Don’t be that Dad

A Mighty Kickers coaching session in Kuala Lumpur

A Mighty Kickers coaching session in Kuala Lumpur

You know the one. Probably wearing a tracksuit, often with his initials on it. Quite likely that he’s got his football boots on. He used to be a contender. He could’ve made it were it not for that knee injury (it’s almost always a knee injury), some run of bad luck, or the lack of appreciation for talent on the part of those scouts who came to watch him in his youth.

His dream of becoming a footballer died a long time ago but he has a son now so the dream is reborn. The son will live it, fulfil it, and in so doing, will fulfil them both.

The father prowls the touchline, offering the benefit of his ‘wisdom’ to junior whether junior wants it or not and never seems quite satisfied with what he sees. Every game is a must win; glory and honour are always on the line. Junior misses a chance and father turns away in disgust, muttering under his breath. You know, that Dad.

Dreams, you see, they die harder second time round.

Let me be honest, that was my dream too. I wanted to be a footballer from as early as I can remember. It’s not an unusual dream for a Scottish youngster. How close did I come? Well, I suppose I was somewhere near the contender category. I trained with a few professional clubs in my teens. I was good, not exceptional, but I was good. So are a lot of others.

If you want to be a doctor or a lawyer or a fireman when you’re growing up then you’ll certainly encounter some competition but nothing like that of the boy who wants to be a footballer. The odds of making it are somewhere in the region of those being offered for Bournemouth winning the Premier League next season. Banking on your son becoming a professional footballer is not a sensible pension plan.

When I was 21, I went to America and spent a summer coaching ‘soccer’ at an American summer camp (one of those strange American traditions whereby parents pack their kids off for eight weeks and visit them once for a few hours after about four of the eight weeks). The kids were great; very keen and some of them were quite talented. Every week or so there were tournaments held against other camps in the area (I was based in upstate New York) and the ‘coaching’ that I witnessed at these tournaments appalled me. It was, sadly, mainly from British coaches.

These guys were of a similar age to me (all of us failed footballers or else we wouldn’t have been there) and most of them cared only about one thing: winning. It was a pathetic and pitiful sight. They would scream at their players, some of them as young as seven or eight years old, offering nothing of insight and always just selected their biggest players to improve their chances of victory. Sometimes they won but none of their players became much better at football as a result.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m a fiercely competitive guy and I hate to lose. I also loathe the trends in school sports of everyone gets a medal and not keeping score. You can’t fool kids, they know who is winning and losing, they know who is good and who is not. The point is that when you’re coaching kids, teaching them to become better footballers, you have to focus on improving their skills and their understanding of the game even if that comes at the expense of the result.

Many of my fellow coaches in America took a different view. It was all about them. They celebrated victory like they’d just won the Champions League. Their very manliness seemed to depend on taking home the trophy – the upstate New York Summer Camp Cup or whatever on earth it was we were contesting. I can only imagine that it wasn’t just the meagre size of their trophy collections that these guys were trying to compensate for.

Like me, many of these men probably now have children and I hope at least some of them have changed their ways.

When I returned to Scotland following my US experience I decided to take my coaching qualifications. There’s no doubt that the quality of football that Scotland produces today is not what it once was and yet, curiously, the reputation of coaching in the country remains excellent. Even Mourinho spent some time learning his trade at Largs.

I was certainly impressed by the standard of the courses and got a lot out of them; everything from how to plan a session to very small details such as always make sure you address the players with the sun in your eyes rather than theirs so that they can concentrate more easily. Regular followers of Scottish football may be surprised to learn that the emphasis is indeed on skill development. There was no session on ‘lumping it up the park.’

This raises an interesting question. Kids today, especially those connected with bigger clubs, are getting more organised coaching by (generally) better qualified coaches than previous generations so why is their skill level apparently worse? I think there are at least two potential aspects to this.

