The Same Old Ways of English Football

"They came on in the same old way, and we defeated them in the same old way".

~ The Duke of Wellington, after defeating the French at the Battle of Waterloo in 1815.

The French must be saying something similar about the English now after their women’s football/soccer team comprehensively outplayed their English counterparts in a 3-0 victory at the Women’s Euro 2013 tournament, sending England out with a solitary point from three games.

The failings of the women’s team against France and in their other two games against Spain (2-3) and Russia (1-1) were depressingly familiar from watching England men’s teams at international tournaments. The players struggled to pass the ball accurately, their basic ball control and anticipation was severely lacking and they often just lumped it up the field in the vague direction of a big Number 9, thereby invariably losing possession. They were tactically rigid and predictable, and wilted in confidence as the French quickly imposed themselves.

The team’s admirable captain Casey Stoney told the BBC: "I cannot say it is a lack of effort, we tried our hardest but we were found wanting." Meanwhile injured star player Kelly Smith said: "It hasn't been good enough. The quality is not there at the minute. Everyone has got to go away and think about our individual performances and learn from it."

We have seen this all before many times from the men. We have seen a version of it in the Under-21 and Under-20 age-group teams at international tournaments this summer: plenty of perspiration but very little inspiration.

As talkSPORT's England correspondent John Anderson said on Twitter, “Three England teams played in international competitions this summer. All finished bottom of their group. P9 W0 D3 L6 F7 A17. Much to be done.” Indeed.

There are many levels to the malaise afflicting English football at the moment, and we can easily get lost in details without focusing on the major issues.

There is the elite level itself: the fitness, teamwork, tactical preparation and motivation. We can see from the last few Olympics that focused funding and preparation of elite athletes can mask a multitude of grassroots weaknesses.

But in mass-participation sports like football, this focus on the elite level can only go so far. You need strength in depth that comes from a healthy game at the grassroots.

This is not something we have in England (and I suspect in the rest of Britain too). Where are the community five-a-side courts that you find in Italy, Spain and France? Where are the youth coaches paid enough to justify them taking pride in their work? Where does all the money from the Premier League go?

The lack of physical and social infrastructure at the grassroots makes implementing cultural change that much more difficult (though not impossible by any means). But cultural change is precisely what England needs.

Up in the BBC commentary box at the France game, former player Lucy Ward derided the French coach’s use of poetry, literature and philosophy to motivate his players (despite one of the French players emphasising a few days before the positive effect it had). Meanwhile in front of her the French team were producing a display of imagination and inspiration that a Proust or Montaigne (or especially the ex-footballer Camus) would have relished – led by the marvellous Louisa Nécib.

This seems to me indicative of one of the enduring faults of English football culture: a deep and visceral suspicion of ideas, thought and new ways of doing things.

Our habits are deeply ingrained. When put under a bit of pressure by opponents who invariably know us better than we know them (they often speak our language and play in our leagues), we revert to type. While to Spanish and French players (male and female alike) technical skills are second nature, our players hide from the ball and leave colleagues to lump it forward, thereby meaning we can regroup and ‘work hard’ to defend and ‘do a job’.

This sort of play is our second nature. We can say we want to play a good passing game, but when the pressure is on and stakes are high, old habits reassert themselves; second nature takes over. These old habits go right down to the bottom of the English football ladder and provide the schooling for most of our players at all levels.

One weekend a few months ago, I took a stroll across Clapham Common in London, where I have played football since I was a little boy. I was pleasantly surprised to see that of the six games going on there, three were between female teams.

What I saw on closer inspection wasn’t so pleasing. With (male) coaches on the sidelines bellowing those staples of the English football lexicon, "Get stuck in!", "Get rid!", "Challenge!", the two teams I watched proceeded to play a breathless version of the game which seemed to disregard passing the ball altogether. This was ‘kick and rush’ at its worst, not least because the players couldn’t kick the ball very far.

These are the pitches where our players learn their habits.

It is not an especially happy situation, but at least our failings are being widely recognised in the media and even in the Football Association. There are some silver linings to the many clouds, not least in the FA’s appointment of Dan Ashworth as its new director of elite development. He knows what the problems are and has some idea of what to do about them (for some examples, check out this fascinating interview with him).

But Ashworth is dealing with the elite level.

The grassroots is a different story. It is on Clapham Common, where we often had to change by the side of the pitch after games because the changing rooms had been locked, where serious change is needed.

Somewhere along the line, those bellowing coaches instilling a fear of the football in enthusiastic young players need to be told to go and find something else to do.


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