Germany and Italy both suffered a turbulent few days in the past week after poor performances at the weekend: the Germans lost at home to Japan 4-1 and eventually fired coach Hansi Flick, while Italy were held to an unimpressive 1-1 draw by North Macedonia.
They both won on Tuesday night — Germany defeating France and Italy besting Ukraine to put their Euro 2024 qualification back on track — but we still got to hear the usual array of senseless knee-jerk reactions. They range from pretentious guff about the general decline of society (especially in Germany) to endless fretting about the quality of youth development and domestic players being denied opportunities by “cheap foreign imports” (mostly in Italy).
In fact, it’s really simple. In the vast majority of cases, there are three reasons a team loses a game: either the opposition has better players (which wasn’t the case for Germany or Italy on Saturday night and isn’t the case most of the times they take the pitch), the coach makes poor decisions (or his team doesn’t execute them, for whatever reason) and chance or luck or randomness. It’s always some combination of those three.
You can’t control chance, luck and randomness. You can change national team coaches. For different reasons, Germany and Italy did that.
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As for having better players, sure, if they’re orders of magnitude better than the opposition, that may offset poor coaching decisions or misfortune and happenstance. And when you’re talking about a national team, there’s really only one way (especially now that FIFA have cracked down on dubious country switches… remember this?) to get better players: develop them.
You can’t acquire them, you have to grow them. Hence the focus on youth development. And while it’s no doubt important, there are some home truths here. For starters, it’s a slow burn. Pouring resources into youth coaching and infrastructure, redesigning coaching manuals, deemphasizing results over development — all these are worthwhile pursuits, but if you stunk it up in World Cup qualifying, they won’t fix your team for at least another two more cycles, which means eight years or more.
What’s more — at least when it comes to mature, developed football nations with money, like Germany and Italy — they’re pretty close to “best practices” anyway and have been for a long time. Football associations continually share knowledge and copy each other.
Assuming they ever existed, gone are the days when Italian kids would spend hours standing around to work on defensive tactical positioning, Portuguese kids would dribble endlessly and without purpose, German kids would bulk up and run forever in straight lines and English kids would just lump the ball up the pitch to the brawny center-forward who needed to shave before his 14th birthday. Everybody is more sophisticated, everybody is doing — for the most part — the same things. And, in any case, everybody tends to lose control of the kids — at least the ones good enough to one day play for the national team — by the time they’re 14, because they’re usually at a club academy by then.
In other words, you can maybe do things better (heck, you can always do things better), but you’re not really going to do things differently.
The other big fallacy concerns foreign players and playing time. The idea is that gifted domestic youngsters don’t develop into talented superstar pros because their path is blocked by foreign players: they never get a chance to play, so they don’t improve.
For national team coaches who have a very limited pool of players from which to choose, it’s a theory that sounds clever (to a point) and, yes, it’s true that Italy’s Serie A and Germany’s Bundesliga rank first and fourth, respectively, in this 2022 CIES Football Observatory study charting the percentage of minutes played by overseas players. There are two fundamental problems with this argument, though.
First, if you are a talented youngster who isn’t getting on the pitch for whatever reason, you can always move abroad and prove your worth. And even if you’re a talented senior pro, you might want to move abroad anyway to play for a bigger, better club. Fourteen in the German squad and eleven in the Italy squad either play for foreign clubs or have done so in the past. So using domestic league minutes as a benchmark is silly.
The other issue is that if we believe having too many foreign players in your domestic leagues hurts your national team, how does one explain England? The Premier League has the second highest percentage of foreign players, and yet, in the past three major tournaments, this England team has been as strong as any in the 150-year history of the FA. Oh, and they’re pretty darn good at youth level too, having won a gaggle of trophies in recent years: the U17 World Cup in 2017, the U19 Euros in 2022, the U20 World Cup in 2017 and the U21 Euros this past summer. Sure, they’ve upgraded facilities and spend a ton on youth development relative to developing nations, but then so do Germany and Italy.
Could it be that competing for playing time actually makes players better? And being exposed to senior pros from every corner of the globe gives players a better-rounded understanding of the modern game, while helping them grow? I think we know the answer to that.
The unsexy truth is that generations of talent come in cycles, that nature is as big a part as nurture. You can — and should — build a fancy, high-end pipeline and you should make it as big as you can to ensure you don’t miss out on the Mbappes and Haalands of the future, but there’s no guarantee that an Mbappe or a Haaland will flow through it. There’s an element of randomness to world-class talent that no amount of coaching and infrastructure can conjure up out of thin air.
Does that mean world-class players are born and not made? Not quite, because you still need to spot the talent (hence the size of the pipeline) and create an environment where they can develop, and if that underlying talent (not just physical, but mental too) isn’t there, there’s only so much you can do.
Consider Barcelona’s vaunted academy, La Masia. We all swooned at the team that contained Lionel Messi, Xavi, Andres Iniesta, Sergio Busquets and the other homegrown youngsters that went on to set Europe alight. But if La Masia really was the secret ingredient, how is it possible that in the 11 years between Busquets’ debut in 2008 and Ansu Fati’s debut in 2019, their most gifted academy graduate who actually had an impact on the first team was — with all due respect — Sergi Roberto?
Or cast your mind back to Iceland.
In 2016 they reached the quarterfinals of the Euros, beating Roy Hodgson’s England along the way. Two years later they qualified for the World Cup. Documentaries and case studies were made extolling the genius of a tiny nation of 380,000 capable of reaching such heights. Commentators extolled the brilliance of the Icelandic FA in building all-weather pitches all over the island and adopting the most progressive coaching techniques.
Well, they haven’t qualified for anything since 2018, and likely won’t for the foreseeable future, considering they’re second-bottom of their Euro 2024 qualifying group and have already lost to the likes of Bosnia and Herzegovina and Luxembourg. Their FIFA world ranking, which stood as high as 18, is now 67, behind Cape Verde.
What happened to the all-weather pitches and the progressive coaching? Presumably they’re still there. And presumably, that’s not what made them so good, but rather the presence of players like Gylfi Sigurdsson, Aron Gunnarsson, Birkir Bjarnason and others. They’re all gone, and the guys who replaced them aren’t as good. That’s not because Iceland’s youth development now stinks, but simply because those are once-in-a-lifetime talents (by Icelandic standards) and you can’t plan on them regularly rolling off an assembly line. You simply have to be prepared when they turn up.
Germany and Italy, for a number of reasons — some common to both, some not — have had a rough ride of late. It’s worth understanding why in a rational, measured way. Ideally, without the doom-mongering and knee-jerk reactions we in the commentariat are so prone to.