Are England finally using their natural advantages?
In the aftermath of England’s surprise 1-0 victory over World champions Spain, celebrations were strangely subdued. Compared to the normal huge outpouring of hope and subsequent piling of pressure onto the national team in the wake of most good results from the England team, the response was incredibly muted. Instead of wild celebrations that England beat a team they were expected to lose heavily to, the majority of England supporters seemed to be preaching calm and restraint. After all, it was only a friendly, and international friendlies are often seen as meaningless nowadays.
Whilst this may be true (and far be it from me to discourage such admirable restraint in the normally impetuous English fanbase) there may well be reason for optimism in the England team this time round. Quite apart from a good result against the best team in the world, England seem to finally be developing a tactical system that plays to their strengths, and in turn allows them to compete in the top echelons of football.
Identifying English strengths
The speed of the Barclays Premier League compared to other leagues of similar levels is a well-established fact. It has become somewhat of a cliché to say that new foreign arrivals need to ‘adapt to the pace of the league’, but that does by no means make it invalid. Recently, former Liverpool playmaker and current Spain international Xabi Alonso talked at length about the English game, and highlighted how the pace of the Prem makes it a perfect place for technically gifted Spanish footballers to improve.
With the vast majority of English players based in England, we have huge reserves of physical, energetic, hard working players. From driving central midfielders like Frank Lampard and Steven Gerrard, to midfield battlers like Scott Parker, to technically proficient withdrawn forwards like Wayne Rooney, to hard working wingers like James Milner, to diminutive and tricky playmakers like Jack Wilshere. Almost every top-class English player has a capacity to work harder than his counterparts in other leagues, and possesses a level of stamina and energy that other nations should envy.
This focus on perfecting our players physically has a cost, of course, and much has been made of the English system’s prizing of physicality at the expense of technique. It is frequently pointed to as a reason for England’s failure compared to other international sides. What is rarely realised is that in our superior fitness levels and physicality, England have an advantage just as potent as, for instance, the Spanish technical proficiency. It’s just that England have been using a sluggish, reactive approach to playing that requires none of the extra energy that our players possess. Recently, however, England have begun to develop an identity based around the type of high-energy, high-tempo play that the Premier League sees and English players thrive in.
Implementing strengths successfully
Most of the opponents England have faced since the shambolic World Cup have been small nations content to sit back and play on the break in classic underdog style, allowing England much of the ball. As a result, England were unable to show off much of a newfound style, though there were glimpses, such as in the away game against Wales.
Against Spain, however, an under strength England side came up against the perfect dummy for testing: a top nation with a focus on ball retention. A full pressing system was established early on, the England midfielders in particular harrying their opponents and giving them no time on the ball. Scott Parker in particular was heroic in his effort throughout the game, shielding his defence and running tirelessly. By the time he was replaced by Jack Rodwell he was nearly out on his feet, but his efforts were not in vain. The most accomplished creative players in the world couldn’t find a way through England’s robust and energetic defence, with a glaring Cesc Fabregas miss and David Villa’s post-hitting effort the closest they came to unlocking England. Whilst many plaudits must go to the central defenders Joleon Lescott and Phil Jagielka for indomitable performances, the key here is that England defended as a team, from the front, in a style that made the most of their physical advantage.
At the other end of the field, another strength of the English game was put to good use. Whilst the Spanish eschew such primitive forms of attack like set-pieces and crosses, England have always been a threat when the ball is in the air. So it proved in this case. England won a free-kick, which James Milner stepped up to take, and whipped into the box. The number of touches Darren Bent had taken before providing a crucial contribution to the game was in the single figures, as per usual, but he rose high above Gerard Pique to rattle the woodwork. Frank Lampard, also in typical fashion, was in the right place to apply the finish, and all England had to do for the rest of the match was defend. In one match, two classic features of the physical English style allowed them to beat a team that has a clear technical superiority.
There is something buried deep in the English psyche that makes us value hard work and energy in football. We frequently moan about our players’ technical inferiority and our flawed grassroots system that allows the bigger and stronger kids to flourish. It would take a huge restructuring from the ground up throughout our entire footballing system for us to get anywhere near the likes of the Spanish, however.
Until then, why don’t we try playing to our strengths? A proactive, energetic style, trying to up the tempo of the game to the point where opponents based abroad begin to feel uncomfortable and make mistakes due to the added pressure of playing with a forced higher reaction time. A style based around pace, stamina and power, and pressing from the front. Perhaps, just perhaps, we’re starting to see the first steps towards such a system under Fabio Capello.