To fill the void caused by the World Cup rest days before the quarter-finals (I’ve never fully worked out if the rest is for us or them), over the next two days here on Twohundredpercent our writers have been looking at where they thought it all went wrong for England this summer. This will be immediately followed by our shooting some fish in a barrel. First up to weigh in with his (no doubt) in-depth analysis is Dotmund, wondering whether or not things would or could have been better with an English coach.
English football was changed forever on Sunday, 22nd November 1953. That was the day that Hungary beat England 6-3 at Wembley, the first time the home team had succumbed to defeat by a side from outside the British Isles on their own soil. It was a match which famously demonstrated the insular, static and intransigent nature of the English game in the face of tactical developments from South America and Europe.
The real thorn in England’s side that day was the fact that, rather than rigidly adhering to the standard 2-3-5 roles of the time, the Hungarian team were fluid and interchangeable, totally baffling a set of English players who’d never seen anything like it. The Hungary players simply refused to play in the style the number on the back of their shirt suggested they would. Nandor Hidegkuti wore 9 but played in central midfield, pulling his befuddled man-marker completely out of position. Meanwhile, in the build up to the first goal – scored by Hidegkuti within the opening 60 seconds – the BBC’s commentator Kenneth Wolstenholme was sufficiently interested to note that, whilst Gyula Lorant was wearing number 5, “he’s not their centre half”.
In the grand scheme of things, I think that particular utterance of Wolstenholme’s is of just as much significance to the history of the England football team as his words thirteen years later during the World Cup final. It speaks volumes for Our Team, The Pride of an Island Nation, with as much spunk and as much cluelessness about what is happening beyond the sea as that entails.
The history of the development of football tactics is an absolutely fascinating one to some, a trifling inconsequentiality to others. The greatest manager England never had, Brian Clough, is perhaps the most noted tactics-sceptic. He believed in man-management, in motivation and, above all else, in players. “Tactics never won a football game,” was his particular aphorism. However, I rather think that they can.
I’m not talking about Alan Hansen talking nonsense with the benefit of hindsight and a bank of computer screens on Match of the Day. I’m talking about simple things which can make a real difference. How many people line up in midfield? How do they like to move the ball around?
Football is not a clever game, and it’s certainly not renowned for being played by clever people. But even these simple preparations are still viewed as something of a dark art in the English game. Successful foreign-born managers who make an impact are always feted by our media as being canny and shrewd tacticians, whilst their home-born counterparts never receive such accolades. A successful English manager achieves, we are told, by team spirit, man-management and heart. It plays into the tabloid wet dream of foreigners as scheming and untrustworthy. Any of them who achieve anything in our sainted fields of play must surely be employing some sort of black magic.
Part of this thinking is geography, of course, but just as obvious is the fact that it’s all nonsense. The English style of play could be the same as any other seen in Europe or South America. We just don’t like it that way. And you know what? That should be fine. The English league is beloved of football fans around the globe for its speed, combativeness and excitement; even in countries like Italy or Spain where the populace all watch in bemused wonderment at the gay abandon of it all as much as they enjoy it for any nuance that may have crept onto the field.
Why then do England continually persist in trying to play differently when faced with foreign opposition? Our peculiar style of play may be just that, but it is also a strength which England seem terrified to try and exploit. As terrified, indeed, as they are of the dastardly foreign inventions of tactics and systems. In appointing a foreign coach, the FA guarantee that English play has no place in the set-up of the England national team. Fabio Capello is an exceptional coach. His record is unimpeachable. His understanding of the game of football is beyond reproach and he knows how to win. He’s just not right for England, in other words.
As a person forged in the Italian game, the style of the English league must do little for him but make him nervous, or giddily excited in the way that hugely confusing circumstances can tend to make you. For all his attempts to whip England into shape, his inputs achieved nothing beyond what Sven-Göran Eriksson’s attempts did at the beginning of the last decade. Try to teach the England team that there is another way and all that happens is that the team fragments into a series of individuals, all trying to play a doomed 50-yard through-ball to nobody-in-particular as soon as they stumble accidentally into possession. You can actually SEE them thinking, too, the cogs whirring. As well as being counter-productive, this is also painful, once you observe the final result that all their internal pontification yields. Quite why this happens when English players are burdened with tactical thoughts is unclear. But it is nevertheless an empirically observable phenomenon, and one which can obviously only emanate from deep inside the national psyche.
Essentially, my point is this. English players are – even by professional footballers’ standards – simple souls. They’re like dogs, really. Just get them excited and then chuck them all out to chase after a ball for a couple of hours, probably with their tongues sticking out of their mouths. This is completely innate to them, to all of us English people. As is the other aspect to the horror we witnessed this summer – a stubbornness born out of our geographical place in the world. Very few people from outside of the British Isles have ever adequately got to the bottom – the real, absolute root – of what makes English people tick. The majority of us don’t understand it either – it’s just a feeling. And my feeling is that England’s only real chance of footballing success in the future comes from having an Englishman (or Englishwoman) at the helm. Especially if Bill Bryson is otherwise occupied.