The English Disease

Last month England were fortunate to beat the number one ranked team in the world. They were slaughtered for their performance. This month England were unfortunate to not beat the number one ranked team in the world. They were slaughtered for their performance. 

ESPN journalist and generally astute analyst Julien Laurens criticised the 2-1 victory across several podcast performances whilst The Totally Football Show and Football Weekly podcasts would have allowed you to assume that England had lost the game. The Times also insisted Belgium were the better side and England were lucky.

A month on and England found themselves 2-0 down early on due to an anomalous deflected opener and wonderful free-kick. 

At half-time, Henry Winter tweeted England were poor for offering Belgium too much of the ball. England had 54% of the first-half possession. He also added that England gave too much space. Belgium had 2 first-half shots. 

Absent from the half-time analysis was a mention of Kane’s brilliant header being cleared off the line, Mount’s chance he should’ve done so much better with, Grealish’s chance well blocked by Alderweireld, Kane’s half-chance saved by Courtois as well as the several corners and good positions that England forced.

The argument for the focus being on the negative would be that England are 2-0 down, what do you expect? My retort would be – why did the same journalist criticise England’s 2-1 win then? 

The very, very, very irritating and almost solely football-y over-simplification in football leads and breeds the reactionary and unhealthy tribalism that is continued in darker ways via social media. 

The obsession with a deeper meaning and conclusion to everything permeates the industry and the sport itself. There is a craving for asserting one-sided judgements and opinions as if they were fact. 

England were undoubtedly poor against Belgium last month and yet for all of the apparent Belgian dominance, their chances were minimal. England have been criticised for floundering against a bigger and better side – they didn’t. They fought through a disjointed and difficult performance in a pragmatic and, admittedly, frustrating style. They were criticised anyway.

England were quite decent against Belgium. The system didn’t necessarily benefit the players selected but they still created far more and far better opportunities than Belgium. The second-half was completely one-way and that was a mutually designed development as Belgium sat back. England failed to create anything majorly clear-cut but still should’ve taken, at the very least, a point. 

The legitimate criticisms and critiques of England’s system and style become irrelevant and overwhelmed due to an unnecessary hysteria. Genuine achievements and progression become diluted as a media-led furore overpowers recent memory.

Media agendas rarely exist. This probably isn’t an agenda. It’s just poor journalism. It is the reporting of opinions with no balance, acknowledgement, wit, research or solution. 

England have flaws.

Before the 2018 FIFA World Cup, England were poor and lacklustre in qualifying. The stodgy 4-2-3-1 lacked any pattern or progression. It was ditched for a system that achieved this. Pre-set moves combined with an attacking flare to balance out the 5-3-2 formation. It worked for the players we had; it was pragmatic chaos.

The 4-3-3 was adopted following a 2-1 UEFA Nations League defeat to Spain and it was brilliant. The era dawned with an enterprising but toothless 0-0 draw in Croatia before a superb 3-2 victory over Spain in which the first-half was one of the most exhilarating and efficient performances in recent memory as England led 3-0. It was one of the first England games in which Kane became the creator as Rashford and Sterling pushed on. 

Free-scoring and free-flowing. The players’ matured so the system changed and England rose up the world rankings and reached the inaugural finals of the Nations League. An extra-time defeat to the Netherlands which saw England be genuinely unlucky with a disallowed goal was a bit of a setback but, overall, there was a clear progression from the World Cup.

England had an extremely easy group for UEFA Euro 2020. Despite this easy group, they were still historically good. Any suggestion that the standard of opposition made their form null and void is just deeply unfair. 

Their captain and striker was the entire qualifying campaign’s top scorer. They had a goal difference of +31 after just 8 games, scoring 37 in 8. This is unprecedented and frankly ridiculous. England played Montenegro, Bulgaria, Czech Republic and Kosovo. 

If you want to dismiss that qualifying performance then please also be aware of the following:

  • France conceded home and away to Moldova, they also failed to beat Turkey. 
  • Croatia drew with Azerbaijan and Wales as well as losing to Hungary. 
  • Spain had back-to-back draws with Norway and Sweden. They also conceded to the Faroe Islands.
  • Italy conceded, home and away, to Armenia. 
  • The Netherlands drew with Northern Ireland. 
  • Portugal failed to beat Ukraine in both matches and drew at home to Serbia. 
  • Germany conceded 4 goals at home to Holland.

