I detect signs -- long-awaited signs -- that things are changing in English soccer. I mean real fundamental change. Not the glossy superficial marketing tripe that is constantly fed to us as evidence that something, anything, is new, and therefore must be an improvement. Usually it is just the packaging that is new, gaudily disguising the fact that the product itself hasn’t changed at all.
What I’m looking at here does, I think, suggest that new ideas -- new to the English soccer brain, that is -- are at last forcing their way into the English game.
Exhibit A came during the under-16 tournament played recently in Florida.
Four teams -- Brazil, the Netherlands, England and the USA. With wins over the USA and Brazil and a tie with the Netherlands, England won the competition -- and thoroughly deserved to. The revelation here was not the scorelines, but the quality of the soccer that England played.
So good, in fact, that it might -- for a moment or two -- have had you wondering whether this really was England you were watching. Long balls? A few, not that many. Constant use of the cross? Not at all, the cross was not overdone. Rustic tackling and ball-winning, the trusty “get-stuck-in” approach? Not a factor.
Three absolute staples of the English game, and they were rarely to be seen. This was a team that evidently preferred to have the ball on the ground, and that preference was amply justified by the players’ ball skills, the lightness of the first touch, the clear, instant control, and the smoothness of the passing. With those qualities on display, a possession game was possible, with plenty of accurate on-the-ground passing. A game of intelligent, coherent soccer.
That is the sort of thing that Brazilians have been doing for decades -- though, oddly enough, they looked light years away from that style in their first two games, both lost -- 0-3 to the Dutch, and 0-2 to England. Sadly for the USA, Brazil remembered it was Brazil in time to seriously outplay the Americans 3-0 in their final game.
Well, one swallow doth not a summer make, or something. As I was quickly reminded. A week or so after watching the youngsters I tuned into an Everton game on TV. At halftime, on came the inevitable Brit voices, one of them having it in for Everton’s young Spaniard Gerard Deulofeu.
Oh sure, said the voice, he can do his little tricks out on the wing -- that was bad enough, but the big trouble was that his crosses were awful.
I filed that away as a neat, terse summary of English attitudes to soccer: quit showing off with all the hot-doggery, and just make sure your crosses are decent. That’s the way to play soccer. Pretty depressing.
But then another swallow, maybe a whole flock of ‘em, flew to the rescue. In charge of this flock -- they wear Tottenham Hotspur shirts -- is an Argentine, Mauricio Pochettino. On Thursday I watched these Spurs Swallows dismantle Monaco 4-1. Not bad, considering that six regular first-teamers were being rested. Of Spurs’ ten field players, five -- exactly half -- were British youngsters (four English, one Welsh).
And Pochettino had this sub-strength, 50% British, team playing just the type of soccer I had a week or two earlier so admired in the England under-16 team. Again the possession and the control of the ball was impeccable. Which meant intelligent, purposeful soccer. And -- to a more pronounced degree than the boys had shown -- the traditional English reliance on the cross was not to be seen.
According to my own notes, Spurs got off just one cross that the Monaco goalkeeper Danijel Subasic might have handled -- but it was a pretty woeful effort from Ben Davies that sailed over everyone. A couple more attempts at crossing were blocked immediately by Monaco defenders.
Instead of crossing, Spurs chose to keep the ball on the ground, and to pass it in toward the penalty area. I counted six occasions when Spurs players were in wide positions with the ball, exactly when you would expect them, in the English game -- to whip in, or float in, a cross. The cross was not used, the ball was passed in, it stayed on the ground, controlled by Spurs’ players. During one of these moments, early in the second half, Joshua Onomah was played clean through the Monaco defense, to be thwarted by goalkeeper Subasic.
Reducing the frequency of crosses also allows for a more varied attack -- including direct assaults right down the middle, something that is generally considered a no-no by the English, obsessed as they are with the notion of width.
All four Tottenham goals came from on-the-ground passing sequences, two of them from close ball-control within the penalty area. It was exhilarating to watch (not if you were Monaco devotees, of course) and was decidedly un-English.
Pochettino is making a name for himself in England as a coach who is willing to field young British players. The ones who played on Thursday -- Davies, Onomah, Eric Dier, Tom Carroll and Dele Alli all looked promisingly at home playing in a style that looked more Argentine than English.
As I’m very well aware of the formidable mulishness of the English soccer mind, I suppose it would be premature to announce that Pochettino is the man to force the English into an agonizing reappraisal of their soccer. We thought (OK, I thought) that the splendid playing careers in England of Argentina’s Ossie Ardiles and Brazil’s Juninho (and more recently of Cristiano Ronaldo) might do the trick. Not so.
But Pochettino is a coach, not a player. And he appears to be capable of doing something that English coaches have failed, or not bothered, to do. He can get English players to use a different mindset, to play a more modern version of soccer that reduces the importance of a number of stylistic elements that have always been considered a key part of the English game.
And while he is doing that, his team is winning both games and admirers.