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England's tournament misery: change is needed

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The England women are currently the shining beacon of the country’s national football teams. The Lionesses have become the first England senior team to reach a World Cup semi-final since 1990. While this success should be praised, it highlights the failure in the men’s game for a quarter of a century.

In this time, the following five ‘power houses’ of world football have all trumped England’s achievements and progressed into the final four of a World Cup: Bulgaria, Sweden, Croatia, South Korea, and Turkey. England’s most recent World Cup exits, at the group stage last year and in the round of 16 in 2010, have been so uninspiring that they make one yearn for that time we berated the so called ‘Golden Generation’ for their quarter final failures.

This consistent disappointment is often portrayed as an indictment of English football in general; that its players are overhyped, the grassroots system a mess, and the continual preference for size over technical ability. All of these have some substance but are greatly exaggerated. Instead, as England Under 21s’ recent European Championships performance showed, there is a fundamental problem with tournament football.

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The Under 21s’ cruised through an admittedly facile qualification group, dropping just two points in the process. They were then convincing in winning their play-off against Croatia, as heralded national teams Spain and France dropped out.

As the tournament approached, there were widespread calls for those senior players still eligible to join up with the juniors in the Czech Republic. Certainly, players such as Jones, Wilshere, and Sterling would have been a welcome addition and helped in England’s quest to replicate Germany’s success in transforming Under 21 winners into senior winners.

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However, there was also little reason to suspect a group that had been so successful in qualifying would turn in such turgid performances in their group stage matches. Watching these matches brought back memories of Capello’s side in South Africa. The play was so slow in transition from midfield to attack and one could fathom no playing style.

The senior team carries a similar narrative. With the exception of a Beckham’s late exploits in 2002 and an aberration in 2008 under McClaren, England have comfortably moved through qualifying for major tournaments since the turn of the century. Their performances do not look out of place amongst the top seeds and this, as always, raises expectation that the forthcoming tournament will finally be the one where England ‘come good’.

Lack of luck 

What is it then about the tournament situation that brings out the worst in England? Well, the first reason is a simple one: luck. The term ‘Golden Generation’ is now widely mocked. We are told that England simply overrated the players it sent to tournaments in the years 2002 – 2006. This is nonsense. No country had a more formidable back four than Neville, Ferdinand, Terry, Cole. In 2006, no player was more exciting than Wayne Rooney.

Finally, while much criticised, no country had the pedigree of Gerrard and Lampard in centre midfield; two players proven on the European, as well as Premier League stage in their club football. However, this is not enough. Any team, no matter how good requires some luck in tournament football (Barcelona escaping four clear penalty shouts in their 2009 Champions League semi-final with Chelsea comes to mind).

England did not get this. In 2002, a freak Ronaldinho goal put them out in the quarter finals. Meanwhile, the team they had beaten 5-1 in qualifying, Germany, found a route to the final on the back of 1-0 victories against the United States and South Korea. Had England been gifted this path, one can certainly suspect they would have had a crack at Brazil in the final rather than last eight. In the 2004 European Championships, the penalty curse would strike for England.

The victors, Portugal, would go on to make the final where they would come croppers to shock winners Greece. Finally, in 2006, it was the flippant behaviour of a young Wayne Rooney that cost England. Had he kept a cooler head, England would certainly have had a better chance of avoiding another penalty heartbreak. England’s more recent cup exploits cannot be explained so much by chance. The team has been weaker and they have looked poor. However, there are still examples. While it is widely accepted that England were hopelessly outplayed by Germany in their 2010 loss in the round of 16, it is possible to speculate the game could have been different had Lampard’s clear goal been given and the scores brought back to 2-2.

Secondly, and a point more pertinent to recent years: dynamism. England has got into a habit of getting too comfortable with certain players and failing to adjust to the dynamic tournament situation. The recent Under 21 fiasco demonstrates this perfectly. In the key group stage match against Italy, Southgate elected not to pick Loftus-Cheek, whose athleticism and willingness to make runs had finally injected some tempo into England in their game against Sweden and contributed to their late victory. Instead, he got into a muddle with his double-barrelled surnames and made a mystifying decision to pick the Brighton midfield, Forster-Caskey.

This was the comfortable choice, a midfielder he had worked with many a time before versus one who had just two caps. At the 2010 World Cup, England paid for Capello’s decision to pick Robert Green above the in-form Joe Hart. Green’s error in the group stage game against the USA cost England first place in their qualifying group. England must be willing to take risks with their team selection at tournaments. Over so few games, one must pick those most in form over anything else.

Winter break?

Finally, I must mention a winter break. I love winter football in the Premier League. It’s a pivotal factor in making it the most entertaining in the world. It produces the most surprising results as teams cram four games into ten days and a it’s period in which pretenders to the championship are weeded out or made. However, when I consider England’s most recent tournament exploits, the word that springs to mind is tired.

The football consistently looks laboured and lacking of any kind of inspiration. Among European nations regularly competing at major tournaments, England faces the unique position of often taking all its player from its own national league. In turn, this league is unique in not having a winter break. It is absurd to avoid a correlation between this and England’s tournament performances. If the FA is serious about turning the national side’s fortunes around, then a winter break is a must, even if it comes at a detriment to the entertainment of the Premier League.

England’s women have highlighted the consistent failure in the men’s tournament football over a long period of time. If we want this to improve, we must stop being shrill and pinpointing the problem as more general than it really is. England’s national team has a lot of quality and is continuing to bring through bright young players. However, its tournament issues must be addressed if this next crop is to avoid the pitfalls of their predecessors.

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