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The missing link in the England football team

Friday 14th October 2016
England's winning streak in World Cup and Euro qualification matches was snapped at fourteen matches after the Three Lions escaped Ljubljana with a nil-nil draw. Let the gnashing of teeth and self-flagellation begin. Let the chat rooms, forums, and comment fields fill with damning criticism of the England football teams fall from glory. Let the social media lynch mob list the failings that have caused this team to fall from glory. Let negativity reign.

Or not.

If anyone cares to hear the truth--

Look, could you stop that? I'm aware England fans are born with a gene that squeezes their eyes shut, claps their hands over their ears, and causes them to shout "La La La La La La La La!" at the top of their lungs until any truth speaker acknowledging England's football reality gives up and goes away, but I'm not going to leave.

See. Still here. Oh, fer--

Are you done, now? Really, the truth isn't so bad.
" target="_blank">You can handle it. It's just football, after all.

The truth is England stopped being a football power on 25 November, 1953. That's the day the Mighty Magyars came into Wembley and ran circles around an England team who still believed football boots should be boots rather than slippers, soundly thrashing them 3-6. The Three Lions could have roared back, of course, but they chose to view the defeat pretty much as Donald Trump views anything that's gone against him during the current US Presidential campaign. It didn't happen. Or it was a fluke. Or it was rigged. Or it was Hillary Clinton's fault. Or all of the above. In this context, you might want to exchange Hillary Clinton for Sepp Blatter or Michel Platini, but you get the idea.

At the time, England believed football should be played like the barroom brawl in the Johnny Cash tune, A Boy Named Sue, even though Shel Silverstein wouldn't pen the lyrics nor would the Man in Black record the ballad for the first time, live at San Quentin Prison, for another sixteen years. When it comes to being polite and courteous in every aspect of life other than athletic competition, wherein civility goes out the window, Brits have always been ahead of the curve. Thus, they thought football should be "kicking and gouging in the mud, the blood, and the beer."

https://vimeo.com/20595690

The reality is, although social conventions won't allow them to admit it, many still do. It's probably the main reason Wayne Rooney is now so reviled for both club and country, and why Joe Hart is in Torino playing for a side in Juventus' shadow, after helping Manchester City escape Manchester United's over the last half-decade. Rooney used to have a bite to his game which made him dangerous. Eventually, it was coached out of him to the point he's now something of a toothless lion still eager to hunt. Meanwhile, Hart was schooled to be the prototypical English goalkeeper, the manual for which makes absolutely no mention of any need to be skilled with the ball at your feet. Sixty-three years after the Magyars burst the English football bubble, its coaches, supporters, and the youths coming up through the system, still look askance at any homegrown player with too much tactical ability or sense.

I know some of you are thinking it, but I'm not forgetting 1966. You'll be saying the English dropped the antiquated WM formation, adopted European tactics and training regimens, thereby reconciling an embarrassing defeat on home soil by squeaking past the West Germans (some might say on the back of some generous officiating) to hoist the Jules Rimet Trophy as world champions. I'll give you that. Even with the home field advantage. Even with it taking thirteen years. But, if England had truly bought into European methods, why is it the only major trophy they've won?

I think it's because, unlike the other football powers in Europe and South America, physicality remains the most valued quality in English football, rather than technical ability. Don't get me wrong. It's why, as a hockey fan raised in Canada who was only properly introduced to football in my twenties, I'm drawn to the English game. When European players started emigrating into the NHL, beginning in the late Seventies, Canadian players suddenly had to up their skill levels. They did so, but, like English football, not at the expense of the physical side of their game.

The problem is hockey has an advantage football lacks. An NHL rink is only a 61m x 26m ice sheet, walled in on all sides by thick boards and glass. There is limited space, no escape, and opponents have virtually open license to hit with all the force they can muster while moving at two-three times the speed on skates than footballers can manage in cleats. Physicality still rules in that environment. Meanwhile, regulations allow Premier League pitches to vary in size, although the eventual aim is to standardize at the dimensions ten clubs currently use, 105m x 68m. Translated into square meters, then, a standard Premier League football pitch is four-and-a-half times an NHL rink's size, 7140 sq m/1586. So, there is all that extra space to move about, physical contact is significantly more prohibited, and there is the option, if necessary, to run out of bounds, sticking out your tongue at an out-of-breath Phil Jones. Combined, those factors render it far more difficult to bully a smaller opponent. It also makes it much easier for the little guys to run circles around the brutes who keep trying. Which is why England's predilection with physical play has held them back for generations.
You need only look to the current Three Lions' travails for that to be evident. England's so-called adaption of European methods has essentially become a search for speedy players who can dribble/shoulder their way through traffic. Name the best attacking players in the current set-up. Daniel Sturridge? Jamie Vardy? Theo Walcott? Dele Alli? Andros Townsend? Marcus Rashford? Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain? Jesse Lingard? To a man, they receive the ball, then immediately run at people. Against Slovenia, every one of the named players who saw action did this repeatedly. Never mind there might be a teammate standing close enough to identify his chosen brand of cologne. England attackers continually attempted to negotiate their way through three, four, or even five swarming Slovenian defenders, rather than work quick one-twos. Worse, the same situation exists at fullback. Kyle Walker on the right, and Danny Rose for the injured Luke Shaw on the left, make overlapping runs, only attempting crosses when their access to the box has been denied.

