The footballing style of countries more or less remains the same over any length of time. That is more of a de facto statement rather than a proven hypothesis. There are, of course, periods of discrepancies along the timeline of history in teams’ styles; a disturbance in the force, so to speak. It has, after all, not been too long a time since Dunga’s Brazil, known more for their lack of flair than anything else, were unleashed onto the world. While the pragmatic and defensive-minded Dunga drove in the point of positional discipline, it came at the cost of Brazil losing their renowned Samba style of play. In the post-dunga period, as Mano Menezes took over, though Brazil still struggled as far as the results went, they did look to be back on the track to regain their former style of play. Now, under Luiz felipe Scolari, they seem to have rediscovered both their flair and winning nous.
With England though, their “style” over the years has been harder to define. How do you define English football? Is it a brand of football involving tough tackling midfielders with an eye for goal? Or maybe hard-working wingers who maraud down the lines to put in crosses, and track back to help the team defensively? What about burly, aerially-gifted forwards, battering opposing defenses, all the while integral also to hold the ball up for the rest of the team? The answer may be as simple as stating that it is a mixture of all of these, or it might be as complicated as saying that English football can only be defined by the players currently on the field.
One might put up the argument that the above line is true for any team; that any team’s “style” is defined by the 11 men on the pitch, joined by the glue that is the instructions of their manager. But it is also true that every team plays with the vestiges of the teams that played there before them; a ghost impression of their styles.
Spain have always been about technically-gifted players who have a penchant for passing the ball around, and a proclivity towards more narrow play, with wider players acting as “inside forwards”. Holland have been known to have swift passing, with more focus on players passing and moving into resulting space created to then form chances. Germany had the traditional, some would call it “stereotypical”, image of attacking and defending in organised manner, with a profound focus on players knowing their roles in the team, and executing them to the point. Italy are another team beset by stereotypical tags, with the Italian style of play attributed to being about an attack and a midfield that both are built about their core strength: the infamous Italian defence; not necessarily catenaccio-the door-bolt defending technique, but still an emphasis on strong defenses.
England have always defied football pundits and fans alike in their quests to categorise the team into a particular playing style. It is something that has also had a negative impact with respect to the modern version of the game. As internationally-retired Manchester United defender Rio Ferdinand had to say,
“What is our identity? I’ve said that on Twitter I don’t know how many times, and people come back and say, ‘What are you talking about?’ But what is our identity? We started to see something when Glenn Hoddle was in charge, a bit of an identity then, free-flowing football, and you would say we were starting to get an idea of the pattern of what he wanted to implement in the team. Since then I don’t think we’ve actually really seen an identity, where you could say: ‘That’s an England team,’ where you look at the Under-21s and go: ‘That’s an England team.’
“If all the names were taken off the back of the shirts and the colours were changed, you couldn’t go in there and say, ‘That’s an England team, that’s our identity, that’s the way we play.’ And that’s from the Under-16s right up to the senior team.
“Whereas you look at an Italian team, a Dutch team, a Spanish team, a German team or a Brazilian team, without seeing the names on the shirts, you would identify them because they’re working from a script. You could put an Under-16 lad into the senior Spanish team or Italian team, he might not have the attributes in terms of physique and speed to be able to deal with it but positionally I’m sure he’d know what to do because that’s what they’re taught, day in, day out.”
Though Ferdinand came under fire for the above statements, especially from current England skipper Steven Gerrard, a closer look at his words show us that there is definite truth there: What is England’s style? How are England defined by their playing methods?
One of the biggest mysteries, for want of better term, of English football is the emergence of a “technically gifted” Englishman every once in a while. A player much different from the rest; one who relies on movement and footwork, fancy flicks and deft touches instead of the usual hard work and perseverance that define the typical English footballer. These “aberrations”, as one can probably call them, are usually few and far between; appearing about once or so in every new generation of English football. There were Sir Bobby Charlton, Glenn Hoddle, John Barnes, Paul Gascoigne, Matt Le Tissier, Paul Scholes to name the more famous ones of yesteryears and Wayne Rooney, Steven Gerrard and Michael Carrick of the current established side. Each of them were characterised by their very un-English way of playing; more to do with style and panache rather than the crunching tackles or lung-bursting runs.
But there is one common thread that joins most of these players: a lack of recognition from most of the English footballing fraternity. Apart from Charlton, Gascoigne, Rooney and Gerrard none of the others were ever afforded the respect that was due to them; Charlton for the momentous talent that he possessed, and the other three because they mixed their technical proficiencies with more mundane, English characteristics of tackling and stamina-infused play.
It was famously said of Glenn Hoddle by French legend and current head of UEFA, Michel Platini, that, “If you’d been born French, you would have won 150 caps.” And how many caps did Hoddle amass for England? Hoddle amassed 53 caps.
Among the multitude of praise that has been showered down upon Paul Scholes, this statement by Spanish midfield maestro Xavi stands out as the most poignant:
“In the last 15 to 20 years the best central midfielder that I have seen—the most complete—is Scholes. I have spoken with Xabi Alonso about this many times. Scholes is a spectacular player who has everything.
He can play the final pass, he can score, he is strong, he never gets knocked off the ball and he doesn’t give possession away. If he had been Spanish then maybe he would have been valued more.”
Maybe even Xavi doesn’t realize how right he is. A point to highlight it are the recent comments by Liverpool legend Jamie Carragher and Manchester United legend Bryan Robson. When quizzed as to who is, as per them, better among Scholes, Gerrard and Frank Lampard, they unanimously picked Gerrard ahead of Scholes. Even for the national team, Scholes has a paltry 66 caps- a gross injustice, by any order of measurement. Even when he was played, sometimes Scholes was played out of position, often on the left wing.
But now, things look like they might change. There is a sudden influx of young, talented, technically-gifted players in England. Apart from Rooney and Gerrard, you now have Jack Wilshere, Danny Welbeck, Daniel Sturridge, Tom Cleverley, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Wilfried Zaha and Andros Townsend, with more coming through. The likes of Ross Barkley, Nick Powell, Josh McEachran, James Ward-Prowse and Will Hughes, are the latest in the list of up-and-coming technically proficient English players.
So, is this the dawn of a new England, or just another passing aberration with respect to the wider picture? Your guess is as good as mine.