If goals are football’s currency, then there can be no doubt as to which corner of the globe is overflowing with riches right now. South America is currently exporting more goals to Europe and beyond than any other region, with Alexis Sanchez’s remarkable rise at Arsenal the perfect example.
Since his summer arrival, the Chile international has made a mockery of the adage that players need six months to adapt to the Premier League. His integration has been instant, his impact nothing short of sensational. At the time of writing, he had scored 12 goals in 18 appearances for Arsenal and added three assists.
And yet, as Arsene Wenger has previously pointed out, he is far from the only success story to come out of Latin America. The Premier League’s top scorer, Sergio Aguero, hails from Argentina, while second-placed Diego Costa may represent Spain, but was born and bred in Brazil.
The pattern is replicated in Spain, where four of the top five goalscorers in La Liga are South American, and in Italy where Argentina’s Carlos Tevez, Mauro Icardi and Gonzalo Higuain are among the sharpest shooters in Serie A. Germany is the only major league in Europe to buck the trend, although Werder Bremen’s Franco Di Santo (born in Mendoza, Argentina) is among the most prolific strikers in the Bundesliga this season.
Arsene believes that the prevalence of street football across the continent goes some way to explaining this phenomenon. So how can Europe educate our young players to take on some of the characteristics their cousins across the Atlantic display?
"You are playing with people who are older than you. They will only play against you if you are good so you have to find a way to be good. You have to find a way to exist and survive even if you’re smaller and not as strong"
“What I wanted to say about South American strikers is that [their unique characteristics] are what they get naturally in the street,” the manager told the Arsenal Magazine. “When I say the street it can be anywhere, like in the park – it is football with your friends. You are 10 years old and you have a brother who is 15. You go to play with him and he will play with his friends so, at 10 years of age, you are playing with people who are older than you.
“They will only play against you if you are good so you have to find a way to be good. You have to find a way to exist and survive even if you’re smaller and not as strong, so that you’re not as far behind. Maybe you have to protect the ball a bit better or you cheat a bit with your hands – the kinds of qualities that, in a normal football school, you do not develop.
“The football school has to continue to survive but to add that little bit of behaviour is a quality that is very important. I believe that to compensate we have to create specialised units inside our academies for defenders because today defenders who come through the academies have no heading ability. Some strikers have no heading, some midfielders have no left foot or right foot and it is important that we rethink a little bit. We do a lot of good work but how can we improve it?
“We have to think about that because most of the strikers in the modern game are South American. I can cite you 10 strikers in Germany in the 70s and 80s who were of international class. Today they go to the World Cup with Miroslav Klose, a unique striker at 36 years of age, and they win the World Cup, but there’s a shortage of them.
“European leagues produce midfielders with good technique, good physical qualities and good stamina. They produce players who are all educated the same way and we have to rethink a bit.
“I think a lot of good work has been done in Europe in the education of the young players but maybe we have to rethink how to develop strikers and how to develop defenders. Everybody’s looking for defenders and strikers in the modern game and maybe we have to specialise a bit more in our education of them.”
In an increasingly globalised game, and with youth academies now de rigueur across Europe, there is a danger of individuality being lost to uniformity. Wenger says that he can usually tell the nationality of a player from merely watching him play for 30 minutes – but feels that this is being eroded as football coaching produces more identikit players.
“Most of the time, yes [I can tell where players are from]. There’s a [specific type]. In Spain they are good passers with good technique, in Germany they have good mobility and efficient technique and in England they have a good fighting spirit. It tends to go away a little bit as the world is more of a unit now and everything is more uniform – you have the same kind of qualities everywhere and that was not the case before.”
But surely there will always be exceptions to the rule? Jack Wilshere stands out among his compatriots as a player with the ability to beat his man, while Wayne Rooney has many characteristics that would not necessarily be described as “English” in their very nature.
“Yes, but they are players who probably played from a very young age with older people,” Arsene says. “Jack is a born dribbler – I don’t know where he learned it really but it’s one of his qualities. It is good to see that we still develop players like that but I just mean the [overall] trend.
“When I arrived here in 1996 every club had a striker you played against like Dion Dublin, players who were good in the air and strong in the box. It tends to disappear a little bit. It is also down to the quality of the pitches because the training pitches are all soft, clean and have no holes. You don’t need to lift the ball so we play on the ground, whereas before you had to lift the ball in the park because that was the only way you could get the ball forward as it wouldn’t roll. We developed some qualities linked with the quality of the pitches and the [issue with heading] is a consequence of that.”
"It was more than a defeat, it was like an earthquake where people were just speechless"
So is it possible for a nation to change its footballing ethos? In the wake of Brazil’s harrowing 7-1 defeat to Germany in the World Cup semi-finals, the country underwent a period of soul searching. Was the samba style the right approach in the modern game? Did they need to implement a more European style in the future?
Arsene was in Brazil during the tournament, and while he understands the identity crisis that followed the host nation’s exit, he does not believe it is possible – or desirable – for countries to move away completely from their origins.
“It was a funeral [afterwards] – it was not even violent,” he says. “It was more than a defeat, it was like an earthquake where people were just speechless. It was not even protested. As a football fan I felt sad as well because I have admired Brazil since I was a kid and to see how they had been slaughtered at home was very painful for all football lovers.
“It is possible [for countries] to change but if you analyse the success of countries, 90 per cent of the time it’s because they respected the culture of their country. You cannot see Brazil going route one tomorrow and being successful. I believe the culture of the country is stronger than anything else.
“If you’re not faithful to that then you will always be rejected. As was the case with Brazil, they were not good enough in that culture. They were not good enough at passing the ball, at being relaxed, and because they were so under pressure, their qualities didn’t come out. I don’t think that you can consciously go against the culture of your country.”
With both Europe and South America facing their own respective challenges in the future, an opportunity could open up for a fresh football frontier to emerge. Arse?ne has long been a supporter of African football – bringing the likes of Kolo Toure, Lauren, Alex Song and Emmanuel Eboue to the club – and he sees the continent as something of a sleeping giant.
“You would think that Africa would bring players out because they have a huge population with 900 million and that’s a place where people love football,” he says. “I know that in Africa they really love the game and maybe the next potential [after there] is Asia and India.
“China has 1.4 billion people so they should find some good players there. Maybe if I was 20 today and a coach I would think, ‘Let’s go over there and develop football’. It’s an interesting challenge for a young, modern coach today. It’s an interesting continent for somebody who has vision.”
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