with predictable results. This England team were only been able to score 18 times in 10 matches in a group that included Malta, Lithuania and Slovenia. To give this some context, Germany and Belgium netted 43 times, Spain 36 times and Portugal 32 times. Only Iceland scored fewer goals (16) than England as group winners but they had quite a tough group.

This awful reality that leaves the fans so dispirited, presumably further undermining the teams’ performances, can only be due to Southgate selecting a different attacking line-up in every game, given the general poor quality of England’s opponents in the qualifying group. How can they possibly develop the necessary understanding or confidence required to breakdown stubborn international defences? Ironically, Southgate has often pointed towards opposing teams ‘parking the bus’ as a reason for our lack of success in front of goal, without apparently being aware that the one solution available to solve this conundrum is being thwarted by him.

Most people’s ideal attacking four for the world cup next year, injuries aside, will be Lallana, Alli, Rashford and Kane, yet they have never played 90 minutes together to date. They did all start once – four months ago against Scotland, but two of them were substituted in the second half – just before Scotland scored two goals!

At a glance it appears as though England qualified comfortably for Russia 2018. But injury time goals against both Scotland and Slovenia, and only a penalty against Lithuania, give gloss to what was actually a rather uncomfortable affair.

If England wants to avoid the embarrassment of the last two international tournaments, Southgate must settle upon his best team and formation and play it in every game going forward between now and June next year. International football is not the same as club football. You don’t get months to work on different systems and you don’t need to rotate the squad due to the amount of matches played. Being able to focus on the very best scenario ought to be viewed as a luxury, yet successive England managers seem to be utterly befuddled by this and contrive to turn an advantage into a disadvantage. Focus Gareth, focus.

Are Foreign Players In The Premiership Hindering England’s Chances Of Success?

Cantona

I must apologise to many of my subscribers, as I realise this is not what you signed up for, but nonetheless I’m going to write about football.  I’ll be as brief as I can.

In the 1970’s England failed to qualify for four major international tournaments in a row, and this at a time when International football was far less competitive than it is nowadays.  In short, we were rubbish.  During the early 1980’s we fared little better, exiting at the group stage of Euro ’80, the second round stage of the 1982 World Cup and failing to qualify for Euro ’84.  Largely due to the heroics of Gary Lineker, the England team managed to create something to cheer about during the 1986 & 1990 World Cup Finals, but ultimately one man was not enough.  That these performances were a break from the norm is highlighted never more starkly than by the fact that we finished bottom of our group at both Euro ’88 and Euro ’92, registering the dismal return of four losses and two draws.  We then failed to qualify for the 1994 World Cup Finals.  1966 sure seemed a long time ago.

But then something amazing happened (if you’re an English football fan).  In August 1992, there was a change in our domestic game.  The top division of the Football League broke away to form The Premiership, and huge sponsorship deals soon followed.  An inevitable consequence of this was the attraction of players from all over the world due to the large sums of money on offer.  From now on, kids across the country could watch the likes of Eric Cantona and Jürgen Klinsmann every week on television.  This sudden exposure to the superior technique and skill of continental players seemed to take effect in no time.  By the late nineties and early noughties we had players such as Shearer, Owen, Beckham, Scholes, Gerrard, Lampard, and Rooney to select from.  Predictably, all of these players went on to score hatful’s of goals for England (almost 200 between them to date).  Even our defenders could finally control and pass the ball.  The contrast between the England of 1991 and 2001 was breath-taking – now we could play!  The England team had become a genuine contender at major tournaments for the first time since the heady days of the mid-sixties.

Some might point out that surely we always had players of genuine ability – what about Waddle, Hoddle or Barnes?  Well none of these players ever scored at a major tournament, they have a combined scoring record of only one goal in every ten games and their overall contributions can at best be described as frustrating.  Kevin Keegan also never scored at a major tournament and had a one in four goal scoring record for England – way short of the world’s elite strikers.  Ray Wilkins managed only three goals in his 84 appearances.  These were players who were flattered by the old First Division and whom were unable to excel on the world stage.  Bryan Robson and Paul Gascoigne were of course the genuine articles, and along with the aforementioned Gary Lineker, standout as exceptions to the norm between 1976 and 1995.  However, both Robson and Gascoigne were continually hampered by injuries at vital moments, with Robson effectively missing two World Cup Finals.  Gascoigne was brilliant at two major tournaments (Italia ‘90 and Euro ’96) but was often unavailable between these two career peaks, and in the end managed only seven competitive goals for England, almost all of them during demolitions of Turkey and Moldova.

