In another month, Sky television will bombard its viewers with advertisements declaring another incredible season from the 'most exciting' league in the world. The curtain-raiser for this season's English Premier League will be the F.A. Community Shield, to be contested by Chelsea and Manchester City. Then, a week later, the new season will begin with gusto. High-scoring games and last-minute goals will be enough to get pundits' hearts racing and paper over the glaring reality that English football is a country mile behind Spanish, the greatest football league in the world. The commentators and analysts, most of whom are British, will omit this fact as they incessantly remind us that no league in the world provides the excitement which the EPL does. To paraphrase Alan Shearer's comments after last night's European Championship semi-final, however, the reason why it is so exciting is because there are so many foreigners playing in it.
Granted, last night's Iberian derby between Spain and Portugal did not live up to expectation. It was mostly a dull affair until Spain capitalised on their opponents' tiredness in the two periods of extra time. They had two outstanding chances to win it. However, the level of football which Spain's players achieved after playing a full ninety minutes was nothing short of phenomenal. Their passing and movement in those last thirty minutes was a joy to behold, and Portugal simply could not live with them. It is this culture which will deny England and its so-called 'golden generation' any and all silverware in the coming years of national football.
Let's examine the Spanish way of playing. They use a style of football heavily influenced by the tiki-taka system pioneered by Johan Cruyff during his time as manager of Barcelona. It is characterised by short passing and exceptional movement. Josep Guardiola, having played this system under Cruyff, made it Barcelona's pre-eminent style during his managerial tenure at the club. It requires a player to spend hours training on passing, movement, technique, close control, and first touch. Then they learn how to pass and move so that someone is always available to receive the ball. Under Guardiola, Barcelona won six trophies in one season, a feat that had never been achieved before. Vicente del Bosque implemented this style after he took charge of Spain in 2008. Since then, they are unbeaten in almost twenty tournament games, are the reigning World and European champions, and have a chance this Sunday to become the first team in history to win three consecutive national titles.
The problem with this style of football is that it must be taught at grass roots. The reason why Spain make the tiki-taka system look so simple is because they have learned it from day one. Barcelona's youth team produce new Spanish talent by the bucket-load, and their style remains unchanged from the senior team all the way to the under-11s. These days Real Madrid tend to buy, rather than produce, their players, but their style of football (when they aren't playing Barcelona) is more similar to Barca's than, say, Manchester United's is. For this reason, teaching the system to Madrid players is infinitely easier than it is to teach England's players to learn a long-ball or counter-attack system when they have been part of a completely different one for the duration of the club season. If England ever hope to be successful, they have to learn their youngsters the technical side, rather than the physical one, of football.
During last night's semi-final, I watched Iker Casillas kick the ball long on numerous occasions, much to my displeasure. Long kicks, with the exception of cross-field passes, have no place in the tiki-taka system. On all but a few of the kick-outs, Portugal regained possession and immediately attacked the Spanish back four. I have for years been a vehement detractor of the long kick. It is the most pointless offence in the game. On average, teams who kick long win one out of every five kick-outs. The rest are returned to the offensive back four via a header, knocked out of play, or kicked straight to the defensive back four. In most Premier League games, teams can't string more than a half-dozen passes without resorting to long-ball tactics. Is it any wonder England were passed off the field by Italy?
Both Barcelona and Spain have shown that it is possible to win (and win well) by playing a system which monopolises possession. I have rarely seen Barcelona's goalkeeper (Valdes) kick the ball long. In fact, in some of the most tightest positions, I've seen their defenders play their way to safety. Pass, move, pass, move. Triangles. One-touch pass, move, one-touch pass, move. Triangles. At their best, Barcelona and Spain are so easy on the eye.
England need to realise that their technique is woeful. For all the hype surrounding Wayne Rooney, he wouldn't lace David Villa's boots. Steven Gerrard is renowned as one of the best midfielders in the world. Xavi Hernandez makes him look like a Sunday player. Frank Lampard is supposed to be one of the best attacking midfielders around. Andres Iniesta is a magician who would run rings around him. For every so-called 'great' England player, Spain have a better one whose technique is what you would expect of a Spanish player. Just take a look at their midfield: Xavi, Iniesta, Busquets, Alonso, Silva, Fabregas, Navas, Mata, Cazorla. It's a quite ridiculous list of talent.
Where do England go from here? They have got to work on their technique and passing ability. If you surrender possession to the Spanish so easily, you won't see the ball for ten minutes. So they need to implement the system at grass roots level. Not necessarily tiki-taka, but a system in which players move and pass the ball, always creating space to receive the return. It doesn't have to be as intricate as tiki-taka, but they have to find a way to keep possession. If they don't, they have no chance against the Spains and Germanys of the footballing world.