One is the much commented upon decline of what we might call ‘street football’ by which I mean kids just getting together and playing games among themselves without adult supervision or interference. Without, in other words, any formal coaching.

Modern life has essentially displaced street football in many areas so despite more time spent in formal coaching sessions it’s possible that many kids actually spend less time in contact with the ball than they used to. Learning via street football is a process of trial and error with more emphasis on what you can do with the ball (showing off frankly) rather than learning the discipline of playing in a particular system for example.

The second aspect is that I’m not sure that skill levels have dropped quite as sharply as we tend to assume (I’m talking primarily in a Scottish and to a lesser extent English context here). Go and watch a top level club in Scotland train and you’ll see plenty of skill on display. Go to a match at the weekend and you’ll often be forgiven for wondering where all that skill went.

One place it went in my view is through the trap door marked fear. The stakes have been raised in the modern game and the golden rule for a footballer is ‘don’t make a mistake.’ Mistakes sometimes lead to defeats, to the wrath of the manager, teammates, and supporters, to the prospect of losing your place in the team, ultimately to the prospect of being moved on and probably down the divisions.

Much of what we marvel at in football involves risk, primarily the risk of making a mistake, giving the ball away, looking foolish. We heap scorn on those who make mistakes. Why are we surprised then that we create a risk averse culture in which getting rid of the ball quickly (and almost anywhere) is deemed preferable to taking a touch and trying to create something?

Perhaps those risks are just something that pros have to live with. It’s their living after all and they need to make decisions to protect a career that is often both fragile and fickle. It’s a different story with children though. Let them express themselves. There’s no sadder sight in the game than watching a child kick the ball away in fear. If you are the cause of that fear, hang your head in shame.

With my newly acquired coaching qualifications, I volunteered to help coach at a primary school in Edinburgh. It was a very rewarding experience and I was pleased to discover that the vast majority of the parents supported my philosophy of trying to develop the skills of the boys without focusing too much on results. Although of course, guess what? As their skills develop, eventually, results improve quite a lot as a consequence.

There is a growing recognition in the game of the need to control the touchline antics of some parents. It’s very frustrating as a coach to have ten or more other wannabe coaches imparting their own, usually contradictory, tips during a game. In some places, silent touchline schemes have been put in place and I think that’s mostly a good idea.

I was lucky to have two very supportive parents and the points made here apply equally to Mums as well as Dads. My own mother in fact was always a more animated figure on the touchline than my father. “Tackle” was her constant refrain. She had a simple method of judging my performances: I had played well in inverse proportion to the cleanliness of my kit. Cleanliness may be next to Godliness but it apparently wasn’t next to a career in football.

Since we know that most kids won’t become footballers let us at least make the game fun for them. Let us help them develop a sense of love and wonder about it. I firmly believe that football (and indeed sport in general) has much to teach: sacrifice, dedication, teamwork, appreciation of beauty (watch Messi dribble and tell me that isn’t the case), courage, respect, fairness and many other admirable qualities.

I have a son who is almost five. He is an utterly wonderful little boy. He goes to football coaching classes here in Malaysia (check out www.littlekickers.com.my for anyone who’s interested) and he really enjoys it. Alas, the early indications are that he is far from the most naturally talented little footballer in the world.

Would I like him to be? Of course I would. I would burst with pride to see him become a professional footballer. I’ve dreamed that dream. But the chances are he won’t. He’ll probably never play for Barcelona or Real Madrid. He probably won’t play for Dundee United either. But I hope he keeps playing the game, loving it and learning something from it. He’ll never feel any pressure from me to achieve the dream that eluded me.

And the funny thing is you can never tell. Judging young talent at almost anything is very difficult and football is no exception. I remember well the most talented player in my age group in the whole of Scotland when I was fifteen, sixteen. If ever a kid was going to make it, he was the one. Outrageously talented and dedicated to his craft, he was the star of the Scotland U/16 team at the time.

