Il Guerriero – The Mario Mandžukić Story

From Zagreb to Turin…

As Tale of Two Halves’ resident Juventus writer and one half of footballfootball.football’s Croatia writing team, I couldn’t go a whole FIFA World Cup without writing about the career of a player known in Turin as ‘Il Guerriero’. The Warrior. Mr Mario Mandžukić.

Kicking off his career in lower league Germany and Croatia he transferred to Dinamo Zagreb for £1.5m in 2007. He had already been noted for his height and fitness and strength, but he also had a difficult time with referees after picking up a flurry of cautions during his formative years. This didn’t prevent Mandžukić finishing as Dinamo’s top goal scorer in successive seasons; in 2007/08 he scored 12 and the following season, 16. The 21 year-old’s reputation was growing swiftly and piqued the interest of Chelsea among others.

In what proved to be Mandžukić’s final season in Zagreb in 2009/10 he had another fine season in front of goal; netting 14, but in an often controversial season he was sent off once, and on another occasion, fined for an apparent lack of effort during a UEFA Europa League defeat to Anderlecht. Mandžukic was made an example of after the team’s poor display in a ground-breaking move by the club. This was a shocking act of foolishness by Dinamo, often his size and languid style can be confused with a lack of effort, but one thing Mandžukić should never be accused of is not giving 100%.

Mandžukić should’ve been playing in that summer’s World Cup in South Africa, but surprisingly Croatia did not qualify after finishing third in a group which England won. Ukraine pipped Croatia to second by just one point. Mandžukić’s first goal for his country came at the moribund end of a 4-1 defeat at home to England, a game in which Theo Walcott scored a hatrick.

Predictably, as with most top Croatian talents, his services were wanted elsewhere and after scoring 63 goals in 128 games for Dinamo he transferred to German side, VfL Wolfsburg during the summer of 2010.

Life at Wolfsburg didn’t start well as Mandžukić faced stiff competition from Edin Džeko for the lone striker role. As a result, Mandžukić was mainly used a substitute by ex-England Manager, Steve McClaren. However, in 2011 events off the pitch turned the tables in Mandžukić’s favour. Džeko’s departure to Manchester City and McClaren’s sacking with the side hovering above the relegation places meant Mandžukić was afforded more playing time. Making the most of the opportunity, Mandžukić scored eight goals in the club’s last seven games of the season and the club survived as he scored two goals in a last day win, 3-1 away to 1899 Hoffenheim.

Mandžukić made his tournament debut for Croatia at UEFA Euro 2012. In a group with Italy, Spain and Republic of Ireland they finished a disappointing, but not unexpected, third place. Despite Croatia’s elimination Mandžukić had a first-rate tournament as he scored two in the 3-1 win over Ireland; both headers and both involving an element of bad luck or bad goalkeeping on the part of Irish goalkeeper, Shay Given. He was also on the score sheet in their second game versus Italy, again his goal came from a cross, only it wasn’t a header this time, as he neatly controlled the ball as it dropped over the defender’s head and fired in the finish off the near post. The control and finish wasn’t as surprising as one may think; Mandžukić has over time become noted for his fine close control, something not usually associated with someone of his style and physical stature.

With a fine tournament debut behind him it was plain to see Mandžukić was destined for bigger things and his transfer to Bayern Munich was announced in July 2012. Bayern were simply unstoppable during Mandžukić’s two season in Bavaria, collecting seven trophies.

Mandžukić’s debut saw him score after just five minutes of the DFL Super Cup game versus rivals, Borussia Dortmund. Bayern went on to win 2-1. He very quickly established himself in the Bayern starting line-up by scoring seven in his first eight games. He also had a big impact in Bayern’s Champions League run that season; he scored away to Arsenal in the Knockout Round and away to future team, Juventus, in the Quarter Final. The all-German Final at Wembley saw Mandžukić open the scoring with a poacher’s tap-in on the hour mark and Bayern crowned a hugely successful treble-winning season with a 2-1 win over Dortmund. Mandžukić finished the season as Bayern’s top league goal scorer with 15, an enormous achievement considering just how commanding they had been over the course of the season.

