It’s happened again. England have crashed out of a tournament and nobody has learned a thing. After dispensing with the manager who oversaw an ultimately disastrous Euro 2016 campaign and a supposed investigation, the FA has appointed a new manager — who actually has a comparable record to Hodgson — and hope is restored. A new football season rolls around and the Euros are forgotten about.
As always, just about everyone has an opinion but nobody really knows what the best direction is. So-called experts are split between us copying a ‘continental’ style, which others say we’re no good at, and sticking with our ‘traditional’ values, which also doesn’t work. By appointing Sam Allardyce, it appears that the FA is of the latter view, but we’ve been a confused mess regardless of the manager.
I don’t like to criticise the FA for the sake of it, but they bring it on themselves. Days after the Iceland loss, a panel went on record saying it wanted the next England manager to build an identity rather than provide a short-term fix. They then wheeled out a man who has carved out a reputation as one of the country’s best short-term fixes.
Mentioning three-point plans and consulting ex-internationals may make people look proactive, but have little meaning unless they address the key issues, which we aren’t. I’ve still heard few sensible suggestions as to why we failed.
It’s not my intention to assassinate Allardyce in this article, and I won’t do so. He’s a good manager and it’s easy to see why any Premier League club would take him for a rescue operation. You can question his style, but football is more subtle than just ‘pass pass pass’ or ‘lump it’.
My issue is that he emerged as the standout candidate for the job for two reasons: the preference for an English manager (which I don’t actually see as necessary right now) and the utter paucity of good English managers. But why is this so?
Firstly, we’ve been playing catch-up tactically for as long as I can remember. We’ve seen other countries achieve success a certain way, and thought “yeah, that looks good.” We try copying something without fully understanding it, and by then the game has moved on. In the years 2008-12 we failed to appreciate the value of keeping possession at all costs, and the importance of players who could receive the ball when heavily marked.
As Spain brushed aside everything that crossed their path, our coaches scratched their heads while bollocking players for keeping possession or passing sideways. Germany meanwhile developed a combination of effective ball players and lethal counter-attackers. Two years down the line, as Portugal demonstrate the importance keeping shape and players understanding their jobs without the ball, we’re still not sure what the best way is.
Linked to this is our baffling continued failure to understand the value of defenders who can play, and therefore start attacks. I wrote an article a few months ago voicing my concerns about England defender John Stones coming under pressure for his playing style. Our sceptical attitude towards this type of player would hold us back, I argued. After signing for Man City this week, there are still articles using language like “overplaying.” It’s so easy I’m almost embarrassed to be right.
Compare our defenders, in particular the centre-backs, to those of most other successful nations at Euro 2016. Portugal had Pepe, France Koscielny (and later Umtiti), Germany Boateng, Italy Bonucci, Spain Pique etc. The key is that all of them can be trusted as the start of possession, can sort their feet out when they get the ball and make the right decisions in terms of helping moves develop.
How many times did you see Gary Cahill or Chris Smalling play a quick pass into midfield to beat Iceland’s press, or carry the ball into their half when the space was there? Not many, because they’re not comfortable enough doing that. It’s also hard to do that when your tactics aren’t working and players aren’t sure of their jobs.
One striking thing when watching Germany throughout the tournament was the importance their defenders, particularly Jérôme Boateng, played when they had the ball. In their semi-final against France, Germany’s domination of the ball stemmed from the centre-halves and midfield isolating Giroud and Griezmann, while the fullbacks pushed up to drag back France’s wingers. This allowed Boateng and Höwedes to step forward with the ball from the back.
As the more confident on the ball of the two, Boateng was tasked with stepping forward and distributing the ball to players further forward and wide. This included one key tactic; the diagonal pass out to the left. Would England’s centre-halves be able to fulfil that same role? Any pro footballer can land a 40-yard pass on the winger’s feet in training, but you need to be strong enough to play in a certain system, which involves being confident that you’ll hold onto the ball when you get it, even if under pressure, and make the right decisions.
The problem is twofold: we fail to understand the role defenders can play in possession, and the defenders generally aren’t good enough with the ball anyway. We therefore tell defenders to stick to what they’re good at, but this restricts us as they never get better on the ball. If you want proof of how vital this component is, look at how much Germany missed Boateng when he had to go off injured in the semi-final.
The scary thing is that we’re miles from sorting it out. Nobody can agree on how to move forward, and we’re held back by a generation of coaches and managers who still think technique is unimportant for defenders. I’ve read articles and comments that believe England has abandoned defending in favour of attacking fullbacks and ball-playing centre-halves. I even saw someone in the management set-up at a Championship side’s Academy tweet: “We don’t coach heading.” Come on now.
I don’t think that’s the case. We like to think we can produce these players, and think encouraging them to pass it or push forward is enough. But we can’t fit them into a system and panic if they have no options. Despite telling defenders to pass, we still bollock them when they hold onto it and lose it — “just get rid of it if nothing’s on” is an easier way out than asking why nothing was on when there are 9 other outfield players in a team. Our excuse is that it’s not in our DNA to be good at a possession game. What does that even mean? Our players each have a pair of legs, feet and a brain, just like foreign players, who aren’t born with some innate ability to pass a football.
Too often we’ve opted for the easy way out. We still think tackling is an important quality and blame a player for a goal because he didn’t win a tackle, but that doesn’t let us understand defending. Defensive shape is clearly far more important in order to not concede. Defending hasn’t been neglected, it isn’t coached properly. Overall we’ve been left behind by the advancement of systems, which impacts on our quality with and without the ball.
By the time we work all this out, though, the game will have moved on again and people will ask why we didn’t play to our strengths after our next tournament exit. Allardyce will be blamed for not getting the best out of the players, as will his successor. People will complain that the players don’t care and earn too much, too young — of course, foreign youngsters don’t earn handsome salaries at all — and so on. And we’ll resort to copying others.
The copycat approach is also a classic example of an easy way out. Teams have tried to copy the famed tiki-taka system, and the German version that’s since followed. I bet you anything that we’ll see a wave of teams trying to emulate Leicester’s high intensity, 4-4-2 counter-attacking setup this season.
Humans by nature are imitators, but in such a dynamic setting, just doing what someone else did isn’t enough. It took Spain and Germany decades to bear the fruits of the models they conceived and developed. How could someone else possibly master it in just a few years? Especially when they don’t even have a full idea of how it works. You’ll just produce a second-rate version — see England in Brazil 2014. Here, there is no easy way out.
So when you consider our current mentality and how far behind we’ve fallen, things won’t just be OK because a new manager has rocked up. Obviously the manager has an important function, but football management just doesn’t work like that. It’s a phrase I’m loath to use, such is the frequency I’ve encountered it in the papers recently, but you don’t just come in and wave a magic wand.
It’s an extremely long road; the Spain and Barcelona journeys to the pinnacle began in the late 1980s, Germany’s overhaul was triggered by their first-round exit from Euro 2000. We’re just too far behind to have a realistic chance of overtaking the big boys in the next 2-4 years. Unfortunately, we can’t even find the start line.
by Louis Bacon