He did make it; sort of. He became a professional footballer. In fact he became a pro at my beloved Dundee United. He burst on to the scene as the bright young thing, but then? A long slow decline. In total he made only around 50 appearances in the top flight in Scotland before gradually drifting down through the lower leagues and he was the most talented player I ever played with or against.

On Saturday I’ll take my little boy back to his football class. I’ll watch with interest but I’ll keep my mouth shut save for some words of encouragement when he comes off for a water break. If he’s having fun I’ll be quite happy enough.

He’s not even five years old yet. Who knows what he wants to be when he grows up? He’s expressed an interest in being a lion dancer (google it if you’re unsure) among many other things. He has his own dreams to dream. I’ve made peace with mine. I’m not going to be that Dad.

Wearing a scarf in the tropics

Malaysia v Timor Leste

I’ve been living in Malaysia for three years but the only game I’ve been to see in that time was a friendly between a national select XI and Barcelona. It was thus long overdue when I took myself to the national stadium last week for Malaysia v Timor Leste, the opening game in qualifying for both the 2018 World Cup and the 2019 Asian Cup. I presume that the two tournaments are too close together to have separate qualifying rounds.

My ticket cost me a very reasonable thirty ringgit and I headed to the stadium early as I had to collect it there. After a few false starts and several well intentioned if somewhat inaccurate directions, I had my ticket in my hand.

My search for the ticket counter had led me round quite a bit of the perimeter of the ground and I was able to enjoy the show provided by the Malaysian ‘ultras’ doing a pre-match tour of the outside of the stadium, singing and letting off flares.

I also found several shops selling merchandise and treated myself to a scarf. For those of you who haven’t visited Malaysia, it has a tropical climate. It is hot, baking hot, all year round and pretty much all day and all night. Inside the ground, the giant screens informed me that the temperature was 29 degrees Celsius (accompanied, as always, by intense humidity).

A scarf is perhaps not the best accessory for such conditions. I wonder if some alternatives could be considered in this part of the world – a branded fan for the fans maybe? I admit that the spectacle provided by the ultras might not look quite as good if they were waving fans rather than holding scarves aloft.

The Bukit Jalil stadium is very impressive. It was built in the mid-1990s for Malaysia’s hosting of the Commonwealth Games in 1998 and its 90,000 capacity makes it one of the largest stadiums in the world. That capacity would not be required for this game however; I estimate that the crowd wasn’t much above 10,000. It was a free seating arrangement and so I was able to choose an excellent position among the many free seats.

To my right, the ultras began to assume their position behind the goal. They had brought with them no less than ten drums and would go on to use them to wonderful effect, providing a rhythmical and passionate soundtrack to the entire game.

The much maligned pitch looked in reasonable nick. The surface at the national stadium comes in for frequent criticism and the delicate superstars of Barcelona refused to play on it when they visited, prompting a late and rather farcical change of venue.

The teams emerged on to the pitch behind a banner which read ‘My game is fair play – FIFA.’ I think FIFA may also want to reconsider some of its accessories.

When the game got underway the first decent chance fell to Malaysia as one of our (I was going to say ‘their’ but hey, I have a scarf) strikers cut inside but dragged his shot meekly wide of the near post.

After twenty minutes or so it was already clear that both teams were living up to their lowly rankings. Malaysia currently find themselves ranked a rather embarrassing 162nd in the FIFA rankings. For a country that loves football and invests a reasonable amount of resources in the game, its level of international football success might generously be described as modest.

Timor Leste, to my surprise, are currently ranked 146th. Despite their higher ranking, Timor Leste were considered the underdogs in the match. The FIFA rankings get a little dodgy the nearer you get to the bottom. I don’t mean ‘dodgy’ in the usual FIFA sense of the term, merely that it gets harder to rank the weaker sides against each other, especially when they don’t necessarily play each other on a regular basis.

Justifying their status as favourites, Malaysia were on top in the first half. We missed an incredible chance to take the lead on 25 minutes when one of our players was left all alone on the penalty spot as the ball dropped invitingly to him but he somehow contrived to blast the ball wildly over the bar.

