I now have a new all-time favorite soccer quote. After the English team drew against the USA and Algeria, barely beat Slovenia and was torn open and summarily dismissed from the World Cup by Germany, BBC commentator Chris Waddle had this observation:
“England will never win the World Cup while playing a 4-4-2.”
Ah, yes. Were it not for the choice of formation, in a couple of weeks Captain Steven Gerard and the rest of his teammates would have been ascending the steps of Buckingham Palace to present their great trophy to the Queen. Instead, for want of a fifth mid-fielder, they are returning home in ignominy. Mr. Waddle, the observation you have drawn from England’s performance is a master class in missing the point.
Please allow me to offer a slightly different take on the entire situation. My interpretation is this:
“England will never win the World Cup until it produces much better players.”
Put another way, given the current crop of players they have, the formation England would need to beat Germany’s 4-4-2 is probably a 7-7-5.
England is suffering not from a lack of tactical savvy but a lack of footballing skill. The nation, and the domestic league that the nation worships, are having a tough time producing great international footballing talent, and any blind man could have seen this year’s disaster coming.
In a competition like the World Cup, the lesser teams prepare by organizing a compact defense with the hope of a swift counter-attack strike. Teams like Algeria practice and prepare this exclusively. That is why the pathetic Algerian team that was both aggressive and inept in African Cup of Nations final against Egypt suddenly becomes hard to bust up in the World Cup.
Conversely, the better teams with outstanding back-lines and graceful midfielders never stretch themselves – they possess the ball, probe and retreat, and look to create a small opening and exploit it into a coordinated attack. Ball control and calmness in possession are prized above all else.
England has neither the ball skills to play like a better team nor the humility to play like a lesser one.
International football is as different from the English Premier League as it is from the National Football League. Truthfully, I am a fan of the English Premiere League, but with its breakneck pace and lack of interest in slow, patient tactical play, the skills to become an EPL star are almost the exact opposite of the skills needed to succeed internationally. A league that values raw aggression over control and vision will never prepare its players for a contest like the World Cup. With the entire English team all playing in the EPL, it is inevitable that the Premier League sharks transform into World Cup guppies.
So how can England improve? A different manager will have little impact. England needs a different philosophy. Players need to be taught ball control skills from the outset and be willing to forsake the EPL to play in leagues that value these attributes.
Is any of that likely? Not while all the money and acclaim for English players is available from playing a hard charging game in England. As the golden generation of Terry, Lampard, Gerrard and Beckham head to pasture with nothing to show for their international efforts, it would be foolish to expect massive improvements in England’s future.
Sorry Mr. Waddle, but changing formations has the definite ring of shuffling the deckchairs. What you really need is to change your football culture.