Commentary

Another team to be taken seriously: England

Last week I made a point: that it was time for the soccer world to take Mexico seriously. And now we have another team that merits the same attention: England.

The treatment received by Mexico and England over the past 50 years has been so similar, yet so different. Both teams have struggled to achieve the sort of results that would impress.

But Mexico’s failure to do so seemed to be endemic. They had never been a major force, and was, it seemed, forever doomed to be second rate. Things were much different for England. As the inventors of the sport, England had a glowing soccer history and -- it seemed -- was therefore destined to be forever one of the mighty few.

But where Mexico fought to ascend, England faced a slow slide into mediocrity. For the English, 1950 was -- or should have been -- the year that decisively ended the myth of English superiority. For the first time England agreed -- “condescended” better defines its attitude -- to enter the World Cup. It was immediately made the favorite. But the truth was quickly and unarguably seen: the English were nowhere near as good as everyone -- especially the English -- had believed.

That 1-0 loss to the USA should not be seen as a tremendous upset. The English were exposed as rather ordinary. The world of soccer had been getting better and better, while the complacently snobbish English had made no progress at all.

But such was the English sense of entitlement that no stirring call to arms was heard. Things were allowed to plod along. Both by England, and by the rest of the world, which seemed quite willing to uphold the belief in English superiority.

A second -- and much more devastatingly specific -- setback for England arrived in 1953. The Hungarians came to London and toyed with England in a 6-3 win. Even that made no impression. Just “a bad day” was the feeling, and the return game, coming up in Hungary, would show who was who when it came to soccer. So England went to Budapest in 1954 and was torn to shreds. Hungary 7 England 1.

This time England did produce a worthy response. It took 12 years, but in 1966 England won the World Cup, apparently cementing its claim as the best. Far from it. This was not the beginning of English dominance. Over 50 years of futility followed. England’s World Cup performances in particular invited scorn and derision. England joined Mexico as a team that simply never pulled its weight. A team to be made fun of.

Mexico was mocked because it had never amounted to anything. England suffered the anguish of a fallen power, once almighty, now a laughingstock. Until now, when it seems possible that things are changing. One hesitates to play the soothsayer: far too many tales of future English soccer glory lie tattered in the dust.

But last year was a remarkable one for England at the youth level. Both the U-17 and the U-20 World Cups were won. England had never won either before. I watched the games with interest and became convinced (convinced myself?) that I was seeing something different. England playing a more skillful, more intelligent, less slam-bang game than we were used to. Even with touches of much needed artistry.

Where was this coming from? Well, the obvious difference from most of the previous 50 years was that the England youth teams were now coached at the St. George’s center, by young coaches who were part of the FA coaching staff. Coaches who were anything but well-known, certainly not famous ex-players: the U-17s by Steve Cooper and the U-20s by Paul Simpson. I doubt those names rings any bells.

Something similar seems to have happened with the men’s national team. The current coach, Gareth Southgate, had a solid but unspectacular playing career (including 57 caps for England).

Three not particularly successful years as coach at Middlesbrough followed, until he was fired in 2009. Southgate joined the FA’s coaching staff in 2011, becoming coach of the U-21 team in 2013. When England coach Sam Allardyce, after only 67 days in charge, was fired in 2016, Southgate became the team’s interim coach before being confirmed as its permanent coach in November 2016.

This was virtually an admission that the policy of the previous decade -- hiring the very costly foreign celebrity coaches Sven-Goran Eriksson and Fabio Capello -- had been a mistaken approach. The long-sought and much-delayed quest for England’s lost glory -- glory that had been mostly imaginary -- was now in the hands of someone with decidedly minimal coaching experience.

Without any spectacular results, Southgate qualified England for Russia, where the team has performed well. Against far-from-fearsome opponents it must be said, but the significant thing is that -- as with the youth teams -- a more mature, a more modern approach to the sport can be identified.

The parallels with the successful youth coaches are striking. Like Cooper and Simpson, Southgate was largely a product of St. George’s, the “national football centre” opened in 2012. And like them, his coaching experience was mostly acquired there.