Timor Leste then spurned a glorious chance of their own as their centre forward burst clear of the static Malaysian defence to find himself facing a hesitating goalkeeper. It may have been an elaborate rouse on the part of our custodian though as confronted by such obvious panic, the Leste striker succumbed to it as well and attempted a dinked finish that rolled harmlessly wide.

I hadn’t spotted any Timor Leste fans in the ground but following that miss the giant screens showed them (all six of them) celebrating the fact that a chance had been created by their side. The prospect of crowd trouble seemed slim.

One Malaysian player was wearing tights which seemed just about as ridiculous as me being sat there in a scarf. In fact it was quite a lot more ridiculous since at least there were many others wearing scarves. Perhaps anything less than 30 degrees is considered a cold night in KL for some.

Things warmed up considerably just after half an hour as Malaysia took the lead. Safee Sali slotted high into the net from a scrappy rebound after our man in tights had dug the ball out from a scrum of flailing arms and legs as the Leste defence’s attempts to clear turned into a game of Twister.

It was a deserved lead and we all celebrated ecstatically but the wide empty spaces meant that the usual embracing of strangers that accompanies a goal was lacking on this occasion.

Before half time, Timor Leste had a ‘goal’ correctly ruled out for offside. It highlighted a theme of the opening period whereby a single missed tackle in midfield invariably left either defence shockingly exposed.

There was no half time entertainment. That is not a criticism but a compliment. I’ve written before about the needless and pointless attempts frequently made nowadays to ‘entertain’ fans during the half time interval. It’s only 15 minutes: time enough for a pee, a pie (or in this case a spicy burger) and a quick Facebook update regarding how poor your team has been in the first half.

Reflecting on the first half it occurred to me that the ultras had produced a better prepared, more coordinated and more committed effort than their team.

The teams re-emerged for the second half and I was reminded how much bigger and more physical the Timor Leste players were. Malaysians are not generally tall people or particularly physically imposing but the footballers appeared to me to be rather worryingly lightweight for the rigours of the modern game.

The nation’s new technical director for badminton, Morten Frost from Denmark, has ordered all of the players to take fitness tests and improve their physical conditioning. I think the same approach might usefully be applied to the national football team.

Safee Sali began the second half with some inspired and improvised juggling down by the corner flag as he held off several opposition defenders. The game then settled back into the rhythm that had been established in the first forty five minutes.

It was a rhythm that reminded me of futsal (the fast-paced five-a-side version of the game played on a small pitch that is popular in this and many other parts of the world). It was obvious that most of the Malaysian players had grown up playing futsal and that it was their initial reference point for the game. One consequence of this was that they had a very limited understanding of how to best make use of space on the pitch.

They frequently failed to spot teammates in lots of space or were unable to play the pass that would have opened space up. Much of their movement was towards the man on the ball, condensing space and making it easier for Timor Leste to put pressure on the player in possession.

In some football cultures, such as the UK’s, the introduction of more futsal would be an unambiguously good thing as it emphasises technical ability and encourages players to be comfortable on the ball in tight spaces – things that aren’t developed naturally when you have eight year olds playing 11-a-side on full sized pitches. Futsal has long been credited with developing the skills that we associate with Brazilian players for example.

In Malaysia however the overall standard is not yet good enough for futsal, by itself, to produce very technically proficient footballers and it also appears to have conditioned Malaysian players to play the game in a slightly unbalanced way. The rhythm of futsal is closer to basketball than to regular football and Malaysia left themselves very open as a result of their futsal-influenced style of play.

Despite that we were still the better side by a considerable margin. More chances came and went, any one of which would almost certainly have made the game safe. 1-0 is always a dangerous lead though and just to emphasise that point a Timor Leste midfielder smacked a speculative effort off the bar with ten minutes remaining.

