England's search for flair: no end in sight yet

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 had to 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 right to 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 what he 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.
21 comments about "England's search for flair: no end in sight yet".
  1. R2 Dad, July 15, 2013 at 1:21 a.m.

    The one word that best describes English football is "impatient". The BPL is always in a big rush, but that M.O. isn't rewarded in the CL against top teams.

  2. Ivan Mark Radhakrishnan, July 15, 2013 at 3:41 a.m.


    They are ALL TALKING and 'talking'. YOU – the media – are all agog and reporting this stuff. BUT YOU WILL NOT LISTEN TO ME AND THOSE WHO KNOW WHAT TO DO ABOUT THIS GROSSLY MISMANAGED INDUSTRY.

    And, BEFORE I map-out the 3 to 4 one-line 'paragraph' solution, Mr Paul Gardner and all take note, SELLING A PRODUCT and SELLING BRANDS which are CONSTANTLY BEING DEBASED by those within and connected is MARKETING MADNESS! TOTAL MARKETING MADNESS! GARY LINEKER a former England International just about broke the brand recently with his 'proclamation'!


    It is NO USE REPEATING THE SABOTAGE Joseph Sepp Blatter and FIFA continue to heap on Football. DOING EVERYTHING 'in secret' and / or IN ISOLATION does not only NOT WORK, there is a SERIOUS ELEMENT OF DISHONESTY in in and WHY AM I NOT SURPRISED! England is 'steaming' ahead in its MARKETING of its Club Football – which Arry and Lineker have 'words for'! But this is a collapsed industry. And THE SOLUTION TO RE-FLOATING FOOTBALL in England, Europe and Globally is SO DAMN SIMPLE!

    YOU CANNOT SMART-MARKET Industries, Products, Brands and Services when Harry Redknapp, Gary Lineker and others are voicing their vermin. Does NO ONE UNDERSTAND, THIS IS A MULTI-BILLION DOLLAR INDUSTRY whose biggest threat is talkers?

    Continued @ 2 / 2

  3. Ivan Mark Radhakrishnan, July 15, 2013 at 3:42 a.m.

    Continuation 2 / 2


    1,000 English Education Institutions sign-up to provide the NAMES, AGES, TALENTS, SKILLS, STRENGTHS, WEAKNESSES etc of 8 of their MOST TALENTED Football Players – 4 Female and 4 Male - to a National Database. This creates AN ANNUAL POOL of 8,000 Players for local use and export.

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  4. Ivan Mark Radhakrishnan, July 15, 2013 at 3:45 a.m.

    THIS IS TRUE Mr Harry Redknapp ............ so WHAT EXACTLY are The English FA peddling?! Until England opts to listen, THEY will continue to DAMAGE their own Product and WRECK their own Brands. SHOCKING 'MARKETING'!

  5. Ivan Mark Radhakrishnan, July 15, 2013 at 3:59 a.m.

    Develop, Finance and Market Global-Football THE SMART WAY! / +265 (0)888 245 818

  6. Kent James, July 15, 2013 at 9:27 a.m.

    It's not the length of the pass that's the problem, it's the predictability. My college coach, who took an intellectual approach to the game that I appreciated, boiled the roles of the team thusly; the job of the defense was to make the other team predictable (because when you can see what's coming, you can stop it), whereas the job of the offense was to be unpredictable. A simple adage, but true. The English are good at the defensive part, but not so much on the offensive end. Offensively, sometimes an individual can become unpredictable all alone (a dribbling run, e.g.), but the strongest teams do so as a team. A team like Barcelona will make many predictable passes, but these do no damage; it is the one the defense doesn't see coming that scores the goal. Barcelona has the patience to wait for the opportunity to create such a pass; many others don't.

  7. Bill Anderson, July 15, 2013 at 10:04 a.m.

    Yet we hire these "trainers" over and over and over and over to teach our youth in this country how to play the game. 'Ows your accent mate? LOL

  8. Brian Something, July 15, 2013 at 10:55 a.m.

    Sorry I’ll use normal capitalization...

    Kent hits the nail on the head. Even teams like Bayern and Barca use the long pass occasionally. But more often than not, it’s a PASS, not hit and hope.

    For possession based teams, the long pass is essential PERIODICALLY to spread the defense out thus opening up spaces for the short game. It’s the unpredictability Kent is talking about.

    The looping cross from the wing is one of the easiest things for keepers and backs to defend. Because it’s high, it gives everyone a chance to get set up. I’d love to know what percentage of those crosses even result in shots on target. I bet it’s 10%.

  9. Brian Something, July 15, 2013 at 10:56 a.m.

    And Bill’s right. I’ve always wondered why the US soccer community seems to automatically deify anyone with an Irish or one of the British accents. Why don’t we seek more influence from countries that actually produce world class attacking players

  10. Rick Figueiredo, July 15, 2013 at 11:32 a.m.

    Yes. Of the top 20 EPL coaches only 4 are English. That's because the rest of the English have all migrated to the U.S.A.!! Ahhh. That's why we are getting nowhere.

  11. Alberto Mora, July 15, 2013 at 1:16 p.m.

    Finally the English recognize the true about their futbol,I have said time after time in my comments about the "sick love" of the US for bringing English coaches to teach our youth how to play the game. England had never win the World Cup (1966 was a theft} and probably never will, the best futbol is in South America.

  12. ROBERT BOND, July 15, 2013 at 2:47 p.m.

    Arsenal are the only side that is usually fun to watch, & their style compensates for their economical business habits......agree on 1966, a brutal team that mugged Germany's keeper...