The following season they were defeated by Real Madrid in the Champions League Semi Final, but they cantered to a domestic double; drawing three and losing two league games and finishing 19 points ahead of second place, Dortmund. Mandžukić had initially struggled with new boss, Pep Guardiola’s, new formation but he regained his scoring instinct and ended the season as Bayern’s top goal scorer with a very impressive tally of 26. These initial teething problems along with a reported disagreement with Guardiola, lead to Mandžukić being dropped from the starting XI for Bayern’s extra time DFB-Pokal Cup Final win over Dortmund. Eventually Mandžukić submitted a transfer request in the summer of 2014 citing a continued problem with Guardiola’s tactics.

Mandžukić apparent problems at club level certainly didn’t affect his international form as he scored twice in a 4-0 win in Croatia’s 2014 World Cup game against Cameroon. The team however didn’t make it past the Group Stage as they were defeated by hosts, Brazil, and Mexico, both by three goals to one. Mandžukić only featured in two of the three group games as he was suspended for the opener due to a red card he received in the final qualification game for a horrific tackle on Iceland’s Jóhann Berg Guðmundsson

He joined Atletico Madrid in July 2014 and played just one season in Spain, he helped Los Rojiblancos to third in the league. Mandžukić finished as the club’s second leading goal scorer with 20, just five behind French sensation Antoine Griezmann. Again, Mandžukić had his problems with the officials as he picked up 14 yellow cards, the second-most on the team. Leaving Bayern to join Atletico could’ve been considered a step down in quality for Mandzukic, but his playing style and Diego Simeone’s aggressive, energetic pressing tactics really suited each other and it is a shame for both parties he didn’t play more than one season in Madrid.

In the summer of 2015 Juventus were looking for a replacement for Real Madrid-bound, Alvaro Morata. After a protracted transfer negotiation, Mandžukić became a Juve player just weeks after Juve’s Champions League Final defeat to Barcelona (bizarrely, this was his third successive move to a club who had just lost the Champions League Final). After a very indifferent start the club lay in 12th place after ten games and Mandžukić had only scored once before the end of October nadir. Juve would go on to remain undefeated for all but one game for the rest of the season, picking up a domestic double. They were knocked out in the Knockout Round by Mandžukić’s ex-club, Bayern, in the Champions League.

That summer Mandžukić started all Croatia’s games at Euro 2016 as they topped their group, despite letting a two-goal lead slide against the Czech Republic. They qualified for the Knockout Round with a last-game victory over defending champions, Spain. Unfortunately, they were knocked out in extra time by eventual tournament winners, Portugal. Mandžukić and company failed to register a shot on target against the Portuguese as they limped out.

Mandžukić scored a comparatively low 13 goals in his first season at Juve, 11 in his second and just 10 last season. However, it over this period when he has started to show his true worth to the team. No longer an out and out striker he has become a more modern centre forward and his all round game improved season upon season. He successfully played as a left winger in a number of games in the 2016/17 season and was massively praised for his versatility.

He has become a true figurehead for both club and country; a role model of determination, energy and passion. Mandžukić has won the double in each of his three seasons in Turin and has also scored some memorable goals, the obvious being the better-than-Bale’s overhead kick to equalise in the 2017 Champions League Final, he also scored two in this season’s Quarter Final Second Leg fightback in Madrid; two predatory headers from right-wing crosses which have become a Mandžukić signature move over the years.

That tackle on Guðmundsson in 2014 qualifying, his vexation, the mountain of yellow cards, the borderline arrogance and aggressiveness are what make up Mandžukić. He isn’t the most technically gifted player you’ll find but he has that quality all fans love to see in their players, someone who will give everything, and more, for the cause. In Italy it is referred to as ‘grinta’, and it is that which Juve fans will remember him by if his rumoured transfer this summer comes to fruition.

Mandžukić was a key figure in Croatia’s 2018 World Cup qualifying campaign; he finished with five goals and was their top goal scorer as they made the tournament in Russia via the Play Offs. His attacking qualities are certainly not in doubt, especially his aerial abilities. The cross to their target man, Mandžukić, is something of a ‘go to’ play for Croatia and we can expect to see more of this at this year’s World Cup. Mandžukić is also a tireless runner who excels in a high-pressing tactic and has received appreciative comments from many of his coaches for his stamina and work rate, because of this we can also expect him to drop deeper and hold up the play for Ivan Rakitić and Luka Modrić to work their midfield magic.