It was a warning but Malaysia didn’t heed it. End to end the game continued in its basketball style. It was a good example of how two poor sides can produce an entertaining game. The clocked ticked past 90 minutes. Almost there.

Then a silly free kick was conceded as Timor attacked down the right. The ball was swung in to the box and Saro got his head to it for the equaliser. He had been given as much space as those of us up in the stands. It was the ninety second minute. Dejection.

As had been the case throughout the game, the Malaysian players got off lightly from the crowd. I don’t speak Bahasa but it was obvious that whatever insults were hurled they were pretty mild. The ultras drummed and sang on, completing a hugely impressive performance on their part.

I looked across to the stand opposite and saw that the press gallery was almost as empty as the rest of the stadium. I’m pretty sure I could have got myself a press pass if I’d mentioned that I was going to do a write up of the game.

There’s a book I’ve seen in several bookshops here titled ‘How Malaysia Never Reached the World Cup’ by a blogger going by the name of Lucius Maximus (I suspect that’s not their real name) with the tagline ‘a 40 year chronicle of failure.’ I very much doubt that Malaysia will make its World Cup debut in 2018 (the group includes harder opponents such as Saudi Arabia and UAE) but to have any chance at all we better win tomorrow night at home against Palestine. I’ll be there.

Yes, I’m going back. Well, I have a scarf now.

Make mine a treble: watching the Champions League final in a bar in Hong Kong

Champions League final

I was in Hong Kong last weekend for a romantic break with my wife. Remarkably, she did not consider going out at 2.30am to watch the Champions League final a romantic activity befitting of such a weekend. I was thus alone when I took my seat at the ‘Forever Lounge’ bar for the game.

I’m not exaggerating when I say ‘my seat.’ I had enquired at around 10pm if they were going to be showing the game and they said yes but there were only a few seats left and I would have to pay a deposit to reserve one. I handed over 100 Hong Kong dollars while my wife looked at me in bemusement. “It’s the Champions League final darling,” is all I could offer by way of explanation.

When the match kicked off, I gauged the bar to be reasonably evenly split in terms of support for the two teams. There were few replica tops on display (I only counted one Juve top and two Barcelona ones) and the opening goal for Barcelona seemed to excite roughly half of the patrons. It came as quite a surprise when the Juventus equaliser sparked celebrations that were wilder and more widespread.

But back to the opening goal. It was well crafted from Barcelona’s point of view but it was a disaster for Juve. Rakitic was given so much space just outside the six yard box and must have been amazed to be given such a simple opportunity to score after just three minutes. I had written previously that the Italians are ‘masters of denying space.’ Ah, the dangers of predictive punditry. Undeterred, I took to Facebook with a short update – ‘Prediction: game over.’ And I was right, sort of.

Barcelona should have had the game wrapped up by half time. The Rakitic goal was a prelude to a series of further clear cut chances. It was mostly the brilliance of Buffon in the Juve goal that ensured the game wasn’t over by the time the referee blew for the interval. I remained confident in my prediction but had just the tiniest amount of doubt.

At half time I had a chance to reflect on a few things that had struck me so far. The biggest surprise about the game was how open it was. Most of the credit for that goes to Juventus who had chosen to try and attack rather than sit in and seek to nullify Barcelona. I had expected more defensive tactics from the Italians and had anticipated (wrongly as it turned out) that they would start with only one man up front.

It was no surprise that Barca were dominant in terms of possession but their speed on the break was remarkable. Messi, Suarez, and Neymar are not actually the quickest front three but they move the ball incredibly fast and have developed an excellent understanding over the course of their first season playing together.

Another intriguing factor about the first half was that Juve’s 4-4-2 formation with a narrow midfield gave them a man advantage in the middle of the park but they were entirely unable to dominate the Barcelona midfield three. The hype that surrounds Pogba is not unjustified but he is not yet able to control a game at this level by himself.

