The recent issues displayed by England’s national youth football teams in their summer tournaments has led to much prognostication amongst pundits trying to identify ‘the problem’.
A myriad of issues and potential solutions have been raised, but perhaps the most salient point brought to attention is that none of the Three Lions’ teams – even up to Roy Hodgson’s senior squad – seem to know how they want to play. They have no style. They have no identity.
Furthermore, when attempting to glean insight into a directive or a focus towards what they want to achieve, the FA’s coaching and technical staff offer little by way of clarification. They talk of emulating Spain, of aping Germany, of amalgamating the best elements of every recently successful country and developing their own talent accordingly, but whilst everything remains a work in progress, it hasn’t been translated onto the pitch yet.
It brought to mind the intriguing question of whether we can say the same about Chelsea. What is the club’s style and does it have an identity on the field of play? Naturally, it’s hard for anyone to truly gauge that when managerial turnover is as high as it has been at Stamford Bridge, but supporters are often told that Roman Abramovich wants ‘Barcelona in Blue’ or some such comparative ethos.
To find a clear missive at Cobham, we perhaps ironically have to look towards the younger ranks and the academy. Neil Bath and his colleagues have been afforded the freedom, patience and flexibility to implement and develop an approach from Under-8s all the way through to the Under-21 team, and they’ve had the input of a range of minds from Frank Arnesen to Brendan Rodgers and Ruud Kaiser.
From a very early stage of the Abramovich era they knew the type of player they wanted to attract and develop, and were able to build from there:
“We look for bravery and skills, watching for a player who takes a neat touch, gets down the line, with pace, takes a tackle and gets back up. If a player is big-time slow, but his touch is good, we would not look at them. If a player is raw quick but his touch is not good enough, we wouldn’t look at him either, but we would talk to UK Athletics and say ‘You might want to take a look’.”
Whether it be in the 4-3-3 introduced under Arnesen and tweaked to fall into line with Jose Mourinho’s take on things, or whether it’s the more modern 4-2-3-1 – and they’re not inherently that different from each other – young Chelsea players are being schooled in the art of a high-intensity, up-tempo playing style where technical prowess is encouraged and fast, counter-attacking moves can thrive.
A series of brief examples from the past two seasons tells a story. Players with the ability to drive through the middle of the park and transition into the attack mesh superbly with rapid forwards and direct running in wide areas. When executed to success it’s an enthralling, exciting style and one which most importantly wins games.
It’s not limited solely to Chelsea either. The majority of the title-winning sides of the last two decades have exhibited many of these traits, and it is to an extent a quintessentially ‘English’ style of play to match intensity and athleticism with technique and ruthlessness. It’s just something which seems to have been cast aside somewhat in the last five years or so, with teams apparently keener to attempt to follow the ‘Barcelona model’.
It was, though, the bedrock on which Mourinho built his first all-conquering Chelsea team back in 2004-05. With Arjen Robben and Damien Duff flying down the wings, with Frank Lampard and Eidur Gudjohnson excelling in central areas and with Didier Drogba rampaging in attack, the speed and excellence with which they dissected teams led to a first title in fifty years.
Things changed from then on, with some undoubted success and much silverware under various managers since, but as Mourinho begins his second spell in SW6, the squad he now inherits is arguably perfectly suited to this same style. Aside from the ingenuity and subtle play from the likes of Juan Mata and Oscar, there is devastating speed and acceleration from Eden Hazard and Ramires and the likes of David Luiz, Ashley Cole and Cesar Azpilicueta get from defence to attack with eagerness.
Add an Andre Schurrle and a Marco van Ginkel and you’ve got more of the same. Combining a deftness of craft with an urgent desire to get forward makes the mind wander as to the potential of this team. Mourinho’s Real Madrid exhibited many of the same traits and were downright unstoppable at times.
There is the same possibility lying in wait as we go into the 2013-14 season, and whilst it remains a pipe dream based on recent history, the fact that the next generation of players in the club’s academy are being schooled in the same manner can only be a good thing.
Perhaps England should look closer to home for inspiration on how to take on the best the world has to offer?