Written by Mark Docherty
The most recent international break saw England’s national team extend their unbeaten run in qualification for the Russia 2018 World Cup with wins over Malta and Slovakia. Having scored six goals over the two games and conceded just once, as well as now being able to boast that they have the longest unbeaten run in qualifiers (37) of any European nation, one might think that there would be widespread optimism surrounding Gareth Southgate’s side. However, as has long been the case with the Three Lions, positive results do not change the fact that watching England play can be very uninspiring.
While you would be hard pushed to make the case that England did not deserve to win both fixtures in this international break, the results perhaps flattered them to an extent. While the 0-4 win in Malta makes it sound as if the Three Lions were rampant, it is worth remembering that England were only winning 0-1 until the 85th minute of the match, when a late Maltese collapse led to them shipping three goals in a matter of minutes. Similarly, against Slovakia at Wembley England could only force Martin Dubravka into routine saves for most of the match. Despite the number of promising attacks into the Slovakian final third, there was a disappointing lack of end product which ultimately prevented the hosts from winning comfortably.
Undoubtedly, many will refer to the age-old football cliché ‘a win’s a win’ to defend the England team after the last couple of matches, arguing that it is ludicrous to be critical of a side when they have defeated their opposition. After all, if England could put together a major tournament campaign where they won every game narrowly and unconvincingly, they would be crowned champions. However, that has not been the case in any recent tournaments and England fans are not being shown anything different in the current qualifying campaign to what they saw in the lead up to Euro 2016, so it does not seem unreasonable to seek change, lest we see a repeat of the recent disasters on the biggest stage in football. The problem that I see with the current England team – and, in fact, all the teams in the last decade – is that there is no sense of national identity about the team.
When looking at the sides who have been successful during that period, there seems to be one constant: they have all had a particular way of playing which they have stuck to and developed into their own ‘brand’. The obvious example is Spain, who dominated football between 2008 and 2012, winning two European Championships and a World Cup during that period. Their success under Vicente del Bosque was governed almost entirely by their tiki-taka style of play, which arguably revolutionised football with the high possession style of play. Similarly, the German team which won the World Cup in 2014 was built on a strong work ethic and a reliance on a midfield which consisted of creative talents such as Toni Kroos and Mesut Özil in order to cater for the off-colour Thomas Müller up front. The two teams’ approaches to the tournaments were very different, yet – crucially – they had a clear approach and plan which everybody was able to work together to carry out.
When you compare this with the England side at the 2016 European Championships it is almost surprising that the Three Lions even made it as far as the last 16. Roy Hodgson was completely unprepared for the tournament and clearly had no conception of what his strongest team was in the lead up to the tournament. This was perfectly summed up when Hodgson played a 4-4-2 diamond system in the last couple of warm up matches and then opted for a 4-3-3 formation in the opening group match against Russia, despite having a very limited number of wingers in his squad. You couldn’t imagine the top teams in the world chopping and changing tactics so shortly before a major tournament, and I am positive that the indecisiveness shown in that tournament and many others have contributed to early exits. Even teams such as Wales and Northern Ireland have embraced their respective philosophies in recent years and have been rewarded by some of their most successful years in the last century. They know that they do not have a squad blessed with footballing ability so they are happy to play to their strengths, with Wales using Sam Vokes as a battering ram to allow Gareth Bale to perform his magic, and Northern Ireland ruthlessly making the most of set pieces with the likes of Gareth McAuley and Josh Magennis benefitting from Chris Brunt’s deliveries.
The problem with England, however, is that they are not prepared to accept that their players are not world beaters and continue trying to play in the same way as teams such as Germany and France despite having players who are infinitely less technically gifted. I do not think I am doing him a disservice when I say that Jordan Henderson is no Toni Kroos, while Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain has some work to do before he reaches the level of Antoine Griezmann. Yet Southgate continues to play them in the same roles as superior players and expect results of the same quality. I believe it would be far better for England to accept that the players at their disposal are not good enough to play the fluid football preferred by the world’s top teams and try and find a way of playing at which they are better than the majority of other teams. From watching Premier League football each week I believe that the best way of doing this would be for the national team to employ a very physical style of play and try to bully other teams off the park.
Foreign players and managers are forever complaining that English football is far more physical than that in their own country so I believe it is about time that the National team uses that to their advantage. Most of the nation’s most successful players have been hard men who specialise in winning the ball and imposing themselves on opposition players rather than being especially talented with the ball at their feet. Bobby Moore, Terry Butcher, and Stuart Pearce are names which spring to mind when you consider the best known English players and they were all no nonsense, physical players. For me, a spine of hard working, tough, physical players would perform best for England in major tournaments, with a couple of flair players to unlock defences. While that playing style would not necessarily be the best watch for neutrals, it would at least allow England to go into a major tournament with their own personalised style of play, and hopefully progress far in the tournament rather than playing teams at their own game and losing. Players such as Harry Kane, Adam Lallana, Jordan Henderson, Eric Dier, Gary Cahill, Andy Carroll, Michail Antonio and Danny Welbeck would all fit well into such a style, while Marcus Rashford, Raheem Sterling and Dele Alli, amongst others could be used to unlock defences.
Realistically, every England fan is going to have their own opinion about what needs to be done with the national team in order to achieve success, but everybody agrees that change is necessary. Now that qualification is all but assured for next year’s World Cup, maybe it is time for Gareth Southgate to experiment with different combinations of players and styles, possibly employing something more physical. Personally I believe that is England’s best chance of success but, like everybody else, I will continue to support the team in their quest to progress in Russia next year. Hopefully by this time next year England will have put to bed claims that they do not have their own unique style of football, and will have picked up a World Cup while they’re at it!