This world of ours has certain fundamental truths: truths which define success or failure. In all walks of life, if someone moves to one extreme or the other, they will fail. If they’re too impetuous, they will fail. If they’re too conservative, they will fail. If they don’t establish a balance between risk and caution, idealism and pragmatism, they will fail. Everything in moderation; nothing in excess.
These truths are just as important in football as in life itself – for the best football teams and greatest managers are all about BALANCE. Balance between defence and attack, creativity and rock-solid indomitability in midfield, experience and youth. As Jose Mourinho, whose best teams (Porto 2004, Chelsea 2005, Internazionale 2010, Real Madrid 2012) represented this great truism more than almost any others, yet who himself appears to have fallen prey to an over-defensive, over-negative parody of himself in recent times, put it recently:
“Football in this moment is full of philosophers, full of people who understand much more than me, full of people with fantastic theoretical philosophies. Amazing.
“The reality is always the reality. A team that doesn’t defend well doesn’t have many chances to win. A team that doesn’t score lots of goals, if it concedes lots of goals, is completely in trouble. A team without balance is not a team”.
As he’s grown older, Mourinho appears, like most people, to have become that much grumpier, that much more stubborn, that much less inclined to take well intentioned advice on board. This is something that affects so many of us: it’s human nature in many ways. Yet in football, it is also extremely destructive.
The best managers must remain up-to-date at all times; be prepared to rip things up and start again; remove and pension players off before they hit the slippery slope, not years afterwards; and always, always be prepared – but always within reason – to take risks, try new things, and entrust in vibrant, youthful, hungry new talent.
Even though Liverpool ultimately came up just short in their extraordinarily emotional quest for a first league title in 24 years, this is what Brendan Rodgers did: and the experience gained will serve his squad very well in the future. At length, in his announcement of the England squad yesterday, it is also something that Roy Hodgson is at last doing.
With John Terry and Rio Ferdinand already mere memories as far as the national team is concerned, out has gone Terry’s Chelsea teammate, Ashley Cole, one of the world’s great left backs over the last decade. Out too has gone Ferdinand’s Manchester United teammate, Michael Carrick, one of the finest, most controlled passers in European football over the last decade. And in have come dangerous, dynamic young players.
Ross Barkley, aged 20, an adventurous attacking midfielder, whose burgeoning progress and tactical sophistication reminds so many observers of a young Paul Gascoigne, is in. Raheem Sterling, aged 19, whose displays on the wing for Liverpool have conjured up memories of John Barnes in his pomp, is in. Southampton’s 18-year-old Luke Shaw is in instead of Cole as cover for Everton’s marvellously enterprising full back, Leighton Baines. And Saints’ attacking midfielder, Adam Lallana, whose performances have earned rave reviews all season long, is in too.
But that’s not to say there isn’t experience in Hodgson’s squad. There is: most obviously in the form of captain Steven Gerrard, who must now somehow refocus his mind and energies in the aftermath of his own personal disaster against Chelsea a little over a fortnight ago; vice-captain Frank Lampard, a little fortunate to be travelling to Brazil after a fitful final campaign at Stamford Bridge, but whose old head and wise words will provide much needed help to Hodgson’s young tyros; and Wayne Rooney, who will at last find the needs of his team no longer being placed entirely on his shoulders. In fact, some of us think there’s a mounting case for Daniel Sturridge to start ahead of Rooney.
Gary Cahill, Glen Johnson, Joe Hart or Jack Wilshere are all seasoned professionals now too. Suddenly, a new England squad is taking shape; suddenly, there is hope anew for a country which, a couple of years ago, appeared to have nothing coming through on the conveyor belt at all.
Hodgson looked at the players available to him, recognised that his resources were appreciably stronger going forward than at the back, and has taken a risk. It may work out; it may not. But at least he’s trying: at least he’s attempting to forge together something new.
Compare and contrast his approach with that of Oscar Washington Tabarez: whose Uruguay side meet England in a showdown in Sao Paulo on June 19. Hodgson, who will be 67 in August, is only five months Tabarez’ junior; but in this case, five months seems more like a lifetime.
Again and again over the last 4 years, this Blog has asked: “When will El Maestro begin the process of evolution? When will he deal with the palpable limitations of his side – with an ageing spine, vulnerable defence and desperately little creativity in midfield? When will he realise that 2014 is not 2010; and that in football, to stand still is to hurtle backwards at an ever increasing rate?”