  13. Millwall America, July 15, 2013 at 3:28 p.m.

    This is an extraordinary statement? The English national past-time for several decades now has been complaining about the English national team, the FA, and the English football system as a whole. There is absolutely nothing new, unusual or extraordinary about what 'Arry is saying. On a different note, as I've said before, the US brings English coaches here not because the English style of football wins world championships (it doesn't), but because the English style of football makes tons and tons of money for the Barclays Premier League. The BPL is by far the richest and most successful league in the world (as measured by $), and that is what the owners of MLS want to emulate. Some people may think the style of soccer is "better" in some way in Spain or Germany (I personally disagree), but in terms of putting bums on seats, putting eyes on TV screens, and selling merchandise all over the world, nothing succeeds like English football.

  14. James Froehlich, July 15, 2013 at 6:47 p.m.

    While I certainly agree on how financially successful the EPL is, equating the play of the EPL to that of "English football" is a bit off. When the majority of the major players and almost all of coaches are foreigners, even calling it the "E"PL is a bit of a stretch. It is admittedly quite strange to find a league as successful as the EPL that hasn't been able to influence more the style of that country's players. MLS and US Soccer need to take notice of that!!!

  15. Doug Martin, July 16, 2013 at 9:41 a.m.

    I am very surprised that you said a Canadian team impressed a Euro coach and that he then adapted what was being played by Canada in the 86 WC to be used by a European National Team.

    Oh wait that Canada team was essentially a Great British heritage team led by an accented coach.

    Canada has suffered from the adoption of GB style soccer for 50 years, its hard to know if the new migrant communitys in Canada can overturn the entrenched coaching leadership which is long ball early long ball late ... but make it a long ball play.

  16. tom brown, July 16, 2013 at 7:39 p.m.

    England has not won another trophy because The Cartel that controls world soccer has frozen them out. Imagine this scenario: You have The Cartel operated by The Vatican which includes: Italy Spain, Germany, Portugal, Mexico, Argentina, Brazil, France, Uruguay ... referees from the Cartel ref England's games meaning England cannot possibly get thru the Cartel gauntlet. Fifa is totally 100% corrupt & there is no hope of it ever being removed. The Cartel has been in control since 1970 & only catholic countries have won since then. a more complete fix racket could not be devised. It don't matter if England kick and run or play possession. The Cartel cannot be out matched.

  17. Brian Something, July 17, 2013 at 1:33 p.m.

    “ because the English style of football makes tons and tons of money for the Barclays Premier League.”

    Actually it doesn’t.

    The teams that make the most money in the PL – Chelsea, Man City, Man Utd and Arsenal – offer the soccer that is the least “English” both in terms of style and personnel. These are the teams that play possession and have skillful flair players.

    The most “English” teams in terms of style are teams like Stoke and West Brom and Sunderland. You really think they’re the ones bringing in loads of cash from around the world?

    People around the world have spent lots of money buying jerseys of Chicharito and Ronaldo and Drogba and Henry and Fabregas. Not of Grant Holt or Darren Huckerby or Peter Crouch.

  18. Kent James, July 17, 2013 at 4:40 p.m.

    Tom, give it a rest. Please limit focus your comments on soccer, rather than unsubstantiated conspiracy theories. Why would the Vatican care who wins the world cup? Germany has won 2 World Cups since 1970, and it is certainly a stretch to call the home of the Protestant Reformation a Catholic country. There is no doubt that corruption exists in FIFA, but it's of the petty kind, where the god is money.

  19. tom brown, July 18, 2013 at 12:29 a.m.

    World war II made the Cartel. Kent you might be a nice person. Have you seen WC66? Have you seen WC70? Have you seen WC74? If you have not seen them you lose all consideration to talk on the subject. You have not seen the games therefore you mind cannot wrap around a conclusion You say is a "theory"... If you know anything about anything is anybody's guess. I will leave you some facts to chew on. England cheated in WC66. They colluded with Germany to put themselves in the final. It is a known fact. Common knowledge. How they did it was ref swapping. Each reffed an Argentina game & when it was over Argentina was out. As a result of that repercussions developed. I think its possible to look up WC66 & find out who reffed etc. If you can do that you got a leg up. Then you can move on to what the repercussions were. England was forced out of WC74 & 78. How was that accomplished? The groups were created by the Vatican & Italy was in England's group both times. Italy went thru on goal difference both times. Maybe you would like to go hunting & find out who reffed all those games to reach exact results both times. Good luck but I already told you so don't bother.

  20. tom brown, July 18, 2013 at 2:05 a.m.

    MORE info on The Cartel. Proof of it existing and being in control: Teams have been hiring coaches solidly established in The Cartel. In order to mob up to the Cartel. USA: Klinnsmann, Russia & England: Fabio Capello & Now Canada with Benito Floro. If you are not in the Cartel, there is no way to get in. To succeed you need to mob up with them to get non hostile referees. Like USA getting a Jamaican ref. Normally USA would get a Mexico ref to support the Catholic POV / Costa Rica. Blood is thicker & catholic blood is even thicker. Klinnsmann has got USA alot of mob muscle. Got them a win in Azteca, got them a draw in Azteca... etc.
    England did not want to join fifa because they knew fifa would deplete their prestige. Have they?

  21. Kent James, July 21, 2013 at 1:20 p.m.

    Tom, England has suffered because they've not produced the players they've needed since the 1960s, not because of collusions between referees or the Vatican control of the schedule. Look at how many players from England have had success playing outside of England. Then do the same for Brazil and Argentina. That's the reason Brazil and Argentina have won 7 WCs and England won one.

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