“Cynicism masquerades as wisdom, but it is the furthest thing from it. Because cynics don't learn anything. Because cynicism is a self-imposed blindness: a rejection of the world because we are afraid it will hurt us or disappoint us.” Such a degrading sentiment – described here by, unexpectedly, American chat show host Stephen Colbert – has manifested with conceited candour amongst England national team ‘supporters’ in an era defined by desensitised ingratitude and almost immediate distaste. “Cynicism is what passes for insight among the mediocre”, also argues Time Magazine political columnist Joe Klein – yet little blame can be apportioned to the impulsive detractors and apparent victims of the tribulations of the FA’s befittingly incompetent international senior male, and therefore dominant, representatives. No illusions are apportioned by a 2018 World Cup qualification reliant on points accrued in the dying embers of eminently winnable ties against Slovakia, Scotland and now Slovenia. Watching the English national team, in a vast majority of its post-2006 guises – and thus my formative experience of their exploits – and their inevitable toil to discrediting ends, regardless of intermittent promise or inevitable demise, prises the progressively prevalent sycophantic will for ineptitude from the most masochistic factions of national support. Or so the rhetoric goes.
Adopting the resort of a gratuitously industrial 4-4-2 in the second half of a stuttering eventual 1-0 victory against Slovenia’s resolute travelling force this week only exemplified this self-flagellating and apathetic persistence. The historic staple of English coaches – yet entirely ill-equipped in this context, with Raheem Sterling, previously occupied in an attacking midfield role vacated by Dele Alli’s gesture-enforced suspension, supporting the otherwise isolated Harry Kane, and a decidedly un-dynamic duo of defensive orientation in Jordan Henderson and Eric Dier in central midfield, while pleading for the one-dimensional attacking outlet of wing play – it reared its timeworn, disfigured presence in the nation’s hour of apparent need and contrived only to further aggrieve witnesses with superior penetrative incapacity. Only when the anonymous Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain was hauled off for a characteristically insurgent Jesse Lingard was impetus temporarily regained, yet it was far from to the credit of a blind and desperate reversion to an in-vogue 3-5-2/3-4-3 variant on Southgate’s part that, with the introduction of Michael Keane, a fortunately opportunistic Kyle Walker was able to capitalise on Jan Oblak’s optimistically committed, yet misjudged, distribution to Bojan Jokić in the third minute of added time, whip across to Kane and assist an appropriately opportune prod for self-deprecatingly jubilant qualification assurance.
Cultural conditioning has led so many astray, however. What once existed as a merry intermittence between domestic action now is perceived as a void of endurance; not of the hope or vision that once instilled itself within a structure trusting of the detrimentally prescribed ‘golden generation’ of Messrs Beckham, Gerrard, Lampard, Scholes, Campbell, Cole, Terry, Ferdinand, Owen, Neville and Rooney, but of the existential demeaning of Jake Livermore, Chris Smalling and the inclusion of four goalkeepers in a squad of 23 conscious individuals. And what is left to blame? Blasé, arrogant slander is attributed to all expanses of the sport’s largely commercially ambivalent form, regardless of the undermining fact that it is a solely institutional disposition of the Three Lions that competition here applies evidently as a platform for individualistic promise or realisation – since 2006, divulging the temporarily raved talents, and thus claiming the scalps of Andros Townsend, Theo Walcott, Danny Welbeck, Jack Wilshere, Luke Shaw and Ross Barkley – as opposed to tactical cohesion of a wider unit. Blaming the issue on a disparity of facilities, lack of adequate playing opportunity or selection inconsistencies at all stages of international development, though all acting as relevant arguments, blatantly disregards the visible incompetence and underwhelming performance of a nation and association honestly acting well beneath its capacity; unable, and unwilling, to approach tactical investigations. Alleviated by uninterested pundits serving under the nationalistic-compliant introverted perspective of feeble broadcasters, this is a fundamental concern that, throughout the respective heralding and denouncing of St George’s Park, youth teams from under-16 through to under-21, and the diversion of funds from regional FA’s into seemingly self-rewarding and rurally isolating inner-city ‘Parklife’ initiatives, has gone relatively, and criminally, unnoticed amidst the wider global landscape.
