This aims not necessarily to scapegoat, but to administer blame to almost every factor in England’s latest miserable exit. They vary in importance, and we can’t stress that enough…
Let’s start with Mr Hodgson, whose post-exit concession that “these things happen” just about heated my blood to boiling point. They really don’t, Roy. England’s loss to Iceland was not summoned by karmic fate or the Nordic gods, but old-fashioned ineptitude. England have better players than Iceland; it was the performance of those players that cost us, and the buck stops with you on that. Less “these things happen” and more ‘you made these things happen’.
Hodgson is not entirely to blame, but his substitutions again left those watching muttering questionable phrases under their breath. Was a palpably half-fit Jack Wilshere really the game-changer for England, or simply the beneficiary of Hodgson’s Jack habit? And why oh why did we have to wait 87 minutes for Marcus Rashford? Only Hodgson could have managed to twist the overriding positivity surrounding Rashford’s squad place into a negative in the space of three weeks. His substitutions throughout this tournament have been dire.
Yet for the easiest attack on Hodgson’s tournament management, look to their opposition. Iceland were a settled team, playing with a simple plan that was carried out to perfection. They spotted the weakness of the opponent and exposed it entirely. They were a team of lower quality, coached and inspired to achieve above the sum of their parts. England were the antithesis of that.
It is that ‘inspiration’ element of Iceland’s performance that paints Hodgson in the poorest light. He was appointed as the wise old owl, but there is so little to get excited about in his demeanour or coaching style. Hodgson’s tournament management has been a colour chart of beige, sending players onto the pitch and hoping it pays off. When things inevitably go awry, Hodgson simply sits on the bench and rubs his face. His proaction has been unsatisfactory; his reaction almost non-existent when it mattered most.
The reality, sad or otherwise, is that international management is a results-based job. Hodgson was allowed a free pass on that rule after both Euro 2012 and the 2014 World Cup, but deserves nothing but censure for Euro 2016. Hodgson leaves his job having won three of 11 tournament matches. Simply not up to task.
England’s captain, leader and biggest on-field culprit. The manner in which Rooney was shoehorned into England’s starting XI whatever the cost was frustrating. The way in which he stayed on against Iceland until the 87th minute was galling. Even if some people thought he was worth 8/10.
Rooney started England’s qualifying campaign as a striker. He moved back into midfield not through any expectation of excellence in the role, but because he was not longer fit-for-purpose as a forward at club level. Having started at the age of 16, the body has gone. The killer instinct is now the killer extinct.
Initially, signs were promising. There were still relevant concerns about Eric Dier being exposed by a central midfielder whose mobility and stamina were on the wane, but against teams who were happy to let England have the ball, Rooney almost thrived. Yet even then it was impossible to tell what type of midfielder Rooney would be. He just sort of ‘was’, there when you looked up at the screen without ever really changing the course of play. Playing 30-yard passes to a full-back is a weirder party trick than that thing your uncle does with his trouser pockets and genitals.
The best captains, just like the best midfielders, spur their team on when it really matters. Against Iceland, Rooney did the opposite. He was monumentally bad, incapable of holding onto the ball and then inaccurate with his passing. To have 91 touches and yet be only England’s eighth-best passer and create one chance is appalling. Rather than put life into England’s play, their captain created a creativity vacuum.
Rooney did not retire from international football after the match, but England’s next manager should make the decision for him. Rooney has been a magnificent player for his country, but that time has now passed. When the dynamism has been lost, so too has Rooney’s England raison d’etre.
The Independent’s Ian Herbert wrote a scathing post-match report on Hart, in which he criticised England’s goalkeeper for his attitude that was symbolic of ‘an English disease’.
‘It was how it had become with Hart – a lot of extraneous preening and attitude which tells you that this is an individual who has forgotten the elementary part of his professional role,’ Herbert wrote. ‘You know not to hold your breath waiting for something intelligent because he doesn’t want to give it.’
Hart did speak to the media after the game, and was placed in an impossible position. Admit your mistakes and apologise and it’s ‘typical’ Joe Hart, fronting up like the big man again. Fail to admit your guilt and it’s another example of an England player not taking responsibility.
I cannot pass comment on Hart’s interview persona, or if that makes a difference to his performances, but there is something very embarrassing about a goalkeeper who enjoys the passionate chest-pumping but then fails to back it up with a display any better than abject. For all the criticism of Raheem Sterling from supporters and press, it was Hart who was England’s worst player in this tournament.
“He’s a lovely guy, honourable,” said Lee Dixon on ITV on the subject of Roy Hodgson’s resignation. “But from a coaching point of view, there were glaring errors there from the set-pieces, etc, which weren’t taken care of. It was just abject. There was no organisation, there was no speed, the organisation of letting a goal in from a throw-in: there was little attention to detail.”
