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World Cup 2010: England Were Found Out

July 10, 2021

I wrote this in 2010 after watching the Men’s England-Germany game in the World Cup. I never quite finished it, so I never quite posted it. I’m reading it back the day before England play in the Euro 2020 final against Italy.

I made some good points! Maybe that wasn’t unusual. I suspect a lot of people were thinking the same thing. MA lot has changed over the last eleven years. So here’s my original piece, annotated with hindsight:

——–

I watched the England-Germany game in a hotel room in Paris. I like watching games on my own. I liked having French commentary I didn’t understand as a soundtrack. I got to make up my own mind about England’s defeat.

I still like watching games on my own. And, other than the names of the players, I rarely pick up anything from the commentary that I can’t see for myself. I once watched Rangers versus Raith Rovers play in the Scottish League Cup final on BBC Alba, where the commentary was in Gaelic. I liked the excitement in the commentator’s voice, but lost nothing in terms of information. The other day, driving back from Timber, we listened to the England-Ukraine game on the radio, it struck me that I only knew what the commentator told me. If he didn’t mention Phillips, say, I had no idea what kind of game he was having. I found it very frustrating.

By and large, England were awful. I don’t think Germany were that great, but they ripped apart a shoddy defence, and put the ball away very well indeed. They’d watched us, and they’d worked us out. They had a game plan to take advantage of our many weaknesses, and they were disciplined enough to follow it through.
We never asked questions of them. We had none of the movement that we are used to Rooney, Gerard, Lampard etc making when they play for their clubs. We were prosaic, obvious, static and we banked on long shots when we should have been trying to pick them apart. They had centrebacks who didn’t allow us to turn, which wouldn’t have been a problem if our midfielders had been running on to feed off the strikers. Our forward line was so isolated that the Germans could get two or three men around the ball to snuff out runs and swifter passing. And we panicked: when our goal was disallowed, we punted the ball desperately forward instead of keeping shape and trusting that we were good enough to find a way through. Our defenders pushed on, seeking a goal, and left massive gaps at the back.

There are times when this still happens to England. The easiest way to get the ball from us is let us play it out from the back: have your strikers close our defenders down, our defenders invariably push the ball back to our keeper, the keeper invariably blasts it down the pitch, your defenders invariably win the header, nod the ball down to your midfielders, and the ball is yours to do what you want with it. Sometimes, we’re still too static. The midfielders hide behind their markers, rather than moving into space and calling for the ball. Sometimes, I don’t get the sense they know where their next pass is before they receive the ball. We’re easy to play against.

But other times, when this England team play with energy and imagination, everyone is moving, everyone is calling for the ball, everyone has options for the next pass, the front four/five are getting it into feet and turning and running with the ball, or are playing delicate, precision balls into space, or are taking a shot. We’re attacking from *everywhere*, so the defence doesn’t know whether to drop back or to close us down, and we make plenty of chances, and we have quality forward players who can put the ball away. We can be exhilarating.

We don’t think about our football. We believe blood and guts will win the day, but it never has. We need to analyse the game, every player, all the time. Quoting Henry V, or whoever, isn’t going to win it for us.

“We need to analyse the game, every player, all the time.” I get the sense that this group of players does that. Or at least, enough of them to make a difference to the way we play.

And I’ve thought long and hard about how culpable Cappello is in this. And really, I don’t think he helped matters. How do you coach a player about the weaknesses of an opponent if the player doesn’t know they are playing till two hours before kick-off? Why not sit down with them two days beforehand and show them videos: ‘look, they always do this, be aware of it, exploit it’. A player can be both hungry and tactically aware. Is the attacker they are marking predominantly right- or left-footed (I’m still stunned how many players at the highest level are one-footed)?

There’s a huge difference in the ways Capello governed the team and Southgate’s coaching style. Capello was the patriarch who didn’t engage with his players. I’m sure there are times when that style worked, but not any more. Kids don’t grow up that way. They expect to be treated with respect, and they give it back when they receive it. I’ve seen it in my son and his friends. Sweet, smart kids, who are no fools and who think about what they do. They’re given choices, they are encouraged to think about their actions, to act on their best judgement. They coaches strive for that sweet spot between working for the team and the individual showing their abilities. It gets the best out of people. It’s harder to get up and running in the first place, but it produces better results in the long term, because the players can react to changing circumstances. We manage the same way at work, and I can’t tell you how proud I am of the team I work with.