Qualification for major tournaments is a pre-requisite, regardless of tactical approach, for all in Southgate’s position – certainly not worthy of a reputed £250,000 contract bonus – and often proves futile, as a process, to the confidence or fluency of either an England team or its helmsman. Not since October 2009, comprising a run of 38 successive outings, has the side even lost a qualifying match – a ten-man 1-0 in Dnipropetrovsk, Ukraine, after Rob Green earned a 12th-minute expulsion – thus proving the inherent and undermining inferiority of opposition at this stage; Switzerland, Wales, Scotland and San Marino representing their sole opposition within Western Europe, and only the former of those a top ten nation according to FIFA’s World Rankings at the time. Ruled, consequently, by such a state of self-security – uncompromised, following a decade now of cultural introspection, by Steve McClaren’s infamous Croatia calamity – Southgate, prolonging a ritual espoused by predecessors Allardyce (albeit briefly), Hodgson and Capello, has opted for a reactive, as opposed to proactive, managerial approach. Rewarding Harry Maguire, Aaron Cresswell, Jordan Pickford, James Ward-Prowse, Ben Gibson, Nathaniel Chalobah, Nathan Redmond and most recently Harry Winks with selections has not proven his flair for the uncovering of youthful talent, nor his bravery in the trust of unacquainted representatives. The two caps – Ward-Prowse and Redmond’s, as substitutes in a March friendly in Germany more memorable for Lukas Podolski’s overhead winner and retirement statement – accrued between this serendipitous octuplet during their respective stints within the ultimate platform of St George’s Park ranks only elaborates this fact; Southgate, bereft of a multitude of options partly attributable to incessant ‘injuries’, acting upon short-term value, as opposed to visionary role.
Granted, these players may have been scouted as members of a long-established dossier of prospective call-ups, yet for each to have been only recognised in the midst of positive club form – Winks, prominently, elevated amidst an injury Fabian Delph incurred and after his only Premier League start of the season, Maguire after August plaudits ignited objectively for his temporary goalscoring prowess, and Chalobah similarly amongst a scene of Marco Silva-inspired Watford resurgence – only proves credence to the perceived ingratitude and inconsistency of personnel assembly. Gibson, and perhaps Ward-Prowse, solely, amongst these selections represent any apportion of reward; notably reliable in their service, both as captains, to Southgate while the 57-cap former defender was occupied with under-21 employment, though it is regrettable that the promoted helmsman has, in all eight cases, seemingly offered such short-lived spells as pre-meditated motivation for potential return whilst posed with injuries to Phil Jones, Danny Rose, Adam Lallana and Danny Welbeck, not to mention the ill-form of Theo Walcott, Ross Barkley and Jack Wilshere and disparities of quality in central positions.
Most inviting of condescending devalue, however, is the disconcerting and inept inability not of Southgate, nor recent predecessors, but of the national institution in the approach to tactical identity. Lurching non-confrontationally between a 4-2-3-1, its natural offshoots – the 4-3-3, 4-4-1-1 and 4-4-2 – and 4-1-2-1-2 midfield diamond, or flirting with the concept of an Antonio Conte and Chelsea-cultured 3-5-2/3-4-3, the visually ever-present evidence is that, regardless of intentions, the natural resort of wing play is the primary, and largely sterile, expression of an obliviously dilapidated, subservient outfit detached from imposing, or vaguely competitive, ambitions. Flawed, in similar realisations as the Dutch, Argentine and Australian national sides in present respective guises, with unprecedented tactical capacities within their ranks – for the fundamental rationale that it renders the managerial inability to harness such dexterity to profit internationally all the more inconsolable – the naïve English approach enters into the global fray with the long-deposed philosophy that pertaining to national trends, and the systems most akin to club football for selected representatives, will ease the intermittent contrast between the forms.
