Youth and cohesion have their say

The less said about England’s 4-1 defeat at the hands of Germany, and of the refereeing in that match and the Argentina-Mexico match, the better. Instead, I’ll make two general observations prompted by the weekend’s matches.
The kids are alright. I should pay closer attention to youth competitions and Olympic soccer. I follow them a bit, and recognize that they can help identify teams to watch down the road. But I’ve never viewed them as indicative of what’s going to happen at major competitions in the very short term. Too many young stars have failed to make an impact in their first World or European Cup.
But this year, Ghana’s championship under-20 team has produced a number of quality players in the side that defeated the U.S. in extra time to make the final 8 of the World Cup. And key players in Germany’s European under-21 champs helped take down England yesterday. Ironically, Germany defeated England in the finals of that competition last summer by 4-0, a rout comparable to yesterday’s. By the way, England might have lasted a little longer in the World Cup if it had started Joe Hart, its outstanding goal-keeper in that U-21 competition, this summer, instead of keeping him on the bench in favor of Robert Green, without whose blunder against the U.S., England might have avoided Germany, and David James (England did use James Milner, who captained and starred for the U-21 team).
For club and country. Before the “have boots, will travel” era of big-time soccer, some countries built their World Cup around a domestic club. For example, the Soviet Union sometimes used mostly players from Dynamo Kiev (now a Ukrainian team). And the Dutch at times relied heavily on players from the great Ajax sides.
That’s just about impossible to do now. For example, the European club champs, Inter Milan, often plays not a single Italian (they aren’t Internazionale Milan for nothing). Other big clubs aren’t quite that extreme, but it’s rare for one of them to start a significant number of players from their home country.
But there is a major exception that I think is influencing the World Cup — Bayern Munich. Three members of the attacking quartet that took down England yesterday — Miroslav Klose, Thomas Muller, and Mesut Ozil [correction: Ozil actually plays for Werder Breman] — play for Bayern (Muller and Ozil were also recent under-21 stars). The fourth, Lucas Podolski, was with Bayern for three years. Two more players who help orchestrate the attack — Bastian Schweinsteiger and Phillip Lahm — also play for Bayern.
The resulting understanding among the players goes a long way towards explaining the cohesion and fluency of Germany’s attack. There isn’t a recognized superstar in the core attacking attacking quartet (though Ozil is on the verge of becoming one). Indeed, Podolski and Klose scored only five goals between them in league play this year. But the whole is much greater than the sum of the parts.
That, of course, is the reverse of the English attack. But should we be surprised? The five primary attacking players yesterday all play for different clubs (Rooney-Manchester United, Defoe-Tottenham, Milner-Aston Villa, Gerrard-Liverpool, and Lampard-Chelsea). Argentina overcomes this issue with phenomenal talent and the genius of Lionel Messi. Brazil overcomes it with the near-genius of Kaka and an attacking unit that has been playing together in big international matches for several years. But England lacks quite the same level of talent and, having missed out on the big Euro-2008 tournament, has not had as many opportunities to attain cohesion.
Is their another pocket of players in the tournament that has the advantage of playing together at the club level” To some extent, there is. Spain usually starts three midfielders — Xavi, Iniesta, and Busquets — who play together for Barcelona. So do the two Spanish center backs, Puyol and Pique.