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Antiquated English football – Something needs to change

June 30, 2010

England’s 4-1 loss to Germany provides the opportunity to change the current ‘English football’ paradigm. Germany’s raw, fearless, and youthful raw team made a mockery out of England last Sunday in Rustenburg. This result should be used as a catalyst to change English football, which is based on ideals that simply do not work in international football.

The English ‘Brand’ of Football

English football, as we know it, is based on passion, energy and determination – fans like footballers who know what it means to wear a particular shirt, a very tribal instinct. These values manifest themselves through over-exertions in pointless tasks on the pitch. Rafa Benitez told Steven Gerrard that he needs to stop running around so much, these instructions lead to Gerrard putting in his best performances in a Liverpool shirt. The bigger picture here is that fans value the sudden burst of pace or crunching tackle so much so that English football seems to rely on individual battles on the pitch.

With English football there is always too much pressure to try something early on rather than build patiently and keep hold of possession. Seen in the context of the World Cup, it is true that a team needs to be able to comfortably keep possession to have a chance of going anywhere in an international tournament. The English national team demonstrated over their four games that they were not able to keep the ball; their passing accuracy is 78%, the 18th highest in the World Cup and 2% below the average.

The England team’s football is not based on keeping possession, but based on direct passing, bursts of energy, playing with a high tempo which leads to the team ‘forcing the play’. The English style is simply not compatible with International football. This problem requires more than a simple facelift, a change of manager or personnel, it requires a revolution of how football is played, coached and analysed in England.

The English youth set-up

England need to take note of what works and learn from it, not just sit and look introspectively at what the problems are, which is what they tend to do every time England get shown up – the FA would be wise to look at other (read: more successful) footballing nations.

The Germans for example have twelve more times the number of coaches with UEFA’s top coaching badge. This has obvious ramifications with the quality of the coaching throughout youth level which has a direct affect on the quality of players produced. Without any youth worthy of note coming through, this has to be a worry for fans of English football – where are the next ‘Golden Generation’ (with a tongue-firmly-in-cheek)?

Looking at Liverpool’s Academy offers an insight into coaching at a young level – and doesn’t provide much optimism. One of Rafa Benitez’s best change in the club came with the youth set-up, installing Jose Segura and Rodolfo Borrell to change the way the Academy works and coaches. These two Spanish men were responsible for the nurturing of talents like Andres Iniesta, Victor Valdes, Gerard Pique and Lionel Messi. In a stark (and often misquoted) interview Borrell admitted that when he came to the club, the overall level of the set-up was ‘unacceptable’ with the kids having no tactical understanding or technical abilities. For the footballing youth in England, what seems to be valued at that age is the physicality of players, not the technical ability or tactical acumen – teaching these mental skills at an older age, as with learning anything when older, will be more difficult. The important of physicality produced a game that is based on individual pieces of quick and energy-sapping movement rather than the technical ability of a player to keep the ball moving.

The English player who is most akin to a European playmaker, a player who is concerned with keeping possession and creating a tempo from midfield, is Michael Carrick, who did not get any minutes on the pitch. His style of play is not based on those quick breaks and bursts of energy which people enjoy seeing from players like Frank Lampard and Steven Gerrard, but the Carrick type player is essential in midfield to keep possession. ZonalMarking has produced a great amount of detail on what makes Michael Carrick a must-starter for England – also worthy of note are Xabi Alonso’s comments on Carrick.

It is well documented that Theo Walcott didn’t start kicking a ball until he was ten – his playing career could have been completely planned out when looking at how players are ‘type-casted’ in English football. The thinking usually goes like this, “he’s small, oh, he’s also fast – he must be a winger” – all within a traditional 4-4-2. It’s a prime example of attempting to put squares in round holes, and it happens all the time. As Barney Roney pointed out in the World Cup Daily after England’s defeat, he remembers watching Emile Heskey on the right flank showing great flashes of skill and was lightning quick – he has somehow been retrained to play that lumbering centre forward role that seems to be one-dimensional in today’s football. This is not saying that such roles don’t have a place in English football still, but that their importance is now diminishing given how players are now expected to do many things well and positioning is now much more fluid and hard to pin down.

English holding onto old traditions

In ‘Inverting the Pyramid’, Jonathon Wilson sees the English as being ‘late adopters’ to footballing trends, being reluctant to change the system that proved successful in the 30’s and 40’s – the WM. I would extend these observations to England’s philosophy today, football in England is about keeping a traditional paradigm and sticking to it, working players around the system rather than reacting to the players they have. A typical English team still play a rigid 4-4-2 system with a partnership upfront consisting of a big-man / small-man – their roles in their team being dictated by their physical attributes. This happens throughout the game, players are pigeonholed for their physical attributes and are all reared for a game intent on ‘getting in their faces’ along with other English footballing clichés.

