Same Old England

23 11 2007

Once again England fall when the nation expects. I wonder, though, if that is as much to do with the expectation as the players. Unlike some I’m not suggesting that men paid millions of pounds a year to play a sport they love are too mentally fragile to handle pressure. They handle far more intense pressures at club level, in my view, where the football is quicker.

Although Roy Keane rightly pointed out that these players lack the desire to win things at international level (who can honestly say that Gerrard, Rooney and Crouch apart they see players put the same level of effort in for England as they do for their club?) and have let their egos get the best of them (the Lampard-Gerrard midfield partnership is a prime example of that, it should work, but it doesn’t), I think he missed something.

The players aren’t good enough. We can lambaste Wenger for the lack of English players playing at Arsenal but when people have suggested that English players lack the ability to play the “Arsenal way” it makes you think. Requirements that Wenger asks of his players, good technique, touch, control and passing, are all crucial parts of the international game. If English footballers lack these qualities it would go a long way to explain their inability to succeed at international level.

Certainly Wenger is correct to point out that he only arrived in England in 1996, 30 years after England had last won a major trophy. Can we blame him, or the foreigners in the league, for the many tournaments England failed to win in the time between 1966 and 1996? No, of course we can’t. What changed in that time period was the flavour of football, moving away from a physical approach towards a more technical one.

English football never recovered. It’s the inability of English players to adapt to a technical game that makes them unable to succeed in England colours where they are able to do for their clubs. At club level they have foreign players who step in and fill in for the flaws the English players have in their technique, but at international level they have nobody to shield them and the truth comes out.

Where other countries would have kept the ball at 2-2 against Croatia, England decided to continue their physical approach and in the end paid a heavy price for their bustling style. In fact, what makes England’s failures more worrying is that if they were able to master the technical side, England would be able to switch from a quick, physical typically English approach to a more continental technical one. That would make them a deadly proposition. Teams would have to counter not one but two styles.

Clearly, then, the flaw lies in the coaching we give to kids in this country. In other countries they give them the ball at a young age, tell them to just get used to the feel of it at their feet, in England we don’t give them a ball and instead send them on meaningless runs to get their stamina up. What we miss in this equation is that stamina can always be improved on in later life but the instinctive touch our continental cousins have is something you have to master while you’re young.

All hope is not lost though. England have some fine young players coming through at all lower levels. What is essential, however, is that we nurture them the right way. That is, we ensure that they have a master of the continental approach as well as the traditional English one. A good example here is young Theo Walcott, a player blessed with amazing natural pace and an eye for goal who was used by Wenger on the wing.

Why? To improve his technique. Dutch master Dennis Bergkamp said that at Ajax he had to play on the wing for a period to master certain things. In fact, if I recall rightly, he even played at right back in order to gain an understanding into how defenders think so that he could better beat them in his chosen position. Clearly it worked as he went on to become one of the greatest players to ever grace a pitch.

Following these lessons with the current crop of youngsters may just yield similar results. So rather than attack Wenger and his ilk for bringing in too many foreign players perhaps we should be thanking them for bringing in a continental thought process that will actually be in our best interests in the long term. The problem is the fans expect so much from a team that simply is not up to the required quality and then look for cheap scapegoats like Wenger. After 41 years of hurt you’d think they’d gain some patience.


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