When you think about it, Gareth Southgate's inherited roster is largely a poor man, and in Lingard's case, a very poor man's collection of Lionel Messis. It's fine to have one or two such players in the side, but they should only be there to complement the more essential players who can actually pass the ball. Leo has won everything at Barcelona because he has players like Andrés Iniesta and Ivan Rakitić controlling possession, moving the ball around the pitch, and spreading defenses, thus affording him, Neymar, and Luis Suárez space to make penetrating runs. He struggles in the Argentina set-up precisely because the Albiceleste do not have a midfielder with vision and distributive skills.

It is the same for virtually all the mini-Messis who represent England. On the weekend, Sturridge returns to Anfield, where Phillipe Coutinho awaits. Walcott and Oxlade-Chamberlain will be greeted by Mesut Özil, Santi Cazorla, and, when he's back to full fitness, Aaron Ramsey. Alli, Rose, and Walker will be happy to see Christian Eriksen at White Hart Lane. Townsend will feel likewise with regards to Yohan Cabaye. Rashford and Lingard will probably hug Juan Mata at Old Trafford, not to mention Ander Herrera and Daley Blind. Even Paul Pogba is beginning to make the transition from fascination to facilitator in the Red Devils lineup.

As they disperse to their respective clubs, those waiting playmakers, foreign to a man, who have made the England stars look so good, offer further illustration of the FA's dilemma, Õzil, especially. The German will be returning from the defending World Cup Champions, who also feature Toni Kroos, İlkay Gündoğan, Joshua Kimmich, and a goalkeeper, in Manuel Neuer, whose passing prowess would probably improve England's attack on several orders of magnitude were he available to step into their midfield.
Messi's former provider, Xavi Hernández, now padding his retirement fund with Qatari club Al Sadd, has been very complimentary of the one England player who truly defined the central midfielder, Paul Scholes. But, in true English fashion, his talents were under-appreciated. The Ginger Prince's short tenure with the Three Lions ended after he was shunted out to the flank to make room for two more direct players, Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard. England's obsession with straightforward, physical play is evident in Scholes' Wiki page, where his best years in an England shirt were defined by goals, not to mention the singular accomplishment of being the only home player ever to be sent off at Wembley, rather than by his passing.

As like as not, Sven-Goran Eriksson probably felt Scholes could flourish on the left providing similar service to David Beckham's on the right, even though short passes, not long, were the former's forte. Like Scholes, though, Beckham was an anomaly in English football. His successors in the squad have not shown any particular inclination to provide service into the box, nor diagonal passes to force defenders to cover a wider area. In the second half v Slovenia, when the camera angle best served, I cannot remember how many times I bemoaned Walker's reluctance to send a ball across for Rose, cutting a lonelier figure than Matt Damon in the Martian, on the left flank. Further forward, Theo Walcott was more concerned with beating his man to the end line, and, after coming on, Andros Townsend with offering, though never quite pulling off, a credible Arjen Robben  imitation, cutting inside, across the top of the eighteen, then troubling Slovenian keeper Jan Oblak with a curling left-footed shot.

So, how does one go about encouraging the FA's youth development people to identify, cultivate, then protect and promote the hell out of an emerging English Pirlo? A British Maestro? A Three Lions tamer cracking the whip in the middle of the pitch, commanding his big cats to go hither and yon in an unprecedented purposeful manner? I'm afraid the answer is beyond me. Changing the mindset of an entire fanbase who refuse to accept a half-century's futility as evidence their value system is suspect is like trying to reason with a Trump supporter. Or worse, I imagine, a Brexit voter. Needs must, however. Either that, or just start naming every new England starlet Sue.
Martin Palazzotto

The former editor of World Football Columns, Martin contributes frequently to Stretty News and is the author of the short story collection strange bOUnce. He has appeared in several other blogs which, sadly, have ceased to exist. He is old and likes to bring out defunct. Although football is his primary passion, the geezer enjoys many sports and pop culture forms. Expect them to intrude upon his meanderings for It's Round and It's White.


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