There Should Be No ‘I’ In European Group Qualification

This article is a submission for the Soccerlens Football Writing Competition; to participate, please read the details here.

Written by Gordon Kelly.

It has long been argued in the beautiful game that there is no ‘I’ in team, no individual above a system, no player bigger than his club — or country.

Following England’s latest convincing 3-0 win against Estonia yesterday — that’s five on the bounce it might be added — this is perhaps a lesson that previously beleaguered boss Steve McClaren is only just beginning to learn.

In choosing not to recall Chelsea vice captain and club goal scoring machine Frank Lampard in favour of new national hero Gareth Barry, McClaren showed the team, the system, the country is more important than one of the side’s biggest names.

It was the second time in a month McClaren had pulled the trick. In September he recalled the previously derided Emile Heskey to lead the line in a pair of 3-0 victories against Israel and Russia, a move which showed he was more interested in getting the best out of some of his leading lights, than trying to include them all. For sure, the move may have been pressured by a recovering Michael Owen, but in bravely choosing to stick with Barry over Lampard against Estonia, this time the decision was all his.

Of course this is a methodology long understood by English football’s most wily and successful managers. Over the years Alex Ferguson has unceremoniously dropped the likes of Andrei Kanchelskis, Mark Hughes, Gary Pallister and Ruud van Nistelrooy for what has ultimately turned out to be for the good of the team. Only recently in fact did he admit just one — the sale of Jaap Stam to Lazio in 2001 — was probably a mistake.

Over at Arsenal the story is much the same. Arsene Wenger has sold Nicolas Anelka, Marc Overmars, Emmanuel Petit, Freddie Lundberg, Robert Pires, Patrick Viera and now the unthinkable: Thierry Henry — all to the ultimate benefit of his free-flowing side. Were some of these players better than the ones who replaced them in the Emirates’ starting XI? Probably, but few would doubt Arsenal look a far better proposition this season after offloading their key talisman.

By contrast, we only need look at Chelsea for the damaging effect the additions of Ballack and Shevchenko, two genuinely world class superstars, have had on a previously close-knit and back-to-back title winning team.

Interestingly, the elimination of the ‘I’ was something McClaren himself tried to embody when he was first appointed as national team coach back in April 2006. In dropping David Beckham — from the squad, not just the team — he declared his intention to sweep away the set-in-stone starting 11 policy for which Sven-Göran Eriksson was so strongly derided. Then again, with Beckham aged 31, in a run of poor form and again facing a tide of national criticism it could be argued that for McClaren it was a soft decision.

What is more McClaren soon found himself repeating the mistakes of the taciturn Swede choosing to stick with the mismatched Lampard/Gerrard axis and, in his disastrous attempt to play Rooney as a target man, pushing his star square peg into a commonly known round hole.

Just as embarrassing for McClaren, England’s descent was mirrored by Scotland’s revival. First Walter Smith then Alex McLeish inspired their country by adopting an approach focused on a strong work ethic and — vitally — finding the best partnerships throughout the side.

Consequently a team whose star names are the relative low lights of James McFadden, Kenny Miller, Barry Ferguson and Craig Gordon this evening head a qualification group that includes France, Italy and perennial dark horses Ukraine. It is a system which has not been kind to Rangers’ goal machine Kris Boyd — arguably a better striker than ex-Celtic misfit Kenny Miller — but Steve take notes.

History tells us a similar story. Just look at 1992 Danish and 2004 Greek European Championship winning teams, the former built around maximising the talent of just two famous brothers, the latter working solely on the collective. Similarly, the only dissenters to the French 1998 World Cup winning squad are likely to be the notable absentees of Eric Cantona and David Ginola.

Furthermore, what excuses would a Brazilian side featuring the sardine-packed talents of Ronaldo, Ronaldinho, Robinho, Adriano and Kaka want to give to the victorious Italians in the 2006 World Cup? We already know the hard luck stories of Beckham, Lampard, Gerrard, Rooney and Owen…

Lest be it said, this is not an argument against talent or superstars, it is an argument in favour of combinations.

Back to the present and this seems to be the crucial lesson Steve McClaren is learning — just in time to save his own job and England’s European qualification chances . Naturally enough, with a midweek crunch match against Russia in Moscow, there is talk McClaren will experiment with a 3-5-2 formation in order to once again include both Gerrard and Lampard.

For the sake of English football Steve, please don’t.

This article is a submission for the Soccerlens Football Writing Competition; to participate, please read the details here.

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