James Lawton: This was not a great game, nor was it English
How can it be 'our game' when top owners, players and coaches come from abroad?
Thursday 23 April 2009
Andrei Arshavin's finishing was as beautiful as it was technically perfect – and it is not diminished because the match that housed it was so irredeemably flawed, the claim that it was a great one has to be thrown into the nearest bin.
Accompanying it, sadly but unavoidably, must also be the assertion that it was fresh evidence of the growing superiority of English football.
The game was absorbing and often thrilling but it wasn't great because it lacked a vital ingredient: the balance and challenge imposed by a decent level of defence. In such circumstances you can have mesmerising entertainment but not great football. Great football has to be tested, it has to be forged. It is why the game is played on grass not sand.
No it wasn't great and nor was it English because Liverpool and Arsenal started a total of one Englishman each – Jamie Carragher and Kieran Gibbs, both defenders, both made to suffer what they will no doubt hope is the worst embarrassment of their careers.
This is not another cry for a Little England. But what was special was not, as one headline proclaimed Our Game, but that of Spain, for Fernando Torres and Xabi Alonso, of Israel, for the waspish aggression of Yossi Benayoun, and of Russia, for the sublime, two-footed touch of Arshavin.
English football, we shouldn't apologise for sometimes removing the fact from its wraps, was again a distinctly marginal presence.
It supplied two defenders – and the best substitute, Theo Walcott, plainly a player of brilliant substance in his winning battle against odds that have become so onerous his compatriots can now only hope to fill one third of vacancies in their country's top league, and nowhere so much of a break in its highest echelons.
Though it has to be said that if Steven Gerrard had been on the field rather than in the TV studio the absence of English influence would inevitably have been less stark, one set of statistics nevertheless put into the most dismal perspective some of the wilder claims about the benefits heaped upon the national game by the Premier League.
In the starting line-ups, the English presence was ranked alongside those of Denmark and Africa, and below Spain (six players), one less than France and South America, and just one above Israel, Poland, the Netherlands and Russia.
Our game? No, we cannot say that because if our money pays for it through the turnstiles and TV subscriptions, it doesn't control it. Russian and American money does that, and foreign managers picked the teams and the tactics on Tuesday night.
None of these facts which are so often flicked from sight in the rush to celebrate a situation which, unquestionably, produces compelling spectacle, reduced the level of entertainment at Anfield. But, surely the artistry of such as Arshavin and the elemental force of Torres did not completely banish the most fundamental worries about the future of both the national team and the development of young English players who, decades after the best of French prospects were installed in a custom-made establishment in a forest clearing south of Paris, still wait for some of the Premier League largesse to trickle down into a proper English training centre.
Instead, we have a Wembley pitch unfit for the spectacular purpose of Arshavin on Liverpool's excellent surface this week.
Arshavin produced some of the most spectacular marksmanship since the demise of Wyatt Earp. So why do we not enshrine his superb performance in the memory of a great match?
It is because of that missing element which left Liverpool's manager Rafa Benitez (left) understandably numb with frustration at what might well have been the end of his side's challenge to Manchester United. His team had attacked with a passion which has marked so much of their play since the demolition of Real Madrid and the dismemberment of United's defence at Old Trafford last month, but against Arsenal it was betrayed by appalling defence.
Yes, Arshavin was magnificent in confirming an ability which has been seen frequently enough in the past – and not least when he stole in to ransack the much lauded Dutch in last summer's European Championship finals. But Liverpool forgot to produce even a modicum of sound defence and when some say that eight goals inevitably make a great match they repeat the mistake so often made at ringside when the punches of a winner are not properly measured against the adequacy of the resistance they broke down.
A truly great match can produce no more than one goal – it happened in Guadalajara in the 1970 World Cup, when Pele embraced England's Bobby Moore at the end of Brazil's 1-0 victory. The man generally accepted as the greatest player of all time hailed Moore for a performance of superb defence and character – and said that indeed he had never had a tougher battle.
When Arshavin shook his head and laughed and raised four fingers for four chances and four goals he had some good reasons for elation: you cannot, after all, do more than take your chances, and show the range of skill and timing you can bring to the game's most vital art. This remains true however easy the pickings.
United Nations: Countries on show at Anfield
Spain Alonso, Arbeloa, Reina, Riera, Torres (Liverpool), Fabregas (Arsenal)
France Nasri, Sagna, Silvestre (A)
Brazil Aurelio (L), Denilson (A)
Denmark Agger (L), Bendtner (A)
England Carragher (L) Gibbs (A)
Others Mascherano (L, Argentina), Benayoun (L, Israel), Kuyt (L, Netherlands), Fabianski (A, Poland), Touré (A, Ivory Coast), Arshavin (A, Russia), Song (A, Cameroon)
Substitutes used: France Diaby (A), England Walcott (A), Morroco El Zhar (L), Netherlands Babel (L)
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