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Those of you living in America probably couldn't stop hearing about last weekend's big National Football League game in London, the third such contest in three years, in which the New England Patriots tonked Malcolm Glazer's hapless Tampa Bay Buccaneers — who have cut costs to the bone this season, and we can all have a guess as to why.
Despite the NFL's talk of how quickly their showpiece sells out Wembley Stadium each year and how the league could add more London games in the future because of that success, the truth is that England doesn't really care all that much. Far more sports fans in that country (and its press) were more concerned with Liverpool's win over Manchester United and the swine flu scare at Stamford Bridge on Sunday than they were about two random NFL teams ripping up the sod in Wembley. As a sporting event, the London Bowl is mostly manufactured hype, an NFL specialty.
Two rather notable figures in English football, however, seem to believe their colleagues have quite a lot to learn from American football.
In his recent column for The Guardian, Portsmouth goalkeeper David James revealed that England manager Fabio Capello sat down last weekend with Mike Holmgren, a former NFL head coach who's been to three Super Bowls with the Green Bay Packers and Seattle Seahawks and won one of them, to discuss coaching ideas and techniques. Capello, James reveals, has borrowed several ideas from the NFL for the England squad — most notably increased film study of training sessions and opponents' tendencies.
James in particular seems to be a big proponent of film study:
I've taken to doing my own video work with a psychologist. Video analysis highlights the gap between perception and reality – your awareness of space and time during a game can be so distorted you are unable to assess accurately every detail on the pitch, a problem that can affect managers as much as players.
James also admitted that his visits to several NFL teams in 2003 made "a huge impression" on him, and that he was stunned by how much emphasis was put on individual aspects of the game. He noted how much time players spent together studying in the film room and how closely Jim Zorn, then a quarterbacks coach for the Seahawks, worked with the team's QBs to improve their skills. He went on to write that he's never seen any English football club do anything similar:
I've never been at a club where we sit down as a formation – a defensive or offensive group – and spend time working out systems. That's just not the culture in England, where we seem to have this idea that sitting in a video room for any amount of time is boring and the wrong thing to do.
James finished his column by stating that if he ever gets into management, he plans on borrowing even more ideas from NFL than Capello has — beginning with a more robust coaching staff:
Imagine if we had kicking coaches, heading coaches, attack coaches, defence coaches. Why not? We have keepers who can't kick the ball properly, and strikers who can't head. Why wouldn't you want to give them additional coaching to improve their all-round game? … Whatever you would spend on these specialist coaches, it would be a drop in the ocean compared to players' wages. Not investing in them seems a false economy.
What I would like to know is this — why haven't most EPL clubs done this already? Or have they? Do the clubs that haven't simply assume that this sort of training only works at the youth level, and that adult footballers no longer need it? Are players tasked with finding their own instruction outside of regular training? Are managers simply holding on to archaic traditions because they fear other coaches would attempt to usurp their authority? Or do they simply think that too many cooks will spoil the broth?
It seems almost abhorrent to suggest that the beautiful game would somehow be less beautiful if clubs paid more attention to details, group tactics and specific skills like heading and free kick accuracy. Perhaps the only question is which club will be first to invest in the heftier coaching staff and enhanced video suites necessary to focus on those details. Arsenal already has the latter at its London Colney facility, which Capello uses with the England team for film study. So perhaps Arsene Wenger is slightly ahead of the curve. On the other hand, Arsenal hasn't won any trophies since 2005, and that's the true measure of success, isn't it?
Chances are little will change at the club level until one club that takes a chance on these ideas wins some real hardware. Perhaps it will be left to Capello and James to prove that the beautiful game might actually have something to learn from the gridiron game after all.