So this is the England story that the facts inform us of.  Of course, right from its inception there were grumblings about foreign players in the Premiership, but as this seemed to have no point to it other than xenophobia or racism for its own sake, I assumed it was just an embarrassing remnant of a bygone era and the moment these fools expired, so to would the grumbles.  But then something else amazing happened – these protests gained favour with a new generation, only this time they had a philosophy attached to their complaint that appeared to have nothing to do with hatred or prejudice.  Apparently, so we are being told, foreign players in the Premiership are ruining the England National Team.  Here is what Joey Barton says on his blog page:

Joey Barton Blog1

However, what really spurred me into writing this article was the piece printed in the Mail On Sunday on 01/12/13.  Former Manchester United player Gary Neville conducted an interview with Paul Scholes, also a former Manchester United player, and Eric Harrison, the Manchester United youth scout who helped guide Neville and Scholes at the start of their careers.  Here are the relevant parts:

Neville Column

I have at least three problems with the statements from Joey Barton, Paul Scholes and Eric Harrison.  Firstly, as a matter of principle, I must insist upon some evidence!  However, neither article provides any.  They simply state in various different ways (none of which are particularly ingratiating or inclusive sounding) that there are less English players in the Premiership now than 20 years ago – and then predict impending disaster.  Perhaps they have the evidence for all this doom and gloom, but chose not to share it.

Personally, I fail to see how restricting the pool that Premier League Clubs can select from will maintain the quality therein, and I’m not aware of a statistical model that supports such a thesis.  To state it in footballing terms, promoting a Championship or League One player to the Premiership will not suddenly make him play like Hazard or Yaya Toure – or Rooney for that matter.

Secondly, noticing that 75 is not 32% of 220, I thought I’d better do my own research.  The actual number of English players who started for their clubs in the first matches of the 2013/14 season is 72, which rounds more accurately to 33%.  But the point is that this is not a numerical emergency.  You only need 11 players for a football team.  72 is more than enough to choose from.  Isn’t it better that these 72 are pushed to reach the highest possible standards?  This will only occur if competition is at its most potent – that’s just capitalism 101.

Thirdly, as I’ve hinted at already, I feel it’s more likely that the evidence for the influence of foreign players in our leagues on the National team points in the opposite direction to that which is suggested by Neville, Scholes, Harrison and Barton – at a minimum the consequences must surely be zero sum.  But let’s see what the numbers tell us:

England International Statistics

England Major Tournament Performance1

These numbers do not represent the collapse of the English National team in the wake of an influx of foreign players to our domestic teams.  It’s true we had a terrible 2014 World Cup (though we qualified in impressive style without losing a game) but who doesn’t experience short term dips in results – Spain and Italy also went out at the group stages and no one is suggesting they are in a moment of crisis.

Clearly football cannot allow itself to drag its knuckles behind other industries.  No one would have a problem with a talented young oncologist wishing to ply their life saving trade in this country – so neither should they have a problem when it comes to professional sportsmen and women wishing to do so.  And just as there is a common misunderstanding with regards to immigrants in general, who contrary to popular belief provide a net benefit to our economy, there is also no reason at all to fear the influence of foreign players on our National football team.  In fact, a brief study of the history of immigration ought to teach us to be rather unsurprised by the fact that foreign players are having a positive effect.  Fear is a useful survival tool, but it becomes self-defeating if it is not tempered by an honest consultation of the facts.


Fabrice Muamba: Ego Masquerading As Humility

On the 17th March 2012, Fabrice Muamba, the now ex-Bolton Wanderers footballer, suffered a cardiac arrest on the pitch during an F.A. Cup quarter final fixture against Tottenham Hotspurs at White Hart Lane, Tottenham’s home ground.  It was a truly shocking incident, played out live in front of 35,000 supporters at the game and millions of viewers watching on TV at home.  We all sat there pale faced, hoping that a combination of the strength and fitness of Muamba, and the remarkable skills and knowledge of the medics at hand, would be enough to save the life of this talented individual and seemingly all round nice guy.

At least that is what I assumed was happening at the time.  Sadly however, this is not the story that has since been detailed in the media – nor even more sadly, by Fabrice Muamba himself, after indeed being saved by the brilliant actions of the many people of science at the ground, in the ambulance, and at the London Chest hospital in the days and weeks that followed.  The first hints of an alternative narrative came from the all too often non-thinking world of professional football itself.  The campaign ‘Pray for Muamba’ was launched whilst the player’s life still hung in the balance.  I had initially hoped the wording was just representative of the poverty of our language, but very quickly it became clear this awful event was being hijacked by religious people in order to forward their own agendas.

The snide swipes at those of us who have not been convinced by the non-existent evidence for anything supernatural began, predictably, over Twitter with the Tottenham player Kyle Walker writing; “…Doesn’t matter if you are not religious.  Pray for Muamba.”  I concede that it is possible that Kyle Walker just doesn’t quite understand that to someone who is not religious, praying is as pointless as an ashtray on a motorbike – or in other words, precisely as effective as not praying at all.  However, I think he was really implying that it would be mean if we atheists failed to pray for Muamba.  I think he was suggesting that whilst it’s ok to offer philosophical alternatives to scripture in a debating hall, now that someone’s life is at stake, atheists should stop the nonsense and implore God to help.  Wrapped up in this is the rather conceited claim that believers somehow have access to knowledge or a ‘gift of faith’ that non-believers do not, and so as such praying is definitely necessary and righteous – atheists just cannot see it.  Due to this presumably god given handicap, atheists need to be educated and guided by those who are blessed (in this case Kyle Walker) and thereafter any atheist still stubborn enough to refrain from praying is guilty of not caring by failing to help in this mass call to arms to the almighty.

