It’s a World Cup year and I, like many other football fans, am looking forward to the carnival of football that only the most prestigious international competition can provide. As the Premier League reaches its climax, it is only natural that we look out for which English players are hitting a rich vein of form at the right time to try and book their seat on the plane to Brazil. I argue that the decision on which players to take is a more philosophical one than many give Roy the credit for.
Should we play 4-4-2? Perhaps 4-2-3-1 with flying fullbacks, or even the diamond, employed by Liverpool to great effect this season. All of these formations and more I have discussed down the local and in an ideal world England would play all of these systems, but it leads me on to the biggest question namely; what system to England play? To me it seems almost reactionary the tactics used by England in the sense that it seems that Hodgson seems to pick a team that fits a system rather than a system that fits the group of players available to him. Hodgson has persisted with Cleverley in his teams since he took over when the likes of Jack Cork have been overlooked despite playing better for his club when given the opportunity. England have been blessed with tremendous talent in the fullback positions with Baines and Cole competing for the left back spot in past years and Johnson having a fantastic season for Liverpool. These players all play fairly well for England but never provide a huge performance in big games which leave anxious moments in seemingly easy qualification groups. Pundits have been calling for England to adopt the ‘Southampton Way’ for much of the season, but what does that actually mean in terms of the Three Lions?
There has been much written in the media this year about the playing style of Southampton, with their pressing game combined with their relaxed approach to possession it has been . Mauricio Pochettino has been a progressive appointment after Nigel Adkins; playing out from the back and centering around a passing game which is crucial to his style. His previous club was in Spain, and there is a tremendous amount written about the attractive Spanish style of passing and ball retention – noticeably lacking in England sides over the past decade. The impressive pressing game that Southampton play without the ball, the passing and possession orientated tactics are exciting to watch. But is this the way England should be playing?
Sure, it works well at Southampton because the players have bought into the style and philosophy of the club but the ‘Southampton Way’ runs right through the club from the youth teams to the first team. With England there doesn’t seem to be this consistency just yet. The calibre of players is unquestionable; Gerrard, Rooney and Baines are outstanding players in their own rights, but they play to different systems under their respective premier league managers. Now you might argue that this is a cheap shot at the Premier League but I believe this to be a deeper point. Roy Hodgson doesn’t play the same type of football that is being encouraged at Southampton, Liverpool or even Arsenal, so why do the supporters of England demand that type of football? It seems to me that we are trying to shoehorn England ‘regulars’ into a England XI rather than creating a team that could potentially challenge for a title. Look at the achievements of the Greece team that won Euro 2004, hardly a star studded squad in relation to some of the teams they faced.
Hodgson was presumably brought in to try to give some sort of identity to the national game; an English manager for an English team. But this weak and quite superficial philosophy from the FA fails to connect with players from the more successful clubs which have foreign managers. Players such as Lallana, Sterling and Shaw have grown up with the same philosophy throughout their career and it must be odd for them to be thrust into an environment where the result matters more than the style of football. For example, we see in the last few minutes of a football match where a team needs a last minute goal, they ‘go route one’ and throw everything at the opposition. This is perhaps counter-intuitive. The desperation leads to mistakes and this in turn leads to frustration to the supporters who then aim their anger at the players which heaps more pressure on them. We are constantly told that the game does not end until the final whistle so why should a team force themselves to make mistakes through desperation? Surely it is better to continue playing thoughtful football, outmanoeuvring a mentally tired and pressured opposition.
We have seen this carelessness in England sides many times in major competitions, and while this may seem like an asymmetric argument as Southampton have not been in crucial stages of knockout competitions, the composure is always in evidence whether they are holding on to a lead or behind in a game they never seem to lose sight of the style of play. This is drilled in to the players as Adkins and now Pochettino have been quoted as saying ‘we never get too high when we win or too low when we lose’ and this levelheadedness is evident in the hard working nature of the performances – something that has been lacking with England. Some of the most successful clubs in the football league and conference this season have adopted this mentality. For example, Luton Town have long been the giants outside the football league and have languished in the conference. The introduction of John Still as manager last year has seen a clear philosophy introduced to the squad and they will soon be promoted to the league. Look also at Rotherham United and the good work done by Steve Evans, the Millers looking for successive promotions into the Championship this season. The England set up can perhaps take note of this, that a strong philosophy can cause an upturn in fortunes amongst English players.
So there needs to be a philosophy change through English football, from the kids through to the first team, and finally the FA are doing something about it. They have jumped on the attractive bandwagon of using young players like in Germany. The FA should however not get carried away just because we have incredible talent in front of us instead, gradually apply the thought of unity to the whole structure and not just the first team – a process that will take time. England seem to be pulling in all different directions at the moment, and England need to lose the shackles of having to do well individually.Do that and have a team philosophy other than ‘let’s win the cup’ they might find a change in fortunes.
Don’t expect this to happen just yet though.