Well, we have our answer now. “Never”. No attempt at replenishing the squad after the Copa America triumph of 2011. No serious attempt at renewal as La Celeste’s fortunes lurched towards crisis during the eliminatorias. No attempt at introducing young talent since qualification was finally assured late last year; and no attempt, zero, at anything other than the tried and trusted (but in the case of several key players, tired and failed) in his announcement of Uruguay’s provisional 25-man squad to travel to Brazil:
Goalkeepers: Fernando Muslera (Galatasaray), Martin Silva (Vasco da Gama), Rodrigo Munoz (Libertad)
Defenders: Maximiliano Pereira (Benfica), Diego Lugano (West Bromwich Albion), Diego Godin (Atletico Madrid), Jose Maria Gimenez (Atletico Madrid), Sebastian Coates (Liverpool), Martin Caceres (Juventus), Jorge Fucile (Porto)
Midfielders: Alejandro Silva (Lanus), Alvaro Gonzalez (Lazio), Alvaro Pereira (Sao Paulo), Walter Gargano (Parma), Egidio Arevalo Rios (Morelia), Diego Perez (Bologna), Sebastian Eguren (Palmeiras), Cristian Rodriguez (Atletico Madrid), Gaston Ramirez (Southampton), Nicolas Lodeiro (Botafogo)
Forwards: Luis Suarez (Liverpool), Edinson Cavani (Paris Saint-Germain), Abel Hernandez (Palermo), Diego Forlan (Cerezo Osaka), Christian Stuani (Espanyol)
Let us immediately lay one myth to rest. It is not as though this country is not producing any creative footballers; it’s that the manager just will not pick them. The same manager whose answer to his side’s travails in qualifying was simply to send them back ten yards deeper: good enough to scramble past Peru and Venezuela, but hardly when it comes to meeting the best in the world next month.
The same manager whom, unfathomably and unconscionably, is still selecting his liability of a captain, Diego Lugano, at the back: despite Lugano’s awful displays for West Bromwich Albion, a failing Premier League side whose supporters are simply relieved that their miserable season is finally over. The same manager whom, with Italy down to 10 men, suffering terribly in exhausting conditions and as there for the taking as a European giant will ever be in Salvador last June, chose, with 15 minutes remaining in extra time, to incomprehensibly replace Egidio Arevalo Rios with fellow dog of war, Diego Perez.
Even in a match as meaningless as the Confederations Cup third place play-off; even with his opponents short-handed and scrambling desperately to get to penalties, Tabarez’ fear got the better of him. Perez – who peaked in 2010, and has been on a downward spiral in form and condition ever since – looked mortified; even embarrassed. On a day which confirmed once and for all that Tabarez’ ultra-conservative way will keep his country respectably placed, ensure it is never humiliated, but never, ever beat the best; or merely, for that matter, anyone among the elite.
Italy, of course, will meet Uruguay next month as well: in blazing hot conditions in Natal on June 24. Yet Azzurri manager, Cesare Prandelli, is always positive – as positive a coach as his national team has ever had, in fact – and will combine the immense, ageless experience of Gianluigi Buffon and Andrea Pirlo with the emerging Ciro Immobile and ever dangerous Mario Balotelli.
Italy’s Group D schedule is horribly difficult: by far the most demanding facing the four participants. But one thing Prandelli would never do is make the mistakes of his predecessor, Marcello Lippi: who simply allowed a squad of national heroes to grow older and older and older, and did nothing to replenish his forces at all. The result? Historic humiliation; even catastrophe, in South Africa.
But that same humiliation is what Tabarez now risks. The announcement of his squad resembles a parody, a practical joke: is this December 28, the Day of the Innocents? No. This is real. El Maestro has truly out-done himself this time.
In South Africa, Uruguay recorded less possession per match than any other World Cup quarter-finalist since 1966. They were able to work this conjuror’s trick, just, by squeezing through a rare opening in the draw against South Korea and Ghana: the latter amid circumstances which, 999 times out of 1000, would have resulted in their exit. By the time they reached the semi-finals, a squad short on the ball, long on inspiration and spirit, were short-handed through injuries and suspensions, and both physically and mentally exhausted.