Despite the media’s apparent new found love affair with proselytising sportsmen in the wake of this awful event, one still assumed that once Muamba was out of harm’s way, the true heroes of the day would be honoured accordingly.  But then Fabrice Muamba began to talk.  The important fact that we learnt was that this man is a devout Christian.  The rest of his irrelevant thoughts on the matter can be garnered from a recent interview published in The Times newspaper.  The article contains hardly a single sentence that anyone with a critical mind can take seriously, but the highlights are as follows; Muamba is welcoming, even encouraging the title ‘The Miracle Man’.  He is quoted as saying, “Science played a part but God played the main part” and “He (God) decided I should live.”  He also lies to enhance his boasts of supernatural intervention and selection by claiming that he went “without oxygen for 78 minutes.”

Let’s start with the latter.  My first thought was to wonder where I had seen this sort of behaviour before.  Then it came to me – it was here:  http://www.samharris.org/blog/item/this-must-be-heaven.  In short, a Christian neurosurgeon, Eben Alexander, contracted meningitis and fell into a coma, during which he claims he visited heaven.  If you don’t have the time to read the whole article, here is the key summary, as provided by Mark Cohen, a neurologist and pioneer in the field of neuroimaging.  He wrote:

“…coma does not equate to ‘inactivation of the cerebral cortex’ or ‘higher-order brain functions totally offline’ or ‘neurons of my cortex stunned into complete inactivity’. These describe brain death, a one hundred percent lethal condition.”

Likewise, the human body cannot survive without oxygen for more than a few minutes.  What Fabrice Muamba really means is that his heart did not work on its own for 78 minutes.  He was of course having oxygen pumped into his lungs and having his heart helped along by a variety of procedures I won’t pretend to understand.  This is not even close to what Muamba is claiming and it is impossible to imagine he doesn’t know it.  But he also knows that such lies may convince some people of the power of Jesus Christ.  It is easy at first to be shocked and surprised at the thought of someone in a privileged position lying to people who may not know any better, but then one realises that this is what many religious people do every single day when they label and indoctrinate children.  It is quite literally their life’s work.  In what other context would such a job description or character trait not be considered outrageous by everyone?

However, in terms of my own disgust, I rank this third of Muamba’s crimes.  The runner-up is his apathy and lack of appreciation towards those who really did save his life.  He does begrudgingly acknowledge that science played a role – but what he really wants you to get moist around the eyes over is the part that God played, according to him.  The truth is that there are very few places that this could have happened where there would have been any hope of survival.  If this had occurred, for example, at his home or during training, Fabrice Muamba would almost certainly have died.  Yet he gives the impression of being completely unaware of just how fortunate he was that his cardiac arrest took place in an environment where he was surrounded by medical people (including a heart specialist in the crowd who came onto the pitch to assist) and where an ambulance was already present.  With this latter point in mind, Muamba ought to have saved at least some of his gratitude for Jose Mourinho, whose actions 5 years ago resulted in an ambulance being placed on standby at every game.  Mourinho reacted angrily, and subsequently made an official complaint to the FA, after one of his players had to wait 30 minutes for an ambulance after suffering a head injury.  “This is much more important than football” he famously said.  Those seven words, unfashionable in the world of football which still loves to swoon over the irresponsible ramblings of Bill Shankly (Shankly once claimed that football was much more important than life and death), were the true catalyst to saving Fabrice Muamba’s life – not God tinkering with the laws of nature.  What would Muamba’s fate have been had Mourinho simply put his own player’s survival down to God’s will?

By far and away the most disgraceful element of this sorry tale though, is Fabrice Muamba’s utter lack of humility and its accompanying sinister implications.  He claims that God chose him.  I’d be happy even to set aside the astounding arrogance of this conclusion.  What one simply cannot ignore however, is the corollary to this; that those who suffer death from similar experiences (or any experience) are not special enough to be saved.  Are all the babies who are dying of starvation or dehydration around the world at the very moment you are reading this sentence simply unworthy of God’s love?  How could any truly moral person say such a thing?  What would one have to believe about themselves or the nature of reality to even entertain those thoughts?  Therein lies the horror show that is organised religion, for there is no way out of this moral catastrophe other than to say that the lord works in mysterious ways.  For some of us, this falls way short of adequate.

(The title for this essay ‘Ego Masquerading As Humility’ is taken from a quote by the comedian and outspoken atheist Bill Maher)