I was recently talking to a friend I used to play football with, who suggested that England football team should talk to a coach of the England rugby team- in particular Sir Clive Woodward, who masterminded England’s victorious campaign in the 2003 Rugby World Cup. His idea was that Woodward would be able to motivate the English players to perform better.
What he didn’t know is that Woodward did in fact make a speech; a long, laborious two hour drone a few nights before England jetted off to Germany in the summer of 2006 for the World Cup. They returned a month later, two David Beckham free-kicks and a stunning volley by Joe Cole highlights in an overwhelmingly underwhelming campaign that saw Michael Owen injured and Wayne Rooney sent off, before a second consecutive defeat by Portugal on penalties. Beckham gave up the captaincy, England manager Sven Goran-Eriksson paid the price, and, for reasons only he and Satan know, Steve McClaren was installed in his place.
The point of that little story was to show that motivation, that passion, can only get you so far. Another example is Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool side this season. It’s obvious to any football fan that Klopp’s passionate approach has dragged Liverpool back into the spotlight of English football, reaching the Champions League final and a second successive top four spot with supreme attacking verve, and a side even better than that which almost won the title in 2014. But this approach hasn’t always worked. Liverpool drew 12 games this season, including a three-all draw at Anfield to Watford, and throwing away a 2-0 lead to draw at West Brom towards the end of the season. A straightforward, if not easy, European campaign still saw them outplayed in the final by a Real Madrid side that rarely left second gear, and they finished the season trophyless, only securing that top four spot on the last day of the season.
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In contrast, I want to focus on Vicente del Bosque’s Spain, that won the 2010 World Cup and the 2012 Euros (those commenting ‘but 2008,’ that was the late Luis Aragones). Spain came into that World Cup as favourites, with the pressure of being European champions, and that only increased after they lost their first game in South Africa to Switzerland. They collected themselves, and a series of low-scoring, functional wins saw them beat Portugal and Germany on their way to collecting their first World Cup title. In contrast, an incredibly passionate Netherlands side totally lost their heads in the final, and should’ve been down to ten men after Nigel de Jong attempted to kick Xabi Alonso’s ribcage into Durban in the first half. Perhaps tellingly, it was the ice-cold, emotionless Andres Iniesta who won the World Cup for Spain with a volley in the 114th minute. I don’t think del Bosque even left his chair. Spain played to their strengths, didn’t panic, and used the fans as a ‘twelfth man’ to augment their ability, rather than replace it. They focussed on their own game, the quick passing, control of possession, dictating tempo. Most importantly, saving their emotions until after the game.
Now compare this to the England team. Far too much focus is given to the fact that English players don’t show enough ‘passion’ or ‘pride’ in wearing the shirt. Wayne Rooney used to also get criticism for not singing the national anthem. Leaving aside that ‘God Save the Queen’ is a miserable dirge that wouldn’t motivate a narcoleptic to sleep, pride is an utterly arbitrary, meaningless attribute. English fans would rather the spirit of Terry Butcher playing on with his bleeding head bandaged, the image of Stuart Pearce screwing up his face to argue with a referee, forgetting that these players didn’t win anything with England. In fact, England’s best performances since the magical summer of ’66 were in Italia ’90 and the ’96 Euros at home, reaching the semis in both, when their top scorers were the incredibly dull David Platt or the even more boring Alan Shearer, respectively. Since, the FA have been trying to get England to play to an ideal, exciting ‘England DNA’, instead of their natural game which gets the best out of the players available.
This extends to the management. Gareth Southgate has been criticised for being an FA ‘yes-man,’ but not for his tactical naiveté. When blessed with a glut of central midfielders and no strikers in the 2012 Euros, Spain played them all, dropping Cesc Fabregas into a false 9 slot. In contrast, England, with Rashford, Vardy and Kane, have three of the best lone strikers in the league (Kane, after Luis Suarez and level with Sergio Aguero, is probably the best striker in the world). England will almost certainly try to play the former two as wingers, despite their inability to run the channels, cross the ball, or cut inside. Nor should they be expected to. Roy Hodgson either allowed or was forced into letting 6 foot, muscular Kane take corners and set pieces towards the famously not-tall Raheem Sterling in France in 2016. McClaren brought in uncapped goalkeepers for must-win games against qualifying group leaders as far back as 2007.
This extends to the senseless decision to appoint Sam Allardyce in the summer of 2016, a move heralded, somehow, by such actual thinking human beings as Gary Lineker. How could this have been a good idea? Allardyce embodies the traditional Twentieth century management tactic of screaming at people to make them do what you want, a tactic that has seen him leave every club he’s ever been at. Some of the luminaries reading this will bring up Alex Ferguson’s famous ‘hairdryer treatment,’ but that was a last resort. Ferguson could bring the best out of average footballers, and, when he couldn’t outfox the opposition, played to his own exceptional strengths. The hairdryer treatment is all Allardyce has.
England won’t win a thing until we’ve dropped the childish focus on passion and moved it on to tactics. Another friend suggested that Jordan Henderson should be given the captaincy over Harry Kane, as he was already Liverpool captain, plus a ‘big personality in the dressing room.’ Yes, Jordan Henderson has made a lot of his career out of screaming and pointing, but England don’t need that when he can (sometimes) pass, tackle and run. Captaincy is only this huge an issue in England. Other countries usually select their best, or oldest, player. The Real Madrid side of the late noughties made their captain Iker Casillas, but Xabi Alonso essentially filled the role of ‘telling people what to do’ from midfield. In fact, it’s probable that Andres Iniesta, who I don’t think knows how to talk, will captain Spain in Russia, because every player in that squad will already be aware of what’s expected of them when the opening from the first whistle. On a similar note, where other countries fit their formation around the players available, England seem to think having them on the pitch will be enough. Wayne Rooney was bewilderingly made a winger against Italy in England’s first game of World Cup 2014. In the last round of international games, Southgate negated Kyle Walker’s searing pace and dangerous crossing by making him a centre-back. Adam Lallana, who has barely made 20 appearances for Liverpool this season, is on the call-up list. Gary Cahill, who spent most of the season benched after a horror show at Watford in January, was one of the first names on the squad.
They must also learn from the experience of others. Four years ago, a passionate Brazil side fell to pieces without the wise head and broad shoulders of Thiago Silva, leaving the passionate, terrible David Luiz to negate his defensive duties and run 90 yards up the pitch, a tactic that led to them conceding seven times in their own World Cup semi-final at the Maracana. The emotion and the pressure accelerated Brazil’s collapse, rather than strengthened them. It is unlikely, if the much cooler Silva had played, Brazil would’ve been swept aside so easily.
The only people who need to bring passion are the fans. English fans come in number, and they come loud. Even in the leagues, the fans of Port Vale are at least as vociferous as those of Old Trafford, they just differ in number. In the last decade, Pep Guardiola has shown that you need tactics, innovation and patience in the modern game, passion is at best a small burst of energy and at worst an unwelcome distraction. Zinedine Zidane, who has just lifted his third successive Champions League title, embodies a similar style, the elegant, single-minded drive of a born winner (for those pointing out the relative chequebooks of those two managers, Jose Mourinho, Carlo Ancelotti, Roberto Mancini, Manuel Pellegrini, Rafael Benitez and even the great Mark Hughes couldn’t win the Champions League with either of those clubs.) Fans bring the passion, but the players need tactics. France, Spain, Germany, even the average Portugal side that won the 2016 Euros play, not with outdated, immature notions of ‘pride’ or ‘passion,’ but to their respective strengths. It’s time for the English game to do the same.