Why England Never Win!


Football has long been talked about in terms of tactics. We hear things like W-M, we nod our heads sagely as someone in the pub murmurs the word catenaccio – although we don’t know what it means.Christmas trees, 4-4-2s, liberos and “Total Football”.

What makes football worth watching is it’s unpredictability. Americans seem to prefer sports which can be analysed with statistics, so numbers can be crunched and comparisons can be made. I seem to remember a statistic being flashed up on the screen during USA ’94 which announced that a particular player had made the highest number of long passes in the competition – and the English commentator sniffily remarking that this was not necessarily a good thing. America likes its numbers. But the beauty of football is that only two numbers really count at the end of the game. How many goals your team scored, and how many theirs did. We don’t memorise facts and figures. A quick poll: How many goals did Paul Gascoigne score for England? Don’t know? But I bet we can all remember the flick over Colin Hendry at Wembley in 1996 and the volley into the bottom corner. I bet we all remember too that it bounced once before crossing the line, but was otherwise aesthetically perfect. Football a game of aesthetic realisation, or as somebody more succinctly put – the beautiful game. An art, rather than a science.

The most admired players – by this I mean admired by everyone from fans to Chairmen, are the players who can make a mockery of tactics and formations. These are the players that excite the crowd, get them off their feet. The inventive players, who use nothing more than natural instinct to create space, pick a pass or find the top corner of the net. Players like this – the true greats of the game – needn’t be top of the stats in every respect. Giovanni Van Bronkhurst played for Holland more than twice as many times as Johan Cryuff, but you wouldn’t get the whole crowd rising to their feet when Gio received the ball. When people are asked to name their top 5 players ever, Van Bronkhurst doesn’t make the cut, he probably doesn’t even make most people’s top 5 Dutch footballers. Bebeto scored far more goals than Rivelino, but is less revered (Anyone heard of “the elastico”? Rivelino). The biggest transfer fees, the highest wages, the most shirt sales, the loudest songs, the most emulation, adulation and commemoration go to the best entertainers – the creative attacking midfielders, wingers and forwards who have the ability to amaze and astound.

The exception of course, is England players. For some reason we seem to view our own in a different light. We are more critical of English flair players than we are of those born abroad. Our fixation with 4-4-2 at international level is perhaps one of the reasons. I think it lies deeper than that. From youth level, players are coached and schooled into tactical rigidity. Can you imagine a school-boy footballer being afforded a free-role? No. He’d be played centre midfield, and told to work on his defensive play. Kids are taught that strength, pace, and power are favourable to skilful technique and trickery.

Football is, at the end of the day, entertainment. However money-orientated, results driven, or tactically ingenious it becomes, it still has to enthral, excite and enrapture us otherwise it will lose the power to keep our attention, lose the ability to swell our hearts, and lose the right to empty our pockets. The key to this is tactical evolution. It was tactical evolution that allowed Hungary to destroy England in 1953 – a deep lying forward drew defenders out of position, and Puskas and Kocsis put them to the sword; it was tactical evolution that produced the famous Total Football; and it was tactical evolution that allowed Germany to rip England to shreds at the 2010 World Cup.

For years England have had “The left sided problem”. A lack of a top class left winger leaves a country obsessed with the 4-4-2 in quite a pickle. It rarely occured to anyone that perhaps we should play in a formation that doesn’t need a left winger. A 5-3-2 using Ashley Cole as a rampaging wing back sounds good to me, as does 4-3-2-1 as employed recently by Argentina, or a 4-3-1-2 favoured by Spain. Instead we have persevered with playing centre midfielders out of position. Steve Gerrard and Joe Cole have both been played there, and both drift infield, leaving a huge hole. Although Gerrard’s link ups with Rooney in the 2010 Qualifiers gave us all hope. Terrible thing, hope. We now have a few players who could fill that position, Adam Johnson, Ashley Young and Stewart Downing. However, Adam Johnson, when he can get a game, is often used on the right of midfield; Ashley Young in the middle of the park, and Stewart Downing on the right a fair proportion of the time. The clubs that provide those players regularly play a 4-2-3-1 system, as do most of the top sides in England and across Europe. The top sides are the ones which provide the vast majority of players in the England squads, and those players are then asked to play in different formations to the ones they use week-in week-out.

England play dull football. Let me qualify that – The English national side is viewed from both within these shores and without as a fast-paced, energetic and powerful team. Kick and rush, long ball, physical football, with a big man / little man combo up front, and two lines of four behind them. Since time immemorial England have set out in a 4-4-2 formation. A game in 1990 against the Dutch is remarkable for the fact Bobby Robson played Terry Butcher as a sweeper, people still remember that over 20 years on. Experimentation by Terry Venables with the Christmas Tree formation at Euro ’96 is a notable exception to the 4-4-2 devotion. Another, more recent experiment away from 4-4-2 was tried by the hapless and much ridiculed Wally with a Brolly Steve McLaren. The experiment failed, and was abandoned. That’s what happens when you mess with the English formation – you have an insulting nickname made up by the media, and you are sacked by the FA. McLaren was probably not right to tinker about in an important away qualifier against Croatia, but that result amongst others resulted in England failing to qualify for the European Championships, so he had to go. To be fair, he was awfully hampered by injuries to key players. Our media-driven haughtiness allowed us to think that if we had qualified, we’d have been amongst the favourites – the next World Cup put paid to that assumption, it was our worst in history. That was under the tutelage of Fabio Capello, a man with an outstanding record in club football, who was supposed to bring a more mature, more modern approach to our international football. He’s been lambasted for that dismal set of performances in South Africa, but can you imagine if he’d played another formation and failed? The burning effigy trade that has lain dormant since 1998 would have been unable to cope with demand.

