September 7, 2016

What is the English way of playing football?


For a country that give away flags in their national newspapers every four years, we have no clue about modern England’s identity – or Britain’s, for that matter. We really can’t talk about it either. Any love shown for this grotty little island is deemed either racist or tacky – see Keep Calm posters, football fans abroad, Very British Problems on Twitter – as these days, it’s far more cool to hate the place you live in. No, we can’t agree on anything as a collective: Scotland want to leave; politics has descended from two parties we can’t agree on, to seven. We were asked something really important in May and we almost voted 50/50.

England is fractured. A watercolour landscape of subcultures and subclasses, cooped up in suburban sprawls like miserable chickens, complaining of the rain, even the hint of swearing on TV and just about any fad, the more avoidable the better, whether it’s Pokémon Go or a Drake video. We’re all so different, that much is clear, and it’s the foundation of what makes us laugh and grumble. The London 2012 Opening Ceremony worked because it was a celebration of the differences across our nation, because that’s literally all we can agree on: well, apart from those who think those who look different, should “go home”.

English football is symptomatic of English culture; if there’s one thing you can say about it, it’s that it transcends colour, culture, community. Above that though, it embraces all kinds of outside influence. We just love football and we always have: we fill the national stadium for fourth-tier league play-offs, for goodness sake. And while many view the alarming lack of English talent in the Premier League as sporting global warming – line graphs shrinking year on year, as they come over ‘ere and steal our captain’s armband – there’s no doubt about it: we created this problem ourselves. Our willingness to see the best footballers, any footballers we can afford on a shoestring, regardless of where they came from, that’s what drove the Premier League to becoming the biggest and best in the world today. We embraced, and the world flocked here.

The foreign players that have arrived in English football is only part of the reason that England have stagnated on the international stage, but it’s a huge part. Just as we have with music, politics, sitcoms, culture in general, England’s footballing identity has got lost somewhere. And attempts to re-instill it have fallen short.

Arsène Wenger was perhaps the first manager in the English game to show such disregard for starting English players. “When you represent a club it’s about values and qualities,” he famously claimed. “Not about passports.” Arsenal’s French connection was widely publicised but beyond that, they brought in players from Africa, Europe and South America; they’re the only side in world football to have signed captains of all three Baltic states, so don’t you dare say Arsenal haven’t achieved shit in the last decade. Somewhere along the line, Wenger began unearthing hidden gems for pennies, while England’s finest moved for megabucks; it hasn’t changed now. John Stones and Raheem Sterling, combined, cost nearly £100m.

But ironically, that same Wenger quote was what led to a twisted post-Britpop revival at the Emirates, with the likes of Gibbs, Wilshere, Ramsey, Walcott, Oxlade-Chamberlain and Welbeck all becoming key figures at one point or another in the last five years. Wenger claimed all that long ago that he wanted players who represented Arsenal’s values and qualities. It took the homegrown quota for the epiphany to hit home; he found the qualities he had always seeked in those knew the club best – academy products and kids who grew up pretending to be Dennis Bergkamp – and were committed to staying longer than your average Nasri.

While in theory, Arsenal’s British players certainly provide a basis on which to assimilate foreign talents into the team, they’re not the very cornerstones of that particular club, with Aaron Ramsey proving to be possibly the only first-choice selection should everyone be fit (which isn’t often a scenario the Emirates faces, in all fairness). Most of these English players have been plucked from elsewhere, and the problem still lies that there aren’t that many decent English players to choose from; at least not as many as there are German or French, as Wenger knows too well. Prized prodigy Jack Wilshere’s Bournemouth loan move is just another dying ember of perhaps Wenger’s last English contingent as Arsenal boss. Across North London, an English experiment is actually working: Kyle Walker, Danny Rose, Dele Alli, Eric Dier and Harry Kane aren’t just starters for Spurs, they’re the envy of Europe. Just like he managed at Southampton before, Mauricio Pochettino has developed a side that incorporates young, homegrown footballers, and it’s paying dividends.

The difference between Spurs and Arsenal is clear. Arsenal signed young talents like Ramsey, Walcott and Chambers, and tried easing them into the team with more experienced heads in front of them. Spurs thrust Alli, Dier and Kane into the daunting responsibility of being first choice; they suffered to start, finished below Arsenal and then they picked up and look great in the long-term. At Arsenal, it’s unclear how long-term Gibbs, Welbeck, Chambers, etc. may be for the club. Even the talismanic Wilshere may be shipped out next summer.

There’s a pattern. Rashford, Sterling, Barkley, Rooney, Shaw, Lallana, Clyne, et al were given prolonged periods of first team football; look further into the Premier League and you’ll see that Hazard, Bale, Fàbregas and Ronaldo were all key players at a young age, not just given cameos. It’s not that England can’t produce superb young footballing talent, it’s that we neglect them when they’re young: either hoard them in a deep squad to fill a quota, or farm them off on loan with the promise of first team football, and watch them shrink in confidence with poorer coaching and stiff competition for places. It’s easier in some respects for foreign clubs in less physical, less competitive leagues to nurture young talent when they have little alternative, but Southampton and Spurs are two examples of clubs who prove that if you have a strong philosophy, talented players will fill holes in your first eleven regardless of their age.

The lack of philosophy is what has defined England as a team over the last decade. When you think of German footballers, you think of the efficiency in ball retention and precision of passing from the back to the front. When you think of Spanish footballers, you think of a similar yet artier style: intricate ball-players and movement between passing triangles. What defines an English footballer in the last ten years? This is what makes it so difficult to build a team. Five Spurs players might be able to link up nicely on the international stage; throw in six others, with different philosophies and ideas rooted from the academy upwards, and imbalanced chaos clearly reigns. When you feel like you have to pick the best players from around the country regardless of whether or not they fit into the style, that makes for even more mayhem.

Clubs all coach youth players to play a certain way, and though there’s an Italian or French or German way of thinking, there isn’t an English way. Arsenal coach their players with the pass-and-move Wengerball of the last two decades, while Spurs’s products are drilled in pressing; Stoke’s know good, old-fashioned bus-parking, and so on, and so on. Nowhere else in the world do you see such a breadth of styles in the top tier – it’s what makes the Premier League unpredictable – and this is partly what’s caused such a clash in styles for our own players. A competitive league too means less risks taken by managers; and so most don’t choose inexperienced, homegrown youngsters just to help out the national setup.

For the first time in a generation, the England manager needs to pick a style of football that benefits the strengths of the players at his disposal, not just pick the eleven least droppable players. Wales have proved that the limited pool you have to pick from needn’t limit you; they have a true core, a clear system and players who subscribe to the countering ideology. Allardyce needs to decide what he stands for and pick players who represent that, as ghastly a thought as they may be. Football’s a team game after all, and only when we celebrate something we all have in common – whether it’s tenacity, pressing or speed on a counter attack – will English football actually find its identity.

About this author

Mark White

Journalist, Photoshop artist, Arsenal fan