Why can't England pass the ball like everyone else at the World Cup?

After all the hype, what was billed as the best England team to travel to a World Cup for more than 30 years ended up playing much like most of their predecessors in their first game: embarrassingly lacking in basic skills. As the nation hopes for better today, Glenn Moore examines why it is that English footballers so often appear technically lacking at international level
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The Independent Online

Juggle, juggle. Juggle, juggle. Juggle, juggle. "Have it!" Lamenting the quality of England's passing has become the biennial complaint, raising its head every two years when England take part in an international tournament - when our native superstars are suddenly exposed as being from the same stock as Peter Kay's iconic pub footballer.

One wonders, would that advertisement, in which Kay ends a keepie-uppie session by launching the ball into a neighbouring garden, then grabs a can of beer rather than the traditional quartered oranges, work in Italy, Spain, or Brazil? Talking to other journalists at this World Cup, it is clear the answer is no.

"What," asked one Brazilian, "is so funny about a footballer with no love for the ball?" What indeed. When the mercury is pushing 100F, as it was against Paraguay on Saturday, and will do at the beginning of today's match against Trinidad and Tobago in Nuremberg, the joke is on England. It is not as if it is a new gag.

"It was the same when I was captain of England," said Gerry Francis, looking back 30 years.

Ray Wilkins, recalling his time at Milan a decade later, said: "I never thought I was bad on the ball, but at Milan I was made to look really bad on occasions. We did a drill where two players went in a circle and the guys on the perimeter passed the ball until one of the guys in the middle intercepted it. When Mark Hateley and me were in the circle it would only end when Mark kicked someone."

At some stage in this tournament, probably not today, although the likes of Dwight Yorke and Russell Latapy can keep the ball as well as most, Frank Lampard and Steven Gerrard are going to know exactly how Wilkins felt. Why is this? There is general acceptance, not just in these shores, that England have an excellent midfield packed with technically good players. Yet against Paraguay, England consistently squandered possession, surrendering the initiative to the South Americans and inviting further pressure on to the defence.

"It was embarrassing," said John Giles, the former Leeds midfielder and Republic of Ireland manager, one of the finest passers of his generation, in Germany for Irish television channel RTE.

"It is the most basic thing in football and the most neglected one in the English game. You cannot win without possession of the ball and to see the way England gave the ball away as they did in Euro 2004, and on Saturday, was terrible."

The expert view is that there are two causes, one specific to the tactics used against Paraguay, and one endemic to the English game. The latter is more worrying and it is a product both of the way young players are schooled, and the style of football they play as professionals.

Gianluca Vialli and Gabriele Marcotti, in their excellent study, The Italian Job, argued that the combination of wind and cold prevalent in England shaped player development. "One of the first things I had to become accustomed to as soon as I arrived in England was the weather," Arsène Wenger told them.

"The wind ruins everything. It forces you to either work on speed or continuous movement. It's very rare that you get the chance to sit and work on technique or tactics. You have to keep the players moving, otherwise they get cold. And this is something which begins way back when they are children."

This, Wilkins confirmed. "Almost all my memories of training as a boy are associated with intense cold and a fierce wind." When those players, their technique already deficient, reach the Premiership, they are encouraged to play the pinball game we all know and love.

"We play in a league which is exciting to watch, with electric pace, in which people are always looking to get the ball into the box," said Francis. "Even Chelsea are not afraid to bomb the ball forward for Didier Drogba, or to get it wide quickly.

"In South America and parts of Europe, they play a much slower game with more emphasis on keeping the ball. That will never change. We have our strengths, others have theirs, we should play to them but in the heat of the day keeping the ball is an absolutely vital element."

In some ways, argues Craig Brown, the former Scotland manager, England's huge travelling support is part of the problem. "In England, and Scotland, the crowd are going 'get forward, attack, attack, attack'," he said. "I found it easier for the team to keep the ball when we were playing away from home. I had players like John Collins, Gary McAllister and Paul Lambert who were very happy just passing it, going backwards as well as forwards. But only two of the England team play overseas, David Beckham and Owen Hargreaves.

"In countries like Holland they seek to keep the ball. There was a perfect example when I was at Preston working in the Championship. Johan Boskamp came to Stoke. Tony Pulis had been playing [an] English style, Boskamp got the players circulating the ball. It wasn't total football, he didn't have players of that quality, but it was a move in that direction."

Jose Mourinho has tried to slow Chelsea's game, but, he told Vialli, the crowd always wanted the ball hit forward. He said that keeping possession, probing for an opening, was his idea of attacking football but English fans just wanted the ball hit forward, even if possession was lost. As Joe Cole said, reflecting on Saturday: "We just needed to keep the ball, but the English mentality is always to go forward."

But, argue Francis and Graeme Le Saux, the former England international, all is not lost. For it is not just about the Premiership factor, it also about the tactics. "We do give the ball away a lot in the Premiership," said Le Saux, "but the best players are used to international and European football where the tempo is different. We have one of the best midfields in the competition but we did not use them as much as we should have. We hit longer balls which meant the midfield could not get up in time to support the forwards."

That was accentuated, said Francis, by playing one striker. "We are used to putting balls up front, but are not used to playing one-up and keeping it in tight situations," he said. "It is no good knocking balls up to Peter Crouch on his own. He needs someone alongside him. We had five in midfield but no out-ball.

"Our strengths could win us the World Cup. I'm not saying we should try and press for 90 minutes, you can't in that heat, but we should always keep the front two and then we can play higher up the pitch. And we must not drop as deep. It leaves so much more space to keep the ball and teams are better than us at doing it, we couldn't keep it for five seconds."

It seems some of the players agree. "We didn't retain the ball well enough against Paraguay and it wasn't down to the heat," said Rio Ferdinand. "The defensive line was too far away from the front and that gave the midfielders too much ground to make up."

"In a lot of games we have passed well so I'd prefer to reserve judgement," said Le Saux, "but it seems we struggle when the pitch is slower so we can't zip it about. Passing becomes less instinctive, it requires more thought and we didn't pass intelligently forward.

"Paraguay were small at the back, we scored early from a set-piece, and it became a mind-set to get the ball in from deep. As the game changed there was no one bright enough to point out we needed to adapt. We were 1-0 up and it was boiling. We should have been looking to suck them out." Our players are not bad players, said Francis, noting that Jürgen Klinsmann, when at Spurs, had been impressed at the level of technique required to play at Premiership pace.

The statistics, intriguingly, rated England and Paraguay equal for their passing accuracy in Frankfurt, at 72 per cent. But figures do not tell the whole story. Ray Houghton, the former Liverpool midfielder here for RTE, compared England to Italy. "People talk about Rio Ferdinand being good on the ball, but when did you ever see him take it down and play like [Alessandro] Nesta? It's just second nature for these guys."

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