Only a minor issue herein lies; none of the tactical exponents so influential on current Premier League trends hail from within national borders, and therefore have had negligible prior resonations within the FA’s hierarchy. Acceptable in Italy, Spain or Germany – each of the three prior World Cup victors – where, respectively, 18 of 20 (90%), 16 of 20 (80%) and 12 of 18 (66%) current elite division club managers are national citizens, and the remaining Serie A duo (Serbian Siniša Mihajlović and Croatian Ivan Jurić) and Bundesliga sextuplet (Hungarian Pál Dárdai, Dutchman Peter Bosz, Croatian Niko Kovač, Austrians Peter Stöger and Ralph Hasenhüttl and Swiss Martin Schmidt) are derived from inferiorly facilitated and subservient border nations, this ideology may prove fruitful. Accounting, also, for the trio’s national team representatives since mid-November 11 months ago, a respective 87.23% (41 of 47), 62.79% (27 of 43) and 69.77% (69.74%) remain employed in their nation of origin and, according to recent BBC Sport statistics, 76%, 88% and 69% of players at this summer’s Under-21 European Championship – compared to England’s 47% – receive their 2017-18 playing time, of which last season English hopefuls had restricted by a discrepancy of around 17,000 minutes to Spanish counterparts, roughly 11,000 to German products and 10,000 to Italian contemporaries, in the Serie A, La Liga and Bundesliga, thus confirming the appropriate balance of tactical diversity between the potentially constructive trilogy of respective association visions, domestic divisions and continentally competitive clubs in the blueprint for player development.
Despite the widespread derision of the international form – attributable to the narrow-minded, uncorroborated attitude bred by sole allegiance often to forcibly introverted broadcasters – as a laborious, erstwhile exploit devoid of tactical primacy or influence in the modern sport, it is impossible to counterargue the fundamental fact that international football, in its mere calendar presence, has been a central, unifying platform for tactical innovation and redefined implementation throughout its historically defining observation. Tactical ingenuity and innovation is far from the alien concept cynics who limit their international spectrum to the British Isles believe; transcending nations, its significant influence has persisted amongst the approach of each World Cup and continental victor, in addition to the less fortunate speculators – Gusztáv Sebes’ 1950’s Mighty Magyars, Ferruccio Valcareggi’s Catenaccio-derived 1970 retort to Brazilian pre-eminence, Rinus Michels’ 1974 edition of Dutch Total Football, Telê Santana’s critic-defying and exuberant 1982 midfield box, and in more contemporary circumstances the titan-quelling 3-5-2 of Italy’s Antonio Conte at Euro 2016 – laying evident to this. Granted, each identity was primarily espoused in domestic divisions, but they were mastered, in every example, on the international stage; the prestigious pinnacle of each playing and managerial career. The same capability does not bless England, nor has it for many a painful decade.
It is a perhaps a definition of introspective provincial culture that when posed with defeat, as witnessed in McClaren’s ill-fated 2007 campaign, Fabio Capello’s autocratic 2010 imposition and Hodgson’s ritualistically inconsistent 2014 and 2016 fleeting displays, the English institution has reverted and regressed into its comfortable shell – thus stagnating tactical perspective and consigning, even inviting, further embarrassment from sides with the foresight to negate and probe such uncertainties and evident chinks. Iceland, Slovakia, Uruguay, Italy, Algeria and the United States have each defied the self-entitled English behemoth in crucial group stage involvements, and yet these occurrences – each hard-earned exemplifications of the execution of a defined tactical objective, for Iceland a restrictive, counter-attacking 4-4-2 used against its original exponent, in similar circumstances to Slovakian and American restraints, through to the creditably mobile 3-4-2-1 of Algeria, 4-3-1-2 of Uruguay and asymmetric 4-3-1-1-1 of Italy – have incurred negligible tactical restructure from any men hired, primarily, to enforce a comprehensive senior identity and intent.
So consumed are they by the constituent politics of the position, however, that ultimately intentions are so degraded through controversy and criticism that original statements and visions become the victims of distrust; cynicism, thus, spawns. Festering in the degrading residue of spiteful self-loathing has not been a route to redemption, rather only a further deterioration into ineptitude and insecurity – if judging on the visible fluency of performances against admittedly restrictive opposition, throughout this period, at least. Pertained with the onset of social media, as a tool unfortunately harnessed to its greatest extent by demographics compromising the nadir of human capacity for self-awareness, sincerity or exponent gratitude, the callously disregarded ramifications on the players and officials who, inevitably, receive the extent of vindictiveness in their fundamental positions, has not aided any potential progress or alleviation of concern in any form. Practically, it appears far easier to lay blame with a label; Roy Hodgson, Gareth Southgate, Wayne Rooney, Joe Hart, Jack Wilshere, Jordan Henderson, Raheem Sterling, Greg Clarke, Greg Dyke or Dan Ashworth. It is an unfortunate liability of the human character to explicitly condemn individuals for the compromising of an institution, only accentuated by the immediate response platform and public forum of social media.
