With England’s capitulation finalised with a bore draw against Costa Rica the inquest into England’s failure has begun. Knives are being sharpened and fingers pointed. England hold a united front, from the players and staff to the FA chairman. It can be in no doubt however that whilst the public face is positive, many in the England camp must be looking over the shoulder, waiting for whoever makes the first move. The public and media though now look for someone to blame, unable to simply place this aberration on bad luck and misfortune. There have been a lot of places where blame has been placed, the players, the staff, youth level or just general quality. The answer is not any one thing, but an amalgamation of many small things that accumulate to a large problem.
Firstly we must make an obvious statement; England are not a successful international team, nor have they ever been. One win in an international competition 48 years ago places us on similar pars to Denmark and Greece. There has been a common misconception that, as the creators of the game with the most supreme league, we should be one of the best teams in the world. Week in week out in the Premier League we see top class English players strut their stuff and impress the world, but when placed on an international stage they almost always flatter to deceive. This mis-evaluation of our quality has led to a great many international disappointments and as much as we like to tell ourselves that we had realistic expectations for this tournament the reaction to our exit, which was on par with most people expectations, illustrates that ultimately we had more unrealistic expectations then we had said.
Secondly we must address the quality level; England at present have no players on par with the world beaters, the likes of Suarez, Hazard, Messi and Ronaldo. What we do have is a general high quality, excelling in no particular area but neither having any obvious weakness. England is a jack of all trades, master of none team. To this end we are a similar team to the likes of Italy, France and Germany, though arguably on a slightly lower level. Arguments that we ‘simply are not good enough’ are not valid; we have the players to perform well at an individual and collective level, something else is preventing us performing. There is not something in the water or the blood that prevents Englishmen from being good at football, these problems lie elsewhere.
Their is also a coaching level issue. Whilst Roy Hodgson is a fine manager, he is not a winner. He is not a Carlo Ancelotti or a Jose Mourinho. He made errors but not so considerable that they cost us the tournament single handedly. The issue is also obvious that, barring Roy Hodgson, what English managers are at a higher calibre then Roy Hodgson and available. I believe a few managers have potential to be long term England manager; Stuart Pearce, Tim Sherwood and Eddie Howe. But still there are no winners in that list, nor any English managers who have honours in England or in other major tournaments. But in terms of coaching this is not the most immediate issue.
Though we have similarities to the likes of Italy, France and Germany, unlike these teams we fail to have enough comprehension of the collective. These teams are exactly that, teams. A solid block of players all working as one. But it is more then that; these teams have a clear and cohesive philosophy. They have tactics and plans that filter into all levels of their football. All German midfielders come out in a similar mould and that is not by chance, their players come out to fit this philosophy rather then the team having to fit to the individual as in England. This leads to greater tactical understanding and more fluid play, something distinctly lacking in English football. If we are to improve this we as a nation need to settle on one particular philosophy and tactics and then stick with it, rather then chopping and changing every few years to adopt whatever strategy seems to be the modern footballing niche.
Foreign players is another contentious issue. A common criticism is that, with foreign players very cheap and of high quality, English players are given little chance to play in the Premier League. Whilst there is validity to this it smacks of two obvious flaws; if the English players were good enough in the first place, they’d play. Equally, if English players were as willing to move abroad, to German, Italian and Spanish leagues as their foreign counterparts, this problem would be significantly mitigated. Ergo the problem here, though is accentuated by the foreign player issue, is not the root cause.
To this end we must assess the youth level issue, that players at this level are not given the proper level of training or played at the highest level. We often say things like grassroots issues rule the roost, that a lack of 3G pitches and infrastructure holds us back, but when compared to other successful national teams, like Brazil, it becomes very difficult to say that our infrastructure is so weak that we cannot build a good team. Whilst improvements can obviously be made, as always, the distinct issue is players of a certain age; 18-22. Players of this age must start playing competitive football otherwise they will not develop to the same level as their European counterparts. Obviously this issue runs in tangent to the foreign player issue, but a more obvious solution is to find avenues in which these players can play that are already in the system; leagues other then the Premier League. A broad problem is that our young players have no aspiration to ply their trade in leagues other then the EPL and are instead content to whittle away their most important developmental years in youth teams.The alleged FA solution of improving the youth level will only go so far and ultimately these players need competitive football. These players need to be pushed towards moving to clubs who will play them at as high a level as possible. Also allegations that we are incapable of producing a high enough level of talent are not accurate. Gareth Bale is a prime example of this; British born, trained in England and developed by English clubs he turned into one of the worlds best players. If we can create a Gareth Bale for Wales we can create one for England.
Of course not every club falls in the same traps as these, clubs like Southampton have a fantastic record for playing youth and guiding them to be world beaters. So another potential solution is to focus the national team around a select few teams whose philosophies coincide with the nationals and who have a high enough quality level, something which our European counterparts have been doing for some time in Spain and Germany. To this end I would say the most eligible teams are Southampton, Liverpool and Arsenal; doing this would promote English players to end up at these teams so not only would you have a high quality level but a cohesive team unit and tactical understanding.
A hat tip must also be made to the general media as well. Though not a major issue they are a hindrance to English success, seeming to want to see England fail and English players humiliated then to see them succeed. The English media contribute to cultivating a distinct negativity towards the England national team and Footballers in general. Whilst this is not a direct issue, it no doubt has indirect consequences to moral and the psychology of English players; after all these people are only human and as much as they must have thick skins to be such public figures they ultimately are just normal people who are torn apart in the media week in week out. It would take its toll on most people and I cannot see how it would not take its toll on them.
Whilst there are many problems there are also many solutions, just most are not desirable. The FA will likely have to make some very unpopular decisions for the greater good if they are to achieve anything within their designated time-frames. No individual was at ultimate fault for our failures in Brazil. It was not a lack of passion, poor players and tactical failure that cost us, rather a series of minor issues that ultimately combined to create a major problem. However one thing we must understand is that, with all these issues, there is no immediate solution and we shall be talking about these problems for years to come.