That headline might sound very pessimistic, but who would blame me? I’m an England fan. And that’s only occasional suffering. Year round I’m a Tottenham fan. Much worse.
Something that being a Spurs fan has drilled into me over the last few years is the burden that comes with expectation. Tottenham, like England, are expected to attack, to hold the lion’s share of the possession and control the game. For pride, for necessity or simply because the opposition gives you no other choice.
This is basically where football’s overall, fairly unique, parity comes from. In every game the perceived better team is handicapped. The lesser team is afforded the opportunity to play on the counter – defend in numbers and break into space.
Fortunately for me, Spurs now have a great coach. Tottenham now welcome the burden of expectation with open arms and, for the most part, strive despite it.
But that’s a stage that Pochettino arrived at only some way into his second season. Over fifty games and hundreds of training sessions with a consistent squad with players that he, predominantly, chose. Training effective possession football takes a lot more time than is afforded to international coaches and so ‘the burden’ is inescapable in international football.
Istvan Beregi has done an incredible job this summer using footage and annotated stills to point out the various structural issues of teams attempting to control the play at the Euros.
This summer the competition has expanded to 24 teams which, as a result of both lowering the quality of the average team and rewarding teams with three points from as many games with qualification from the group stage, has seen a dramatic increase in defensive football.
England, following a group of Wales, Slovakia and Russia with an ‘easy’ knock-out round draw against Iceland, go out after four games have been denied the opportunity to play counter-attacking football themselves.
England’s two best games under Hodgson have come against Italy, in the 2014 World Cup, and in a recent friendly against Germany. Two games in which England had the opportunity to play on the break. Which, is not only much easier to coach but, specifically to England, overwhelmingly plays to the strengths of the individuals in the squad.
This summer has given us further examples. Belgium and Wales have both looked dire when playing as the possession team against Italy (the masterful burden dodgers) and Northern Ireland, respectively, but have recorded high-scoring wins in more open, end-to-end games. These two teams meet up in the next round and I expect Wales, the perceived lesser team, to profit from the burden being on the opposition. Croatia and Spain, two of the best at overcoming the expectation burden, both go out after playing their first quality counter-playing opposition.
So I think it’s fair to say international football is hugely weighted in favour of the lesser team and it is exaggerated even more by predominantly when in cup form, which, because of small sample size, favours luck.
And it is important to compare when complaining about England’s performances. All of the expected top international sides in the world have at some point in the last few years believed they are underperforming. Although England may have it especially bad and have gone without a trophy for a very, very long time they’re not really in a tier of their own for failure as the English media would have you believe.
England have their own unique failures of course: a series of tactically naïve managers, a lack of a true midfield playmaker, a media obsessed with creating a treadmill of scapegoats. But I do think that this burden stands over all.
Except of course Germany, a burdened team, won the World Cup two years ago. And Spain held it, between two Euros, before that. Are Vicente del Bosque and Joachim Löw tactical geniuses? I don’t think so. Rather, there is another coach. The most important coach in the last decade of international football. Yet he’s never coached a national side. Pep Guardiola.
Spain won three consecutive summer tournaments while Guardiola managed the majority of their national side in club team Barcelona. The Spanish Barcelona players were able to carry over their lessons in structure in possession from the standard football season and into the summer. And Germany did it again after Pep moved to Bayern Munich and are, for me at least, favourites to go on and win the competition (maybe not now I’ve put it in writing).
Guardiola now moves to English Premier League Club Manchester City. But don’t start the celebrations just yet. Manchester City currently have just two England internationals: Joe Hart and Raheem Sterling. In fact, no one club has more than five England internationals in their squad and that’s not changing any time soon. Not just because of, yes, the high ratio of foreign players in the Premier League but in the comparatively more even distribution of talent between a larger number of clubs than is seen in Spain or Germany.
Perhaps England can overcome the burden by hiring a manager who will find a way to teach England effective structure in the short period of time and difficult conditions afforded to them. But the era of the best managers taking over national sides is gone – instead the best international managers, Sampaoli and Conte, leave for clubs. With names like Gareth Southgate and Alan Pardew receiving the shortest odds for the England job, the inexperienced and far from perfect Eddie Howe stands out as a the least worst of an awful bunch.