Sunday, 29 April 2012

English football: Substance over Style?

I know we have no chance in the Euros, and I fully stand by what I said about not getting our hopes up. So don't go rushing to comment about my naivety or idiocy just yet. But perhaps Chelsea's inspiring victory over Barca gives us a slender glimmer of hope, at least that we might not embarrass ourselves. In no way am I suggesting that we play the 7-2-1 formation that Chelsea adopted on Tuesday night, but we have seen that the greatest technical ability will not always win. Just ask Mr Idealistic Pep Guardiola

We are far from the best team competing this summer but we're also far from the worst. According to FIFA rankings, we are the 5th best team there, with the others in our group being ranked 16, 17 and 49 in the World. Realistically, you'd maybe say we're 7th best, with teams like France/Italy who had bad World Cups better than us but currently ranked lower.
If we are to have any chance of at least performing respectably, we need to recognise the reality of what we can and can't do. For too long we have enviously dreamed of the technical ability of other nations, lamenting its absence in the players we have at our disposal. Of course we have produced players of intricate skill and creativity like Joe Cole, or vision and passing ability like Paul Scholes, but these are rare - we are never going to have a midfield of Iniesta, Xavi, Mata and Silva. 

The reality is that the bread and butter of our team is built not on skill, technique and close control but on pace, power and passion. We have no chance if we try to emulate Spain because we need to recognise the fact that, as disappointing as it might be, we do not have the technical ability to match it. This doesn't necessarily mean we play ugly or just long-ball, but nor does it mean we attempt tiki-taka because it will not end well. The core of our team, players like Gerrard, Rooney, Lampard, Terry, Cashley, are not going to win us a match, let alone a tournament if we try slow build-up, possession football, waiting for a moment of genius to unlock a defence.

Five or six years ago, Spain came to this realisation, but in reverse. They were physically outmuscled again and again in major tournaments, and consistently failed to perform to their potential. They realised that their strength lay in their pass and move build-up play, not speed or strength. 
The following quote sums up Spain's change of strategy after their latest tournament failure, the '06 World Cup. 

After being eliminated from the competition, Luis Aragon├ęs came to the decision that the team was not physical or tough enough to be able to out-muscle opponents, they therefore opted to start concentrating on monopolising the ball and thus started to employ the tiki-taka - a style characterised by short passing and movement, working the ball through various channels, and maintaining possession.

Spain haven't done too badly since then really. Looking at the examples of Arsenal and Man U might give further weight to the idea. Wenger has created a team of small, skilful players such as Rosicky, Arshavin, Nasri, Walcott. Lots of creativity and nice looking football, but very few trophies. United on the other hand play with a lot of speed and power, still attacking and aggressive but based more on swift counter-attack rather than endless possession, and have dominated English football for 20 years.
Regardless of whether it is Roy Hodgson, Stuart Pearce or Harry Redknapp who leads us in Poland/Ukraine and beyond, we need to play to our strengths and play an English style of football, not a poor attempt at Spanish football.

PS Ben, if you happen to read this blog, I'm sorry, I know this will offend your footballing philosophies.


  1. Well written and good points. Anything is possible in football and we need to realise it's just 22 men on a field, nothing is certain.

  2. Brilliant blog... really sums England up

  3. I'd agree. I'm a physical player myself and often play against much more skillfull opposition - I admire their skill but often I feel sorry for them as for all their hard work and ability they do find it very difficult to play against strong players. Also possession is not 9/10 of the law. For me 9/10 is putting the ball in the back of the net and stopping that from happening at your end which possession by no means gurantees you.

    If I can add one point is that England players are generally put under imense pressure by the fans and media which doesn't help and they are also too individualistic and need to do more for each other on and off the field as only by sticking together and helping each other out they will ever succeed.

  4. Excellent comments....and the age old to your strengths!!!

  5. Great Blog and totally agree, the problem of counter attacking football is when the oppo's are doing the same and the benefit of a good manager is to recognise that and change to plan B which has already been ingrained into the players so they all know what they are doing. Something I felt Capello managed at times only Hoddle I felt manged it previously.
    I think Hodgson might be able to do it too :)

    Tim (WHU & England)

  6. Interesting read and very well written. I'm not 100% convinced about developing "the English style of football". You have pointed out that Chelsea beat Barcelona recently, but what about Athletic Bilbao humbling Man Utd earlier in the year (outplaying them home and away) with a slicker more efficient brand of football? - Man Utd were full-strength and winning consistently in the PL by this point, Rooney, Scholes, Nani etc were all on the field for those defeats.

    In my humble opinion we don't have to play tiki-taka, I agree with you there, but we do need to emulate certain aspects of it: keeping possession more, playing in triangles even in tight spaces, not being reticent to work the ball forward from the back under pressure or deep in your own half, and moreover playing with a general intelligence and calmness.

    The Chelsea result was a result of borne of sheer willpower and they would have lost that tie if it wasn't for the die hard attitude and that little bit of luck you need to keep the ball out of the net. It's not realistic to play like that for a whole tournament - if they turn up playing like that at the Olympic stadium Bayern will eat them alive. Probably a bit like Germany vs England in South Africa.. where we committed the most stupid errors in typical gung-ho fashion.

  7. True about Bilbao, but how did they beat Man U? With a fast, physical game - they out-Englished them if you will. I think we have to play with the same passion and determination that Chelsea showed, but not the same style or defensive attitude. Playing to our strengths and without the stupid errors you mention will at least mean we give a decent account of ourselves

    1. I think the word out-Englished should definitely be added to the lexicon!

      They were fast and physical that's true but they also played quite a technical game with a more intricate passing style and that's definitely something non-English which we need to bring into our play a la Swansea City.

  8. Haha, I like the idea of emulating Swansea as the ultimate goal for our international team. I'm sure all the Welsh readers will love that!

  9. Interesting that the Dutch may be taking a similar approach...

  10. technical ability will beat strength 9/10 times,chelsea got lucky barca sqaundered chances