Three Lions, a Messianic Complex and the Cold Hard Dose of Realism

As the smoke finally settles from Sam Allardyce’s short-lived reign as England manager, the spotlight has shifted onto England’s next two games against Malta and Slovenia, and the man at the helm, interim manager Gareth Southgate.

While at least one fixture will tell us nothing about England’s hopes for glory at a major tournament, Southgate’s appointment has again led to an examination of England’s prospects, and similar questions about England’s aspirations.  European Championships and World Cup qualifying rounds are no longer a good judge for how prepared England will perform at tournaments. Roy Hodgson may have had a pristine record in qualifying rounds for Euro 2012, World Cup 2014 and Euro 2016, but performances in Poland-Ukraine, Brazil and France were underwhelming to say the least.  The last 16 years have seen England’s fortunes stagnate, as the curse of the quarter-finals or penalties loom, with tournament exits following a tangential loop that began with that debacle at Euro 2000.

Individuals set the tone

Sven Goran Eriksson became the Football Association’s (FA) first foreign manager in July 2001.  Eriksson was lauded as a manager with a first class pedigree, having led Lazio to the Scudetto (The Serie A Title), the Coppa Italia, the Italian Supercup and the European Cup Winners’ Cup.  The hype train steamed ahead pretty quickly as Eriksson’s presence was quickly felt.  The almost immediate uplift in results led to England topping their 2002 World Cup qualifying group.  As always, the onus was now on England’s manager to guide the country to glory.  However, the burden could now be shared with another man that England could call upon.

Eriksson’s tenure would become tied by its indefatigable link to the cult of David Beckham, which would reach stratospheric heights in the next six years.  The latter may first have been appointed England captain by previous interim manager Peter Taylor, but that last gasp free kick in the final qualifier against Greece confirmed England’s participation in the World Cup, and cemented his place in Three Lions history.  While this was one of Beckham’s finest moments, it is also a reminder of how the Three Lions became shadowed by the primacy of certain individuals, rather than the team, to influence and win games.

REFLECTED IN ENGLAND’S TOURNAMENT PERFORMANCES 2002-2016

Captain Becks

Eriksson’s first major tournament was the 2002 World Cup in Korea and Japan.  In hindsight, this perhaps represented the best chance of glory for England.  After all, the team contained a strong core known as the “Golden Generation”, which included high-level performers such as David Seaman, Ashley Cole, Rio Ferdinand, Sol Campbell, Paul Scholes, Michael Owen and David Beckham.  The loss against Brazil in the quarter-finals, where Ronaldinho lobbed David Seaman from 35 yards, in part to a goalkeeping error, was disappointing.  However, England’s inability to field their best team on the day casts a shadow that is not examined enough.  In particular, Eriksson had forced a not fully fit David Beckham into service, given his importance to the team as captain and set-piece prowess.  During a Champions League game for Man United in April 2002, Beckham had broken a metatarsal bone in his foot against Deportivo la Coruna.  Cue national hysteria about England’s chances at the World Cup being damaged, conspiracy theories and character assassination of Argentine defensive midfielder Aldo Duscher, who had committed the tackle on Beckham.  The focus on the Messianic individual to carry England’s hopes had truly began.

Enter Rooney, Gerrard and Lampard

Two years later at Euro 2004, a young striker by the name of Wayne Rooney emerged, with strong performances in the group stages an indicator of where to rest England’s hopes in the future.  This was also the beginning of the Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard midfield conundrum, where England would try to find a way to fit two world class performers into the team.  There was a sense of expectation that the sudden embarrassment in riches, in the form of Rooney, along with Gerrard and Lampard, could propel the Three Lions forwards.  Unfortunately, England were to exit at the quarter-finals after losing a penalty shootout against Portugal, with Beckham looking off colour and England looking bereft of ideas.  The heavy reliance on Beckham’s mediocre form throughout the tournament, and how this spectacularly backfired against Portugal, was when his penalty miss against Portugal went, quite literally, into orbit.

The Wally with the Brolly

The 2006 World Cup was a continuation of the attempt to bed England’s players into a unit, which remained unbalanced and reliant on individual moments to beat teams.  England would lose to Portugal on penalties in the quarter-finals again, with Beckham being lost to injury just after half-time and Rooney being sent off in the 62nd minute.  Exit at the World Cup spelt the end of Eriksson’s reign, but not the end of England’s reliance on particular players.

