I see that every time England have a bad game or there is a hiccup in qualification, a whole new debate arises about how best to produce success for the national team.
First everyone looked to Spain for the answer, the secret recipe. Now everyone appears to be looking toward Belgium.
A quick look at Belgium’s fantastic players makes it easy to understand why; Thibaut Courtois, Jan Vertonghen, Moussa Dembele, Christian Benteke, Marouane Fellaini and Eden Hazard have all emerged in recent seasons and have shown themselves to be extremely talented.
Observers have attempted to explain Belgium's rise in a number of different ways. Some have suggested that the lack of money in the Belgian leagues has meant that they have to develop youth players and quickly promote them into the first team. But that explanation does not make much sense—most of the players mentioned actually developed somewhere else, for example Vertonghen with Ajax or Hazard and Lille.
Another explanation is that the youth development in Belgium is just a bit more modernised and cutting edge than elsewhere. There has been talk about how the use of "brain training" and other innovative techniques have yielded positive results, focusing less on the physical and more on the mental side of the game.
Such a theory is fine, but it may just be we are trying to look for an underlying reason behind something that is just a naturally-occurring phenomenon.
Statistically, it is not impossible that a nation, even one of only 11 million people, will occasionally produce a bunch of great players of quality at the same time. We have seen such examples before from a variety of different countries—it has even happened to Belgium before, for those who can remember how good they were in the late 1980s with a similar collection of talented players.
As for Spain, you immediately look at it as being an additional benefit of the success of Barcelona’s youth system—the fact that it is mostly Barca academy products who have shone for La Furia Roja in major tournaments.
This aspect is crucial in my eyes, because it means players do not have to adapt massively as they move from club to country (and vice-versa). Because the personnel and ideas are so similar with the national team, players are only asked to make minor adjustments, not changing styles completely for every international game or new national team coach, as we see from other countries.
However, I think a better explanation (or root cause) for what has happened with Spain—or what may happen with Belgium, and what seems to be lacking with England—comes from the standard of coaching.
Coaches are the key to success, the ones that are tasked with maximising the potential of the players.
Good coaching explains to young, impressionable, developing players what football is really all about; what to do in every part of the pitch, how to use the abilities you have got.
That is the absolute key at the highest level—good coaching. I think that is what is still missing in England, whereas there are some really good coaching setups across Belgium and Spain.
Having said all that, you cannot ignore perhaps the biggest factor of all; luck. At some point, you have to be lucky to have such a talented group of players come through all in the same generation.
We will see when the golden generation—Xavi, Andres Iniesta, Fernando Torres, among others—retires, whether Spain is able to have the same kind of success, even with the same youth policies in place.
I would advance that we won’t.
I know that Vicente Del Bosque has been changing about a third of the squad at each major tournament, but the base has remained the same, the aforementioned trio along with the likes of Iker Casillas, Gerard Pique and Carles Puyol. When those players go, the next generation is likely to struggle by comparison.
So it is eminently possible that great coaching can make you competitive—and Spain have always been competitive—but what it actually takes to win international tournaments is for a generation of world-class players to all appear at the same time.
That’s what happened with Spain, and that could be what happens with Belgium.
But that isn’t what’s happening with England—ultimately, for all the debates and post-mortems we have been subjected to in the media, they just don’t have a group of young players of the required talent.
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