A few other thoughts occurred to me at half time. Firstly, when did Messi acquire his tattoo sleeve? It was the first time that I’d spotted it and it seemed incongruous with his boyish image. On a related note, where do these players get their hair cut? The match was a parade of ridiculous hairstyles – Pogba, Neymar, and Alves chief among them. And why was Barca’s assistant manager dressed in denim? It’s the Champions League final, even the pundits put on their Sunday (or Saturday night) best for this game.

As I was pondering all of this a curious thing happened. Sat across from me was a group of three guys sharing a bucket of beer. They finished one bucket and the waitress promptly delivered another one. Upon its arrival, one of the guys took a bottle of beer out and proceeded to spend the next minute attempting to open it with his teeth. He eventually succeeded and spat out the bottle top triumphantly.

This display of machismo was rather undone however when he then took the bottle and shared it among the three small glasses that were on the table. It seemed like a lot of effort for a third of a bottle of beer.

The second half began with Barcelona looking to prove me right in my prediction. Neymar missed an excellent chance from a Messi cross and that was the first of three chances for his side in the opening ten minutes of the second period. Once again, the game could and should have been all over.

But then, all of a sudden, my prediction appeared in some jeopardy as Juventus found an equaliser. A low ball into the box was struck towards goal by a swivelling Tevez, the goalkeeper could only parry the ball out and Morata pounced to sweep the ball home. Having a second striker on hand to follow up and score from a rebound illustrated the benefit of playing with two up front (something for coaches to reflect on in an era that’s seen an increasing use of just a solitary striker).

This was clearly now the key moment in the game. Could Juve build some momentum behind their equaliser? Would Barcelona’s confidence start to ebb? Was I going to end up with egg on my face for predicting the winner a mere three minutes into the game?

It didn’t take long to realise that my face would remain egg free. Barcelona regained their rhythm almost immediately and while Juventus continued to pose a sporadic threat it was the Catalans who remained thoroughly in control. Juve did continue to try and press and take the initiative but in doing so they left themselves exposed on the break and it was thus that Suarez restored his side’s lead. Messi was the creator, running directly at and past several defenders before driving a shot that Buffon could only push into the path of a grateful Suarez.

I was relieved and very shortly thereafter my prediction seemed entirely safe when Neymar nodded home a cross. His celebrations were cut short though with the referee correctly ruling that Neymar had used not only head but also hand in the act of scoring. The ‘goal’ was disallowed. In truth Neymar had made a terrible mess of an easy chance.

The game still had a good flow to it and Juventus edged forward in search of a second goal of their own. Time and again however they left themselves short at the back and Barca were able to break with four or five players facing three Juve defenders. The Italians survived these breaks until the very end when Neymar did get his name on the score sheet from yet another incisive Catalan counter attack.

With that the European Cup was headed back to Barcelona and I was headed back to the hotel to get to bed at 5am.

Last season Barcelona didn’t win any trophies and many wondered if it was the end of an era at the Nou Camp or at least the beginning of the end. This season they have a treble to their name – La Liga, Spanish Cup and Champions League. They are without doubt the best club side of this century and the scary thought for rivals is that they may not even have fulfilled their full potential yet. Messi has been revitalised since the turn of the year and at his best he is close to unstoppable.

I’ll make an early prediction for next season’s Champions League: if anyone knocks out Barcelona they will win the tournament.

One final observation on my trip to Hong Kong, it was made in the gents. Over recent years there has been a worldwide move to improve men’s accuracy in the urinal. This has generally involved drawing a target on the point of the urinal that the authorities would prefer that we hit (sometimes it’s a fly, sometimes a frog, or sometimes just an X marks the spot).

In Hong Kong, several establishments have installed small goalposts in the urinal with a ball suspended on string from the crossbar. I think goal line technology would be required to determine whether or not my shot did in fact cross the line.