This inability to build a real team that focused on compatibility, rather than the star power of individuals, came to a head when England failed to qualify for Euro 2008.  The blame was mostly laid on the door of Steve McClaren, the “Wally with the Brolly” best remembered for that 3-2 loss against Croatia at a rain-soaked Wembley.  During his short reign, McClaren had begun by sending Beckham into international exile, as a sign of the departure from Eriksson’s close relationship with Beckham.  His credibility was somewhat tarnished when Beckham was recalled with results and his job on the line.  McClaren’s inability to move away from bowing to key individuals was seen in his attempts to curry favour with Gerrard and Lampard.

Capello Steel

The appointment of Fabio Capello in December 2007 was lauded for drawing a line under McClaren’s catastrophic reign, and imposing a proven elite manager upon a group of supposedly errant individuals.  While Capello’s record in qualifying seemed to spell progress, his tough management style, and reliance upon Rooney, Gerrard and Lampard once again failed to pay off.  Results in South Africa were poor at best.  That infamously dour draw against Algeria saw Rooney curse into live TV cameras, as frustrations threatened to boil over.  England looked like a team of strangers, bereft of confidence and chemistry.  England’s inability to play well was truly exposed by Germany in the second round.  Lampard’s disallowed ghost goal bred consternation at home, but Germany were definitely the better team as they strolled to the quarter-finals with a convincing 4-1 win.

Capello looked to stay on till Euro 2012, but a disagreement over whether to call up John Terry following a racism row led to his departure prior to the tournament.  It seemed that nothing was going right for England, with key individuals underperforming on the pitch and controversy off it.

Roy or Woy

In an attempt to bring stability, Roy Hodgson took over with a few friendly games to go before Euro 2012.  While results in the group stage looked a little more promising, a injury-hit squad (Lampard, Gareth Barry and Gary Cahill were all left out), as well as Hodgson having only a few weeks to prepare for the tournament led to lower expectations than usual.  Notwithstanding this, there would soon be more heartbreak as a Gerrard-led England lost to penalties against Italy in the quarter-finals, with Rooney again unexceptional and England lacking a Plan B.  With time to plan his squad and strong qualifying performances, hopes and expectations again returned ahead of the 2014 World Cup.

However, a young squad led by Wayne Rooney performed below expectations, with some insipid performances and error-ridden displays leading to a group stage exit after poor performances against Italy, Uruguay and Costa Rica.

The Iceland Cometh

Ahead of Euro 2016, there was a renewed sense of optimism that Hodgson having had two tournaments to better understand his role, would carry England to the quarter or semi-finals.  However, the meek exit in the second round with that that loss against Iceland will live long in the memory.  The lack of leadership in the team, or a clear direction, was ironic by the very fact that the media had focused on Hodgson and Rooney to provide both these things to a young England team.

It was quickly evident in the first two games that Rooney was unable to provide the thrust, or the support behind Harry Kane.  However, Rooney’s place in the team remained unchallenged, and England struggled to score goals or control games.  Seeing Kane on corners, as well as the failure to use Marcus Rashford more, were head scratching to say the least.  England looked rudderless, and the emphasis on Wayne Rooney to carry the team was not rewarded by the results.

The Individual at the expense of other Individuals

England’s emphasis on certain individuals to carry the team on the field has not had the desired impact that was originally intended.  The fixation with trying to play Lampard and Gerrard in midfield is one of these examples, and a heavily consequential one at that, given that it managed to plague the national team for close to a decade.  It also resulted in the international retirement of Paul Scholes prematurely, who in an ironic twist, may have been better for England to rely on as one of its key individuals, given his skillset at passing and keeping the ball.  Scholes may have been one of the greatest footballers of the English generation, but he was shunted out wide to accommodate the Gerrard-Lampard axis.  Another question that this usually brings up is whether players like Michael Carrick and Gareth Barry should have been in the England earlier and more regularly for balance in midfield.  Unfortunately, the focus on the messianic game-changing individuals meant that the types of players who focused on recycling possession – the unglamorous work – what we now term as the pass before the pass – were neglected by successive managers.

