Creative players must be embraced, and not forced to change.
It was revealing how the discourse surrounding the national team shifted from lacking quality to being outright boring and painful to watch. England hare seldom been anything but, but only recently has it become the subject of debate. It’s only now that people are asking why.
The last time I felt entertained by an England team wasn’t that long ago. It was March 2016, when Roy Hodgson’s side travelled to Berlin and beat Germany 3-2. That game was memorable, not just because of Eric Dier’s late header securing an epic comeback, but because it was the most coherent England side I’ve ever seen.
Coherency is vital for a team to play what we know today as “good football”. Few sights are more captivating than the flawless execution of a plan. You’ll hear plenty from England managers about what they wanted their players to do during a match, but few have succeeded in getting their players to execute such plans. It’s that ineffective, inefficient football that makes the national side a boring team.
It should be noted that good football does not necessarily mean passing football. The two are almost synonymous. Many view possession-based football as the ideal – for example: the reverence shown to Germany and Spain, who won international tournaments based on possession. England themselves aspire to this ideal but have yet to realise that they don’t yet have the personnel to reach it. The result is clear during matches: players trying to play in a style they aren’t comfortable with, producing poor football.
There’s something highly frustrating about watching Dele Alli play for England. The Alli that plays for Tottenham is very much a second striker, whose excellent movement and timing allows him to frequently find goal scoring positions. For England, though, he’s intended to be the creator. He’s either been the middle of an attacking midfield trio, or one of three central midfielders, and has yet to produce a performance of note. This is a coaching failure, as both Hodgson and Southgate relied on skills he simply didn’t have.
There’s also something very frustrating about watching Jake Livermore play for England, although in this case, it’s not because he’s being misused. Livermore is an earnest player doing his best with his limited skillset, but his continual presence in the England midfield remains a mystery. How is it that a team that aspires to be Germany or Spain plays a midfielder with such a poor first touch and inability to turn?
Combine the two issues and you get the predominant reason why England are so dull to watch. The simple solution would be to either change their roles to something more suitable, even if it means ditching the possession approach, or play someone else in those positions. The former would be a throwback to the Capello days – a just-about functional team who would win games but would bore you to death (so, not that different to what we have now). The latter, on the other hand, brings to light a key problem: who do you choose?
I wish I were asking that because we have so many options. The grim reality is that I ask it because we have no options at all. Adam Lallana and Jack Wilshere are injury doubts, otherwise they’d be obvious picks. Beyond them, you have Jordan Henderson and Eric Dier, both firmly in the “just about functional” category, and the likes of Danny Drinkwater, Jonjoe Shelvey and Harry Winks. The latter, at least, is a promising talent. The 0-0 draw with Germany gave us a glimpse of Ruben Loftus-Cheek, whose languid technique and tight control offered a glimmer of what he could bring to the table. Yet, he’s playing out of position in Roy Hodgson’s struggling Crystal Palace team; hardly the environment to encourage and cultivate creative thinking.
The problem extends beyond the central midfield options. England’s wingers offer pace and directness, but their usage of the ball is so often one-dimensional. Raheem Sterling is enjoying an excellent goalscoring season for Manchester City but faces the same issue as Alli. He’s often saddled with the creative burden, and rather than feel liberated in an England shirt, he often looks pressured. On the other side, there’s Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain. He’s a highly explosive player with plenty of power, but one who benefits more with empty grass in front of him and even then, you can never be sure what he’s going to produce. Jesse Lingard offers a more delicate touch, but is more useful for his graft and versatility than his quality.
When I appraise the options England have, I see players suited to counter-attacking and not passing. These are not players who can pull deep opposition defences out of position and combine in tight spaces with clever movement and passing. These players are very much the head down, rush forward type. That’s not a bad thing, either. England have plenty of decent strikers around, and perhaps a more direct style of play would suit them. It might not be as pleasing on the eye or what England aspire to be, but it’d be functional.
Looking into England’s youth teams affords us some hope. The name on everyone’s lips is Phil Foden, a player few had heard of until the BBC decided to hop on the bandwagon and broadcast the u17 World Cup final. Foden scored twice in the 5-2 rout of Spain and was awarded the Golden Ball for being the best player in the tournament; the same award that’s been given to the likes of Cesc Fabregas and Toni Kroos in the past.
Foden is an exceptional talent and one of the few continental-style attacking midfielders coming through. He’s diminutive, clever, able to manipulate the ball in tight areas of the pitch and creative. Had he been playing for Spain, he wouldn’t have looked out of place at all. Before him, there was another left-footed attacking midfielder who was catching the eye at youth level: Patrick Roberts. The Fulham academy graduate is a touch more explosive and direct, but nonetheless looks an excellent technical player.
On the flanks, England are producing more quick wingers, but these guys are more about skill than about explosion. Jadon Sancho and Reiss Nelson offer plenty of pace, but their best work is when they’re fronting up defenders and keeping them guessing as to which way they’ll go. Their ability has been embraced and encouraged at youth level, where they’re free to try things.
The problem England will face, though, is when these guys reach the u21 age group and beyond. It was during the previous international break that England u21 manager, Aidy Boothroyd, told Demarai Gray and Ademola Lookman to stop messing about on the ball and keep it simple. In what was a rather depressing insight into how the man charged the best and brightest of English football see’s the game, Boothroyd said:
“My players are so skilful and comfortable on the ball, but one of my biggest concerns is that sometimes they can be too elaborate.
“I keep telling them that we are not the Harlem Globetrotters and we are not here to do tricks and fanny around.
“We can express ourselves by all means, but we are here to play as a team.”
Boothroyd is an old-style coach who often comes off as too pragmatic for his own good. There’s a message in there about making the right decisions on the ball for the sake of the team, but the way it’s communicated is designed to kill individuality. Gray and Lookman are exciting players. The latter was dazzling during the u20 World Cup and dribbled past players for fun. Yet here he is, going through the scare process. It wouldn’t surprise me if he became too scared to express himself on the international stage.
Hence, I fear for our young players coming through into this environment. There’s a fine line between learning how to manage games and be efficient, and sacrificing expression. The closer players get to the first team, the closer they came to falling on the wrong side of the line. For England to produce the type and standard of player that they want to, they need to encourage creativity and flair. Players need to be encouraged to try things and know that failure won’t be punished. Otherwise, this national team will never grow beyond what it is now, and the narrative will never change. Keep things as they are, and we’ll be talking about why we don’t have any creative, technical players after many tournaments to come.