Gerrard v Xavi

Gerrard pic

Steven Gerrard celebrates. Photo by: terceroinf fmiralcamp http://www.flickr.com

Steven Gerrard and Xavi Hernandez were both born in 1980 (the same year that I was born). Last Saturday, Gerrard celebrated his 35th birthday; Xavi celebrated winning the Spanish Cup. Gerrard had hoped that his own celebrations would coincide with an appearance in the FA Cup final at Wembley but Liverpool’s miserable end of season form put paid to any chance of that.

Gerrard and Xavi are two magnificent midfielders who have both been one club men until now (both are off to enjoy end of career pay days in foreign fields) and have shaped the game in their respective nations over the course of my adult life.

These two players have been one club men in an era of very few such men. Gerrard and Xavi both made their debuts in 1998 just three years after the Bosman ruling came into effect. Club loyalty became almost as hard to find as any sense of shame in Sepp Blatter.

Loyalty plus greatness leads to legendary status and both Gerrard and Xavi leave as club legends. They have embodied Liverpool and Barcelona for more than a decade and a half, defining the sides of which they were a part. They are both inspirational, selfless, and winners. They are also very different players.

The first word that comes to mind when I think of Gerrard is drive; relentless and intense drive. At his peak, he imposed his will on the game and the opposition, seemingly everywhere, always committed to advancing and avoiding retreat. He would charge from box to box, brushing aside most that stood in his way, and with the goal anywhere in sight, unleash a ferocious shot that invariably induced panic in goalkeepers.

Gerrard snapped into tackles and won many more than he lost. As a captain he preferred to lead by example and cajole those around him; very rarely did you see Gerrard launch the sort of violent tirades that were the stock in trade of someone like Roy Keane.

The red mist would descend on occasion however. Gerrard’s sending off against Manchester United at Anfield in March was a dreadful loss of control from a player of his experience. Liverpool’s season never really recovered from that result and performance. The depressing finale to the season meant that Gerrard did not get the opportunity to add one more medal to his collection.

The most famous and cherished of that collection is undoubtedly the Champions League winner’s medal from that extraordinary night in Istanbul. It’s that game which ensures Gerrard’s name at least warrants mention in debates about the greatest Liverpool player of all time. He somehow turned disaster into triumph with a rampaging performance that caused AC Milan to wilt just as they were expecting to waltz to an easy victory.

I’m not sure which set of players were more stunned at the end but Gerrard knew he had risen to the occasion in a once in a lifetime experience. I was left shaking my head in disbelief as I think were most people watching.

The one medal that has eluded Gerrard in his career is a league championship medal. Nobody would have believed that a Liverpool player making their debut in 1998 and being at the club for 17 years would leave without having won the league.

The club came close last year and let’s not blame it on Gerrard’s slip. People seem to forget that Chelsea won that game 2-0 and did so quite comfortably. 3-3 at Crystal Palace was a much bigger and more significant stumble. Last season’s title charge now looks more and more like the combination of Suarez’s superlative form and glaring deficiencies elsewhere in the league.

If failing to win the league is one major regret for Gerrard then the other must be his lack of international success as part of England’s so-called (and rather misnamed) ‘golden generation.’ The golden generation scarcely got near bronze far less gold, and silver linings have been thin on the ground.

Gerrard had a fine England career but like the team generally, struggled to impose himself on the international scene at the very highest level. Gerrard is a technically sound but not supremely gifted footballer. The same is true of virtually all the players that Gerrard has lined up with for England.

The technical shortcomings of the England squad have been a constant lament following international tournaments. Usually, the complaint is that English players ‘cannot pass the ball’ and are ‘unable to keep possession.’

They are guilty of the second charge but it’s not because they lack the ability to pass the ball. Watch Gerrard ping a long pass at his best and it’s every bit as accurate and assured as what Pirlo, or Ribery or Xavi will produce. He can play cleverly weighted short passes as well including defence splitting through balls. So, if passing is not the issue for Gerrard and England then what is?