César Luis Menotti, chain-smoking rebel, wispy-haired socialist icon and Argentine manager during the politically intrusive 1978 home World Cup, stated “a team is, above all, an idea”, while continuing to argue “and more than an idea it is a commitment, and more than a commitment it is the clear convictions that a coach must transmit to his [team] to defend that idea. So my concern is that we coaches don’t arrogate to ourselves the right to remove from the spectacle the synonyms of festival, in favour of a philosophical reading that cannot be sustained, which is to avoid taking risks. And in football there are risks because the only way you can avoid taking risks in any game is by not playing.” Having established a gilded reputation on such professing applications of optimism, Menotti presents the antithesis of English pride and stubborn resignation to subservience, as he did in opposition to the anti-fútbol campaign instigated by Victorio Spinetto, Osvaldo Zubeldía, and most prominently Carlos Bilardo, profiting in his era. Not directly addressed amidst his speech, yet certainly implied, is the fundamental fact that competent diplomacy is worthless in a role where coaching ability is the task posed, and that without coherent vision, the objective of a managerial stint is non-existent, to render it bluntly. Selecting a side entirely comprising the elite of Premier League clubs, and the established furniture of the side, amidst continual failure, does nothing to demonstrate heeding from painful processes. And as we all know, courtesy of Albert Einstein, “the true definition of madness is repeating the same thing, over and over, looking for a different result.” That is the only evident conclusion we can currently draw from the senior side’s apparent development, with Southgate’s influence extended solely to the uncharacteristic, yet predictably short-lived, testament of a 3-4-3 formation in Dortmund.
Perhaps due to the dissolution of a once-proud English bloc of bosses in the formative Premier League era, and increased subsequent trust in elite overseas options, the national side has long since abandoned its capacity for impact or influence on domestic competition, while detaching – almost farcically – from immediate cohesion with their sole source of senior representatives. Admiring the records and notoriety of remaining English managers currently employed within the league – gratifying 4-4-1-1 loyalist Eddie Howe, pragmatic 4-4-2 or 4-5-1 exponent Sean Dyche, inobtrusive 4-3-1-2 campaigner Paul Clement, widely unheralded fluid 4-4-2 reenergiser Craig Shakespeare and the as-yet undefined readmission of Hodgson – and none inspire as tactical innovators, nor garner the respect and awe of certain Spanish, Portuguese, French, Italian, German or Argentinian helmsmen. More widely regarded as adept man managers and trustworthy delegates within limited resources, they operate sides praised for diligence, spirit and rigidness in the event of an odds-defying result – demeaning factors, surely, preventing the influence of home-grown tactical ideologies on their nation of origin, regardless of humble roots. Instead of the club’s complexion being lavished in such events, desperate punditry has to divert acclaim to individuals – as evident amidst Burnley’s 1-0 victory away at Everton last Sunday, when James Tarkowski was honoured, and immediately identified as an England representative within months. Fundamental issues exist within this form of analysis. Yes, he performed to a high personal standard at Goodison Park, yes he contributed significantly to a headline-grabbing victory, but was he the sole reason? Was his performance so astounding that Gary Cahill, John Stones, Chris Smalling, Phil Jones or the previously-gilded Harry Maguire should immediately be aborted as incompatible options?
Immediately, as a single English player in the Premier League reaches as unprecedented a standard as is vaguely impressive, pressure is applied to assert claims to a national team selection. Regardless of any role in the tactical approach – of which, pre-emptively, we have defined as largely unaddressed, if not non-existent – of Southgate’s side, he is apparently justified to a role in a 23-man squad. Consideration for tactical fulfilment, competition or current occupants is whimsical, and a concern for the inevitably unsatisfactory hierarchy. Craig Dawson, Ben Mee, Lewis Dunk, Jamaal Lascelles, Rob Holding, Jack Stephens, Sam Byram, Tom Davies, Junior Stanislas, Tom Ince and Troy Deeney; what dazzling array of selection certainties could be spawned from the menial concern of a few consecutive pivotal performances, you imagine numbingly liberal praise-attributing pundits stating amidst show reels of a successful passing move or three, a courageous block to a goal-bound strike or a commanding match-winning headed response to a set-piece specialist’s delivery. Totally uncontextualized, arises the inevitable enquiry; “Russia coming up Alan, can you see him sneaking onto the plane?”