Whilst different formations are not inherently better than others, as Jonathon Wilson puts it; ‘formations are neutral’, there still seems to be a reluctance to innovate in English football, from English managers and footballing institutions. Recent innovations have originated from foreign coaches, the ones who are labelled by pundits as carrying strange ideas, often bordering on xenophobic remarks – these remarks need to end and innovation needs to take place. Jose Mourinho was the first coach to play a 4-5-1/4-3-3 with three very tight central midfielders and they were able to control the midfield with this foundation. Arsene Wenger, who was much maligned when he arrived on these shores, innovated not through a formation change but through having players who were intent on being composed and comfortable on the ball. These managers when introduced to England succeeded in the first few years that they arrived – this should have been a warning to the FA and people who were concerned with the future of English football.

English management still seems intent to stick with one-dimensional footballers who may be very good at one role on the pitch, but helpless at another just as important attribute. There is a definite lack of players who can play in the increasingly important position of ‘between the lines’, a position where a player has a huge influence over the attacking play of a team. Mesut Özil for example, is a player that has a fantastic reading of the game, his off the ball movement is just as significant as his superb first touch and composure on the ball. If he happened to have been born in England, it wouldn’t be a strange bet to say that he would have been repositioned as left-midfielder – a position where his strengths would not be as effective.

This reluctance to adapt to footballing trends has resulted in a national culture that cannot compete on an international level, struggling to do the most simplest of footballing tasks. The English ideology is based on old ideals of being physically stronger and being able to play a quicker tempo than your opposition, without consideration for the tactical nuances of the game nor the idea of keeping possession, values that have been shown as important in this year’s World Cup.

The ‘success’ of English football is really only down to the influx of money from Sky, which brought foreign players to the country to play. The movement of foreign players into the English leagues have actually masked the internal failures of the English leagues, the talented foreigners have allowed the Premier League to be termed ‘the best in the World’, which lead to the quality of English football not being scrutinised until now. The foreign managers should actually be thanked, and credited for bringing innovative and different ideas to the table, which have increased the competitiveness of English clubs. The FA need to observe and learn from other countries and not assume that we have the best answers – this necessitates a completely different picture of what English football really is. What we really need is change from the bottom up, nurturing players in a more thoughtful way and encouraging more serious scholarship among English coaches in the way they approach the game.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. Anwar Rauf Idris permalink
    August 26, 2010 6:45 am

    Dear Tim,

    I have finally found a soulmate! I have said for years that the reason the EPL is so fascinating is the same reason English football never does well in international football. 100 mph footie, bone crunching tackles but with no composure, patience and a lack of intelligence and understanding of the game will never pass muster at any major tournament. Being a Liverpool fan it pains me to say that one of the culprits-in-chief is our very own Gerrard who seems to have resorted to type since Rafa left, going by his recent dismal and clueless display in the league so far: Hollywood balls, rash tackles, poor positioning and awareness and impatience. Another study in Soccernomics pointed out how so few goals are scored by England in the second half of major tournaments and is believed to be attributable to tiredness.

    The other issue is of course the cult of the individual perpetrated by the media so much so that team dynamics is so often glossed over but I suppose that’s for another day.

    Thanks for a fascinating website.

  2. Ron permalink
    May 2, 2011 11:19 am

    I have a deep connection with this write up tim. I have lived in wales all my life and played football since the age of 4 and so as you can guess my technique is is very good (im now 26). The problem is however, that I have never been your typical british footballer – i choose not to run around chasing the ball like a ‘headless chicken’ and i do not rely on my fitness or speed. British football for too long has been obsessed with making athletes into footballers and I saw this all through my childhood. I look back at the coaching I received throughout my career (and still receive now) and all they talk about is the need to ‘get up for a game’ and ‘win every tackle’. I await the day a coach asks to keep the ball! I did not make it as a player as I simply was too different to what they wanted, if I was brought up in Spain I have no doubt I would have made it – but I wasnt. But this is why I will soon move into management to prove to people that we do not do football right in Britain.

  3. SPQR permalink
    May 7, 2011 2:47 am

    Had you written and published this prior to the World Cup, I would actually consider believing you. If it`s true that English football is antiquated, it must have been true before South Africa 2010 started – at a time when illustrious experts like Platini counted the English team among the tournament`s foremost title contenders.

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