The emphasis on the individual to solve problems permeated to the managerial-level, with the employment of Eriksson and Capello as potential game-changers, given their championship-winning pedigree.  The fact that in vogue managers such as Jose Mourinho, Arsene Wenger and “Big Phil” Felipe Scolari were all linked with the job at different points in time is a signpost of the FA’s need for a glamorous solution that would solve all the problems in one fell swoop.  The talk around Eddie Howe as the next big thing is concerning, because England should not expect to simply appoint a manager because he is in fashion at any given point in time, and expect results and tournament form to pick up almost immediately.  Each coming of a potential world beater, player or coach, has been hailed as some far-oft messiah.  That is, until the brutal realism of appointing Sam Allardyce set in, and the dawning of a realisation that a more cohesive approach towards the national team at all levels, including youth, would do more than the appointment of England manager every two to four years.

Next Steps for England?

In his first interview as interim England manager, Gareth Southgate suggested that England’s vision for the national team should not change entirely with each new manager, but there had to be a continuity.  Looking back on Sam Allardyce’s appointment, it seems that the search for an English manager, however misguided given that it severely limits the field of candidates, was about striving for an identity.  An English style or way of football that would not simply be reduced to producing great players and expecting them to conjure enough moments of magic to win games, and even tournaments.  The comparison often used as a benchmark is Germany, who revamped their youth system following a poor Euro 2000 showing, where they finish bottom and exited at the group stage.  This led to a joint decision by the Germany Football Association, the Bundesliga and the professional clubs to overhaul youth football, through the development of more technically proficient home grown players, led to the creation of academies right across the top two divisions.  While it is unlikely that England could ever follow Germany’s lead, given the sheer money in the Premier League and the immediacy for proven players almost immediately, the English FA must focus on strengthening the game from the grassroots.  It is untenable to expect Houdini-esque powers of recovery when there are simply not enough English footballers to choose from.  The appointment of Dan Ashworth, as the FA’s Technical Director of Elite Development in September 2012, was a step in the right direction.  Ashworth had a sterling record of service with West Bromwich Albion’s youth system, but more work needs to be done.

While we will never know how good Allardyce would have been as England manager, his appointment smacked of a certain amount of short-termism – to stop the rot and for the national team to show some fire in the belly.  It was also immediately apparent, however, that Allardyce was never going to inspire a revolution during his tenure, whether this was in terms of the team’s organisation, the personalities or the playing style.  But perhaps revolution is not what is expected after all.  International coaches and managers are not the same breed as their club counterparts, because they do not get the opportunities to work with the players in the same way.  At Euro 2016, pundits and commentators were suggesting that it was hard to get the same level of tactical preparation and sophistication at national team level, given the limited time for coaches to drill their players about specific systems or scenarios.  It may be harder for national teams that were not Spain or Germany to adopt “tiki-taka” or “gegenpressing”, given that these were commonplace styles and systems that were being conditioned at the youth-level.  That is to say that it is easier for the German national team to play a variation of 4-3-3 in comparison to England, when this was a formation that was widely used across Bundesliga clubs at both youth and elite level.

For England, this is to suggest that evolution, the slow but steady hand of progress, will take time.  Results may not go to plan, but England cannot abandon this route at the first sign of trouble.  England may have to find a more defined way of playing, and identify those players to suit England as a team.

It is likely that England has realised this, with the spate of tournament failures in the past, but implementation remains cloudy.  In some ways, it is fitting that England now look towards someone like Gareth Southgate, a calming but unspectacular presence to steady their ship.  Southgate has been in the employ of the FA as the England Under-21 manager since August 2013, and his work across age groups may help the FA to define a more continuous pathway across the national team age groups.  In the same manner that Southgate is not an “elite-level” manager, England too has to realise that they are not a top ten or elite-level team, even with the presence of some potential stars.  Players like Dele Alli, Raheem Sterling and Marcus Rashford may become world beaters, but it is vital that they do not become dragged into the national hysteria of crowning messiahs – not to build them up and destroy them like false idols.  There is a need to unite behind Southgate and the vision of continuity, stability and teamwork.  It remains very much the case that Southgate is not the ideal England manager, interim or otherwise, but if he is able to cajole the whole system into a cohesive whole, then the new English reality may be a welcome change.

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