It’s impossible to argue with any of that assessment, and the buck ultimately stops with Hodgson for England’s exit. Yet what of Neville? Every professional manager leans on his assistants for knowledge and experience. Neville, a UEFA pro licence qualified coach and former defender, must surely take some responsibility for the inability of England to defend even the most basic of set-pieces?
If not, what was his role in the coaching set-up? Many saw him as the conduit between head coach and players; his recent playing history making him the perfect man to offer his experience of major tournament football. That went about as well as the set-pieces thing. Cheers Gary.
It is the perennial problem: England perform well in qualification – thus raising expectations – before falling over in a major tournament. In that sense, Euro 2016 really was peak England.
So why is that the case? England would surely have beaten Iceland home and away in qualifying (they did the same to Switzerland after all) but, while other countries raise their game for the big occasion, England lower theirs. It is intensely frustrating.
At least part of it must come down to mental fortitude. England manage to find an unhappy medium whereby any goal they concede leads to a collective clusterf*ck from which it is hard to respond, and any goal scored fails to have the opposite effect. As soon as Iceland equalised on Monday, heads went down. England are riddled with The Fear.
Yet when Raheem Sterling employed a psychologist to help with his confidence issues, the decision was treated with lofty disdain, even derision. A young player was searching for a solution to an evident problem by seeking professional help, and rather than applaud the intent people mocked the weakness. That’s fine of course, but don’t then act surprised when he struggles to perform under pressure.
Style of coaching
Potentially the real crux of the issue, and we can turn our Swiss correspondent Stephane Henchoz for more:
‘All World coaches operate on the same model: they know they have visibility of ten to twelve days,’ Henchoz wrote for Le Temps. ‘Three or four matches. Whoever loses is fired. This removes any room for national sentiment. When you have on one side a young English player and the other a guy from Lorient or Malaga who costs three or four times less money and is better trained technically, physically, tactically and mentally, the choice is quickly made. At 18, the English player has not mastered the fundamentals. The first touch, body positioning, the accuracy of the pass; all these basic things at the highest level are not acquired.
‘The English have long lived their superiority in the areas of physical and mental. It was long valued the cultivation of fighting spirit . Recruiters favored players beefy, powerful and fast at the expense of smaller riders, the audience applauded tackles, referees were very tolerant in the tackle. Since then, other countries have largely caught up on the physical aspect. As for the famous “mental” in English, it is not foolproof. It is clear when English go to play abroad he experiences great difficulty in acclimatising. Out of his comfort zone (run, tackle, press), he is quickly destabilised when the coach asks him to do something else (temporising, play the opponent), because nobody has taught him anything else.’
A more damning indictment it is not possible to read. England are being laughed at by other countries for their inability to produce players with enough technical ability to truly succeed on the international stage. The biggest and strongest children achieve, while those with skill are often pushed aside for being too small. It’s time that mindset changed.
Lack of coaches
England doesn’t just have an issue with the style of coaching, but the volume of coaches, the most obvious cause-and-effect of our inability to produce rounded international footballers.
UEFA data published in December 2014 showed that England had 1,395 coaches holding Uefa’s A and Pro qualification badges. Germany had 6,934, France’s 3,308 and Spain had 15,423. Eesh.
Those wondering as to the reason for that shortfall may be interested in the cost of completing the UEFA ‘A’ licence in the following countries:
England – £5,600
Germany – €530
Spain – €1,200
This is not just a grassroots issue, but one that rears its head at the very top level. Hodgson deservedly left his job as England manager after the Iceland debacle, but the list of potential English coaches to replace him is embarrassingly weak.
“I think you should be concerned,” Jose Mourinho said in December. “I think the Premier League was quite a closed space for foreign managers and to come here was not easy. To come here, you had to do something serious. I think I did enough to deserve to be here. You come to a country number one in European football, number one in the championship, and you feel that you have to deserve to be here.
“I think in this moment it’s too easy. In this moment the number of foreign coaches in the Premier League, even in the Championship, is too big compared with the number of English or in this case British managers. Yes, I speak against myself, but I think it’s true.”
Mourinho is right, too. Next season’s Premier League will start with five English managers in position, two of which are in charge of promoted sides. This is not due to reverse-xenophobia, as some would have you believe, but a vacuum of young English coaches with the aptitude to achieve above their foreign counterparts. From the bottom up, real change is needed.
Of the 23 players in Germany’s squad, nine play abroad. Of the 23 players in Portugal’s squad, 15 play abroad. Of the 23 players in Belgium’s squad, 19 play abroad. Even Italy, for so long a squad sourced solely from Serie A, have five players who play their trade outside Italy.
In England’s squad, none. In England 2014 squad, one (Fraser Forster at Celtic). In 2012, none. In 2010, none. Since Euro ‘96, England’s 205 major tournament squad places have contained four players (Forster, Owen Hargreaves, Steve McManaman and David Beckham) who were playing outside England when selected. That’s anomalous with the rest of the world.
