Like most people, I have been hugely impressed with Bolton Wanderers this year. After 15 league games the Lancashire outfit are flirting with the Champions League places and whilst it is highly unlikely they will reach the Promised Land, their footballing reinvention is as entertaining as it is unfamiliar.
First of all, let’s not be disrespectful to the Bolton of old. Sam Allardyce achieved great success in his time at the Reebok Stadium and he can be proud of the way he took a team from the old Division One to its first taste of European football by exploiting the physical attributes of an athletic and determined bunch of footballers.
Relative success was also achieved under Gary Megson using a direct style of play. When he took over from Big Sam’s replacement, Sammy Lee, Bolton were in distinct danger of losing their top level accreditation until Megson rallied the players and staved off the dreaded drop.
However, with their new found passion for passing and moving, Bolton have become a far more aesthetically pleasing proposition than they have been in past years.
In Owen Coyle, they have found a manager who knows exactly how he wants his side to play and how to get his men to follow his instructions. The transformation has been gradual, but after 11 months and a summer transfer window Coyle is beginning to stamp his philosophy all over the football club.
The Scotsman’s success in revamping a team previously derided for their physical approach and turning them into an outfit capable of taking points off the best sides in the league (and in the process scoring goals like Mark Davies’ versus Blackpool and Johan Elmander’s versus Wolves) serves to disparage suggestions that English footballers cannot compete on the World stage because they are not technically gifted enough.
The manner in which Spain claimed World Cup glory highlights the deficiencies in the way English footballers are bred compared to youth on the continent. Yet it is possible to take a supposedly inferior side to cup success on the back of tactical and motivational genius, as proved by Jose Mourinho when his Inter Milan outwitted Barcelona in last year’s Champions League semi-final.
English Premier League players are by definition talented. If you ask them to look after the ball and use it intelligently they can respond. It is up to the manager to dictate how he wants his side to play and Coyle has shown just how big an influence the leader can have.
We have seen managers such as Harry Redknapp and Ian Holloway overhaul ailing teams by getting players to believe in their philosophy. They engender a complete change in culture by encouraging their teams to exploit their own strengths and prevent other teams playing to theirs.
At the moment, England appear to lack belief in their play and, as against Germany in the summer, are often out-thought tactically. However, despite the recent spate of inept England performances, we should not abandon all hope that our beloved national side can be moulded into a far more competitive unit than we are currently resigned to witnessing.
France were the only side to board a plane home from South Africa in greater disarray than the 3 Lions. Few would have predicted then that France could so easily upstage Fabio Capello’s men when the two sides met in the recent friendly at Wembley.
There was an obvious gulf in class between the two sides on the night and it cannot be all down to the quality of player available to Les Bleus. Not only did France crash out of this summer’s World Cup at the group stage, they also failed to get past the first round in the 2008 European Championships with their crop of talent.
But the French regenerated in the immediate aftermath of their World Cup embarrassment. Whereas we talked about change, the French administered change. Laurent Blanc replaced the enigmatic and at times mystifying Raymond Domenech in the managerial hot seat and he has since imposed a revitalised attitude.
Players deemed to be an unsettling influence were either banned or discarded whilst fresh, hungry faces such as Samir Nasri were drafted in determined to restore some national pride.
In England’s first post-South Africa game at home to Hungary, Fabio Capello dabbled with new names and a new formation. By the time the European Qualifiers began, many of the tried and tested returned to play in the same system that had failed in the World Cup.
Although Capello did blood the likes of Andy Carroll and Jordan Henderson versus the French, it is beyond the realms of reason to think a new breed can change the fortunes of a despairing nation without being inspired by those in charge or deployed in a way that encourages their talent to flourish.
It may well take a complete overhaul of the youth set up and the coaching techniques in this country before we can expect to see consistent success at international level, but in the short term aspirations of competing with the great nations of world football can still be achieved.
England have players capable of gracing a major international competition. The current, or next, England manager needs to take a leaf out of Owen Coyle’s book and find a way to breed new belief into his players, to convince them that they are capable of exceeding their current level.
In Joe Hart, Rio Ferdinand, Steven Gerrard and Wayne Rooney we still have a world class spine. In Adam Johnson, Jack Wilshire and James Milner we have youngsters of the highest potential. A manager giving them the right guidance might just make all the difference.