THE BEST THING THAT COULD HAVE HAPPENED TO ENGLAND
Losing to Croatia, and failing to qualify for Euro2008 was the best thing that could have happened to the England team. Losing in such close matches so many times for so many years has given the country a false sense of belief in their place amongst the best teams in the world, and it has done nothing to change the direction of their football development which seems to produce players who, in the clutch, cannot perform.
Take a look at the end of the game between Brazil and France at the World Cup in 2006 – the Brazilians were on the verge of going out as defending champions with arguably a stronger team than four years earlier, but you did not see them resort to the kind of panicky, route 1 style that is the English hallmark any time they are under pressure? When the going gets tough, the Brazilians possess more, they combine more, and they basically try to work their way into a goal in the same way that they would in a normal situation only they do it with a little bit more energy.
Contrast that with what the English do when they get under pressure – Beckham and whoever else is on the field at the time deluge the opposite goal with a never ending stream of "dumb" bombs, hoping for some collateral damage that will result in a goal. Defenders madly charge the net, bulldozing their way into the penalty area, commit all kinds of atrocious fouls that under any other circumstance would probably see them cautioned or worse.
The situation is even more bleak when England are holding onto a lead – not because the play is any less sophisticated, they basically play it the same way, and as a result, they give away possession as often as the keep it, (if not more often) giving their opponents one too many looks at their net. You don’t see the calm and assertive passing that is the hallmark of the Brazilians, Argentines, French, Italians and Germans when they are in a similar situation, and as such you get pretty atrocious results. This is one reason why the players, perhaps subconsciously aware of their lack of technical and tactical acumen, are in full panic mode – charging their way through reckless challenges, and oh-so-useless clearances that do nothing but delay the inevitable next chance on their own net.
The English problem at its base is a technical problem, that manifests mainly when they are under pressure. The tendency of athletes is to do what is in their nature when the situation is most challenging, and so it's best to be sure that your nature is to play your game fundamentally correct. The nature of English players is to go route 1, run faster, tackle harder and scream louder. But this creates a perfect storm of panic that always sends them packing at the major tournaments. You run faster and just get out of position quicker. You tackle harder and you give away dead ball situations, get yourself sent off or injured. You scream louder and you just create more panic. Screaming is good if it has a purpose, but can it honestly be said that there is some purpose in the cacophony of red-faced shouting?
They have just as often failed at penalties, and this is merely a question of nerves. Steven Gerrard, Frank Lampard and Jamie Carragher have all successfully taken penalties for their clubs, yet they all missed in the 2006 World Cup against Portugal. I think it’s fascinating that even though the generation has changed, the results seem to be the same – clearly there’s something in the English character that prevents them from doing the job when the pressure is really on, and I think it has something to do with a general absence of a sense of proportionality. Players from other countries are under just as much pressure to perform as the English, but they know the world won't come crashing down around them if they lose. More importantly they know that they're more likely to lose if they lose their head. Not so with the English.
Even when they do something right, they seem to celebrate as if they’ve won the entire tournament. These elaborate celebrations, and chest thumping histrionics are a tell-tale sign that you’re pumping yourself up to compensate for an underlying lack of belief. All their gesticulating and howling, whether positive or negative, belies a lack of belief that they can win when it counts, and the record supports this conviction.
So what’s the solution?
From the beginning English players need to develop the fundamental technique necessary to succeed under pressure. From an early age English players are still playing on full-sized pitches, emphasizing a win first strategy of kick and run. The basic technical level of an English player is not very good for working out of tight spaces and keeping posession. Finally, their method of selecting talent is not nearly as scientific as it is in South America, France or Holland. As a result, other characteristics like grit and determination are over-valued in a player from a young age. It's nice that a kid has heart, but heart doesn't get you anything if you can't kick straight, and heart is something that can be developed through cut-throat competition and a rigid selection processes. What the English need is more skill, so they can do the things that everyone else does when they are under pressure, the same way they do when they are not.
The English also get too excited about players like Joe Cole or Shaun Wright Phillips who show just a little bit of technique, when in other countries you’ll find a hundred players just like them who would never make it to the national team. That's because the English view technique as a bonus - the real values of heart, toughness, leadership (manifested as bellowing, teeth gritting and fist-pumping) supercede the value of being able to work their way out of tight spaces and keep posession, a key common characteristic among all quality international teams.
But under pressure, technique is not an added bonus – it is the bare minimum a player needs to function at the top level because there, pressure is a big factor in technique. English players look great when playing meaningless friendlies against minnows, but on the big stage, against the big teams, they revert to their basics, and if your basics are sorely lacking, you get the results the English have gotten for 50 years.
I sincerely hope that the FA will change everything – mostly themselves – and bring in a Technical Director for England that understands how to find and build quality players from the lowest level. Forget about the manager for now, because that's not the problem.
It's the players, stupid.
Gerard Houllier has been mentioned as a manager, but he ought to be considered for a Technical Director position, and given his history in English Football and facility with the language, he could probably do a good job. Just ask the French Football Federation, since he is currently in that post for the FFF.
More than anyone, Houllier is responsible for building the basis of French players who now dominate European football (along with Brazilians and Argentines) even more so than the Dutch, because they build and produce better players technically from an early age, and focus their efforts on making their fundamentals so solid that when the pressure is on they perform better instinctively. The French don't care if a player has heart if he can't kick straight and has no balance, unlike the English who seem to thnk of these handicaps as a virtue. If a kid lacks the technique in these other countries, he will never in his life progress to the national team. If he lacks the heart he will probably develop it through the ruthless selection process - remember that 20 year old Thierry Henry and David Trezeguet easily converted their penalties in France 98 against Italy.
Doing the same in England may put more English players in English clubs, but that has nothing to do with how well they do in internationals. Building a better player from the ground up is the key to turning around the fortunes of the national team. Building a team that can keep possession and control their own fate when times are tough is the only way the English will ever win anything. And failing to qualify for Europe is just the tonic they need to make such a radical change, because now that their failure is complete, there’s no false hope left to hold onto. You're no longer "right up their with the best". You suck, and you know you suck because you didn't qualify - deal with it.
As such, failing to qualify for Euro2008 could be the best thing that has happened to the English. I hope for their sake they figure that out in time for South Africa 2010.