In a word: movement. Throughout Gerrard’s career, the movement of the Spanish, the Germans, the Dutch, the Italians, the leading South American nations and many other countries (think of a small nation such as Croatia for example) has consistently been vastly superior to that of the English national team.

Xavi embodies this difference. Watch Xavi play – it is especially clear when you watch him live – and you realise that the vast majority of the passes that he plays are incredibly simple. I could be successful with 90 – 95% of them. The key difference is in his movement and the movement of the players around him. For Barcelona and for Spain, just about every time Xavi receives the ball he has more options available than Gerrard has had for Liverpool and England.

Xavi in space. Photo by: Marc Puig i Perez www.flickr.com

Xavi in space. Photo by: Marc Puig i Perez
http://www.flickr.com

The intricate triangles that define tiki taka are created by movement and a sophisticated level of spatial awareness. This is what many English players lack and this is what leads them to concede possession so often.  Xavi meanwhile has arguably the greatest awareness of space in the game. That helps to explain why he always seems to have a little extra time on the ball and a conveniently simple set of passing options.

The game has got quicker over the course of Xavi and Gerrard’s careers, players have become more athletic, and defensive systems have become harder to break down. Each of these factors means that there is an increased premium on the ability to create and exploit space. Xavi is the master of it and so it’s little surprise that Barcelona have been the club side with the defining style of play of the last 15 years or so while Spain can justifiably claim that accolade at the international level.

Xavi is a more technically accomplished footballer than Gerrard. His Barcelona and Spanish teammates are, for the most part, more technically accomplished that Gerrard’s Liverpool and England colleagues but more importantly, Xavi and his teammates have grown up with a different understanding of how to play football. The key to that understanding is the movement of players off the ball to create space and provide options for the player in possession.

How many times have you seen Gerrrad receive the ball, turn, and then look up pleadingly for even a solitary passing option? When Xavi receives the ball and turns, he scarcely needs to look up because he knows not only that options will be available but what those options are likely to be.

Tiki taka has recently been refined, not abandoned as some (including even Guardiola) have suggested. This season Barcelona have been more direct and as I’ve suggested elsewhere, their game is now primarily built on their front three rather than their midfield three as used to be the case.

Xavi, like Gerrard, has not featured as regularly this season. He has often found himself starting on the bench. The Croatian Rakitic has had an excellent debut season at the Nou Camp, taking on much of Xavi’s role while also bringing a more muscular presence to the Barcelona midfield. It is to the immense credit of both Xavi and Gerrard that they have accepted their reduced roles with the utmost grace and professionalism.

These two are team players, always prepared to sacrifice themselves for the greater good. Gerrard in particular has often played out of position and has usually excelled where others are often found sulking. Teammates should consider themselves very fortunate indeed to have played alongside these greats of the modern game.

Both received farewells befitting of their legendary status. It was very sad all the same to witness Liverpool collapse so abjectly in Gerrard’s last game away at Stoke. Nobody could ever accuse him of abject collapse though and he salvaged professional pride with a characteristically committed performance and a coolly taken goal.

Xavi may yet walk away from the Nou Camp with a treble to celebrate. He and his side are two thirds of the way there and face Juventus in the Champions League final on Saturday. The Italian’s are masters at denying space but I expect Barcelona to find just enough to win.

After that, Xavi will head east (rather bizarrely in my view) to play for Al Sadd in Qatar. Gerrard is taking his Hollywood passes to Los Angeles and will be lining up for LA Galaxy.

La Liga and the English Premier League are the biggest two leagues in the world right now. Xavi and Gerrard have been at the heart of the action in those leagues for almost two decades. Jetting off to different continents they can both reflect on the huge mark they have made on the European game. How interesting it would have been to see Gerrard try his luck in Spain or Xavi attempt to conduct the midfield for an English premiership team.

Gerrard is good enough and intelligent enough that he would have adapted to a new style of play. Xavi is so good that any team he joined would probably have adapted to his version of the game and the space that he at once sees and creates.