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Joe Cole’s career is symptomatic of everything that is wrong with English football



Joe has himself a Liverpool jersey – it may well be a good move, but he is still an apt example of the counter-productive manner in which English football treats its creative players. 

English football is full of ill-conceived ideas, but its predilection for heart and graft over art and craft is the most frustrating of them all. This week, with Joe Cole’s move to Liverpool confirmed and a place on the left wing waiting for him, was just another reminder – after the World Cup – of what the flawed football culture in this country does to players with more talent than ‘guts’. 

At 17 Joe Cole was the hottest star in England and a classic number 10. His ability to find space and substantiate his play with goals and assists made him an excellent player to watch and an effective enough player to be linked with a £10 million move to Manchester United. And yet, ten years on and Cole finds himself moving to Liverpool on a free transfer following marginalisation at Chelsea, where he was unable to get into the team and forced out wide when he did get a game. His experience in South Africa, where he made two brief substitute appearances for England on the wing, ran around a lot, but ultimately failed to live up to the media hype beforehand, summed up his career to date.  

Mourinho - acting as an agent of English football - started the transformation from butterfly to caterpillar when he arrived at Chelsea and insisted that Cole worked harder tracking back and played him on the left-hand side of a midfield five. The Special One argued that teams – in the Premier League and European competitions – couldn’t afford a player with the kind of purely attacking mandate Cole had become accustomed to at West Ham, particularly in a central position.

Quickly, Cole moved from a classic number 10, to a rudimentary wide-man with strict defensive duties. And at the time the move was lauded as a crucial part of his development into a more well-rounded, better player. Mourinho explained that he wanted him to keep his “beautiful face” and only replace his “other face” which saw him lacking when “[Mourinho] needed 11 players for [his] defensive organisation and [he] had just 10″.  And it worked for Chelsea, just as Wesley Sneijder’s defensive efforts worked for Mourinho’s Inter last season, but it nullified Cole’s attacking instincts far more than it did Sneijder’s – he has just 13 assists to show for his last 3 seasons of football.

Adding hard work to the likes of Joe Cole’s game, logically, restricts them – it is not simply an added dimension. An attacking player’s defensive duties are essentially about pressing opposition space: not only does that make their own search for space difficult: it is a directly competing priority. The two can be done successfully, as Sneijder has shown, yet the compromise remains significant and a burden that most players cannot handle – it made Joe Cole less of a joy to watch and, ironically, less effective as his falling number of assists shows.

Interestingly, Fabio Capello, with experience beyond English football, has also shied away from offering a free-role to the new Liverpool signing, or any other player for that matter. Yet Capello’s scepticism, rather than representative of the football world’s, is a symptom of the conservative coaches that the FA favour when making appointments – Steve McClaren and Sven Goran Eriksson were both defensively orientated. The World Cup showed us – or those of us that hadn’t been watching the Champions League at least – that the most successful teams benefit from creative players free of defensive responsibilities. Spain has Xavi and Iniesta, the Netherlands has Sneijder, Germany has Ozil, England has…no-one.

England has no-one because Joe Cole is one of many players to have fallen victim to English insistence on rigidity – namely, a dislike of number 10s. Wayne Rooney, for one,  was touted as a link man in his early Everton days and even after his move to Manchester United, where he began playing off Ruud Van Nistelrooy. However, his lack of goals led to allegations of unfulfilled potential, until last season when Sir Alex moved him further up the pitch to become a – yes – rudimentary striker.

What’s the problem – Rooney was excellent alone up-front? For Manchester United, a team that boasts two excellent wingers (Nani and Antonio Valencia) to supply the ammunition, there is no problem. But for England, Rooney’s reliance on other players is limiting and can leave him isolated (even with a subservient partner up-front with him, offering support) because – and this, ironically, completes the cycle – there are so few players in the squad that can create the opportunities he craves.

English football still treats play with aesthetic value with suspicion, regardless of its outcome. It is this same suspicion that leads to assertions about Spain’s tiki taka, regardless of its success, being somehow superfluous. And as long as that mentality remains, English football will always find ways to eliminate creative players from its midst. It will negate their abilities by forcing them to track back, it will push them into simplistic roles that it can understand, or, worst of all, it will injure them so that they can’t play at all. Ask Joe Cole.

  • bazbos

    clearly a Man Utd fan coz anyone who thinks Nani and Valencia are two excellent wingers have most defo got blinkers on

  • Matilda

    He's a West Brom fan…

  • Antix1

    We written article, write on the money. I find it frustrating that with all the talent the EPL has to offer, their talents have been limited by overly organised defensive tactics that tend to squash creativity, which is a damn shame. Liverpool are a prime example, as in the years of Rafa tenure, for some reason he didnt like overly creative players, Alonso is the best example. Why he chose to rid alonso and want to bring in Barry i will never know, but this attitude of winning games with a defensive mentality has to stop. It is destroying the beauty of the game, and as you have stated, it is destroying English football and the the National team. But i guess win at any cost is more important…

  • Ethan

    I'm not! Honest. West Brom all the way! Do I need to start shouting 'Baggies'?

