Why Do England Play Badly?
England expects. England turns up and battles hard. England can’t keep possession. England gets outclassed. England goes home. Time for an inquest. Premier League starts. Fuck the inquest. Players get overhyped. Another tournament comes around. Previous failings are forgotten and ignored. England expects. England turns up and… here we go again old sport.
Listening to the criticisms of the U21 side that just got eliminated in Israel is the exact type of misinformed jibber jabber that inspired the birth of our site. Having gone into the European Championships with an aim of winning it against teams most pundits know nothing about, blind expectations were high. The likes of Thomas Ince, Wilfried Zaha and Jack Butland are highly valued in English football. Therefore they must be better than the random, unknown foreigners.
When these randoms outplay the Three Lions, the search for clues by the clueless ensues. Searching for reasons of failure will offer more options than an English midfielder has in possession. The players are tired. They don’t play enough. Too many foreigners in the English game. Lack of technique. Too direct. Too much money, they don’t want it enough. We need development. Look at the Germans. We need a centre of excellence like Clairefontaine. Blah blah blah. Whatever Trevor (Brooking). I will come back to all these arguments in a bit.
The superiority complex in English sport means winning titles is everything and not achieving that makes you a loser. Regardless of ability and reasonable expectation. The Henman effect. The quarter finals under Sven were par for the level of ability in those squads yet surprise was abundant when defeats were met. Even results can be overrated. Greece won Euro 2004 fairly but it hardly meant they were one of the top teams.
One of the fair criticisms to come out of Israel is why eligible players, such as Phil Jones and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain aren’t included in tournaments they qualify for. The fact they are full internationals is a misread sign of graduation particularly if you are The Ox and can’t get in the Arsenal starting line up. Anyhow, the mistakes these U21 kids displayed – lack of possession, lack of technique, lack of imagination – are displayed by the seniors at every major finals. So they all seem ready to make the step up to mediocrity to me. There is a strange snobbishness within English football where competitions like U21 finals and the Olympics are snubbed. The double Euro Champs and World Cup holders Spain sent a strong squad to the Olympics featuring World Cup winners and in Israel have £20m rated players such as Isco, Thiago and De Gea. Yet Arsenal subs are too good for the U21′s. Let them play.
So come tournament time England must win the trophy and many believe in them because they play for successful Premier League teams. Then they get shown up time and again and suddenly everyone is amazed. Let the puzzled scrambling for reasons ensue. For a short while at least. So how do we get from a “Golden Generation” of world class, expensive players to those that are unable to keep the ball? Maybe, just maybe it is because they are not quite that good to begin with?
The likes of Gerrard and Lampard have many qualities. However they have limitations too that mean they do not control top level games from central midfield. Characteristically they have contributed an incredible amount of goals from midfield. But here’s the thing and this is a crucial secret.. Goals have been a smokescreen for many an England player’s overall ability. If you can’t keep the ball versus top opposition when the pressure is at its peak then I am sorry but you are not a top player. It’s not that they “can’t play together”. It’s more that compared to top central midfielders like Xavi, Iniesta and Pirlo, they can’t play. I would wage that sticking either of them in the England U21 team would not improve the style of play. Though they are both miles better than the atrocious Jonjo Shelvey.
As for manager Stuart Pearce, trusting him to develop a technical team when he is the genius who sent on a goalkeeper up front (David James) to rescue a result for his Man City side, says it all.
This is NOT Total Football.
Now let’s have a look at those earlier reasons..
Too much football? Perhaps, but lack of possession haunts England all year around against top teams not just in the summer. Anyhow, if your 100mph style means you tire then maybe, just maybe, a different style is more suitable for the sake of longevity?
Too little football? If they cannot get into a Premier League side (bare in mind Reading were a Prem team and Palace and Hull will be next season), they are a) not good enough or b) not ambitious enough. Kids from other parts of the world further their careers by moving abroad. Why shouldn’t we expect English youngsters to do the same? Anyhow I’ve seen teams such as Macedonia technically outperform the never-won-anything-Golden Generation and they were hardly elite performers.
Too many foreigners in the English game. The likes of Lampard and Gerrard have prospered in the Champions League and made telling contributions by being surrounded by top foreigners like Xabi Alonso, Michael Essien and Juan Mata. I’d love to see how those teams would have got on with just home-grown players. You cant have it both ways.
Lack of flair? Yes. Technique? Not so much. Rather technique under pressure. They can all control a ball and pass it five yards if it was me shutting them down but under pressure from top teams they – and this is a term for the FA’s Technical Department – shit themselves and hide.
Desire? One of the more stupid arguments. If there is one thing England teams do not lack it is effort. They are hard to beat and are never lazy in defence. They are just not brave enough on the ball.
Too direct? Of course this is true. But direct football comes from the cultural desire for speedy and physical entertainment with the ball flying through the air with velocity over more intelligent, patient and skilful displays. Arsenal are a case in point. They received much more criticism for failing with their “tippy tappy football” and “trying to score the perfect goal” instead of the current crop that gets loads of incomplete crosses in and hoof the ball away from centre. And I haven’t even started my rant at the epidemic mistrust of skilful, creative types.
The hopeful ones out there want a German style overhaul that was undertaken following a dismal Euro 2000 as if there is a parallel. That, however, is not a relevant starting point. The Germans won Euro 96 and Italia 90 and their standards were in decline by 2000. But those teams still have the underlying culture of playing technical, thoughtful football. That is not the dominant philosophy around the UK. So their foundations were still more ripe for blooming the next generation. The chance of a Reus, Gotze and Ozil being developed in England are, in the current climate, very very unlikely. Yet many a strong man, who can kick a ball hard, like Shelvey will still come through.
Hand on heart I would love to see an England team both expressive and imaginative. However, my head says, developing and promoting these players in the current cultural climate is not happening any time soon. The sad thing is you do not need millions of pounds to achieve that. Just a change of mindset and that comes for free.
All other reasons are irrelevant until we all, from fans to players and coaches, learn to appreciate the right qualities at the very beginning.
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