Why England always fails at major tournaments
In my last article, I discussed about the probable English XI for Euro 2016. An interesting debate raged around the fact that no matter what team they send, England would still find it hard to go past the quarter-final stage. Therefore, for this article, I decided to focus on why the English team always seems to struggle in the major tournaments.
Where are the Managers?
So while every debate on this issue starts with the players (and their lack of ability), I believe that the problem starts at the top. Consider this interesting statistic: Since the inception of the Premier League in 1992, no English manager has won the Premier League title (two Scots, one Portuguese, Frenchman and Italian). Of the current crop of potential England managers, none of the candidates have a league title victory in their CV and only Harry Redknapp can boast of any trophy wins (no wonder he was the favorite). The lack of title-winning mentality among English managers is one of the main reasons for England’s under-performance in major tourneys. For instance, Roy Hodgson’s CV is built around his impressive success at Fulham and West Brom, whom he guided to mid-table finishes while avoiding relegation. Consequently, the mindset is that of not losing rather than that of winning.
While grit and determination win you matches, strategies and tactics win you tournaments. While England have an abundance of the former, they are sorely lacking in the latter. While the lack of an experienced, trophy-winning manager can be one reason, it’s hard to see how established names like Sven-Goran Eriksson or Fabio Capello failed in getting the desired results. The answer probably lies in the false strategy and tactics employed by different managers.
In Spain, Italy and Germany, the 4-2-3-1 (and some variations) has become the bedrock of every big team in the league. Players are bred in those tactics and when they transcend into the national team, they generally essay the same roles. This familiarity with tactics and roles within the team allows players to naturally blend in with one another, even if they are not playing together at club level. For instance, Xavi, Iniesta, Silva and Xabi Alonso all essay the same roles for club and country, so do Ozil, Schweinsteiger and Gomez. Ditto for Pirlo, Cassano and De Rossi, all of whom play for different clubs but slot seamlessly in their roles in the national team.
In England, it’s a much different story. Arsenal and Manchester City use the 4-2-3-1, Liverpool and Chelsea use the 4-3-3 while Manchester United use the 4-4-1-1 (or the 4-4-2). Playing in different formations mean players have to constantly adjust and reshuffle according to the demands of the manager, meaning different roles for club and country. The case of Paul Scholes and Jamie Carragher comes straight to mind.
Another issue lies with playing players out of position just to have their presence in the team. The fact that Gerrard was played on the wing during the 2006 World Cup, to accommodate Lampard and Hargreaves in the middle shows how past managers have tried to pack as many star names in the team as possible without a thought about its impact on the tactics. During that ill-fated Round of 16 clash with Germany in the 2010 World Cup, England deviated from the 4-3-3 to a 4-4-2 in order to play both Defoe and Rooney in the same team. The desire to placate big egos and play star names does cost England dearly in major tournaments.
It is not the same with other countries, Germany played with just one striker up front in Gomez, despite having another legend in Klose on the bench, or Spain, who played without a striker in spite of the presence of Torres and Llorente in their ranks. In fact, Spain had an embarrassment of riches for most positions, yet the way in which Del Bosque managed to handle all the egos while still managing to maintain team spirit and harmony should be something English managers can learn from.
Lack of Genuine Big-Game Players
The general hype surrounding English players has often been their biggest undoing on the national stage, but the fact that England lack players with genuine big-match experience or quality is overlooked. In the 23-man party that traveled to Poland-Ukraine, only 11 players saw UEFA Champions League action in the past season. Of them, only four were part of the knockout stages, and only one member of Chelsea’s victorious Champions League final team was present (Ashley Cole; John Terry was suspended for the final). The fracas around the number of Liverpool players selected is common knowledge, but even in usual circumstances, selecting six players from a team which sorely under-performed in the previous season is a cause for concern. Add to that the fact that this list includes players who have been severely criticised by pundits, fans and everybody else, and you know that the team is destined for failure. When you select players from a mid-table club for a major tournament, you eventually do get a mid-table performance.
That’s not the only problem. English players, rarely play in the big games where everything is on the line. In the last ‘El Clasico’ in April, eight of the starting players from both sides went on to be a part of the Spain squad which won Euro 2012, seven of them playing in the final. England’s own ‘Manchester Derby’ which was touted as the biggest game of the season saw only four representatives from England’s squad make the cut, three of whom played in the defeat to Italy. Even Chelsea’s Champions League winning team had only four English players in its starting 11, and six in the winning 18. Contrast that to Barcelona‘s victory the previous year (coincidentally, against an English club, containing a paltry 3 English players), and there were seven players from Spain’s victorious World Cup winning squad the previous year in the starting 11 alone. So while English clubs do play in many of the biggest games of the season, very few English players do.
What do Gary Cahill, Frank Lampard and Gareth Barry have in common? They were all forced to withdraw from England’s Euro squad with injury. All three of them played in either the Champions League final or the ‘Manchester Derby’, finishing on the victorious side. The experience gained by the trio from such a successful quest would have held England in good stead, not to mention the buzz they would have generated within the squad. But a long season without any breaks in between meant that by the time international duty came calling, all of that went straight down the drain. It isn’t the first time England has had to contend with several of its key players either being ruled out of a major tournament due to fitness issues, or even competing in a tournament carrying an injury, hoping to be fit (remember Ledley King in 2010 or Rooney and Owen in 2006).
Two big questions arise from this: First, with so many injuries, isn’t it about time the Premier League seriously consider having a break in its schedule to give players some time off, like the Bundesliga, La Liga or Serie A? and Second, if England have to frequently rely on half-fit players carrying them through, what does that say about the reserves waiting for an opportunity? Are they really not that good enough?
The debate of having a break in the Premier League season has been doing the rounds for a long time. While in the aftermath of every major tournament, the issue crops up and a lot of people take sides. The season starts and the euphoria dies down, only to veer its head again two years later after the next major tournament. In my opinion, it’s about time the League considered having a mid-season break for its players. Again, to compare the issue, the Christmas period sees zero minutes of football played in the Spanish, Italian and German league, while teams play four matches in the space of 10 days in England. Too much football? That’s an understatement.
Finally, the Barclays Premier League
The biggest strength of English football is also its weakest link. Since its inception, the Premier League has established itself as the richest and strongest league in the world. While the influx of world-class foreign talent has helped improve the quality of football on offer, it has led to the slow demise of talented English youngsters coming to the fore. The Premier League has become serious business with the money on offer, and in a bid to gain instant success, clubs have increasingly sought to buy the best talent from abroad rather than promote the talent from within. A classic example would be that of Manchester United, which had several talented English youngsters in its squad last season, and were promptly labelled as the worst Manchester United side in decades.
Such criticism would only bring instant response, particularly when failure gets magnified (United missed out on the title only on goal difference, yet media called it the end of United’s era), which means more influx of foreign talent at the expense of younger, emerging players. As somebody once said, “why wait for a youngster to blossom in two years, when you can buy a superstar now”. While the Premier League undoubtedly showcases high-quality football, its of little use to talented youngsters if they sit waiting on the sidelines while a foreign import stamps his class.