    Nani and Valencia are good? They got loads of assists last season!

  • Ethan

    Still, thanks for reading.

  • Ethan

    Thanks. Let's hope Jack Wilshere can navigate through English football without being ruined…

  • Raymond

    I don't think Joe Cole became a worse player when he was moved out wide. He was Chelsea's player of the year for 2007/08 and was a close run for 2005/06, when Mourinho was still there. His troubles were mainly caused by the injury he got in January 2009 that kept him out for 9 months, afterwards he found that he didn't fit into Ancelotti's diamond as Malouda was more on form and had naturally better defensive qualities, while Lampard could not be sacrificed for his consistent assists and goal scoring. When it came to it Chelsea would have kept him had he been happy to accept a contract with less lucrative terms but obviously Cole felt his previous record at Chelsea meant he should be paid over £120,000 a week like Drobga, Lampard or Terry.

  • Ethan

    I'd agree that he didn't become a worse player (I might try and make that clearer). And you're right that he often played well out wide, but my main point was that as a creative force he was nulified, which I stand by – look at the assists. He became a player that 'did a job' for the team, rather than one that changed games (regularly).

    As you point out, he was wanted at Chelsea, only not with his wage demands. But surely that says something about how highly clubs value creative players – particularly given the players you've mentionned on the highest wages?

  • Micky Phillips

    Were you drunk when you wrote this? I'm assuming you're aware of the fact Mourihno, Capello and Eriksson are all foreign coaches? Yet in your argument about the English being obsessed with defensive tactics which stifle creative players, all the coaches (but for McClaren) that you mention are in fact foreign. Where do you get the idea that the English view aesthetically pleasing football with suspicion? I don't know of anyone who doesn't love to watch the passing and movement of Spain or Barcelona, every English/British pundit I hear is the same. Most people agree Arsenal are the best footballing side in the country and wish their sides could emulate their football and combine this with results. The simple fact is that there is too much of a culture of needing to win, right up from the grass roots level. And winning at that level usually means the biggest, strongest kids prevail. Other countries orgainse their youth football in different ways and concentrate on improving technical ability rather than winning matches. Teams like Spurs and Arsenal have recently followed suit and removed their reserve sides from competion in order to nurture their players and their skills in non competitive environments where the focus is solely on improving their technicial level. These things will not improve over night, it will take years. Englands problem at the World Cup was not a complete lack of technical ability and reliance on heart and graft as you put it… Gerrard, Cole, Rooney, Milner, Carrick… these are all technically gifted players. Ferdinand is one of the most comfortable CBs on the ball in the world. The issue was that Capello, as was the case with our previous two managers, did not have the balls to drop certain players and we continued to play with players who did not complement each other.

  • Micky Phillips

    Oh and who probably played the most attacking football amongst the top 6 last year? Tottenham. Nationality of the manager? English.

  • Ethan

    “Interestingly, Fabio Capello, with experience beyond English football, has also shied away from offering a free-role to the new Liverpool signing, or any other player for that matter. Yet Capello’s scepticism, rather than representative of the football world’s, is a symptom of the conservative coaches that the FA favour when making appointments – Steve McClaren and Sven Goran Eriksson were both defensively orientated.”

    “Mourinho – acting as an agent of English football -”

    You don't have to be English to be a part of English football.

    Technically gifted English players are the exception, not the rule. And I was talking relatively specifically about number 10s.

    I agree with the stuff you say about youth football, but that hardly contradicts what I had to say.

  • Ethan

    I'm not sure I understand your point.

  • Raymond

    The main reason he wasn't valued at £120,000 by Chelsea wasn't because he was the creative type, but because Chelsea have players paid less who made a greater contribution last season, e.g. Anelka, Malouda, even Mikel. The main reason was his own lacklustre performances after a long injury and not being able to break into the first XI of a side chasing trophies on all fronts.

  • woolfiesmiff

    What a load of utter utter utter drivel. Have you even seen Joe Cole play in the last 18 months. He is not the player he was since his injury. He was given the chance to play in his favoured position behind the striker and he was appalling.

    Let me tell you why England doesn't have enough good players.

    1) For nearly 20 years the Labour Government banned competitive sport in school and sold off the playing fields

    2) We have no grass roots coaching structure and young kids play on pitches that are too big

    3) Their fat, lazy, boozy fathers stand on the touchline screaming, get stuck in, break 'is legs blah blah blah

    4) As foreign coaches like Jose M pointed out English coaches don't train with a ball

  • woolfiesmiff

    Oh for crying out loud, why let the facts get in the way of a good grizzle.

