The England team has lost its identity

There is nothing quite as contentious as an England football team. Even among fans of the same team, who should be selected for the national side is a source of great debate. I think if we could somehow find a way to harness the energy that escapes from people arguing about who should play for England this country’s power needs would be in safe hands for years to come.

Often it’s a lot of hot air with little substance. Sometimes there is substance to an idea but the stick that it’s attached too is being held at the wrong end. The word I most commonly associate with this is “deserves”. Always beware anybody who starts talking about a player that deserves a chance in the England team.

You could argue that Grant Holt deserves a place in the England squad because of the goals he scored this season, but as soon as you start talking about who deserves what you’ve immediately put selecting individuals ahead of the good of the team. You don’t want to pick the 23 most deserving individuals, you want to pick the best 23 that can collectively function successfully as a team. That being said, if the fans feel the players are undeserving then it’s no wonder they boo and feel disillusioned by their performances, but this leads me on to my next point.

The one thing I can never get my head around is the idea that the England players don’t care. Furthermore that the reason that we’ve not won anything is precisely because the players don’t care. And that the situation would be hugely improved if an England manager actually picked the players who do care, who would “bust a gut” “put a shift in” “give it everything”. Pick the players filled with passion who will roar into battle with the ferocity akin to the three lions on their shirt.

It’s important that I make myself clear, those people who are disillusioned with the England team and want something new and interesting to watch have a point. These are the people who say things like “I just don’t care anymore, I don’t think I’ll even watch the games”. Picking the players that they often seem to like and watching them clout the living snot out of continental opposition would provide a distinct sense of satisfaction, a bit like when you manage to injure the other team’s star player in a game of FIFA, the score of the game is irrelevant, you’ve won on the voilence-0-meter.

Where I have a serious problem is when fans actually start to believe that it would lead to the team being more successful. As if wanting it more would somehow bridge the gap in technical ability. I reject the assertion that England have been poor in recent years because players don’t care, I think they’ve been unsuccessful because we’re hopelessly behind the curve in the modern game and this is typified by many fans attitudes to the England side.

John Terry showing how little he cared during the 2010 World Cup by trying to block a shot with his face. Regardless of this he still had a terrible tournament.

The traditional English football fan still loves a a good hard tackle, which is somewhat ironic given the homosexual overtones of that statement and the inherent homophobia in the game. Tackles still get a round of applause. Tackling is still considered to be an important trait to a player’s game. If you want to read someone talk more sense about it than I’m capable of, read this interview with Xabi Alonso.

The point about tackling is that it’s emblematic of the fact that many still consider the attributes of players without the ball to be more valuable than attributes when in possession. Then they sit and profoundly exclaim in complete disbelief how such good players can’t keep hold of the ball. Spain and Germany defend as a team, they have midfield players who can tackle but that’s not their primary purpose, they are all good on the ball.

The game has moved on. At Italia ’90 the rules of the game suited the classic English style. Closing space was easy because the offside law was simpler. Team’s pushed up, played an offside trap and it made the playing area of the pitch more congested. This meant you genuinely had to battle for space. Defenders didn’t need to be able to play because if they were in trouble they could pass it back into the arms of the goal keeper. Such was the boredom and despair at the dire spectacle of much of Italia ’90 that the back-pass law was introduced.

England team pose for the team photo before the semi-final versus West Germany.

I feel like most England fans would like to see a return to the old days when offside was offside. When you could kick a winger 3 or 4 times before you got a yellow card. When there wasn’t much space and players needed to be strong. When technical ability could more easily be matched with strength and determination. When the lesser nations had terrible coaching and no idea tactically so were pitifully easy to break down and play against. When the England side was all about heart and spirit and love of the game. Butcher bleeding us to qualification, Gascoigne’s tears and Bobby Robson doing a little dance.

The thing is that wasn’t the only reason why that team was successful. Lineker was a world-class finisher and spent time playing in Spain. Platt and Waddle were technically accomplished midfielders and both played abroad in Italy and France respectively. In Paul Gascoigne we had one of the most technically accomplished midfield players this country has ever produced and he was terrible at tackling, which is what led to the tears. He also spent time playing abroad in Italy. How many of the current squad have played club football outside of England? Zero. Above all under Bobby Robson they played as a team, they were greater than the sum of their parts.

Fans look back and see those days, when England had an identity and become filled with a sense of nostalgia. They cherish the players who wore the shirt with pride and with passion, but sometimes forget that they were also very good technically and ultimately still lost on penalties. Now the things that once defined our game by have been outlawed. FIFA keen to crack down on bad tackles have urged referees to award free-kicks for the slightest contact. The field of play has been opened up wider than ever, every player needs pace and skill and ability on the ball.

I often get the impression that Blatter would like to make England suffer any way he can.

The trouble is you look at the over paid egomaniacal players that fill the ranks of the squad now and you almost don’t want them to succeed. That’s why calls to pick players that still represent the every-man are so strong. The people want their team back and in their desire to see the team returned to them they often mix the idea of trying to create a team they would care about and want to watch with a team that would actually be a success on the pitch.

In 2010 the team didn’t know what it was meant to be. England were a mess of half formed ideas, a rigid 4-4-2 in a fluid 5 man midfield world. But under Hodgson there is some hope. His ideals are similar to those of England of old. Be tough to beat, be hard to break down, be organised and disciplined and committed. It won’t be pretty but it might just work, there is still a place for the English style but we need to use it effectively, we need to be smarter. Other nations have these traits, you think the Spanish players aren’t committed? You think they wouldn’t throw themselves into a tackle should the need arise? Of course they would, but that’s not how they define themselves and that’s not what their fans want to see.

But what if Lampard’s goal had been given? What then?!

England need to decide what kind of team they want to be. If we want to find sustainable success then we have to let go of the old ideals and adapt them to the modern game. We need to think more about the team and less about individuals. But the fans need to understand the team’s new identity, because all they see is the same old faces, who perform for their club but seem lost as soon as they put on an England shirt. Do we want to continue to produce players who are better at kicking the opposition than the ball? Or do we want more than that?

I’ve never seen an England player seem to care as much as David Beckham. This was never more apparent than when he gave everything in his performance against Greece in 2001 to seal qualification for the 2002 world cup. In the end it wasn’t the yards he covered or the tackles he made which sent us to the finals, it was his ability to curl in an unstoppable free-kick when it really mattered. That’s the modern game, in a battle between strength and technique there is only ever one winner.

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