Those other glory seekers, Mexico, met its biggest World Cup challenge so far by beating Germany 10 days ago. For England the first big test comes Thursday against the formidable Belgians.

Mexico has - with considerable help from South Korea - moved into the second round, and England will follow. This is valuable success, but my feeling is that success cannot be sustained unless it contains two absolutely vital elements. One of them is psychological, and is therefore not soccer-specific: confidence in oneself, in one’s team, the belief that victory is always possible. The other is all about soccer: the matter of playing style.

Here we have Mexico which has always been blessed with a skillful style, has always had highly talented ball-players. What Mexico has lacked has been confidence. Some 10 years back I discussed this with Javier Aguirre, then the Mexican national coach. Yes, he agreed, “We have a fear ... but not of losing. We are afraid of winning.”

Players who feel they are not worthy of winning, who are afraid of the pressure and responsibilities that come with winning, are not likely to win games, especially big games. But big changes have come about in the past decade. Ten years ago it was rare to find a Mexican player playing outside Mexico. Today, on Coach Juan Carlos Osorio’s 23-man World Cup roster, 13 are with European clubs, three play in the USA with MLS clubs.

Mexico can now call on players with plenty of experience in top European leagues. The psychological problem is waning.

For England, there has never been a noticeable lack of confidence -- if anything, there has been overconfidence, leading to complacency. England’s problem has been its mulish devotion to a rather rustic style. We have had regular false dawns announcing the emergence (reemergence, if you like) of England as a soccer power. Maybe this is another one ... but this time there is some evidence of changes on the field of play. The younger players seem to be more composed when in possession of the ball. The shining light is surely Tottenham’s 22-year-old midfielder Dele Alli -- who could go on to become England’s first really world class talent in many a year.

Evidently, soccer is offering us a tradeoff: A World Cup without Italy, the Netherlands, Chile and the USA. But a World Cup that sees Mexico and England assuming positions of importance in the world soccer hierarchy.

43 comments about "Another team to be taken seriously: England".
  1. John Soares, June 27, 2018 at 6:20 p.m.

    Paul, your article, as usual, is well written. Your timming however is a bit off.
    England beat Tunisa and Panama. ARGUABLY two weakest teams in the tournament.
    Nothing proven.
    Their next two (+?) games may prove your point.
    But if they loose or prform poorly...not so much:)

  2. uffe gustafsson, June 27, 2018 at 6:34 p.m.

    Oops Sweden vs Mexico 3-0.
    all I have say.

  3. Kent James replied, June 28, 2018 at 12:06 a.m.

    I'm going to take a wild guess, and guess you may have some Swedish heritage...:-)

  4. uffe gustafsson, June 27, 2018 at 7:46 p.m.

    Frank I know you don’t like VAR, but it have worked extremely well. As a ref I would say it’s a gods sent.
    who want to be the ref that missed a clear PK and have live with it forever. VAR have done both for the refs a chance to see if I really missed something or in some instances showed I made the proper call.
    it have not taking away any of the issues some of you feared, it’s been quick and efficient.
    so I think you guys need to look at it objectively and see how well they done it.
    great job on the ref side of the game.
    actully really great job. And that’s from me saying that twice Sweden should have had PK but ref said no.

  5. frank schoon replied, June 27, 2018 at 8:40 p.m.

    Uffe, I understand. But to me, I lived with the imperfections of referee calls all my life and it does not bother me one bit and prefer only human arbitration, played by humans who likewise are fallible. What bothers me now is with all the extra cameras  it shows all the fouls not called. For example in one game, maybe you saw it, but on one corner it the showed in plain sight 2 defenders holding  the attacker down ,unable to go  up to head the ball. The ref didn’t call it and it was so obvious. That team got away with a penalty. We are going to see so many more fouls with these cameras that this going to have consequences upon the reffing especially if the fouls are not called....you can see where i’m Going with this....I say leave it alone for I got a feeling we haven’t seen the end of this VAR 

  6. Wooden Ships replied, June 28, 2018 at 8:33 a.m.

    Ironically Uffe, if we didn’t have VAR, I bet Chicharito is called for the handball. 

