Abject. Toothless. Uninspiring. While England’s draw against Slovenia may have demonstrated a team lacking cohesion, the scathing criticisms which continue to resonate are resounding. Under different management, England had well and truly under-performed. They should consider themselves lucky they left Ljubljana with a point.
The past year has brought this England team, under the stewardship of first Roy Hodgson, then Sam Allardyce and now Gareth Southgate, into the limelight. Calling Tuesday night’s performance a blip would be flattering a side who seem to be stuck in a fairly significant footballing rut.
Recuring problems coming to surface
Scapegoats have been made, Wayne Rooney being the latest. Yet even after the resignation of Roy Hodgson, the problems persist. England lack fluidity, incisiveness and often any meaningful threat – oppositions rarely look uncomfortable. They’ve scored more than two goals in a single match just once this calendar year, against the world champions Germany in the current generation’s most convincing display to date, despite playing the likes of Malta, Slovakia (twice), Slovenia and Australia.
But why? The finger naturally gets pointed at the manager and the players, but when the issues continue under different managers it is hard to convincingly argue that the manager should be considered the target of all blame. Periods of transition may be cited and may contribute somewhat, but the brunt of the criticism should be placed elsewhere.
Players at fault?
On face value, it is even hard to pick out the collective group of players as the source of blame. Given the relative qualities of the players, as demonstrated over 38 games in the Premier League (for that is where they almost all play their club football), England’s national football team can be deemed to be under-performing. Seemingly none of the squad has been able to recreate their club form for England and the team has suffered enormously as a consequence.
Take Harry Kane for example. Having finished the season as top scorer in the Premier League, renowned for being incredibly demanding for lone strikers, Kane strode into the European Championships earlier this year on a high. However, after a return of no goals, no assists and a last 16 exit to Iceland, Kane left the camp in wretched form and with his confidence in tatters. And he was by no means the only one.
Again one has to question why. How can players be considered some of the best in their domestic division yet consistently under-perform for their country?
Inconsistencies between Domestic and International form
For this to be answered it is worth questioning the differences between the football played in the Premier League and that on the international stage.
The Premier League is renowned for it’s high-paced, physical football which fuels the thrills and spills fans treasure. The international stage is somewhat more continental in style and it is widely thought that pace and physical strength play second fiddle to organisation and patience at major tournaments such as European Championships and World Cups.
Thus, it is very conceivable that as the styles are not homogeneous, English footballers may struggle to adapt to International football having played 38 games in a relatively alien environment, so to speak. Looking at it closely this seems more and more likely. England’s team has ever increasingly been built around players who flourish in the Premier League as a consequence of their athleticism, but not their ball playing ability.
Picking good athletes, not always good footballers
Look at Dele Alli, who is often cited for his powerful build and tremendous engine which allow him to implement Mauricio Pochettino’s Marcelo Bielsa-inspired pressing philosophy at Tottenham Hotspur. Or Theo Walcott, whose speed and agility have seen him return to form for Arsenal this season at the expense of the abundance of full backs who he has dribbled past. Both failed to make any meaningful impact for England on Tuesday and were withdrawn before the end of the 90 minutes.
What both have in common is that they rely on their athleticism to flourish and not primarily on their ability to manipulate the ball and dictate the play. While this may not necessarily be an issue, especially for a winger like Walcott, it is a problem which is prevalent in the current England set up. Harry Kane, Chris Smalling and Raheem Sterling are among those to whom similar complaints may be directed.
Without players who have truly earned their place due to their quality on the ball, unpicking defences has become difficult of late for England. This is no doubt exacerbated by the policy of dominating possession adopted by Hodgson and most recently Southgate. Pursuing tactics involving strict possession retention relies on quality ball players to unlock defences with their tremendous vision and ability in playing forward passes in between the lines. Recently, England’s passing in the final third has been far too lateral and this is symptomatic of lacking individuals with the ability to play defence-splitting passes.
It is telling that in the England side the only player renowned for their excellent ball playing capabilities was John Stones, a central defender. Jesse Lingard and Alli tried but ultimately failed, whilst Jordan Henderson, another player potentially capable of dictating play, seemed to be pigeonholed playing far too deep alongside defensive midfielder Eric Dier.
Other nations way ahead
England severely lack the crisp passing and incisiveness that a player of this mould would provide. Spain has Andres Iniesta among others. Italy has Marco Verratti among others. Germany has Mesut Özil among others. The closest England have come to such a player is currently injured Adam Lallana or the previously mentioned Rooney, whose international career seems to be hanging by a thread. Jack Wilshere and Ross Barkley may offer this solution in the future but they’re yet to convince consistently for England and are severely lacking in form.
The system is failing the English national team. Not enough players with unquestionable quality on the ball are seemingly being thrown up by grassroots football in England. Too often are these players diminutive, a la Xavi, and are discarded having been bullied on the pitch at the academy stage by players who’ve hit puberty earlier. England’s own Jamie Vardy spoke recently of how initially he was left with few future prospects in football having been told he was too small. This is a far too regular occurrence.
England must stop missing the boat in developing technically excellent playmakers. The golden era of these players residing widely in English football is gone with the retirement of Paul Scholes, David Beckham, Frank Lampard et al. This “golden generation” was built on players such as Rio Ferdinand, Ashley Cole, Michael Owen and Steven Gerrard, who made their names not for only being physically imposing or being quickwitted but for their technical excellence. England are yet to come close to replacing them like for like.
If England want to improve dramatically in years to come they must strive for this, and this requires dramatic changes in the grassroots coaching manual, which should be geared towards getting young players to be more gifted with the ball than being faster or stronger. It will be a challenge and may take decades but it could make a resounding difference to the national team’s fortunes.
Change the system before it’s too late
In the short term, it is worth remembering that England are still blessed with some of the best young players in Europe. In John Stones, Eric Dier, Raheem Sterling and Marcus Rashfordthey potentially have a spine of tremendous talent for years to come. To ensure their talent is not wasted the system and the ethos engulfing the team must change. Now that the “golden generation” that I mentioned earlier have almost to a name retired from football, England must stop playing in a manner which would suit the playmaking genius of Paul Scholes, but instead suit the harrying of Dele Alli or Adam Lallana and the pace of Luke Shaw and Raheem Sterling.
This may not be obvious right now but with the chance to appoint a new manager, the FA have a prime opportunity to install a new coach who can instil a new and clear philosophy into his players. This would give the players a clear direction in which to pull together towards, even if time on the training pitch with the national team is limited.
English football’s credibility is in tatters. Their home stadium may be labelled the home of football, but no longer may the national team be considered trailblazing. England are playing to a tune of possession and patience which no longer suits them, and which has been conducted to various unsatisfactory levels by three different men this year alone. It is as if they are electric guitarists trying their hands at the violins that were once played by bow-tied, tail-coated experts. New generations of violinists must be nurtured or the guitarists given new Fenders to play on otherwise the dismal cacophony will continue.