Gareth Southgate is currently spending every waking hour settling his nerves by concocting spreadsheets and video-footage sub-categories to plan England’s approach to the World Cup in Russia. I feel a certain respect for any man working so diligently while knowing, as he surely must, that he is not a very good manager. He is still prepared to place his, ahem, England legacy into the hands of a public and press who may not be so gentle with his achievements past and present should the stuff that usually happens when England play international tournaments happen again.
It’s a gamble for Southgate, and the irony is that only by chucking every last spreadsheet in the bin do England have any chance of progressing far beyond that group that looks about 40 times better on paper than it will in practice. There is, I’d speculate, only one way in which an England team could ever succeed at international level, and it has everything (okay, not everything but a lot) to do with the absence of a winter break: play it for fun. Play it with nothing but risk and adrenalin in mind.
This is a spade that can only be called a spade: England’s players, given their sensible decision to never play football anywhere but a maximum three-hour drive from their house, arrive at summer tournaments sporting legs with a layer of concrete that the leading lights of other nations simply do not. This is a brutal period when the country’s weather is at its cruellest, the schedule is at its busiest and the expectation of fans is at its highest; and while I’m sure it provides excellent entertainment for Toni Kroos as he puts his feet up on a yacht on the Mediterranean, a small part of that pleasure must be in knowing that he’s watching an entire country ensure they will have less competitive vigour by the time June rolls around.
I know the counter-argument, that these guys in Europe are often playing all the way to the last minute of the Champions League, it’s not like that have it easy; agreed, they’re not walking on air when it comes to June, but I’ve read in so many different places the gigantic value of just a break, a teeny-tiny break in the middle of it all to stay out of the cold and enjoy a little rejuvenation rather than just ploughing through because football on Boxing Day is such a wonderful thing for us in our armchairs.
Fortunately, life being the eternal gift-basket that it is, there’s a way around this. Imagine being pretty hungover, lying with the body of a beached whale and a brain like cement on your sofa, when in strolls the hottest girl or boy that you’ve ever seen, who tells you they feel like a shower and asks if you would care to come and share it with them? In shoots the adrenalin, and you find that all of a sudden you feel remarkably perky. Alternatively, imagine you were in that same state when in walks an officious-looking man named Gareth, dressed in an M&S suit, who tells you he wants you to re-take your theory test. Right now. You’ve never felt so hungover in your life.
What I’m obviously saying is that there’s only one way to get the best out of England players come the end of the season, and it’s to put them in situations so fired by adrenalin they’re simply incapable of feeling the after-effects of the jam-packed intensity of a Premier League season.
If I think about the times in the past 20 years or so when England have looked like any kind of prospect (and boy is it easy to do a quick recall), it’s always the same kind of situation – the aftermath of Michael Owen’s goal against Argentina in 98, the moments after Matthew Upson’s goal against Germany in 2010 to pull it back to 2-1, all the stuff surrounding Wayne Rooney’s putative coming-out party as the world’s best player at Euro 2004 – adrenalin-heavy situations, all of them. Playing on your wits, playing the rush, at the speed that typifies Premier League football and is probably the only kind English players can truly embrace. And which, when done right, disconcerts other countries schooled in different tempos, inflames the crowd and then sucks them into the kind of end-to-end battle they despise.
And then think instead of the moments when England have had to get stuck into the tedious nuts-and-bolts of tactics and game-management that football requires. Against Iceland, perhaps, after going 1-0 up, or against Portugal in 2006. We always lose these games. And it might just be because the moment the game loses its heat, we’re cooked. Memories of what you did for Christmas and New Year come back to dog the England players, drag them down as they try to mark a guy who spent December 30 playing outdoor snooker in Dubai. Remember – who can forget – how Mesut Ozil ran past Gareth Barry in 2010? And, okay, we’re talking about Gareth Barry, but we’re also talking about Mesut Ozil.
You may have noticed that in all those games that demonstrate England’s potential when we stopped trying to be ‘a good team’, we also lost. Yup, that’s being an England fan for you – you support a team where success at international level has a wafer-thin margin for error, at least partly because of a desire to thrash players like flagging racehorses all through the winter.
You have to get mixed up in a game where the desire to gamble and just go for it drags you into the kind of chaotic back-and-forth where you don’t notice your jaded calves and nagging knees, but the moronically vindictive nature of England football coverage and the legacy of repeated failure has already made success an outside chance. Then, having somehow gone 3-2 up against Spain, or whoever, you then have to somehow find the fortune and concentration to see it out, without being distracted by heart palpitations imagining how this will be treated back home if you screw it up. And then you have to do it all over again, probably three times. That’s your margin for error.
If anyone thinks that England might somehow craft international success, in the 1-0 way that say Spain did in 2010, or that Germany – slowly and surely over a decade – did up to 2014, they’re dreaming. Our footballers have nothing like the sentience and their bodies have nothing like the capacity required to win or even prosper at a World Cup through methodical technique. They are, quite simply, too tired. But – if you put the spark in them, that makes them feel like they’re kids again and this is all just a game, then maybe, just maybe they could do something. Gareth, over to you. Which is a depressing sentence.
Incidentally, just as some food for thought, imagine this as the starting line-up:
Pickford; Stones (yup we’re going with one conventional centre-back and even then it’s Stones), Dier; Bertrand, Walker (attacking wing-backs to the max); Wilshere, Alli, Barkley; Vardy, Kane, Rashford.
I realise it’s a little top-heavy, but at least with this team, you accept your fate. Something will happen, good or bad. That’s the gamble. And if you want to call it strategy, then the disquieting effect on your opponent of you saying ‘screw it’ should not be underestimated. They can smell our fear, these other teams, of the waiting English public and the tabloids and all that blah. Imagine if we took the field with it written all over us that we couldn’t care less.
Of course, what will actually happen is that at the end of some good spreadsheet work, Gareth will conclude that a midfield anchored by Dier and Jordan Henderson is the most sensible way forward, and I’ll see him and you on the beach.