  7. Neal Fairbairn, June 27, 2018 at 7:49 p.m.

    And now without Germany. I think this is the most open World Cup in a long time.

  8. uffe gustafsson, June 27, 2018 at 8:07 p.m.

    Yes it’s been wide open for almost every group.
    so the fear of having more teams in the future I think is a none issue. The so called small teams done extremely well. Both Portugal and Spain sqeeked by as well Argentina they really are lucky.
    love it.

  9. Kent James replied, June 28, 2018 at 12:11 a.m.

    While I agree that the smaller countries are doing better than in the past, there are two major problems with the expanded format.  First, the players will be playing additional games (maybe only one?), and there are already enough phsyical and mental demands being made on the players (and this coming at the end of their professional season), so the quality of the games (especially the later ones) may suffer, and there will probably be more injuries.  Second, and more importantly, the expanded field makes it much easier to get in, so it is less of an honor to make it, and more importantly, it diminishes the significance of qualifying, so the 2 year run-up to the WC finals will be like the NBA regular season; who will care?  As it is, when such strong teams as Chile, Italy, the Netherlands (and us!) don't make it, it let's everyone know that THIS IS THE WORLD CUP, not some tournament with no signficance.  No one makes it on reputation, you have to actually perform on the field, which is how it should be...

  10. Wooden Ships replied, June 28, 2018 at 8:39 a.m.

    Uffe, couldn’t disagree with you more about 48 teams. This is a money driven move, that if left to the fans of the futbal playing world, would say 48 is plain ridiculous.

  11. frank schoon replied, June 28, 2018 at 1:21 p.m.

    UFFE,do you know that after the WC the players who were in involved usually have a lousy follow up season with their club for they don't have enough for the bodies to recuperate. Now with the more teams more games in hot weather will not suffice. The only thing these little teams can do is to force the better teams to waste more energy, perhaps even injuries, and perhaps upset a good team because they just the stars were not aligned that day, lets say. Even with the upset the team will go nowhere. The time to upset the good teams is during qualifications which is a 2 year period. But the WC should be a display of the best 16 teams...PERIOD. 
    If this keeps up with more teams, than it becomes less about soccer and more about endurance.
    And I wouldn't be surprised if they place stationary bikes, and weight lifting stations on the side of the field for incoming subs to warmup....

  12. uffe gustafsson, June 27, 2018 at 9:54 p.m.

    I don’t know when this shirt pulling and the wrestling matches in the box started to be ok.
    any shirt pulling should yellow carded as well the wrestling going on. And that’s long before VAR came along. So frank the referees have let this to be a thing that’s allowed. That’s not human mistakes as you calledit. It’s refs not have cahones to stop it. Only one ref call a pk on the wrestling in the WC.
    It destroys the game.

  13. Kent James replied, June 28, 2018 at 12:05 a.m.

    I think VAR will actually pretty dramatically help eliminate the stuff in the box (on corner kicks).  The first few games, the refs did not call it (and I distinctly remember the game Frank references), though to be fair to the refs, if both players are grappling with each other and they do down, who do you call the foul on?  But as players adjust, and learn to not grab the other player but go down and let the ref call the foul (like the foul called on Mascherano), there will be much less (I think there already is).  

  14. Kent James, June 28, 2018 at 12:15 a.m.

    We must truly be at the end of times...PG praised the English national team, and even more shockingly, attributed their success to coaching and a federation that focused its efforts on a centralized training facility??? Though a more credible explanation is that someone must have kidnapped PG, and they're writing his column without his input (though the new guy got it right...England does look good).  

  15. Wooden Ships replied, June 28, 2018 at 8:46 a.m.

    England looks promising so far, but we’ll know more today. I’m far from convinced. 

  16. Wooden Ships replied, June 28, 2018 at 8:47 a.m.

    The Body Snatcher idea is funny.

  17. frank schoon replied, June 28, 2018 at 1:28 p.m.

    Ships, there will be 17missing starters for the Belgium vs England game...I guess I mind as well go brush my cats. What a wasted game...this could have been interesting...maybe....