    This article is about Joe Cole and attacking football…..duh…you obviously missed the team that JC played for last year scored 103 goals a new record and put 7 or more goals past 4 teams in one season.

    Yeh snivel, grizzle English teams can't play football, they're all kick and rush, up and under defensive sides 7-2 7-1 7-0 8-0 5-0 5-0 4-0 4-0 etc etc jeez look at all those nil's obviously defence is the priority

  • Ethan

    Injury has affected Joe Cole – I agree: “It will negate their abilities by forcing them to track back, it will push them into simplistic roles that it can understand, or, worst of all, it will injure them so that they can’t play at all.”

    I agree with a lot of your points, but they don't make mine drivel.

  • Ethan

    I don't know if I can be bothered to explain the subtleties to you. I will say that there is a difference between attacking and creative players.

  • Ethan

    That's true, and the link between his style and him not getting a contract isn't direct, but the fact that he couldn't get into the team, which lead to him not getting the contract, was partially because he didn't fit into the system, which is because Chelsea didn't want a number 10 style player, or a skillful winger anymore.

    Joe Cole was just an example and I did give evidence of a more general dislike of number 10s in English football.

    It's late, I'll think about it more. Thanks for being reasonable in the discussion – unlike certain others.

  • Will

    A very astute post, interesting points. I'm a Chelsea fan, loved to watch Joe Cole on his day and truly wish him the best at Liverpool. Mourinho had an effect on his play, sure, but I think injuries – indeed perhaps caused by defensive efforts – have led to his decline. Here's to hoping he can recover his form in a Liverpool jersey… as much as it pains me to say. I think he can. Your other points on English football are well said.

  • Madlife

    but: cole didn't sign for mourinho…he signed for ranieri…who he did nothing for. what great performance was there by cole dor ranieri's chelsea? there wasn't one. what about west ham? the weren't a great team but his performances didn't merit them slapping a higher transfer fee on him than they did glen johnson. after mourinho left joey didn't really show much either. scholari & ancelotti weren't all about inflicting defensive roles on attacking players & cole didn't shine under them. how about: joe cole is an over-rated, one-paced show-pony & would have been that no matter where he'd played. that sums him up.

  • Lewis Orr

    To back Ethan up here: look at Matt le Tissier and Glenn Hoddle. The years they played in, Hoddle (about 1980-1987) and Le Tissier (1992-1999) were pretty unsuccessful. If they had built their teams around the no.10's they had they would have achieved better results. I mean, Le Tissier won just 8 caps. Hoddle won 53 which is a fair few but Platini once said “if Hoddle was French he would have won 150 caps”.

  • Lewis Orr

    By years that they played in, I meant that they would have got in the English team. Not the length of their careers just the years where they were excellent.

  • Mart

    The best teams in the country generally win the League. How many have Arsenal won in the last few years ?
    Manchester United and Chelsea are the best teams at the moment period.
    Both play exceptional football pleaseing to the eye.
    Gerrard, Cole, Rooney, Milner, Carrick… these are all technically gifted players what a pity none produced it at the world cup that's if Gerrard, Rooney and Milner all turned up.

  • Bense235

    We had that mentality back in 2000, when anybody was picking on the players that they didn't run, fight or tackle enough. I nowadays football, that's basics. That's the minimum. You're not gonna win games solely with that anymore, not even against supposedly smaller nations.

  • evan

    Hey Ethan, first time poster here to back you up! There certainly is a difference between attacking and creative players. Xavi doesn't score a lot of goals, but he sure sets them up well. Neither does Antonio Valencia, but he put in a bunch of assists and was arguably the best right winger in the league last season (as a Man U fan I'm biased but still….). As for Joe Cole, as the Guardian put it he's the one England player everyone seemed to love. Even I love Joe Cole, despite my dislike of Chelsea. Despite his injury record I still hope Cole can fulfill his early promise at Liverpool. The way things are going for them, they're going to need it.

  • Arturikomboy

    Back then, Joe Cole, Scott Parker and Wayne Rooney all had the playmaking flair in the likes of Glenn Hoddle and Paul Gascoigne. Even Joe Cole had been given Gazza's famous number 19 shirt.
    Well too bad the English game doesn't give much thought about central playmaking. If things had gone well at that time, we could be seeing Scott Parker in par with Bastian Schweinsteiger or Van Bommel.
    Wayne Rooney, well he is all around player and somehow survived the hype. But with his talent at playmaking, England should be getting more out of him.
    I hope English FA learned their mistakes very well.
    The only way Gerrard and Lampard can combine well is to give them position as a double holding midfielder and limiting their responsibilities to score their own and give marauding duties to other players.
    And please put a limit on foreign players in EPL. That is a must!

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