Following the fourth place achieved amidst huge celebration and euphoria, Tabarez’ task was to develop other ways of playing; other ways of winning. To make his side multi-dimensional: able to both shut up shop when necessary and take opponents apart in the manner of Germany or Argentina at their best. Only multi-dimensional, balanced sides win the World Cup; only truly accomplished squads win it too.
Yet what did he do? Nada. El Maestro seems to think all he has to do is just pick the same side (and more to the point, same squad) again and again, cross his fingers, and hope the South African magic dust suddenly reappears from nowhere. There is no plan here; no vision at all. Project Tabarez is a fraud; a historic opportunity is being thrown away in consequence.
World Cups in South America don’t happen every day; or even every generation. World Cups in Brazil happen twice a lifetime at most. This one will take place at a time when a whole host of massively talented Uruguayan footballers are achieving unprecedented things with their European clubs: properly organised and managed, these players are potential world beaters.
But only if they’re part of a structure which is continually reviewed and replenished; only if they’re backed up by reliable understudies; only if their manager doesn’t tie their hands behind their backs by making his team as easy to prepare for as any in the upper echelons of world football.
The mere thought of Balotelli, Sterling or Rooney charging headlong at the backpedalling, overwhelmed Lugano in Brazil should be enough to make the blood of most Uruguayans run cold with dread. And if La Celeste fall behind, what then? Where are their game changers to bring on from the bench? At the very time that Giorgian de Arrascaeta is tearing up the Copa Libertadores with his performances, and inspiring little Defensor to all sorts of feats of heroism, he finds himself left out… for Sebastian Eguren?
If I were De Arrascaeta, whose exclusion in such circumstances is a national disgrace, I’d look at this squad – and laugh. Not his fault that Tabarez is so obsessed with his infernal Equipo de Memoria; not his problem that the manager is so wedded to conservatism and fear. A gifthorse has been stared at stonily in the mouth. Barkley travels to Brazil with England; De Arrascaeta will not travel to Brazil with Uruguay.
It gets worse too. Who is Lugano’s understudy at centre back? Jose Maria Gimenez: a huge prospect for the future, sure, but who has played one single match for Atletico Madrid this season. I’ve heard of it being good when players are fresh at a World Cup – but not THIS fresh. Sebastian Coates, a complete flop with Liverpool, has done nothing to earn his place in the squad while on loan at a shambolic Nacional either.
Elsewhere, there is no place for either of the two Diegos, Rolan or Laxalt; no place for Jonathan Rodriguez either. Yet comically, Andres Scotti has somehow been placed on standby; and Alvaro Gonzalez remains, it would appear, integral. Tata Gonzalez v Messrs Pirlo or Wilshere? The mind boggles.
Despite the tone of this article, all is not entirely lost. Uruguay’s first XI remains very good and very dangerous: no side featuring Suarez and Cavani up front, Cebolla Rodriguez in midfield, and Godin and Caceres at the back, can ever be entirely discounted. But Lugano represents a gaping hole in the side, who will inevitably be targeted by allcomers; and the lack of squad depth is terrifying, a huge indictment of Tabarez’ last four years in charge.
So much so that where Uruguay appeared narrow Group D favourites when the draw was made in December, there must now be heavy question marks whether they will survive the first round at all. My conviction is that the winners of this group will go on to reach the semi-finals; but to my amazement, I now think the country of my birth is probably more likely to do so than that in which I have settled. England are increasingly well managed; Tabarez’ Uruguay now threaten to become considerably less than the sum of their parts.
Lest we forget: the whole idea of El Maestro remaining in charge for so long was to establish a virtuous cycle: a true conveyor belt of ever renewing talent from the hugely successful youth teams into the senior team. What happened to this idea in recent years, who knows? And what it must be like for a young player such as De Arrascaeta to have to endure such a pig-headed, blinkered national team manager, I dread to think.
Big leftie Oscar Washington Tabarez has looked at history: and blinked. This once enlightened, aesthetic, cosmopolitan figure now has little to offer other than calm and passivity. Thanks to his pathological ultra-conservatism and chronic fear of failure, his country – which should have been a serious contender for this tournament – will travel to Brazil on a wing, a prayer… and very little else.