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The New Football?

July 2, 2012

I fancied Italy myself. Let’s spout the same old cliches eh? The Spanish want to walk it in, their system is all about tiring the oppostion like Ali’s rope a dope trickery, the Italians are way too canny to be fooled by tippy tappy geometry and showboating midgets, their defensive skills are legendary and they destroyed one of the best German teams for a generation. I subscribed to all these theories and I was wrong. Hands up!

I’ve got a great book co-written by the BBC’s cosmopolitan pundit Gianluca ‘Luca to his mates’ Vialli with Gabriele Marcotti called ‘The Italian Job’ which compares the Italian way of playing football with the English manner. It’s not a flattering comparison for the English who are patronised as energetic but predictable ‘grafters’ compared to their more artistic and intellectual opponants from the big boot. Whereas Italian teams value strategy and tactics and players spend hours and hours in school rooms studying the theory side of the game, English players fuck about on the golf course and the bookies. The English booze hard and eat shit, the Italians watch their diet and go to bed early.

Vialli recognises these are broad generalisations but nevertheless these stereotypes are based on what he saw during his time in the premiership. What struck most of us when Football Italia was first screened on Channel 4 back in the days of ‘Gazza’ and ‘Platty’ was just how different their game was to what we get served up by our leading teams. Even the most talented players in Britain just couldn’t adapt to the restrained, patient build ups and intricate passing moves beloved of the top Italian teams who then were the top teams in Europe offering the best money.

Yet maybe they got too good, too enraptured by their own propaganda. During the 90s and 00s, Italian football began to rely ever more on imported players and the clubs were no longer sure of attracting the best talent the world had to offer once money was pumped into the Spanish, German and especially the English leagues. As Shankly once said ‘football is a simple game made complicated by fools’ and whilst theory and tactics have their place, the end product is still simple enough; to score more goals than your opponants.

If Wimbledon and the ‘route one’ merchants of the English game became successful because of their neanderthal approach to getting the ball into the danger area, then what was wrong with that? Silverware counted more than aesthetics and what is Jose Mourinho other than a glorified Dave Bassett? If the new off-side rules and three points for a win encouraged a more attacking approach, then defensiveness and settling for a point would become redundant wouldn’t it? As it happened, things stayed pretty much the same. Those with the most money won the most trophies.

As a Man United fan, I think the past twenty years at Old Trafford demonstrated that a balance of ‘local lads’ with expensive imports is crucial to any club’s long term success. Gary Neville was never a great technical player but his attitude was all important. The great Liverpool squads of the 60s and 70s always had local players who were maybe limited but effective and dedicated their local team. Carra has never been the best defender but who would you rather have in your team, Jamie or Johnson when the chips are down? Gerrard has virtually carried the Liverpool team singlehandedly for the past 5 or 6 seasons and missed out on the trophies his talent and determination deserve.

Scholes and Giggs prove that no matter how old you get, a club player produced via the youth system is worth far more in terms of sustainability than simply buying in the best players and hoping that they’ll knit together. Real Madrid learned this lesson the hard way and one of the reasons Arsenal have been poor has been their lack of local kids who can compliment the imports. Their recent bunch of outstanding local lads is addressing this and will no doubt contribute to a better season next time.

This isn’t just ‘Little Englander, they’re all a bunch of mercenaries’ gripe becuase I realise there are plenty of lazy, greedy, homegrown players and plenty of hard-working, loyal imports but there’s a reason Chelsea play better with Terry, Cole and Lampard in their squad, even if none of them were nurtured via Chelsea’s own youth academy.

The Spanish league and their national squad is proof positive of building a culture from the grass roots up. It’s not accidental that they’ve improved out of all recognition from the Spanish teams of the past 30 odd years. Even when Real and Barca were ruling the roost they were heavily reliant on South Americans and other ‘foreigners’ and still are to a degree, the earning power of these two clubs enabling them to surpass amost every other European team. Yet, with Xavi and Iniesta and Fabregas and Silva and Alba and Alonso and Pique and Ramos and Puyol and the rest of the team, they have re-invented the game.

The Dutch era of ‘total football’ in the 70s was short-lived but its ethos of producing players who were comfortable in a variety of positions and switching from one position and formation to another at will is now coming to its beautiful fruition from the seeds planted by Cruyff and co. We will soon get sick of hearing all these pundit parables and dinner partisan paeans to ‘the new football’ but after last night’s demolition of the Azzuri maybe this time it’s not just media hyperbole and we are witnessing something genuinely revolutionary in the way the game is played.

I still thought the Italians would win though.

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