England: time to accept shortcomings
Sometimes the most powerful characters are the ones you never see. Consider the Daphne du Maurier classic, Rebecca, in which the eponymous figure never appears in person but seems to be everywhere you turn. Consider Paul Scholes of Manchester United, who did not have to be in Warsaw on Wednesday night to emerge as England’s most significant individual.
Rarely can one man have been so conspicuous by his absence.
In drawing 1-1 with Poland, England showed such a failing in possession of the ball that nostalgia for the composed passing of Scholes became an overriding emotion. How can a painfully shy 37-year-old player with no discernible proficiency for tackling – who has already retired once – represent everything that the England team are missing?
The problem is that while Scholes the man is English to his core, Scholes the player is from somewhere different – probably Spain. (So let us be done with it, and put an acute over the ó to Hispanicize his name to Schóles). As a nation, England does not produce anywhere near enough Schóleses. Without him, England do not have the players to produce passing football, so any attempts to knock the ball about in midfield can look misconceived.
Not for the first time, England got more from a match than they deserved. Not for the first time, there was this disorientating sense of a team in permanent transition. It seems such a long time since England had a settled team and a tactical style with which the players were comfortable.
The dichotomy is obvious. Success at international football requires controlled, patient passing, but English sporting culture seems to preclude patience. To my mind, England’s most successful players over the past five years – Wayne Rooney, Steven Gerrard, Frank Lampard, John Terry and Ashley Cole – owe much of their effectiveness to high energy, fitness, strength, and dynamism. The most successful Spanish players – Xavi Hernández, Andrés Iniesta, and Xabi Alonso – owe much of their effectiveness to nuance, composure, and patience.
Paul Schóles falls into the Spanish category (he has nuance, composure, and patience in abundance), but he has not played international football since 2004, and England have not looked as good in possession since.
If England’s performance against Poland showed anything, it is that controlled, intelligent passing is anathema to many players. Keeping possession is not the problem. Keeping possession where it can hurt the opposition is. Too often, England go sideways or backwards, and they do not create enough chances. Rooney’s goal against Poland was England’s only serious attempt on target in 90 minutes, but at international level, he is nowhere near the player he can be for Manchester United.
It was an England performance that posed one key question: how many of Roy Hodgson’s players would make the Spain squad? My view is none, not even Rooney, who is far from being the vivacious player who emerged with such ebullience at Euro 2004. A Schóles at his peak would make the Spain squad because a Schóles at his peak possessed uniquely unEnglish attributes. But how many players of that style have England produced? Too few, spread over too long a period of time.
If subtlety on the ball were an English trait, in the way that it is clearly a Spanish trait and an Italian trait, there would be more players like Schóles.
For all his attributes, Gerrard has never been a master of the short pass. Michael Carrick passes the ball well, but he rarely dictates the pace of matches. Tom Cleverley is a player for the future but he did not impress on a soggy pitch in Warsaw. Only when Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, a dynamic, high-energy player, emerged as a 73rd-minute substitute did England look capable of stretching Poland, but still it looked frustratingly familiar and frustratingly predictable.
Maybe the time has come for England to adopt a more direct style of play, like the one executed by Jack Charlton with Republic of Ireland from 1988-94, which achieved moderate but often intoxicating success. Charlton knew how to bring out the best in his players. He knew how to exploit weaknesses in the opposition. And he appreciated the extent to which so-called larger nations, like Italy, England, and Holland, feared extreme strength of character and work ethic. Charlton instilled a club mentality. Ireland proved difficult to defeat.
One would never confuse Charlton with Azeglio Vicini, the Italy manager at Italia 90, but so what? Subtlety and style was Vicini's thing; defending in advanced areas of the pitch was Charlton's thing. Both managers were true to themselves but Vicini underachieved. Charlton did not because he knew the limitations of his players and he acted accordingly.
While England can also be difficult to defeat, there is now a perception that teams such as Brazil, Spain, Italy, Germany and others do not fear Hodgson’s team. England are too predictable and too unsophisticated. Why not make a virtue out of that unsophistication, in the way that Charlton did with Ireland? Most assuredly, it would not be pretty and it would not be popular, but too many England supporters have become disheartened with the regular defeat on penalties in the quarter-finals of major tournaments.
High balls to Andy Carroll would rile the purists and the snobs but such a tactic would agitate every centre back in international football. The tactic would also provide an outlet for players who, alas, seem constrained by the discipline of keeping possession.
During the Sven-Göran Eriksson era, from 2001-06, England had the players but never the formations to make the best use of them. Putting David Beckham in the centre of midfield was one of Eriksson's many blind spots. Now, under Hodgson, England have an inferior squad at a time when Spain, Brazil and Germany are taking great strides forward. Trying to compete with these teams on their terms will only end in tears. Trying to compete with them on different terms – uniquely English terms – might have a greater chance of success.
Of course, England could behave as if Paul Schóles is still there, but that would be as daft as Hungary behaving as if Ferenc Puskás is still there. England must be true to themselves - true to their instincts - lest they look a pale imitation of superior teams who have the tactics to match the players.
I want to be inspired. But when England have possession in midfield and look as if they are trying to work out an opening, I remind myself of a moment in Rebecca when the Second Mrs de Winter says, "I've been thinking", and Maxim replies, "Now why would you want to go and do that for?"