If there is one thing more frustrating than watching England's footballers labour dismally on the international stage, it is listening to football's unthinking Establishment account for our failures. Glenn Hoddle explained the England Under-21 defeat to Italy in terms of a shortfall in ability. The Italians were superior technically, he argued. Another former England coach, Steve McClaren, agreed, churning out tired, old lines about how this was always going to be a difficult game for our lads. The truly depressing aspect to this is the traction these half-baked ideas have in our land.
Gary Lineker was only partially right. English football risks being dragged into the dark ages not only by an undernourished leadership but by the unseeing opinion makers who support it. The Hoddle and McClaren think tank based its reasoning on the deeper experience of the Italian team and on the age-old prejudice that leads to English youngsters suffering an inherent deficit in their understanding and mastery of the basic building blocks of the game.
According to this view Italy, Spain, France, Germany etc, produce players with a greater grasp of the fundamentals: they pass, control and shoot better. Yes, they do, but it is not a matter of technique. It is about a way of seeing the game, and ultimately about coaching.
England's problem is systemic. Our youngsters fell into the same trap as the seniors in the opening half against Brazil, appearing cumbersome when set against the fluid movement of their opponents. Even before the Norway defeat the midfield was static, the front players isolated and the patterns predictable. In possession, England lack courage and conviction. This is not because they cannot pass a ball 10 metres, or control the ball when it comes. It is because they do not see the pitch as our Continental cousins do. They are hampered by tactical cataracts, boxed in by bad ideas.
The most obvious difference in Israel was the willingness of Italy to pass to a team-mate when marked. This is a fundamental characteristic shared by all the Continental teams and given its greatest expression by Barcelona. This opens up the pitch in a way that was not available to England. It results from years of practice, from the endless repetition of training drills. It is a culture of learnt behaviour, which, by the time these boys compete internationally as adults, appears instinctive. There is a collective understanding of how to receive the ball and when and where to move as a collective.
England teams are all too often forced to seek individual solutions to problems and so we see the repeated disintegration of shape. In the case of the Under-21s this manifested itself in longer, hopeful balls to Connor Wickham or impromptu, individual contributions, most notably by Nathan Redmond. The problem is the isolation that results. If Wickham was successful in bringing the ball down with his first touch, he was immediately surrounded by defenders, with nowhere to go. Similarly, Redmond might drop a shoulder and race past a man, but this was never part of a plan and eventually he ran into a roadblock.
Witness the way Italy broke England down, starting always at the back, usually through the able feet of Marco Verratti. With England dropping deep, he was able to advance to the halfway line untroubled, from where he would angle a short ball to the feet of a team-mate in an advanced position, marked or not. The ball would either come straight back first touch or be moved on to another blue shirt that had moved into the correct position. This neat recycling of possession stood in marked contrast to England, who, because of the refusal to pass to a marked man, were forced sideways and backwards in an ever more desperate pursuit of space, which was denied them by an advancing midfield. Italy were not frightened of the long ball either, but it was a measured ploy, not a punt of last resort.
Italy's superiority was strategic. It did not inhere in magic feet. Stick Verratti in a white shirt and he would be stymied by the same systemic bungling, surrounded by static movement with no one making the runs for his elegantly simple passes
The right noises are being made. The example of Germany, where a root-and-branch shift in emphasis in coaching and quotas – meaning fewer foreign players in the Bundesliga and thus greater opportunity for German kids – a decade ago shows what is possible.
The FA hopes to develop its own superstructure at St George's Park into a hub of coaching excellence, inviting participants from across the world to share ideas so that we might produce a team full of Jack Wilsheres by design, not by accident. It starts with kids being taught the right disciplines in a structure designed to feed thinking footballers into a system that cherishes possession. Without that no team can win.Reuse content