Boasting the likes of Rooney, Lampard, Terry, and others, it is difficult to fathom the lack of success for the English national soccer team. Since defeating West Germany in 1966 4-2, England has failed to win the Fifa World Cup. England has not reached the semifinal of a major tournament since Euro 1996 and in Euro 2012 they were defeated by Italy in the quarterfinals. Current coach of the England squad and former Manchester United great, Gary Neville, expressed his guarded optimism for the English team at the 2014 World Cup in Brazil. He stated, “I don’t think anybody in the England set-up – fans, coaches, players or management – are saying we are going to go to Brazil and win it. When we qualified for the World Cup in 1998 in Rome by getting a draw, everyone thought it was the greatest result of all time (1).”
Neville asserts that the English squad will always face unrealistic expectations by home fans, despite the fact that they have never won a World Cup in South America or in the United Kingdom. Paul Scholes supported Neville’s comments stating that England lacks in quality wins against established squads. Scholes says, “I always get the impression that, whenever England come up against a big nation like those, it is usually a signal that we are going to go out. They’re OK against the Polands and Ukraines — England will beat them all day long — but as soon as a top team comes along? Well…” Scholes goes on to lament the lack of quality players compared to Argentina and Spain.
Interestingly, some of the top talent described by Scholes and Neville perfect their craft in the English Premier League (EPL). They forget that the great Carlos Tevez and Javier Mascherano began their career at lowly West Ham United before joining more established clubs. Thus, although the EPL has come under fire recently for the lack of quality homegrown talent, the league is still widely regarded as the most challenging league in the world compared to Serie A or La Liga due to the physical nature of the English game. In spite of the production of great foreign players, why has this current crop of English players not lived up to their billing in tournaments?
One primary reason for this ineptitude by England could be attributed to the lack of an identity for the national team. Although England does have superstars, who will be the leaders on the pitch and within the locker room? Manchester United defender Rio Ferdinand argued “People talk about the identity of the English national team, well I’d like to know what it is. If you say ‘we’ve got an identity’, then what is it? Break it down, tell me what it is. If I said to you ‘what’s Germany’s identity as a national team? Resilience? Discipline? They’ve still got a bit of that, along with the new stuff – movement, retention of the ball, and so on. I just don’t know what ours is. I’m not even just talking about our first team. I’m talking about their under-21s, under-19s, under-18s and so on. If you look at any of their [Germany’s] teams, you would say they play the same way. Not just Germany, but Spain too. In ours, I don’t really see that (2).”
To try to solve the issues in the English squad, Ferdinand is involved in the Football Association Commission to try to revitalize the image of the national team. By implementing changes at a grassroots level, he believes England can once again compete at the highest level with other European powerhouses. With some of the game’s top youth academies, England has the potential to mold together a great squad. It may not be successful at this World Cup, but it remains to be seen what the national team’s identity will become in the near future.
What are your thoughts on what’s wrong with the England team?
If interested, there’s another great article in the New York Times discussing these issues.
You briefly mention that the English Premier League is the most challenging in the world because of its physicality. It is true that the EPL is widely considered to be the most physically taxing league in the world, however physicality is not the only reason for this phenomenon. The pace of the game in England is much quicker than in other countries, but most striking–and surprising–is that by some metrics the Premier League is the most technical league in the world as well. The Guarding recently wrote an article tackling this issue entitled, “Is English football’s dismal marriage to the long ball heading towards divorce?” . In this article, statistics are presented that claim the Premier league has the lowest percentage of long balls played and the lowest number of forward passes played, indicating that the EPL seems to value possession and technical quality over a more direct approach. Furthermore, passing completion rates have substantially increased in England over the past few years. Of course, there are exceptions to the rule. Stoke City and their set-piece, long ball based game represents the essence of a physical, direct soccer team. As a whole, especially at the most successful clubs, this trend is quite visible.
The rise of technical quality in England begs the question: Why has this improvement in the league not translated to success in the English National Team? Apart from the reasons you outline in your post which seem valid, and maybe that this technical quality is coming from foreign imports, I think it may have something to do with how English National Team players are more fragmented than national team players from say Spain or Germany. This lack of unity, or identity as you call it, perhaps is due to the fact that English players come from Arsenal, Chelsea, United, City, etc. Conversely, the Spanish national team players in large part play for Barcelona or Real Madrid and thus are able to foster an intrasquad understanding even during the club season.
Who knows though? Maybe England will surprise us all and give the tabloids in London a reason to curb their typical doom and gloom journalism.
Interestingly enough, David Goldblatt, when asked this question, said that the English team is doing exactly as well as it should be doing (and perhaps overachieving), given its population size
I think media expectations drive a lot of whats wrong with the English team (especially because they cant pick players from the other home nations)