This summer Mandžukić will represent his country at his second, and probably last, World Cup. For Croatia he is very much a talisman and one of their best players. He above most will need to be at his best if they are to fulfil their potential in Russia and put behind them the disappointments of 2014 and 2016.

 

Croatia looking to make the leap from perennial dark horses to champion thoroughbreds

Assessing the Vatreni ahead of the 2018 FIFA World Cup

Despite only being a recognised nation since 1993, Croatia have been to five of the last six FIFA World Cups. The famous team of the mid to late 1990s were previously unknown to many but their now distinctive red and white checked shirts, mixed with a little eastern European enigma, put Croatia firmly among the world’s best and shot them to fame as they achieved third place in France 98. That squad with players such as Golden Boot winner, Davor Šuker, Robert Prosinečki, Igor Štimac and Zvonimir Boban, were the toast of France with their stylish attacking play.

They have struggled to reach those heights since, but they’re constantly predicted to be in with an outside chance of at least the Semi Finals at every tournament they enter. With many of their players turning out for Europe’s top teams such as Ivan Rakitić, Mario Mandžukić, Ivan Perišić and Luka Modrić, they will surely be rubbing shoulders with the elite in the latter stages in Russia.

As far as qualification was concerned they were drawn alongside UEFA Euro 2016 Quarter Finalists, Iceland, as well as Finland, Ukraine, Turkey and qualification debutantes, Kosovo. The questionable ability of their opponents will have filled Croatia with a ton of confidence, however with just one automatic place for the group winners, they would have to be consistent for the whole campaign.

The road to Russia began at the Maksimir Stadium, Zagreb, in September 2016, however the hostile crowd wasn’t present after UEFA had ruled the team must play two games without fans present after they were found guilty of discriminatory chanting during two games against Israel and Hungary in March 2016.

Their first game against Turkey ended in a 1-1 draw. It was a decent start against a team who like their hosts had suffered a few down years after their 2002 World Cup Semi Final appearance. However, the match was dominated by Croatia and Rakitic’s penalty on the stroke of half time should’ve been the catalyst for them to win, but Hakan Çalhanoğlu’s equaliser just a minute later meant the points were shared.

All of the first round of games were 1-1 draws with Kosovo securing their first ever point in their very first competitive game, away to Finland. Kosovo’s draw was all the more remarkable as they had only been accepted as members of UEFA a few months prior to qualification commencing.

They were the next opponents for Croatia as they travelled to Albania for the game on 6 October, Croatia were a much more severe test than Finland as a hatrick from Juventus hitman, Mandžukić, helped the Croatians to an easy 6-0 win. England’s Euro 2016 subjugators, Iceland, jointly held the group lead with Croatia after two games after they defeated Finland, 3-2. Two Icelandic goals in injury time helped them snatch the win from the jaws of defeat.

Croatia took charge of the group three days later against luckless Finland. Mandzukic was the Croatian match winner once again as they won by a single goal. For Finland, their qualification campaign was all but over already and they failed to register a shot on target to further compound their grief. Iceland, however, continued to match the Croatians point for point in an early skirmish for group superiority as they eased past Turkey, 2-0 in Reykjavik.

The next international break saw the two group leaders clash in Zagreb, the second of Croatia’s games behind closed doors, the home team secured a vital 2-0 victory courtesy of a brace by Inter Milan midfielder, Marcelo Brozović. The hosts had Ivan Perišić sent off in injury time but it mattered little as they were now two points clear of nearest rivals Ukraine; they continued their decent start by seeing off Finland (poor, Finland!), 1-0 in Odessa.

A Nikola Kalinić goal was enough to secure a win over qualification rivals, Ukraine, at home in March 2017, while Iceland kept the pace with a 2-1 away in against Kosovo.

The top two met in Reykjavik for their return fixture on 11 June; a win would put Croatia within touching distance of the Finals, however an injury time winner from Hördur Magnússon gave the hosts a priceless win and put them joint top on 13 points. Turkey and Ukraine also recorded wins, versus Kosovo and Finland, to move them to within two points of the leaders.

The tense final rounds in September saw both joint group leaders lose, first Iceland suffered a shock 1-0 loss in Finland, this while Croatia were easing to a 1-0 home victory over Kosovo. Three days later it was the turn of Croatia to lose, this time a trip to Turkey saw them lose only their second game of the campaign and the group leaders were tied again.

