England could learn from Spain's Raul and Germany's Ballack situations
Victorious international sides' blueprint for success is often viewed somewhat favourably in hindsight, and recent World Cup victories of Spain and Germany have prompted considerable praise of their long-term, overarching approaches: Spain's insistence upon technical possession football, the way Germany completely overhauled their academy system.
Both these concepts are to be respected and admired, but ultimately it comes down to managerial decision-making about specific players too. In both these aspects, Spain and Germany exploded into top-class sides when their managers had jettisoned a legendary player.
In the opening years of the 21st century, Spain based their side around Raul. The legendary Real Madrid attacker spent a decade banging in the goals at international level and became the country's all-time top scorer, but reached a status where he'd become too dominant.
An unquestionably wonderful footballer who was a little unfortunate never to win the Ballon d'Or (Michael Owen beat him into second place in 2001), Raul became a difficult player to accommodate. He was a peculiar player; a "nine-and-a-half," perhaps, who thrived upfront alongside Fernando Morientes for both club and country when top sides were unashamedly playing two upfront.
Raul's position in the side became less certain, however, because of the rise of both David Villa and Fernando Torres, the duo who complete Spain's all-time top three goal scorers. Raul gradually fell out of favour ahead of World Cup 2006, with Luis Garcia starting just behind Villa and Torres in Spain's first two group matches in Germany. Raul was recalled for the second round defeat to France, playing behind Torres and Villa, but he failed to inspire.
Raul's days were numbered. Spain suffered a shock 3-2 defeat to Northern Ireland in qualification for Euro 2008, with a 4-3-3 system featuring Raul, Villa and Torres up front. Raul was the fall guy. He hit the post in the final moments, and shouldered much of the blame. It turned out to be Raul's last contribution in a national team jersey.
It was the best thing that ever happened to Spain. Three strikers had necessitated the use of three defensive-minded midfielders, but Raul's omission meant Torres and Villa could play upfront in conjunction with two holding players, and two attacking midfielders -- usually David Silva and Andres Iniesta, neither of whom had started any previous qualifiers, or any matches at the 2006 World Cup. For all the rondos in the Spanish youth academies, that was the moment tiki-taka was truly born.
Germany took Spain's crown as the world's greatest side in 2014, but they'd been working towards that status since World Cup 2010, when they were defeated 1-0 by Spain in a titanic semi-final clash. The real turning point, however, came just before the tournament.
Michael Ballack was Germany's captain and had been their technical leader for the best part of a decade. In 2002 he dragged a distinctly average German side to the World Cup final, scoring the only goal in both the quarter-final and semi-final, but missing the final itself because of suspension. The German national side lacked genuine world class attacking talents throughout the 2000's. Ballack was really the only one, and therefore hugely dominant in the side.
By 2010, though, Ballack was -- perhaps like Raul -- a difficult player to accommodate. He was no longer a dynamic goal-scoring midfielder at 33, but instead a more relaxed, refined central midfielder who played deeper and set the passing tempo.
It wasn't what Germany needed, though, especially as head coach Joachim Low increasingly wanted to play on the break. With Bastian Schweinsteiger thriving in a new central role and Mesut Ozil a wonderfully exciting playmaker, Germany needed more energy to complete the midfield trio. The injury Ballack suffered in the 2010 FA Cup final ruled him out of that summer's tournament, but turned Germany into a true force once again.
Sami Khedira came into the side, and had a wonderful relationship with both Schweinsteiger and Ozil. Germany were a better side, and Ballack's absence forced others to become leaders. They reached the semi-final, but immediately became regarded as Spain's main challengers.
"I don't mean it in a spiteful way, but Ballack was arguably holding up a number of players who have now blossomed," said legendary midfielder Lothar Matthaus. "Each of them has taken on a little more responsibility and Germany are playing with far more pace. Ballack often took a lot of pace out of the game, but that wouldn't fit the mentality of this young team." Germany, eventually, moved onto the next level.
Which other European side can learn lessons from these experiences? The answer appears obvious: England.
Wayne Rooney, like Raul and Ballack before him, is the side's captain. There are three other common themes.
First, he's become difficult to accommodate. England coach Roy Hodgson likes switching between a 4-3-3 and 4-3-1-2, but Rooney means England have to stick to the latter, assuming Hodgson wants to play Harry Kane too. If Rooney plays upfront alongside Kane, England would struggle to switch to the 4-3-3 -- Rooney no longer has the stamina to play out wide, with Daniel Sturridge and Danny Welbeck more suited to that role.
Second, he doesn't really suit England's style, which is largely about pace these days. Sturridge, Welbeck, Raheem Sterling, Theo Walcott and Jamie Vardy are all extremely quick players, but Rooney tends to slow the play, which can be extremely frustrating. There's a danger that he's affecting the performances of England's brightest players.
Third, and arguably most crucially, England now have other options. Even two years ago it was difficult to justify dropping Rooney for a fellow forward, because the alternatives weren't particularly exciting. Rickie Lambert was England's fourth striker alongside Sturridge and Welbeck, who both started anyway. Now, though, England have the Premier League's top two goal scorers, Vardy and Kane. Therefore, there's a real temptation to look elsewhere.
If fit, Hodgson will select Rooney in his squad this summer. Whether he makes the starting XI, though, is increasingly doubtful. Rooney's record-breaking contribution to the national side should never be forgotten, but it shouldn't assure him of a starting place either. Just as Spain and Germany evolved without their captains, England might need to follow suit.