What is wrong with the England football team? Why haven’t the senior men’s team won any major tournaments since 1966? What needs to change to increase the chances of success in the future?
I read quite a few articles, watch the pundits on TV, listen to radio shows and podcasts and the various ex-players and journalists continuously come up with the same reasons why England have “underperformed”.
I’m not wholly convinced by any of it.
Club vs. Country
I’ve heard it said that players don’t want to play for England. There may have been one or two instances with meaningless friendlies ahead of major league ties but for the most part I don’t buy this as an argument. I think it’s every footballer’s dream to be playing for his country in the major tounaments. That said, I’ve never understood players “retiring from international football”. I don’t see any shame in naturally falling out of favour and being replaced by younger players. If Joey Barton can “retire”, well, I may as well declare myself out too.
Poor Quality Coaching
I’m not sure about this one either. Whilst I have to admit that improving coaching at grass roots level can only be a positive thing for the long term future of English football, I don’t see that there’s some major problem. We have lots of very promising young players emerging. Talented players come in waves. Always have, always will. Just like you get strong years and weaker years in school pupils.
Doing well internationally is partly down to luck in having a strong group all coming through at once. Just look at the Belgium line up now and compare it to the squads they had at the last few tournaments.
More English in the Premier League
Many blame the high number of foreign players in the Premier League. I keep hearing different numbers but I think currently somewhere around 35% of Premier League players are English. If 20 teams have 25 players registered for the league, 500 players, that’s a pool of 175 English players from which to find a squad of 23. Increasing the quota of English players and adding to this pool wouldn’t push up the quality, only the quantity. In reality, this isn’t the extent of the pool anyway as English players playing in other leagues are also eligible. If the quota was increased they would be the same players. Playing well in the Championship or in a foreign league must be better than being a benchwarmer in the Premier League.
Apparently, our players are tired at the end of a long season and we need a winter break to magically make it all better. I struggle to see how having a couple of weeks off in December or January has much impact on how players are feeling by the end of May. The “experts” always claim that the German and Spanish leagues have a winter break and that gives them an advantage. Well, on the evidence of the 2014 World Cup, one won it and the other went home early. Hardly conclusive evidence.
With all the commercial activity around pre season tours, do people really think that the players would get a break? Or would they be flown out to the UAE to play in exhibition matches?
Not So Good Tekkers
There’s a view that English players lack technical skill, that we’re not as good technically as the Spanish or the South Americans. I can see that some nations do seem to thrive on close control and are able to keep possession under pressure much better than England. Chile, in particular, have been masters of keeping possession in the last couple of years.
Whilst this sort of possession game can be highly effective and getting better at this would certainly be a benefit, I see little point in England trying to play these nations at their own game. If we play a side like Spain or Chile and try to dominate possession we will be humiliated. It makes more sense to use other tactics. Jose Mourinho at Real Madrid was able to overcome Barcelona by playing a more physical game – adapting for the opposition. Germany don’t especially play a possession game – they focus on counter attcking, moving the ball very quickly when their opponents are most vulnerable. Technical skill is to be admired but it’s not the only route to success.
I’ve heard a lot of football experts praising the revolution in German football, the way Klinsmann and Loew created a national identity and way of playing which is consistent between the clubs and the national side. I’m a little sceptical. I struggle to see how all clubs can play in the same style and still compete. Surely experimenting with styles and tactics is a major part of trying to gain an advantage on your competition? The other part which doesn’t quite convince me is that Germany have always been a major force in international tournaments. The World Cup in Brazil may have been the first they’ve won since 1990 but they’ve never been far away. They’re consistently in the semi-finals of most tournaments, revolution or no revolution. Where I do think they’ve got it right is fitting the players to a system, not shoe-horning a system around popular players.
I think they’re looking at it all wrong. I think there are other, much simpler reasons behind it.
FTW! Maybe FTD?
In a league a team with a strong attack but weaker defence can still do well. A prime example is Liverpool finishing second in the 2013/2014 season. A team more focused on attacking and hoping to outscore their opponent is likely to pick up more wins over the course of a season. In a tournament this kind of gamble can see you quickly knocked out. Your luck will run out at some point.
Whilst scoring goals helps to win games, having a weak defence helps to lose them. However, having a watertight defence can at least ensure a draw and give a chance of progressing through penalty shootouts. Thinking about recent tournaments most eventual winners either progressed through penalties or extra time at some point. I can’t remember the last time a winner won all their games in normal time. So, there’s definitely an element of playing it safe and hoping for a bit of luck. It’s also human nature. Every international team is under huge pressure from fans and the media. Being eliminated from a tournament in extra time or penalties feels more like bad luck than poor performance so is somehow more respectable. If you’re going to be knocked out it’s better to go this way.
In the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, England went out after 2 games because they were poor defensively. Everyone knew that going into the tournament. It was probably the weakest back 4 we’ve ever had going into a World Cup and so it’s not a great shock that it’s the earliest we’ve ever been knocked out. Theoretically, in competitions with 32 teams and assuming you qualify from the group stage, if you play ultra-defensively, enough to keep each knockout match at 0-0 and bring it down to a 50/50 shootout, you have a 1 in 16 chance of winning the tournament. So, that’s a tournament win every 32 years. Hard to actually pull off but it worked for Greece.
You’re the Weakest Link
A team’s only as good as its weakest player. In major tournaments there’s always a massive focus on the big star players but football statistics bear out the fact that results are dictated by teams’ weaknesses rather than their strengths. If there’s any weakness at this level it will be exploited and is likely to influence the outcome of a game. It’s not necessarily the teams with the big names who do well at major tournaments but those with the fewest holes. England have certainly gone into the last few tournaments with known weaknesses – players in unfamiliar roles, defence not being used to playing together, lack of goal threat, etc.
The Grass is Always Greener
Whenever any team does badly or fails to live up to expectation they look for the knee-jerk reaction and to do the opposite of what they did before. England appointed Fabio Capello, a manager with an amazing track record in club football. After “failing” at the 2010 World Cup in South Africa – knee-jerk – the next manager must be English. Personally, I feel much more comfortable having an English manager but I don’t believe it is any more or any less likely to lead to success.
A prime example of the grass always being greener is Brazil. After the humiliating way in which they were knocked out of the World Cup on home soil, playing very attacking football, they’ve knee-jerked by appointing Dunga, a very defensive pragmatist. The same happened following their loss to Uruguay in the 1950 final. They abandoned their exciting exhibitionist style and went on the defensive.
What’s the Answer?
Personally, I don’t think we’ve actually got anything that wrong. We just need to bide our time and need that bit of luck in the latter stages. Is the answer trying to find a quick fix through special FA committees? Probably not.