….but they don’t know what they’re doing, and it’s all over now:
European Championships 2016 – England 1 Iceland 2.
Let’s start with the positives: They played with passion and as a team. They worked tirelessly and could not be faulted for fitness. What they lacked in skill they made up for in application. They were positive in attack and consistently got men forward in threatening positions, yet were strong and robust in defence. I talk, of course, of Iceland – population 330,000 and professional football leagues zero.
Now let’s examine the negatives: England were poor in most parts of the game, especially in the second half. Simple passes went astray, control was often awkward, promising situations regularly fizzled out, crossing was repeatedly wayward, defending at set plays was naive.
I just do not understand the English infatuation with playing people out of position. Time and again over the years we see that at the top level (yes, even Iceland) putting people on the wrong side doesn’t work. Sterling on the left and Sturridge on the right meant that it was all too predictable – if we ever reached the byline there was no defence-turning cross because it was on their wrong foot. As a defender there is nothing more comforting than knowing which way your opposite number has to go, and in that situation it was almost always backwards.
I don’t care where they play for their club, or what other national sides might do – this is not the way England can or should attempt to play. Spain can cut back in and play through midfield; we can’t. We are not good enough. If we are to ever be successful in major championships we have to recognise who we are and play to our strengths.
The thing is, I think we have the players, just about, to give it a good go. We are a young and developing team, and have a decent balance with a number of talented left-footers (if they play in position!) Harry Kane had a disappointing tournament, but is 22 and can learn from his experience. Our two full backs have natural width and a desire to get forwards. We have a host of young midfielders who could develop into international stars if given the opportunity.
But we also need to change a few things. Wayne Rooney showed glimpses of flair against lesser teams, but was off the pace on Monday night and has never seemed captain material. At 30 it seems like his time has passed. We need to develop a new centre back, and choose a new captain. Most of all we need to get the next managerial appointment right – a man with the strength of his convictions to say these are our players and this is the way we are going to play, a high-tempo and direct English style that will unsettle other teams.
And to me that last part is key. We have to get over this inferiority complex and decide we are going to play our way. This mental frailty is an endemic failing that goes back generations, and was best exemplified by Glenn Hoddle commenting after the 1-1 draw with Russia “Roy did the right thing, he tried to close it down by putting on Wilshere and Milner”. So let me get this straight: we play well against (an admittedly poor) Russia, get the goal we deserve, and try to batten down the hatches by putting on someone who is not match-fit and playing a right back/midfielder on the left wing?
I am not advocating the England long ball approach. I want a varied approach, which may involve a long ball at times, or wingers and full backs whipping it in the box from the byline, but can also be dynamic movement and direct, positive passes. At all times we need to be thinking positively, and we must never fall into the trap of believing we are Barcelona and can make a hundred sideways passes before a moment of magic.
And so to the Vardy question. Let me make this clear – I am one of his biggest fans. Defenders hate forwards who are haring around with boundless energy and a desire to make runs in behind. He is a clinical finisher and has had a simply astonishing season for the Premier League champions. But at 29 do we want to rebuild a team around him? Leicester were successful because of the system they played – can and should England replicate that? I think it is worth a go. At the moment, we have very little to lose.
And that is the second key point. We need a system, because it is better for everyone to know what we are doing (even the opposition) rather than nobody, and we need to have the confidence to go with that system. At times in the group games it seemed like we were almost there, but then reverted against Iceland to a lacklustre, frozen mess. It didn’t help that the personnel was always changing – why were the two full backs dropped against Slovakia, and why was Sterling preferred to Lallana in the final game?
In the last week I have also watched the England rugby team complete a 3-0 series win in Australia for the first time. Here was as clear a demonstration as you could wish to see in sport of utter commitment to a team and a system. We weren’t afraid to stick it to the Aussies by playing our own game, and it didn’t end up in dull rugby. It was absorbing, edge-of-the-seat stuff. England scored nine tries and, perversely, the second game was one of the best test matches I have ever seen despite being the lowest scoring – a pulsating game full of passion, pride, and fight.
Contrary to tabloid opinion, I think our footballers are also passionate about their country and desperate for success. But without a proper system and clear direction it seems like they don’t care because there is no coherence and drive. On Monday, there were some people on the pitch who were English and cared, but they, and of course the fans, deserve a better chance to shine.