Point being that the results England had were not formalities whatsoever. It is alright to admit that England were a very good side.

A very good side until September 2020.

The post-lockdown switch back to a defensive 3 has confused me. I can understand the reasons for it. The reasons for it would be that England are short on decent midfielders so a 3-4-3 allows you to only have to play 2 whilst maintaining a solid and progressive shape rather than 4-4-2. 

Another reason would be that it allows Conor Coady to start who effectively plays as a defensive midfielder in possession – if you play the system properly – which England haven’t done yet. A further benefit would be the ability to accommodate England’s plethora of right-backs. Trippier being the back-up to Chilwell, Walker playing in the back 3, Alexander-Arnold and James competing for the wing-back spot.

However, it has led to a disjointed and awkward system that limits our strengths and exaggerates our weaknesses. The whole team has simply been way too deep and if you naturally have less players further up the pitch then you can get stuck in possession. 

Another reason for its failure to work would be the personnel selected. Henderson alongside somebody like Bellingham or even Foden would make so much more sense than Phillips and Rice. This isn’t a criticism of Phillips or Rice, they just simply aren’t needed in this system and actually contribute to the exaggeration of the flaws. 

A similar issue has occurred at Bolton this season with the deep-lying midfielder/playmaker being unable to find the correct pockets of space to build the play up if they are in front of a back 3. This is why it is Phillips or Coady – not both. 

Going forward, two attacking midfielders can work if the wing-backs are higher. If the wing-backs are deeper you need a quicker winger up alongside Kane. The preference would probably be Grealish with Sterling against weaker opposition and Rashford or Sancho with Sterling against stronger sides for counter-attacking purposes.

Personally, I think England would trouble and out score most sides, if not all, in Europe with the 4-3-3. If the concern is a lack of genuine midfielders then hopefully the emergence of Bellingham would help that. My argument against this would also be that Liverpool don’t necessarily have a world-class, Premier League XI midfielder but their sacrifice and balance offers more. A balance of Henderson – Rice – Foden against better sides or Bellingham – Henderson – Foden against weaker sides would surely be enough.

The idea of the 3-4-3 doesn’t necessarily convince me but I can understand it. The fact he’s done it after two to three years of consistent progression and almost sacrificed and ripped up such a prolific style just baffles me.

There are criticisms that can be levelled at the England manager. The way they are levelled are simply disgraceful.

Leading journalists and highly interacted with social media accounts benefit from aggressive, confrontational and reactionary ideas that benefit nobody bar themselves. Do not fall for the trap; it doesn’t benefit you, it doesn’t benefit England.

Debate, acknowledge both sides, get angry, be confused – dismissal of ideas and opinions based on the fact England aren’t 4-0 up inside 60 minutes in every game is not only nonsensical, it‘s just a bit weird.

The urge for change and the belief that everyone bar the England manager knows best but failure to offer reasonable alternatives is the English arrogance that does nothing but over-inflate the ego of those espousing the ideas.

The influence of media expectation as a reason for English failure has always been over played. England simply haven’t been good enough or they haven’t been well organised enough to deal with anything on or off the pitch; mainly on it.

Southgate’s reign hasn’t been perfect but it’s been undoubtedly heaps better than most if not all since the famed era of Ramsey. Yes, I include Bobby Robson. A World Cup semi-final doesn’t completely gloss over three defeats from three at one Euros as well as a failure to qualify for another Euros – imagine if Southgate had done that. 

Whenever he’s made a big call in personnel or system, he’s tended to be correct. The lack of trust in him is disrespectful and quite puzzling. 

This isn’t necessarily even a pro-Southgate piece, by the way, as I acknowledge the fact the recent run of form (P7 W4 D1 L2) alongside performances has been poor. There is genuine cause for debate about some needless and odd press conferences he has given about Mount and Grealish as well as the potentially self-defeating switch in system.

This is a piece on print, social and new media being influenced by a desire to be acknowledged. The lack of nuance, knowledge and research is startling as well as quite sad. 

It helps to perpetuate a society and industry in which a footballer buying a big house on a big salary is newsworthy whilst his work to feed children is subject to negative opinion pieces rather than just an objective reporting of it.

People who cannot afford Sky so can’t watch England in the Nations League are given an ill thought through, poorly judged and overly critical view to inform how they should think about things. Considered and constructive analysis is pushed to the side.

It spreads like a disease and it isn’t healthy nor helpful.

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