But I think the real problem is this: the English aren’t really bothered about the National team. We convince ourselves we are every two years, but we aren’t. Not really. We love our club football too much. If we really wanted to give the National team a chance to win, we would change the whole league structure to make sure we went into tournaments properly prepared.

I think this is still partially true. But there has been so much work with younger age groups in developing a playing style and attitude and technique that can achieve wonderful things at international level. It paid off with amazing victories at U-17 and U-18 level (I’ve got the age groups wrong, but you get my point). And now some of those players are playing at adult level and they’ve brought that technical ability and team spirit with them. It’s very exciting.

  • We wouldn’t leave the coaching of players to the clubs – we would set up National Academies to teach the basics.
  • We would value coaching – real coaching – much higher than we do.
  • We wouldn’t expect the market economy of the league system to produce the quality in depth we need.

I’ve seen, even with local Under-8’s, the standard of coaching improving all the time. Young kids are playing the ball to feet, thinking about movement, developing crazy stills. At a national level, we’ve model things on the French academy system. The amount of talent we have to draw upon as a result is astounding.

But clubs should get recognition for the work they do with young players. There should be a trophy for the club that supplies the most players to the winners of international tournaments.

  • We would limit the number of games players play in a tournament season.

I still think we should do that, though I haven’t noticed fatigue being an issue with the current England squad. I may be wrong. There were a few players who are either out injured or only just got back into the squad: Henderson, Kane, McGuire. Trent Alexander-Arnold is out injured. How many of those are victims of playing too much football, I’m not sure.

  • We would identify a squad of players at the start of the season who were likely to play at the World Cup/Euros, and we would govern how many matches they could play for their club during the season.

This kind of works in cricket. Maybe the experience they play at club level out-weighs the tiredness of playing lots of games.

  • The FA would own football pitches throughout the country with good facilities where kids could play and get trained up.

We saw this with Iceland. They’d used their national dividend to set up brilliant indoor and outdoor pitches to encourage kids to get out and play, and trained their coaches to a high level so the kids learned properly. Iceland were a delight at the last Euros.

  • The number of teams in the Premiership would be limited every two years to reduce the number of games played by the bigger clubs.

This would kind of make sense, though it would have been logistically crazy this year, bearing in mind we’re playing Euro 2020 in 2021. Another way of looking it is, maybe not limiting the number of clubs in the Premiership means the England coach has more players to draw upon playing at the highest level. Maybe other nations are feeling fatigue because their star players are playing in England, too.

  • The bigger clubs would get to field two or even three teams within the league, so their peripheral players play first team football regularly, even if it was down the leagues, (obviously controls would have to be put in place to ensure two teams from the same club don’t play each other).

I still think this is a good idea, though I know lower league fans say they would resent the B and C teams for taking the place of some club that’s battling away without the resources of the big clubs.

  • Our players would be encouraged to play abroad for the experience, to learn different styles of play. Same with our coaches.

I love that Sancho and Bellingham went abroad to get their opportunity. I love that Trippier went abroad for the experience.

Some of these ideas might be stupid, but I don’t think all of them are. But regardless, none of them will happen. The clubs are too powerful and the FA is too weak. If the FA clamped down, the clubs would break away and form their own league. Or it would tip the balance and finally prompt them to form the European League, which I’m sure they will clearly put together at some juncture, anyway.

The Super League nearly happened, and the breakaway clubs got slapped down. Looking back, it was very funny. But it nearly happened.

I’m going to post this now, before the final. I’d love us to win. I’d be disappointed if we didn’t, though Italy are a magnificent side and there would be no shame in getting beaten by them. I’e no idea what the score will be: I could see either side winning. But the thing I want more than anything is to see a joyful performance from England. Not gung-ho or kamikaze, but positive, energetic, thoughtful, skilful. When we play like that, we are superb and we can beat anyone!

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