English unity in philosophy key to success
That was a very good experience for the young English players, however disheartened they may have been as they came home yesterday.
Going into extra-time and penalties in a tournament quarter-final like that will serve them well. But the Italians had more quality -- we can't ignore that -- and though the English FA is trying to change things, we cannot disguise that they are still a long way off creating a system which enables England's players to compete with the very best in Europe, or the world.
I think Italy had an incentive to prove on Sunday night that their football is good, because they are no longer on top in the Champions League competitions, and they really did demonstrate the technical distance between the two nations.
There are many changes required if England are to develop young players. To make them more competitive, England above all need the clubs to decide on the style of football they want to play, from academy right through to first team. They must then coach the coaches in that style and then coach the players.
For me, there is a very big weakness in the system when the players reach 18. At that age, a player in England who is not quite at the required level to play in the Premier League has to go off on loan to a League One or League Two team, where it is very difficult for him to develop the basic skills in the way he would at his club. The style and standard of coaching will probably just not be the same.
Those players who are of a slightly better standard but still not quite good enough to play in the Premier League will end up sitting on the first-team bench, and could be stuck there for years. Take Scott Carson for example. He was the best player at Leeds United and then joined us at Liverpool, but he hardly played a game for three years.
When I arrived at Liverpool, this problem struck me and I said that our reserve team should play in the Football League pyramid. I wanted to use the experience of my years as a player and manager of the Real Madrid reserve team, which played in the Spanish second division.
Joining the pyramid was important, but nobody wanted to listen and I was told that I was going against an English tradition by suggesting this. I think people can see the problem a little clearer now.
If we assume the English reserve teams will not be allowed to compete in the pyramid, the only way to create matches for these young players is by making the Reserve League a proper U-21 national competition, which allows teams to select a limited number of first-team players to help them recover from injury or keep match-fit. I know the Premier League is working on this for next season. It must be a competitive U-21 league in spirit.
But it is the introduction of the same style of play throughout a club -- and seriously investing in the coaching system to make that happen -- which underpins the creation of more technically equipped players, and it was in the final year at Liverpool that we linked the academy and club more closely to make that possible.
There are plenty of myths about this idea of one style of football running throughout the club. For example, just because Barcelona have become such a successful club, everybody now talks about wanting to play "like Barcelona". But we were talking about having a consistent style throughout the club at Real Madrid over 15 years ago. How can you play "the Barcelona way" if you don't have Xavi, Iniesta and Messi?
It is more realistic to decide on a philosophy; deciding, for instance, that you want to play the ball on the floor, not in the air, and then you need to create a philosophy at your club where everyone has the same one. You stick to it, no matter who is manager, and you appoint a manager with that vision.
I don't think that the 4-4-2 system which Roy Hodgson used will prevent technically talented players being put to best use for the national side. It's the football philosophy that counts, not the system.
It is a question of what you want to do when you are in possession and what you want to do when you are not in possession. It is about people having more ambition, more confidence in their game to try things out and to get into the box. The improvement in basic technical skill and the confidence in a philosophy, which is instilled into players, will solve the problems.
England have to look forward. Finding top players is not the problem. The potential is out there, all around. It is how to develop it which people should be talking about.