  18. Americans '75, June 28, 2018 at 10:20 a.m.

    Viva la VAR! As a ref since 1996 and as a coach and fan I know that nobody gets everything right every time. You simply can't see everything from all angles. I hope that VAR will be used to catch more of the off ball misconduct and diving that diminish the "jogo bonochino". (Hope I got that expression right, Mr. Soares. Jim R.) 

  19. uffe gustafsson, June 28, 2018 at 6:21 p.m.

    The shirt pulling is all over the field and should be yellow carded every time.
    the wrestling inside the box especially at corners, yes I can see it’s hard to decide when both are doing it.
    but var can help with that first one that grabs the other player gets the call, and I bet it will stop quickly.
    especially if a yellow card will follow.
    im really tired of wrestling match at soccer.

  20. frank schoon replied, June 28, 2018 at 6:45 p.m.

    Uffe , you don’t need VAR for this, but you need refs with guts to call these fouls in the box on corners. Theyhave let this simply get out of hand. Why don’t players receive yellow when grabbing a jersey....doesn’t happen, again you don’t need a VAR for that

  21. Bob Ashpole replied, June 29, 2018 at 3:22 p.m.

    Frank, you are ignoring that a lot of what goes on is undetected because players learn to be very sly about the shirt pulling. When you have a dozen or so players in the box for a restart, it is tough to see everything going on. 

    I see this as another benefit to adding ARs at each endline. More eyes and different viewing angles. Much cheaper than VAR.

  22. frank schoon replied, June 29, 2018 at 5:27 p.m.

    Bob, yes not everything can be see nor detected. We don't live in perfect world. But it seems we try reach that end in soccer with adding by more referees and what not. We placed extra refs behind the goals and still we have problems. Like I say, just leave it alone, soccer has done just fine. There will always be decisions made by the refs whether fouls seen or unseen ,called or not called regardless how many cameras, refs, drones, body cameras, that will be viewed as questionable. 
    Fifa just announced that there were 3 penalties that were missed. I'm afraid the discussion about calls are beginning to take over the main thrust of this game.

  23. uffe gustafsson, June 28, 2018 at 6:21 p.m.

    The shirt pulling is all over the field and should be yellow carded every time.
    the wrestling inside the box especially at corners, yes I can see it’s hard to decide when both are doing it.
    but var can help with that first one that grabs the other player gets the call, and I bet it will stop quickly.
    especially if a yellow card will follow.
    im really tired of wrestling match at soccer.

  24. uffe gustafsson, June 28, 2018 at 6:57 p.m.

    A solution to the wrestling in the box when refs can’t decide who started it since both are grappling each other. Sec 12 is unsportsmanlike conduct and ref can come after the ball is dead and give both a yellow card. And no foul have to be called.
    that should stop all that crap.
    or am I wrong in what constituted as unsportsmanlike conduct.

  25. Kent James replied, June 28, 2018 at 11:53 p.m.

    Yellow card to each and a drop ball, not a bad idea...

  26. uffe gustafsson, June 28, 2018 at 7:03 p.m.

    MR voight can you clarify if that is something a ref can do. Use article 12.

  27. Tony Biscaia, June 29, 2018 at 9:29 a.m.

    Paul... you may remember in 2002, I gave you and Sunil a ride back to the Providence hotel from LA practice.  We had an enlightening conversation, details spared. 

    Don't slight Portugal, it's just a tiny country about the size of Maxachussets with a long history of overchievement.  We would have won it all in 1994 except for the refereeing and brit brutishness.

    Just because we have one guy that is widely disdained due to tendency to fall or dive, does not discredit all those other accomplishments.  And please, stop idolizing Messi he's just not in that echeleon.

  28. frank schoon replied, June 29, 2018 at 9:57 a.m.

    Tony, that was very unwise, you just opened up a can of worms...The"who is better Messi vs Ronaldo crowd is going to be answering you...You better be prepared...LOLOLOL

  29. Tony Biscaia, June 29, 2018 at 10:19 a.m.

    Frank, there is no argument anymore, the obvious is not in discussion anymore.  As I said to my son, one carries his team (and country,) and the other is carried by his team if not country.  Guess which is what

  30. Tony Biscaia, June 29, 2018 at 10:23 a.m.

    I don't think the "Messi crowd" has much ammunition anymore.  I could be a great overachieving forward/midfielder if I had team mates like say, Barcelona

  31. frank schoon replied, June 29, 2018 at 11:07 a.m.

