By Paul Gardner
A month ago we had Harry Redknapp telling the world what he thought of English soccer: “We do not know how to play football.” An extraordinary statement, particularly coming from a guy who is often cited as one of the few top-level, genuinely English coaches (of the English Premier League’s 20 coaches, only four are English; Redknapp is not one of them, his team Queens Park Rangers having been relegated to the Championship at the end of last season).
Redknapp -- a born-and-bred East-Londoner, popularly known as ‘Arry because of his Cockney accent -- has never been seen as a sophisticated personality, rather a mud-on-your-boots soccer man, with a refreshing ability to avoid the pseudo-technical jargon so dear to the modern coach, and to say, bluntly and tersely, what he means.
The English don’t know how to play soccer, says ‘Arry, because “We just boot the ball up the pitch and it gets us nowhere. In international football you cannot just hit and hope because you give the ball away.”
The solution? “It's all about possession, retaining the ball, controlling the game,” says Redknapp, “We need coaches who believe in that ideal. We don't have the kids coached the right way from a young age.”
OK, it’s not the most technical analysis, but it does strike hard at the most sacred cow of the English game ... that the long pass is the basis of the sport. But, after all these years (no major trophy since the 1966 World Cup) can that possibly still be true?
You wouldn’t think so, but the performances of England at the Euro under-21 finals (an early exit after losing all three of its first-round games and finishing bottom of its group), and the FIFA Under-20 World Cup (two ties and a loss in the first round, another last-place finish and an early trip home) raised some doubts.
There is clearly sensitivity in English coaching circles about the long-ball accusations. The official website of the English Football Association’s glittering new training center, St. George’s Park in the English midlands, even feels obliged to counter them. Outlining its “playing philosophy,” the FA is quite indignant: “In some quarters it is still believed that The Football Association coach education pathway champions a direct method of play, based on a long-ball approach. This is not the case.”
Yet, if the soccer played by England was not the crude caricature set forth by Redknapp, there was certainly something stunted about it. It’s not an exaggeration to say that England’s opponents always looked livelier.
For my taste, the long forward ball was over-used, though not massively so. But there was certainly an excessive use of the cross, of aerial balls into the opponent’s penalty area.
When the ball was inter-passed along the ground, the problem was that the passing seemed mechanical and predictable. I watched a game for some five minutes, no doubt shaking my head and tut-tutting at just how unimaginative the England players looked. And there was always that sense that the players were impatient with short passes, that two or three were the maximum, then the ball hadto be hit long. Slowly the realization dawned ... the athletic, muscular players in the white shirts were not English. I was watching New Zealand. But the style of the two teams was close enough to cause me some confusion.
My lack of acuity, then -- or an umbilical style-connection? If there was food for thought in that mental mix-up of mine, there was a much clearer indication of something totally out of sync when England met Iraq in the under-20s. England built up a 2-0 lead (one goal from a corner, one from a cross) -- but it was never convincing. It had more the feeling of tradition being satisfied, that England, as an accepted soccer power, somehow had a rightto their advantage without needing to play superior soccer. But the Iraqis were not listening. Their soccer was better than England’s throughout the game, much livelier, fresher, more skillful, more inventive.
The Iraqis kept going, kept moving the ball quickly and smoothly forward. After 75 minutes, Mohanad Abdulraheem was felled by England goalkeeper Samuel Johnstone. Ali Faez scored from the penalty kick (though Johnstone benefitted from the usual referee leniency and was not red-carded).
Then Iraqis left it mighty late, but their excellent soccer got its reward after 93 minutes, when Ali Adnan corkscrewed his way past a series of tackles to score the equalizer.
Looking back, it should have been no surprise that England (who out-fouled Iraq 13-5) departed with its stale soccer, while the surprisingly excellent Iraqis advanced to the semifinal. Should England be alarmed by that?
‘Arry would certainly say yes. But another very English soccer icon is not concerned. Gary Neville, recently retired after a 20-year career spent entirely with Manchester United, sees no reason for panic. He identifies the strengths of English soccer -- “We work hard, we're organized, structured, resilient, hard to beat. Not bad qualities.” True. But dull.
Neville professes a liking for the way Spain plays. He admired the Spanish under-21 team -- but listen to whathe liked: "I was fascinated by this team -- not by their technical ability, but because of the incredible work ethic around their defending. This is an Under-20 team and they've been coached how to defend.”
From that comes Neville’s highly dubious conclusion that if the Spanish, who have flair, can be taught to defend, then the English, who know how to defend, can be coached into having more flair and imagination.
There are shades of Jackie Charlton here. Charlton was in Mexico for the 1986 World Cup as an observer. He got bored watching Diego Maradona and Argentina, so took himself up north to Leon and Irapuato where Canada was playing in Group C. Canada! Three games played, all three lost, no goals scored. And a bore, to boot. But not to Charlton, who claimed to admire the way that Canada had defended stoutly against more skillful teams.
And so, modeled on the thoroughly pedestrian Canadians came Charlton’s somewhat successful but eminently defensive Republic of Ireland national team of the early 1990s.
Neville, one feels, would have approved. The defense was in place. The flair would come, if at all, later. It never did come, just as it has never come for England.
And one doubts whether it ever will come as part of a mentality that so often views flair as little better than showing off, and that stigmatizes artistry as foreign foppery. Those, too, are deeply held English beliefs, but not ones that Neville mentioned. His praise for being organized and hard to beat can hardly be faulted. They are not bad qualities. But they are nowhere near good enough.
Says Redknapp: "The overriding problem we all face is that English football must change. And it has to come from the very top of the game.” From the top, yes, but from the very bottom, too. That is what makes the drab performance of the England under-20s and under-21s so depressing. These youngsters are the future of the English game -- a great pity, then, that they played like New Zealand and were outclassed by Iraq.