Every time England’s national football team crashes out of a major international tournament, we hear a familiar criticism: the team lacks a philosophy; as though having Wittgenstein as a coach would have made a difference. What the critics are really telling us, though, is that England does not have a particular approach to the game, a style that defines the nation. Every other national team of note has a certain distinctive character unique to them, or, at the very least, they are constantly striving towards an identity. The Netherlands have the thrilling notion of Total Football, the Spaniards tiki-taka, the Germans their Teutonic efficiency, the Brazilians their futebol-arte, the Argentines their left-wing opposition to anti-fútbol; and the Italians their simultaneously countervailing and synergetic commitment to both catenaccio and the trequartista – a seemingly defensive system in which the playmaker appears to mean everything and nothing. But England, the common refrain goes, has no such style, no such distinguishing characteristic to fall back upon.
England will play Costa Rica today in the final match of their group at this year’s World Cup knowing that even a win – of whatsoever margin – will not be enough to secure a place for the team in the Round of 16. Its losses to Italy and Uruguay in the first two matches of the group have already knocked it out of the competition. There were periods of play in both these games when England played with oodles of self-belief. But the end result only served to validate the general theory. England is not only tactically naïve at this level of the game, but it also lacks a specific pattern to fall back upon. Its players are neither technically equipped to retain possession of the ball, nor are they good enough defensively to rely on their speed and power to play a counter-attacking game. The team’s manager Roy Hodgson’s decision to place trust in youth, unmindful of the consequences, has been praised by some. But, ultimately, the repercussions of failing to fashion a specific footballing ideology have been laid threadbare in its defeats in Brazil this year. Once again, it is a case of England having tried its best – having shown passion, commitment, and energy – in an eventually botched experience.
It is trite to say that it was not merely a lack of a footballing ethos, but also a lack of technical excellence that cost England at the World Cup. After all, they were surpassed by Italy’s midfield in their first match and were undone by a majestic Uruguayan frontline comprising Luis Suárez and Edinson Cavani in their second. Yet, as the much-unheralded Costa Rica had shown in their respective games against Uruguay and Italy, neither of these teams was unbeatable; they both had very specific weaknesses that could, if properly planned, have been exploited. England, however, was clueless on how to go about it.
Against Italy, England showed plenty of verve and energy; Raheem Sterling of Liverpool, for instance, played with a fluent directness that few others have recently displayed in an England shirt. But in the final analysis, there was an abject familiarity to how the team allowed Andrea Pirlo, a player who rarely needs an invitation to find a pass, to run the game as though it was his personal fiefdom.
Throughout history what England has prized most in its football teams is a sense of courage, energy and physicality. In Manaus, against Italy too, it was a team that was designed to attack the opposition through pace and power rather than technical nous. Given the teams’ relative make-ups, some would argue that this was even the right choice; it was the pragmatic thing to do. But, at the highest level of the game, as winners of the previous World Cups have shown, a team needs not only players of technique and composure, but also a refined strategy. England, against Italy, lacked both. Its manager hoped that a team brimming with speed and desire would unlock the Italian barricade. Instead, the momentary adventures in England’s attacks were countered by the quiet calm of Italy’s near-perfunctory technical mastery.
In its second match against Uruguay, England was once again outclassed. Uruguay’s midfield, as Costa Rica showed so thrillingly in its first match, was far from exceptional. Yet, Hodgson seemed to have learnt nothing from the eventually chastening defeat to Italy. Steven Gerrard, England’s captain, was picked alongside his Liverpool colleague Jordan Henderson to anchor the team’s midfield. But Gerrard, a player more capable of displaying individualistic heroics than exerting midfield governance, and Henderson, at best a willing trier, failed miserably against a numerically stronger Uruguayan midfield. Jack Wilshere and Ross Barkley, players who could have easily offered support to England’s chosen midfield pair, both started on the bench.
The choices were further limited by Hodgson’s decision to leave behind Manchester United’s Michael Carrick, arguably England’s finest midfield anchor, from its squad for the World Cup. Carrick, a quiet, metronomic passer, quite capable of controlling the tempo of a football match, was found unnecessary in a team that had players quicker, stronger and apparently more dashing. The midfield, as a result, was a familiar fiasco. There were thrills and spills, but England rarely seemed to have any control over Uruguay. When the team equalized in the 75th minute, the more intelligent option was to close the game out. One could imagine Spain or Italy at their respective zeniths, faced with such a task, having resorted to a simple passing game to kill any ounce of energy left in the opposition before going for the jugular in the final five minutes. Instead, England, lacking in any such tactical nuance, was left floundering, exemplified as it was by its captain Gerrard’s abject vulnerability in midfield.
Hodgson, a middling manager with no real success to speak of at the club level, appears to be ill-suited to take England forward. That he gave youngsters a chance can be no justifiable reason for persisting with him, when his choices at the World Cup were consistently bizarre. Playing the team’s talismanic striker Wayne Rooney on the left wing, offering Gerrard and Henderson no support in midfield, and eschewing experience as a factor in picking his central defenders are but a few facets of a supremely bungled exercise.
What England needs is a visionary, a manager who can not only get its first team playing with a particular stratagem, but also someone who can influence the entire culture of the sport in the country. Rinus Michels famously achieved that in the Netherlands, when, first as coach of Ajax Amsterdam, and later as the coach of the national team, he fashioned a footballing revolution. In what has since come to be described as Total Football, Michels engineered a process where his teams focused on squeezing space when without the ball and rapidly opening up the pitch to attack with an unyielding vigor. In today’s game, Total Football is no longer a pragmatic tactical choice, but it continues to represent an ideal that inspires the Dutch method. England need not seek to emulate the Dutch or the Spaniards or the Brazilians. But they need to look within to see how best to create an identity that suits the players they produce. The question is: can they find their Rinus Michels?
Suhrith Parthasarathy is a lawyer and journalist, living and writing in Chennai. He graduated in law from the National University of Juridical Sciences, and in journalism from Columbia University. He currently practices as an advocate at the Madras High Court.