Everybody hates us, but we don’t care should be the new motto for the England national team. It’s an apt one given the ridicule England has received from soccer snobs worldwide, particularly in England and the United States. Their lens of how soccer ought to be played is framed by how Barcelona plays soccer. But as Chelsea proved against Barcelona recently, there are more ways to skin a cat when it comes to winning a football match.
Now that we have a moment to take a collective deep breath, it’s important to realize where England is at this stage, as well as what they’ve achieved. Before the tournament began, it’s safe to say that few England supporters would have predicted that England would be where they’re at, right now, facing a quarter-final, and being just three wins away from lifting a European Championship trophy for the first time in their history. No matter what happens after this point in Euro 2012, Roy Hodgson has guaranteed his job for World Cup 2014.
Despite England’s place in the final eight of Euro 2012, there is an identity crisis among England supporters and pundits. Even though England did everything that was necessary to progress out of Group D, is this the type of football that England supporters can stand behind? The jury is split. Personally, I’d like England to play a more attacking style of football, willing to take risks and show more of their versatility and creativity. We know that they have it inside them. It’s almost as if they’re waiting for Hodgson to give them the go-ahead to show it.
In England’s match against Ukraine, the only person who seemed willing to grab the bull by its horns was Wayne Rooney. While his first few touches were quite rusty, Rooney was the only one who ran back into his own half, demanded the ball and moved forward to create chances. The other England footballers, while playing a decent game, were too focused on not making mistakes and staying within their zone. With Rooney in the number 10 role, I saw flashes of brilliance, which helped spur on Ashley Young and Danny Welbeck. Rooney is the glue that holds this team together. And with him in the side, it’s a completely different England. Even a rusty Wayne Rooney is a much-needed improvement over the tentative England side without him.
Going back to the identity crisis, do we as readers or fans know what style of football we want England to play? Can we all agree on it? Do we have a sense for what that looks like? Germany does. Spain does. France does. But England doesn’t. Is England’s style Hodgson’s style, even after another manager takes over from him in the future?
Some have argued that England’s style is what it is under Hodgson because English footballers aren’t technically gifted players. I would concur with that, to a degree. I don’t think English footballers are as bad as some critics would argue. They can play as well as most international footballers, but I agree that they aren’t in the same category as a Spain, Brazil or Germany. But what they lack in technical skill, they make up for it with their tenacity, desire to win and defensive skills. Hodgson is certainly playing to England’s strengths, but the attack-minded option hasn’t been fully developed yet. There are traces of it there, with Theo Walcott and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain’s speed and innocence, but it’s still being nurtured. It’s definitely not the finished article.
Short term, England can keep on playing the football system that has worked so well for them. It’s effective, but it isn’t pretty on the eye, nor does it have to be. Long term, I believe England face an identity crisis. There’s no consensus on what it should be. There’s no clear vision. If, and it’s a big if, England can go on and get into the semi-finals or the final of Euro 2012, perhaps more people will agree that England’s method of playing football is their new identity. If so, Hodgson then has an opportunity to get the most of a new system by making the entire England set-up, from the youth players to the first team, play a certain brand of football that is English.
The US national team faces a similar dilemma. Ask 10 different experts about the team, and you’ll get 10 different opinions about how the United States should play its football. Association football has changed a great deal with globalization, and we’re only just beginning to feel the effects of it on the football pitch. England is making its own path. Not everyone likes it, but as long as it results in wins, then its the way forward – at least for the time being.
Finally, a word about luck. In the past 24 hours, I’ve heard the word mentioned several times when talking about England. I think it’s hogwash. England did not get a lucky break, or have luck on their side. They played to the best of their abilities and earned what they got. That the ball crossed the line but wasn’t called a goal was not luck. That was a poor decision by the officials (equally as poor as the missed offside just a few seconds before it). England deserved exactly what they got. John Terry running back to his line to clear the ball away from the goal was not luck. Either a team is good enough to win or it isn’t. Either a team takes their chances in front of goal, or they don’t. There is no place for luck in football. Luck, whether good or bad, is the stuff of fairytales.