Read the F.A.’s ‘The Future Game Playing Philosophy’, a report on how the England national side will play and how coaches should be imparting their knowledge on the younger generations, and you will notice all the buzz words of the modern game. Possession, incisive passing, intelligent movement and support off the ball. While these are not poor traits to strive for, the unique threat of the English game is not mentioned. England’s avoidance of the rough and tumble of the Premier League, the pace and power, the physicality and intensity, detract from their potential, and it showed against Slovenia.
As the drab and dreary international break draws to a close and the joys of club football return, I reflect on the performances of England — a pair of 1-0 wins against Slovenia and Lithuania. It is not pretty. In fact, it is the epitome of the international break itself: drab and dreary. English football lags and drags, it is slow, lethargic, safe, and boring. It is, consequently, unpopular, and unsuccessful. England has not made it to the quarter-finals of an international tournament since 2006 when Sven Goran-Eriksson was doing his best to crowbar Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard into the same team.
Their struggles are easy to see and difficult to fix. There is a systematic problem that runs through the spine of the game. The heightened importance of the Premier League, the lessened significance of international football; the growing power of domestic clubs, the depreciating influence of the FA. Ultimately, no one cares about international football anymore. Or, at least, no one cares about international football during the qualifying stages.
It is difficult, if not impossible, to change such a structural aspect of the game. Money talks, and it does not talk well about international football. So Gareth Southgate, Dan Ashworth, and English football must make do with what they have. And they do have a lot. They have money, they have the expertise, they have many, many players, they have world-class coaches and impassioned fans. They have state of the art facilities, they have the most established club game in the world, they have the love and the support — and the pressures and the scrutiny — of a nation. And they use all of these things, some more than others, in the development and the progression of the national team. But there is one thing that they are ignoring, one tactical advantage that is overlooked, for little more than aesthetics, and it was clear to see during the qualification process.
England, as they always do (apart from 1994), qualified for the World Cup with relative comfort. They were handed an easy group, which always helps, and they saw off the challenge with consummate professionalism, if a little robotic, mechanical, and dull. However, while they won, and for that, they should be celebrated, not criticised, they did not play well. Victories were ground-out. They were not of the devastatingly fluid variety. And that is, primarily, because the players are not good enough to win in such a free-flowing manner. They are not Germany, or Spain, or France, or Brazil.
But England should not be trying to play like those superior teams. They should be exploiting the one advantage, the one uniqueness, the one speciality, that they have over almost every top country in the world: The Premier League’s rough and tumble.
When players come to the Premier League with no prior experience, the adaptation process can be long and laborious. It can be challenging and disheartening. There are nuances to the game in England that are unique to England, and are, thereby, extremely difficult to adapt to without any understanding of experience. These nuances often come down to the pace and intensity at which the game is played. Now, that is not simply to say that the players are faster. They are not. But the speed of the game, its tempo and its rhythm, is quicker. The midfield is frenetic and unruly; defences are rough and ready; strikers are incessant and relentless. There is a physicality and an intensity about the English game that is unmatched. And yet, when it comes to international football, England seem to overlook the one, key difference that they have over almost every other nation.
If you were to read ‘The Future Game’, a report published by the Football Association that details the style, the philosophies, and the ideals of the England set-up, from the coaching practices at youth level to the tactics on the pitch, then you would see a raft of buzz words like ‘possession’, ‘incisive passing’, ‘intelligent movement’ and ‘support off the ball’. These are not bad principles to hold or instil. In fact, it is the way that Spain and Germany have dominated international football for the past decade. But it is not how England will achieve success. The reason for that is simple: They do not have good enough players to out-play their opponents.
England must win in other ways, and that best of the other ways is to use the uniqueness of the Premier League. Play a high-pressing game. Be more direct in possession. Out-run the opponents. Hound and harass in the midfield. Play with hustle and bustle. Exploit the rough and tumble of the club game to drive forward the lethargy and the lapse of the international game.
It is England’s best chance of success.