Croatia were set up nicely to visit Ukraine in their last game and secure qualification, however the penultimate game away to Finland saw the host’s Pyry Soiri score a last minute equaliser to cancel out Mandžukić’s fifth goal of qualifying in Rijeka. This gave Iceland the chance to overtake them and they did just that with a tremendous 3-0 win in Turkey. They now lead by two points with just one game remaining. Croatia had seemingly been cruising through qualification but now relied on Kosovo taking a point or more from their group rivals in the last round of games on 9 October. Croatia played their part as they won 2-0 in Kiev, however, as expected Iceland held their nerve and comfortably won, also 2-0.

That meant Croatia were sent into the lottery of the Play Offs, they were comfortably one of the best eight runners up after amassing 20 points. Due to their impressive qualifying record they were seeded and could’ve face either Republic of Ireland, Northern Ireland, Sweden or Greece; none of them particularly easy.

They were drawn against Greece, with the first leg to be played in Zagreb. The game started in a whirlwind of action as five goals were scored before the hour, four to Croatia. Modrić, Kalinić, Perišić and Andrej Kramarić fired them into a very strong position going into the return leg three days later. The tie was all but over before a ball was kicked in Piraeus and the teams played out a 0-0 draw.

Despite their brief lapse in concentration in qualifying Croatia have made another Finals and will fancy their chances against Argentina, Nigeria and, in a delightful twist of irony; qualification rivals, Iceland. However, they will need to be more robust in attack after scoring just 15 goals in ten games (England and France scored 18, Spain, 36 and Germany, 43). Conceding a mere four goals in qualifying shows they’re durable at the back, and with the return of veteran, Vedran Ćorluka, they could be a match for Lionel Messi and company in the Group Stage.

Much is expected of qualification top scorer, Mandžukić, Barcelona star, Rakitić and Real Madrid veteran, Modrić, especially as they could all be playing in their last Finals. The Croatia squad has a profusion of talent but simply playing in the Group Stage isn’t enough and they will be disappointed if they don’t better their previous two World Cup performances.

Fame Over Familiarity – The Welsh FA Gamble With Giggs…

How would a player who was seemingly demotivated for the majority of his international career be able to manage those who are mysteriously injured around the international break?

Great players do not always make great managers, I’m sure you’ll remember Alan Shearer at Newcastle United in 2009 and how he oversaw the club’s relegation after he managed one win in eight games. While managing Wales is a modest job in world football terms the task ahead is to lead them to the logistical nightmare that is the 2020 European Championships; a big task for any manager and there will be plenty of media attention on new boss, Ryan Giggs, who will be asked to build upon the unexpected success of Euro 2016 after Chris Coleman and his team failed to qualify for this summer’s World Cup.

The initial feeling I have is the Welsh FA have employed Giggs because of who he is, this sentiment is also shared by a number of fans and the media. On one hand we have Giggs with 896 appearances and the most decorated player of his generation, on the other hand we have a player who lacked enthusiasm for the national team and failed to appear for friendlies. Also going against him is he has only managed for a pressure-free interim period of a couple of months at Manchester United after David Moyes was sacked in April 2014, although he was assistant to Louis van Gaal the following season. We can safely assume his former boss, Sir Alex Ferguson, will be receiving a few phone calls asking for advice over the coming months, especially as Giggs discussed the Wales job with him before taking it. Again, a few contacts in your phone and a truck load of winners medals do not equal managerial greatness. It’s a completely different role to that of a player, even different to that a captain or senior player as he will have to learn quickly that the buck stops with him. He’ll literally have to manage egos, expectations and ultimately the frustration of a now expectant fan base.

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The Welsh FA hardly had a huge pool to choose from in the first place, especially after Chief Executive, Jonathan Ford, said the next manager would “definitely not be English”. (Some could argue they have done the opposite of what they promised and actually employed an English manager, but those same people could be accused of being facetious!). Whatever your opinion on his comments we can agree this was a massive mistake and they are guilty of cutting their nose off to spite their face, Wales simply cannot afford to be choosy given their standing in world football. His comments meant Garry Monk, Paul Clement and Giggs’ former team mate, Mike Phelan, were immediately ruled out. There may have also been a possibility, even if remote, of Eddie Howe, Sean Dyche or Ian Holloway taking the job. Newport-born, Tony Pulis, ruled himself out almost as soon as his name was mentioned, I can guarantee the exhale of relief from Madrid could be heard all the way to Cardiff when that story broke. It wasn’t exactly a wide range of talented English managers who would’ve been a possibility but such borderline racist opinions would certainly dissuade some potential managers, English or otherwise, from applying.