So, technically we’re decades behind, and tactically we’re at least 10 years out of date. Capello was supposed to be the man with his finger on the pulse of top class football, who could rejuvenate England’s fortunes with his tactical know-how and trendy European ways.

But is he that man?

At Milan in the early nineties, arguably Capello’s most celebrated years, he mostly played a 4-4-2 with Rikjaard and Albertini across the middle of the midfield, and later replaced Rikjaard with Desailly. However, don’t forget, his early 90s Milan had an unbelievable and legendary back 5, and Gullit and Van Basten up front. How England could do with those riches. At Roma he fielded a 5-3-2, to incorporate two of the best wing backs the game has ever seen – Cafu and Candela, encouraging them to bomb forward, but again had a defensive midfield comprising of two from Zanetti, Emerson and Tomassi.At Juventus, he reverted to 4-4-2 tactics, this time with Emerson again in tandem with Partick Vieira. He took Emerson with him to Real Madrid for his second, season long, term there. He was sacked despite winning La Liga, because of the defensive way his teams played, he varied generally between a 4-2-3-1 and a 4-4-2.

Throughout his career, Capello has been successful with the 4-4-2, perhaps this is why the FA chose him. The FA, being English, are also obsessed with the 4-4-2.

So, Capello has the ability and nous to adapt formations when he squad he inherits has players of outstanding ability who will not fit into his favoured 4-4-2. With England, we’ve now got the players who can fit that formation – the left sided problem detailed above now seemingly solved, but he’s further constrained by our country’s obsession with Lampard and Gerrard. There is no doubt that Fabio Capello knows how to make a 4-4-2 work, but the longer these two attacking central midfielders remain (in the hearts and minds of England supporters) un-droppable he’s got a problem. To ask either of them to sit back and protect has proved to much for them so far – they don’t lack the intelligence, it’s just not their natural game. To ask both of them to stay back and protect is simply out of the question, and absurd to boot – you’ve just got to get different players in. Gerrard and Lampard can’t ever be Rikjaard and Desailly, or Emerson and Vieira, and those are the types of players needed for a Capello 4-4-2. The disciplined, defensive midfield pairing necessitates a lot of work from the wingers, and also needs the full-back to get forward and allow those wingers to drift infield if numbers are needed up top. By using the two central midfielders as shields, the Capello 4-4-2 allows greater freedom for other positions. Oh, for a fully fit Owen Hargreaves!

There has been much talk in the media and in pubs and cafés across England since the World Cup disaster demanding a break away from the 4-4-2. Perhaps the mood of the nation is turning at last. Perhaps it will take a lot longer still. It is still the default formation in the minds of every Englishman who pulls on a pair of boots. If we can’t manage to escape it, we need Capello to be brave enough to thank Frank and Steve for all they have done, and show them to door.

The other option, if we can stomach it, is to go with the current trend of 4-2-3-1. Again looking at Gerrard and Lampard we can easily see that one of them would fit very nicely into the middle of the attacking midfield triplet. Who to choose? It’s fair to say that neither of them have reached the heights reached in their club careers, so what we’re left with is a choice between one of two players who have failed to deliver, or bringing someone new in. Step up Jack Wilshere. The Arsenal youngster was sorely missed at the U-21 Euros, although when you consider that Stuart Pearce played Michael Mancienne in midfield ahead of Muamba and Cleverly, perhaps whichever players had been in the squad the end result might’ve been the same. Jack Wilshere is the latest of our great white hopes. There are a few players in and around the U-21 set-up that make you sit up, and he’s the pick of the bunch. If Capello were to build a team around him, for example putting him in the middle of the three attacking midfielders, and just let the boy play, we could find out that he’s the formation-busting instinctive creator that we’ve missed since Joe Cole was over-hyped. He’s also been used by Wenger as a deep-lying midfielder, doing a fair bit of ball-winning, but more of a withdrawn playmaker (Think Pirlo rather than Gatusso – or for a less dreamy comparison, think Michael Carrick rather than Joey Barton). So, you could put him in one of the two defensive midfield slots, if you wanted for example Rooney behind Carroll/Bent as the team’s focus.

Basically, we play boring and ineffective football because as a sporting culture, we’ve failed to adapt. We’ve been failing to adapt since 1966, when it was us who had the tactical innovation when a 4-4-2 shifted to either a 4-3-3 with Charlton joining the attack, or a 4-2-4 with Marin Peters and Alan Ball rushing up the sides.

Our current options appear to be limited to adopting the en vogue 4-2-3-1, which would simply mean that we’re catching up to what other nations have been doing for years, or sticking to the 4-4-2 but doing it Capello style. Neither of them exactly evolution, which is what’s needed. My personal view is that we should keep an eye on what Villas-Boas can achieve with Chelsea. His Porto side swept all aside last season, and if he makes it work at a top Premier League club, perhaps this brand of attacking 4-3-3 is the next evolutionary step that we should adopt.

But on a more nationwide level, we need to accept that just because we invented association football, it doesn’t owe us a guaranteed romp to the semi’s of every tournament.

Tom Nash

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