by Bob Lethaby
As well as frustration, for me at least, England’s Euro 2016 campaign has also been a source of fascination as they try to find a formula that could make them a threat in the latter stages of the tournament.
What is apparent, is that for probably the first time since I have been watching them (dumped out of the world cup qualifiers by Roberto Bettaga of Italy in 1977 ) they have developed or should I say, copied, a style of playing that is based on possession, which something that is quite alien to those domestic fans in England fed on the high drama, crunching tackles and red cards of the Premier League.
Everyone loves a bit of the Premier League, anyone can beat anyone on their day and even more spectacularly of course, Leicester even did it for the whole of the 2015/16 season in one of the great sporting stories of all time.
England have tried, time and again, to recreate the Premier League at international level and failed every time, sometimes heroically, other times in chaos with no ‘Plan B’ just ‘Plan E’. E being for Excuses. So, the alternative is to try to be like Spain, winners of three out of the last four major tournaments.
It is obvious that is what England are trying to do but it is a massive task to undertake when most of your players are in action two times a week, kicking the living daylights out of each other whilst being egged on by salivating tribal support that demands blood, guts, rousing attacks and ‘Row Z’ defending.
With all the staticians around these days, it would be great to see a ‘how many times kicked’table of European Leagues. I bet it would feature mainly English players because European league teams play football almost as if it is a different sport to what we have been brought up on.
So to try to emulate Spain is fanciful but I can see why we are trying, because the English way of playing has not been good enough since 1966. Even when we got to the semi-final at Italia 1990, we only drew with Ireland, scrambled to a 1-0 defeat over Egypt, fluked a last minute winner versus Belgium and somehow, thanks to Lineker and Gascoigne, came back to beat Cameroon with two penalties.
The problem, as I see it, is to play the Spanish way, you need guile to go with your posession and England lack that in abundance. Spain have Iniesta, England have Jordan Henderson, the perfect example of someone with a ‘good engine’ suited to frantic Premier League football.
Watching Henderson play football is like watching someone claiming to be an artist by doing painting by numbers. James Milner is the same, honest and decent but showing all the finesse of Frank Spencer browsing around a shop full of crystal decanters.
That leaves Jamie Vardy, everyone’s favourite chav, who hasn’t played in a possession based football team in all his short professional life, Harry Kane, who currently looks flatter than the Norfolk Broads, Daniel Sturridge, who blows hot and cold like a faulty boiler, and Raheem Sterling, who prances around like a figure skater before eventually dribbling around himself.
Oh for a Paul Gascoigne, or even a Peter Beardsley or Teddy Sheringham…in fact anyone who can unlock a door instead of running blindfolded into it, an act that Sterling has taken to unprecedented levels. There is Rooney of course but I am never sure where he is supposed to be these days, no man’s land perhaps?
Of course, it could all work out for England when teams come onto them more than Wales, Russia and Slovakia, all of whom seemed to want a draw from minute one. It may be then the obvious pace in the England team can flourish with space ahead of them in the event of a counter-attack?
However, it will take a good team to push England back and a good team would have spent their pre-tournament salivating at the prospect of exposing England’s worst defence in decades. If England sit back (against Spain for example) in the hope of exploiting them with rapid counter-attack, you have to assume this is a huge gamble and they will get picked to pieces, ending up well beaten.
The problem is that if we try to play these more possession based teams at their own game, it will be the equivalent of David Beckham challenging Garry Kasparov to a game of chess. We will be damned if we do, damned if we don’t, and that is, I fear, how our tournament will end, with England playing somewhere between a rock and a hard place.
It is a case of the public getting what the public wants at domestic level and that tempestuous form of entertainment will always come with a price at international level. When a former player says a footballer is tired at a big end of season tournament he doesn’t mean he has had a late night and needs a sleep.
What he is saying is that when you have a player who has ran double the miles of an opponent and has been kicked three times as much, he is going to find it tougher to compete than those who play in the more pedestrian leagues in southern Europe. It is a bit like putting a bandaged up horse into the Hennesey Gold Cup and hoping for the best.
England could do a Leicester I suppose, but from what I have seen, they won’t beat better teams by playing the English way and the won’t win by attempting to beat them at their own game either. You can’t, in my opinion, have rampaging domestic football and expect results at international level.
Still, at least the rough and tumble of the Premier League will be back soon.
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