Giggs wasn’t a nailed-on choice by any means, the current assistant, Osian Roberts, was interviewed, as were Mark Bowen and Craig Bellamy. Roberts would’ve been a natural choice; stepping up into the role having served his time under successive managers. It can be argued he more than most has helped to develop this current Wales team into the one we see today by bringing through players like Gareth Bale, Chris Gunter, Aaron Ramsey and more recently, Ben Woodburn. Roberts would have been the best fit in my opinion, certainly not a big name, but he has the respect of the players, he knows the Welsh system and has worked with many ex-professionals such as David Ginola and Roberto Martinez while they have been completing their coaching qualifications.

While Bellamy might not have been the obvious choice for reasons I’ll make clear soon he has been coaching at Cardiff City since his retirement 2014. He’s a bigger name with a coaching background and for many would’ve been ahead of Giggs, apparently he also delivered a very good interview for the national job too. I do concede his talented-man-child temperament as a player may stick long in the memory for any potential future employers, but we can argue since retirement he has started at the bottom (no offence to Cardiff City) and is now attempting to work his way up. He hasn’t merely played around with a local non-league team with his mates for the benefit of the TV cameras. I am being overly harsh, I know, Giggs does have a UEFA Pro Licence and has served under a former international manager, but many will believe him to be vastly inexperienced and an appointment on name and player reputation only.

Many fans who are against the appointment feel as though Giggs betrayed them by not playing in friendlies and dead-rubber qualifiers, the fact he didn’t play a friendly between his 1991 debut and 2000 tells you all you need to know. We’re in an age where a decent player can earn 50 caps before he’s 23 or 24, but Giggs only managed 64 in 16 years. While the phrase betrayal is probably a little strong we can appreciate the fan’s apprehension, especially as he doesn’t have experience of having to deal with these troublesome elements of a players’ behaviour.

How would a player who was seemingly demotivated for the majority of his international career be able to manage those who are mysteriously injured around the international break? Giggs knows all too well the spotlight, glamour and riches in the Premier League and Champions League are infinitely more appealing than dull friendly games with a group of players who meet about five times a year.

Paris on a spring evening or playing Moldova on a drizzly night in Cardiff? The temptation to get a note from your Mum asking to be excused from Mr Giggs’ class will be too tempting for some and it’ll be an interesting chat between Bale and his new boss when that question arises soon.

Giggs certainly brings raw skills, a mature personality, an enormously successful playing career and more contacts than your average agent to the Wales team, but the fact remains the Welsh FA have taken a huge gamble employing a manager with virtually no experience and almost solely for the fact he is Welsh. Osian Roberts, a well known and trusted assistant was there for the taking but Wales have favoured media attention over masses of coaching knowledge. While winning matches and qualifying for the Euros will obviously help turn fan opinion, should Giggs fail to learn quickly qualification could be over before it begins and he could find himself added to the Shearer-list of great players who failed to become even halfway decent managers.

A Misspent Youth….

There are plenty of examples of other nations ripping up their rule book and starting again in regards to their youth policy. In 2000 Belgium spent a large share of their profits from co-hosting the 2000 European Championships on revamping their youth system.

This isn’t Juve related but it’s a topic I love to debate. There were two significant moments for the England national team over the summer, 15th July and 11th June, England’s under-19 and under-20 teams lifted the UEFA Championship and World Cup respectively. A magnificent achievement and reward for the hard work of Keith Downing and Paul Simpson. Unfortunately these events are rarely given any credit by the English media as the attitudes towards these competitions are less than complimentary, they fail to notice, however, these players are our future senior team players.