Personnel should always remain a secondary concern to tactics; that is a perennial fact of the sport, regardless of platform. Idiosyncrasies of each player’s approach and skillset are rendered only marginally distinguishable with the global context of modern scouting, and honestly, when paid so vastly for their services, what more are players other than the disposable vessels for a manager’s tactical exploitation. It is surely acutely hypocritical, in the meantime, to lavish praise on players for their successes, but disparage incompetent management for their failures, and render the role of coaching and management the more disposable, ultimately, than that of the pack mentality of dissenting and disgruntled players.
Amongst this discrepancy lies leadership, which, on the field, has congealed into evident derision in recent times, and lies currently within Three Lions ranks with a 24-year-old, 22-cap striker who has only played at a single senior international tournament, to little avail. Interlinking fundamentally with the implementation of tactics and discipline amidst challenging periods, quite how far Harry Kane – only the recipient of captain’s responsibilities on a handful of occasions at club level – can act as the mainstay of Southgate’s, and the wider national system’s, tactical identity aside from the application of seemingly unstoppable goalscoring habits is dubious, especially with roughly eight months remaining until undoubtedly ‘fatigued’ minds and legs will land at a reported Saint-Petersburg base.
Conservatism, as simple a statement as it may appear, should not reign Southgate’s side, nor the FA’s system. Winning at any cost should not be the sole priority, nor should overzealous designs on international accomplishment prior to the looming deadline of 2022. Studying the systemic philosophy of traditionally relevant, adaptable nations, enforcing a clear identity on competition should become a pre-requisite. Seize our position, often derided as on the peripheries of football, but respected by many outsiders as fundamental within the inner sanctums, whilst realising the potential of our diverse bank of talent, and the mentality of a potentially successful, yet foremost hungry, side should be amended. Is the institution prepared for a cultural overhaul? Certainly, the framework is being adapted to suit such prominence, but the diversity of ambition appears drastically lacking. Southgate, schooled and secure within the self-rewarding system, doesn’t strike supporters as a character capable of the drastic evolution required, despite best intentions and suggestive sound bites. Identifying clear tactical failings is not a strength presently equipped in the side, with vague inconsistencies and uncontextualized errors the major lamentations. Accusations, including the allusions of Alan Shearer and Lee Dixon – as witnessed on Thursday night – towards the unclear identity of the nation “we’re still going into an international competition without a clear definition of our playing style” typify the lack of clarity amidst the overwhelming theatre of opinion. Can they identify obvious tactical failures, or rue results with ambiguous statements? The approach of a stagnating, politically-concerned association, therefore, must be far more methodical, performance-orientated and professional; as per German structure, in which Oliver Bierhoff and Hansi Flick bear greater responsibility and influence than diplomats, and Spanish intents, with President Ángel María Villar, a former Athletic Bilbao and national team midfielder, dictating a definite sporting ideology. Dan Ashworth, FA Technical Director, cannot bear ideological responsibility alone.
Is the national establishment deluding itself to believe, or be persuaded, that it doesn’t require a fundamental address to the root of all primary concerns; the performance of the national side? It may appear positively competent of the FA to overhaul the facilities, youth procurement, coaching programme and committee identity they have found so embattled in recent years, but if aspirations of a 2022 redemption are to be realised, short-term confidence and aptitude requires reinstatement. Entirely dependent on an assured tactical identity able to rival the titans of global football and harness their own lauded individual talents, the English national side is fully capable of beating the best. Systemic allegiance to elitist players over a tactical approach inevitably sacrificing of high-profile talents for greater coherency cannot be maintained throughout failure after failure. Promise cannot lay untapped forever. One day, aspirations have to become a reality, and playing representatives must obtain their potential.
Author - Will Hugall
Now a BA Journalism student at Nottingham Trent University, I divide my time between my base in Radford and back home in East Sussex while watching as much football as I can!