    LOL

  32. Tony Biscaia, June 29, 2018 at 10:30 a.m.

    "only thing these little teams can do is to force the better teams to waste more energy"

    Frank, soccer is all about endurance just think about how mant games are decided in the last few minutes when the strong survive and the weak measle to wasteland forgotteness

  33. frank schoon replied, June 29, 2018 at 10:38 a.m.

    Tony, I disagree, soccer is not about endurance, for Barcelona has proved that in the past 10 years. It is all about endurance when it is played by "stupid players" and dumb coaches.....
    You just need to get a good coach, like a Cruyff, Guardiola, and some others to show how the game is really played...
    If it was all about endurance ,East Germany would have been the strongest country in soccer in the world...
    Soccer is all about creativeness, BRAINS, ball handling ability, and of course you have to in shape like any sport.

  34. Bob Ashpole replied, June 30, 2018 at 1:15 a.m.

    Tony, I know frank said energy, but don't think of his comment as about endurance. His point is really about recovery between matches. Studies indicate that a healthy athlete requires 72 hours to fully restore energy levels after intense prolonged activity like a soccer match. Then there are injuries. The argument for a 16 team field is really about reducing the burden of recovery between matches has on quality of play.   

  35. frank schoon replied, June 30, 2018 at 9:34 a.m.

    Bob , you're right, but also 16 teams is a way having good quality teams in there in the mix

  36. Tony Biscaia, June 29, 2018 at 10:39 a.m.

    One last comment as I'm on a role...  VAR is and will be regarded in the future as, why din't they do that before?  No brainer, even if the brains making decisions after VAR are lacking nerve, insight or whatever.  Did they ever even play the game?  A little shoulder goes a long way

  37. frank schoon replied, June 29, 2018 at 10:57 a.m.

    Tony, as  far as I'm concerned they can trash the whole VAR  thing...I can live without it...
    VAR now shows fouls that aren't called by the refs, so how are we going to solve that problem for sooner or later this will become an issue. Fans are going to get upset sooner or later, just like when they disagree with a ref's call or  one a ref should have called...This is crazy...

  38. Tony Biscaia, June 29, 2018 at 10:50 a.m.

    I hope Ronaldo does not score again, so I don't have to defend him (as I'm sure many others have hoped before me)

    I wouldn't want to be him knowing we all get old and slower, injuries suck

  39. frank schoon replied, June 29, 2018 at 10:58 a.m.

    Tony ,good luck on that one, LOLOL

  40. Tony Biscaia, June 29, 2018 at 11:22 a.m.

    frank, VAR is not going away anytime soon so let's embrace it and make it the best it can b

    sushi

  41. frank schoon replied, June 29, 2018 at 11:50 a.m.

    FIFA has just admitted there wer 3penalties that should have been with this system but wasn't...

  42. uffe gustafsson, June 29, 2018 at 9:04 p.m.

    K so 3 pk that was not called so what.
    and I’m certain Sweden was one of those.
    but they called several pk that the ref never saw I say that’s an improvement.
    VAR is here to stay and I bet referees like it.
    even tab Ramos sees the benefits of it and want it implemented. If you like clean playing soccer you have be in favor. It will make defenders to play clean not the take down we seen over and over.
    besides the diving will stop as well.

  43. frank schoon replied, June 29, 2018 at 10:02 p.m.

    You are wrong Uffe, there was a pk that was seen on the VAR, Serbia-Switzerland, but not called. Apparently the ref didn’t see or saw it and didn’t call it, who knows. Again , regardless of the VAR we are still arguing
     about calls. I thought the VAR was suppose to settle this...what happened
    Clean soccer???  In that Serbian vs Switzerland game, the VAR showed 2  Swiss defender’s holding the Serb so he could’t head the ball and nothing happened, it was a penalty, but nothing happened.  How do you explain that....clean soccer?..

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