The test now for the Football Association (FA) is to ensure this chance to bring these players into the the senior side is not wasted. These kids should be the foundation of future World Cup squads. The trouble is there is an evident gap in the success of the national youth teams and the under 21’s and senior team. It really isn’t difficult to see the link between this and the foreign player obsessed Premier League. The under 21’s have failed to win a tournament for over 30 years, their one final appearance since then coming in 2009. The senior team’s failings are well documented, the glass ceiling of three quarter final appearances in the mid-00’s represents their furthest progress since 1990. During this time Turkey and South Korea made a World Cup semi final, the Czech Republic made a European final and Greece won a European tournament.

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Why is this so? I briefly mentioned above about how the Premier League has massively influenced the lack of success by the senior side. Only five of the current Premier League managers are English (four until Roy Hodgson’s appointment at Crystal Palace last week). Of the big six (Manchester United/City, Arsenal, Tottenham, Chelsea and Liverpool) only Tottenham are owned by a British company. The owners of the rest have less of an interest in the fortunes of the England national team and therefore are more unlikely to want to invest in youth where more glamorous signings can be found across Europe. This money obsession creates an acceptance of this practice as the norm; clubs spend vile amounts of money at the expense of youth players patiently waiting for their chance in the reserves or on loan at lower league clubs. The question should be asked, why wouldn’t you? When faced with the chance to sign exotic player A, a teenage goal scoring sensation from Spain or playing player B, a home grown kid from a town close to the ground, which one would you choose? Therein lies the problem; big names sell shirts in China, adds followers to the club’s Twitter account and puts bums on seats in the ground every week. Local kids just don’t. The trouble with promoting youth team players is time. It takes years to mould a first team ready player, time is one thing the 21st century Premier League club doesn’t have. When there are more talented foreign players available who can step in to the first team this is route clubs take. The ‘fast food’ and instant gratification attitude to football has been around for years, it is now expected that Premier League clubs will chase the stars of continental clubs because it’s the way a top club flexes its financial muscles. The result of this greed for the English players at these clubs is to find a living lower down the leagues in a lower standard of football and away from the gaze of the national team. The national team suffers from a lack of quality players to choose from and our results on the pitch suffer too. In 2017 the players who played for the Under-20s in the World Cup final combined to play around 12 matches between them for their clubs, seven of them failed to play a minute in the Premier League. For them one cannot see another winners medal being in their possession.

There are plenty of examples of other nations ripping up their rule book and starting again in regards to their youth policy. In 2000 Belgium spent a large share of their profits from co-hosting the 2000 European Championships on revamping their youth system. They focused on player development, on passing and dribbling, they play 3 versus 3, 5v5 and 8v8, with the philosophy that small sided games give the players more chances to touch the ball and be more involved. They avoided using rankings and presenting trophies to hammer home the focus on player development and they also provided the best 14-18 year old players extra training sessions alongside their educational studies, the sessions focus on their technical abilities. This gives the best players double the amount of training sessions and thus a better chance of making the senior national team. Of course you may recall the FA had a similar system at Lilleshall back in the 80’s and 90’s, this was closed as a result of the introduction of Premier League academies in 1999 and it wasn’t until 2007, when the purpose built St George’s Park opened in Burton upon Trent, that this was replaced. During youth games in Belgium tackling is banned, the focus is on technical and mental development. Players are trained to become intelligent readers of the game rather than kick-and-rush, ball-and-man, tackling beasts which is the badge of honour of most English fans and players. Graduates of this revolutionary system include, Courtois, de Bruyne, Lukaku, Witsel, Kompany, Benteke, Januzaj, Mertens, Hazard, Vermaelen and Vertonghen.

Another post Euro 2000 shake up saw Germany set up youth academies across the country, this was after they finished bottom of their group containing a talented Portugal team and very average English and Romanian teams. Again the focus is on technical development, but the crucial difference between Germany and England is they overhauled the ‘German mentality’ of strength and organisation. They now value flair, skill and technical proficiency, something which may have been overlooked 20 years ago. The German FA (DFB) made massive upgrades to their facilities and employed thousands more coaches (at the moment Germany has over 22,000 more youth coaches than England). The DFB runs the academies rather than the clubs themselves which boosts the relationship between the two. They quickly reaped the rewards of such an extensive set up as two German teams contested the 2013 Champions League Final, of the two squads that day 26 players were eligible to play for Germany. They also won the World Cup the year after. Who can argue with their methods when they produced players such as Ozil, Hummels, Muller, Draxler, Kroos, Reus, Goetze and Neuer.

