Spain v England: A Champions League class apart

by Sam Rider

Friday, February 13th, 2009

Spanish squad’s experience in Champions League football is key to their international quality.

As the papers claim that the national side was taught a lesson in their defeat, England must learn that above all, club football is paramount to international success. If the national side is to compete at the top level then their players need to be at clubs competing at the top level.

On Wednesday night, with the exception of Llorente and Juanito, 19 of the 21 players in the Spanish squad came from clubs that are experiencing Champions League football regularly. Nine of the eleven in the starting lineup have reached the play-off stages of the tournament this season. When you compare these statistics to the England squad it becomes glaringly obvious of the gulf in quality and strength in depth of the two nations.

Only 4/23: Terry, Ashley Cole, Carrick and Lampard play regular club football at the highest level; 7/23 if you include Wright-Phillips and Bridge for their time with Chelsea and Beckham for his years with Manchester United and Real Madrid.

When you consider the players unavailable last night: Spain can add their talisman Puyol, Fabregas and the Barcelona star in the making Bojan Krkic to compliment an entire squad of players familiar with the qualities of the top level and abilities needed to survive in knock-out football. You could add the seven or so injured players from Manchester United, Chelsea, Liverpool and Arsenal to England and would still come up alarmingly short.

Dominance of club football

The dominance of club football has overridden the International form of the game in recent years. With the limited time available when players form for an England game, the national side’s quality relies on the training and expertise they take from their clubs.

Spain, as the example of a nation at the pinnacle of world football and rightful owners of the number one slot in Fifa’s latest rankings, can select their entire squad from players at the cream of the crop in club football; players who know how to succeed in knock-out football, how to hold onto a lead and how to break down a stubborn defence. Above all, the teams they come from play similar styles of fluent, fast-paced attacking football.

The composition of the English squad in contrast highlights a discrepancy in their approach to the game. There is a clash of styles in the team when composed of the attacking instincts of Carrick and Lampard cultivated in European competition and the intrinsic caution ingrained in players experienced exclusively in the domestic game. The abundance of players from these mid-table teams, up-and-coming though they may be, of West Ham, Aston Villa, Everton, Portsmouth, Man City and even Tottenham exposes the inexperience of the players available to Mr Capello.

Clash in styles

These teams may wish to play one-touch football with flare and guile, throwing no-look passes left and right and dazzling their audience with panache and style. But the English mentality born on the Sunday League pitches of ‘if in doubt, kick it out’ and long-ball artillery-like launches up to the big man will override any other motor neuron trying to play through a team as soon as pressure is exerted upon them.

Hence, in Seville the team attempted to keep hold of the ball and look for gaps but this was all happening in our half for fear of playing the ball to a marked player. When Spain took charge, they were playing triangles and through balls menacingly close to the edge of our area knowing everyone on their team was capable of close control to evade the shackles of the England defence.

Fabio emphasised the importance of this style of play yet threw on those ‘big’ players such as Heskey, Crouch and Cole hoping that they would muscle out the slighter Spaniards. Wright-Phillips and Beckham were constantly shown inside and therefore were never truly able to get into decent crossing positions to make this work. Once on the inside in a position that the Spanish thrive, England rather looked bereft of ideas or were unfamiliar of how to thread their way through the compact opposition and so turned backwards to the safety of the centre-backs or the goal keeper. Robert Green in goal for the second half seemed to have the ball more than any other player. Promising positions for attack were spurned countless times as the exhausted looking Carrick, ran ragged from the first half, or the confidence lacking Lampard played on the side of caution.

Foreign imports

So how are such disparities explained? Well, you only have to rake up the old argument of ‘too many foreign imports’ to understand it.

When you analyse the ‘top four’ teams, there are only three genuine creative goal-scoring forwards at England’s disposal: Rooney, Walcott and perhaps Joe Cole. Man United have introduced an Argentine, Portuguese and Bulgarian; Chelsea have called on a Frenchman and two men from the Coast of Ivory; Liverpool have that live-wire Spaniard spearheading their claims for the title; and Arsenal have a concoction of Togo, Holland, Denmark, a Brazilian-Croatian blend and now a Russian.

It seems top-flight clubs would rather search high and wide to the ends of the Earth than look in their own back garden. It won’t be long before scouts will be shipped off to the North or South Poles with Igloos and Husky dogs, or else sent to scour the shadows of the Moon for forward-thinking life forms (mind, try getting them a visa).

This season’s success story that is Aston Villa and Martin O’Neil may be our only hope. The Irishman’s generous employment of English talent is paying dividends as they look to establish themselves in amongst Europe’s elite. If the likes of Agbonlahor, the rejuvenated Heskey, and the flanking Young and Milner were intrepidly facing up to the likes of Maldini, Matterazi, Cannavaro and co. then perhaps next time Puyol stands between themselves and the World Cup winning goal, they won’t panic or run the other way, but they’ll draw on experience and bury it in the bottom corner. We can only dream.

Until that time, we must watch the national side with patience and understanding. For now, the ‘best’ league in the world is not yet supplying the best array of talent for the national team. Therefore the likes of the superlative Spain, as they demonstrated last night to remarkable precision, are quite simply, a class apart.

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  • Jamie Farrier

    Great analysis of what was a very peculiar game. I couldn’t believe some goon from Sunderland had the balls to phone in to 606 on Radio 5 and compare the England display to that of the Mackem’s 17-point wooden spoon finish.

    We were indeed beaten by class opposition, as Sam points out, brimming with confidence since winning the Euros. England are confident but still in a state of ‘getting there’.

    The two teams aren’t that different in terms of player standards; Spain are just a few steps ahead of us. The ultra-youthful players who have taken time to adapt to the world stage have matured in to quality players, with the added bonus of late arrivals such as Senna producing fine displays. England’s youth have been struggling to break through with the likes of Gerrard, Lampard and even Becks still commanding first-team presences. Now it appears that for some of these youthful players at least, the time has come for them to apply themselves in the domestic league to catch the eye of an England manager who demands form and fitness the top priority – again, as Sam points out, Martin O’Neill and Aston Villa can only but help the English national team’s cause with their current position.

  • Darren

    what was evident on Wednesday was how comfortable they were in possession. Every player could control and pass with both feet. They also closed us down really well giving the England side no space what so ever, at times it looked like we were going only sideways.

    It comes down to grass roots level, in England we were/are told to get rid, don’t make mistakes. WHich is why the FA have introduced the non competitive side of the game for junior football. This may work, it may not.

    One thing is for sure, total football has been re-invented and what a joy to watch!

  • Sam

    I havnt heard about that FA initiative for junior football. Sounds interesting. Rules are changing in all sports lately – Cricket and oposing an umpire decision/ Tennis and having three challenges a set/ Rugby and the new rules to encourage attacking football. Its about time something was introuduced to football but it will prob be years until it affects the game at the top level.

  • stevie

    Spain are undefeated in 29 games, in fact the last team to beat them was Northern Ireland!

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