The state of English football is an interesting one. One the one hand you have a blossoming club scene, with English teams among the most powerful in Europe and making millions of pounds worth of revenue every year. Few could argue that the English Premier League is the most financially successful league in the world as well as being one of the most exciting to watch with a very high standard of play. The last four consecutive Champions League finals have featured English teams, including this years final in Moscow which was the first to have two teams from England go head to head for the greatest prize in European football.
However on the other hand you have a struggling international team packed full of stars that are failing to perform on the highest stage. Failure to qualify for Euro 2008 has hurt the image of the national game significantly and has left many questioning how it has gone so wrong. The question remains that if these same players can illuminate the club scene and help inspire their teams to European glory then why can’t they do the same with England?
Like many when I saw the qualifying group draw for Euro 2008 I was certain England would qualify with ease. While good teams, Russia and Croatia do not have players of the calibre of Barcelona, Inter Milan or Real Madrid, sides that English teams have overcome in Europe. I saw England qualifying in a comfortable first position and taking their place among the seeds for the draw for the tournament, but it just didn’t happen.
We all saw how badly the English team played through the qualifiers, losses at home to Croatia and away to Russia being particularly painful to watch. While a good deal of the blame can be placed at the feet of Steve McClaren it is certainly not entirely his fault. The players just didn’t play well enough to deserve it.
The answer to why this is has puzzled the football community for a long time, because it certainly isn’t the first time the English team have failed to live up to their potential. Since the turn of the century England have consistently underperformed, crashing out in the first round of Euro 2000, losing on penalties at Euro 2004, and going out in the quarter finals of the World Cup in 2002 and 2006.
For a nation that often believes the team enters tournaments as potential winners it isn’t a very good record, and I believe the weakness of the team lies in the technical ability of the players in England, their tactical awareness and the lack of good coaching at grass roots level.
I do not believe there are enough great English players coming through that can compete at the very highest levels. While good they’re not great. Wayne Rooney was completely overshadowed by Cristiano Ronaldo all season at Manchester United and outplayed by Lionel Messi in the Champions League. Rooney is not alone, look across the England team and every player with the possible exception of Rio Ferdinand and Steven Gerrard will have been outperformed in his position by a foreign player in the Premier League.
I believe the problem comes from the grass roots level where children just picking up the game are taught all the traditional English values of football. Work hard, be strong, tackle hard, never give in, etc etc. While certainly of merit these values are no longer sufficient in the modern game.
The qualities that used to be hallmarks of the English game are now copied by everyone and the English are left behind in the technical areas. Ball retention and passing by English teams is far behind some of our continental rivals, and this will not improve unless changes are made to the national outlook on the game. Children need to be taught to keep the ball and pass well, rather than just get stuck in and told to be big and tough.
The culture of football in England needs to move away from being tough and macho to applauding and encouraging moments of skill.
The great French team of the late 90s and early 2000s is a good model to try and emulate. They combined power and aggression with skill and finesse. They won a World Cup and a European Championship and were the most successful French team ever. England need to start producing players like Zidane and Henry if they are ever going to win a major tournament.
The changes to get there need to start at the very bottom. If we can teach our children to play one and two touch football and teach them the value of their first touch and ball possession then the game should start to look much more healthy. As it stands winning is all that matters, even at school football level and so kids who maybe have the skills but aren’t big enough yet aren’t given the chance to shine as they are physically overpowered.
Once English football thinks skill first, and physical prowess second then the game should be in better shape and we may even start to think about winning our first World Cup since 1966.