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These systems are music to the ears of anyone who has witnessed kids in England playing on full size pitches and coached to be the fastest and strongest while the smaller, flair players tend to lose out. The German relationship between the clubs and the DFB is a model the FA would do well to emulate, the Premier League has grown far bigger than anyone could imagine and they hold the real power in the English game funded by a TV deal from heaven. The latest deal saw Premier League clubs given a share of over £8bn. With that kind of cash clubs in the bottom half are instantly attractive to Europe’s top players. The viscous cycle continues and will continue to turn until the Premier League brand becomes less and less attractive to Sky subscribers. This is unlikely to happen because another cycle of increased ticket prices pricing people out of attending games leading to an increase in the number of Sky and BT subscribers is in motion. By boycotting the games you are merely funding your club’s greed via your Sky/BT subscription.

I have mentioned the club’s greed and penchant for buying ready made foreign players, another part of the problem is the players’ attitude to the game. The players are in a bubble in these academies, everything, from the age of 12, is done for them, no cleaning boots, carrying nets or hosing out the dressing rooms. Once they have their designer wash bag their hunger for the game diminishes. Why would they want to risk injury playing for England when they have the Champions League and Premier League riches in their lap? It’s argued no one cares about playing for the national team any longer, while the comfort of the Premier League and Champions League remain within easy reach, this will always be the case.

It would be wrong to suggest no good comes from the current youth set up as there are obvious success stories coming from Premier League academies. Nine of the eleven starters in Manchester City’s 2015 FA Youth Cup final team were from Manchester and two thirds of their academy players come from the city or the surrounding area. In May 2017, Manchester United started six youth team players versus Crystal Palace with Josh Harrop scoring on his debut. Harry Kane, Delle Ali and Marcus Rashford are three of England’s brightest stars. Speaking of success I haven’t forgotten the famous ‘Class of ’92’ players from Manchester United’s youth academy. They were truly a once in a generation crop of players but they came from a time when facilities and the standard of coaching are not what they are today. Given the money in the game today their story should be the rule rather than the exception.

Pep Guardiola recently mentioned the lack of competitive games for academy teams in England and pointed out the Spanish system of allowing the top team’s reserves entry into the professional leagues. The system has worked well for years by giving academy players a regular taste of competitive near-top league experience rather than playing against their peers in near empty lower league stadiums. This leads to a higher quality of player turning out for their national youth teams and eventually the senior team. I hardly need to tell you of Spain’s national team successes in recent years, while 12 of the 25 players in Barcelona’s 2014/2015 squad were products of their youth team and plied their trade at Barcelona ‘B’ in the Segunda Division during their academy years. In England the Checkatrade Trophy was used to give academy teams a greater taste of competitive football by allowing them to enter last season. People moaned about the devaluation of the competition but failed to acknowledge the good it will do the representatives of academy teams, choosing to focus on the here and now rather than the bigger picture of national team success. The Football League would do well to agree to a Spanish style system of Premier League academies being allowed to enter the Football League with financial incentives for fielding youth players from the reserves in their first teams. This will never happen because of the outcry caused by the supposed devaluation of a competition rarely given any credit even by those taking part, there is also the logistical factor of relegating more professional teams at the expense of academy teams.

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The England senior team are in a period of underachievement by our own media’s high standards but this is a result of years of focus on buying foreign players and lack of attention in producing quality English players who represent their clubs in the Premier League every week. A quota similar to that of the old Champions League ‘three foreigner’ rule should be implemented, thus giving academy players more competitive playing time. As we know there are already squad rules in place for teams competing in European competition, these surround the number of domestic born players and around players who have been at the club for a number of years. When Britain finally leaves the EU we should see rules restricting the number of foreign players come into effect, what this will be in reality remains to be seen. However with the amount of cash the Premier League generates I can’t see a majority vote in favour of this and so a watered down version of these rules seems likely. Our German counterparts have demonstrated a healthy working relationship between Football association and league can work. We in England need to do the same, again the amount of money in the game should mean there is more than enough to seriously invest in youth academies and their development. It should also be used to promote, educate and hire hundreds more coaches.

England’s youth teams have proven to be actual world beaters on the field, however it will be years, if ever, before the senior side emulates their feat if the current attitudes remain the same.