There are two ways to look at that issue. One is to criticise players for an inbuilt insularity, a fear of going abroad and a trepidation about living and working outside of their comfort zone. Unfortunately, that comfort zone also creates a bubble, allowing England players little non-domestic experience before a major tournament comes along. Players must broaden their horizons.
The second explanation is even more bleak: Foreign clubs don’t want English players, because they haven’t been coached well enough and aren’t as professional as their peers.
Something that is probably never going to change in England, but part of the reason for the national team’s success in South America, Italy and Spain is that you constantly see children in those countries playing football on the streets. In England, you’re more likely to see a ‘No Ball Games Allowed’ sign while children play computer games inside. I’m going to stop soon before I sound like your granddad.
Dennis Bergkamp tells a story in his autobiography: “Most of the time I was by myself, just kicking the ball against the wall, seeing how it bounces, how it comes back, just controlling it. I was just very intrigued by how the ball moves, how the spin worked, what you could do with spin.”
Turning talented children into footballers isn’t just about coaching, it’s about inspiration. It’s about kids playing football not just in organised matches and training sessions, but on the street with their mates, and by themselves outside their house. It’s about our next generation becoming obsessed about playing football, not about becoming footballers.
England survived the curse of the metatarsal both before and during Euro 2016, but do not underestimate the impact of injuries on this squad. And yes, I am writing this with a musical accompaniment from the world’s smallest violin.
Sarah Winterburn wrote earlier in the tournament about just how much England miss Danny Welbeck in the wide forward role that Daniel Sturridge and Jamie Vardy performed so unsuccessfully. Welbeck might be the only irreplaceable player in England’s squad, at least until Marcus Rashford has been given time to develop further.
But Welbeck was not the only injury Hodgson will have cursed. Luke Shaw would have been England’s first-choice left-back in France, but it is the perma-crocks of Jack Wilshere and Sturridge that have caused the biggest issue.
Had Sturridge stayed fit over the last two years, England would surely have played him and Kane as a regular front two in the build-up to the tournament, increasing an understanding that looked lost in France. Is that any surprise when you realise that Kane and Sturridge had never spent a minute on the pitch together before this tournament?
In the case of Wilshere, Hodgson must share part of the blame. But had Young Jack stayed fit this season, he really could have been the passing central midfielder we all want him to be. And we wouldn’t have had to watch Rooney stumble around the pitch against Iceland like a drunk burglar looking for jewellery.
Lack of winter break
Of course – the winter break issue. It’s our old friend, the companion we see once every two years and embrace warmly before going for a catch-up pint.
The argument is so clear that it barely bears repetition. The domestic leagues in Italy, Germany, Spain and France all schedule in a break in domestic league competition for at least two weeks. England does not. If anything, the calendar is busiest at that time of year.
The prospect of a winter break in England has actually come closer to fruition, with the Football Association and Premier League reportedly set to hold discussions over inserting a two-week break in January that would avoid ruining the much-loved traditional Christmas period of football.
“It would be lovely to think that one day we could all get together and say, ‘England is important’,” said Hodgson four months after taking over as England manager, but his desire never became a reality. Extending the season by two weeks is one realistic option, but so too is elite clubs using the break to play money-spinning friendlies in far-off locations.
Still, can somebody please make it happen, just so that we don’t have to keep talking about it?
There used to be an argument over whether club or country took priority, but it is no longer a fair fight. The see-saw has been weighed down on one side by the metric tonne of cash given to each Premier League club as part of new broadcasting deals.
That might not be a problem in itself, but the knock-on effect is obvious. Since the formation of the Premier League and the exponential increase in broadcasting revenues, transfer budgets have increased. Full pockets make for happy shoppers, persuading clubs to take shortcuts in improving their squads. Why bother producing homegrown talent when you have the money to buy ready-made foreign players who will already have received elite coaching?
It’s easy to criticise clubs for not creating their own players, but if someone gave me £1,000 cake money per week I wouldn’t be buying flour and eggs. The rampant capitalism in domestic football in England has artificially plugged up the potential flow of young players to the national team.
Instead, to correctly apportion the blame you have to go to the very top of the Football Association, who abandoned their responsibilities and kowtowed to the financial might of the Premier League. Elite Player Performance Plan, anyone?
“The FA structure is still mid-20th century,” said former chairman David Bernstein after the World Cup exit of 2014. “The FA council is outmoded and sits below a very obscure shareholder structure. The committee structure beggars belief. It drives what is a very good FA executive crazy. They feel they’re being smothered by a blanket.
“The FA needs a modern, independent structure to try to balance the financial power of the Premier League. There has always been a problem but it has been magnified by the Premier League’s success. Nature abhors a vacuum and the Premier League has taken advantage, in a way, of the vacuum created by the FA.”
Bingo. For as long as the Premier League is allowed to act as judge and jury over English domestic football, aiming for international success is an exercise in pushing water uphill. The overwhelming concern is that the FA have walked too far down the path, merrily holding the Premier League’s hand, to turn back now.
Too much, too young
You won’t catch anyone at Football365 moaning about professional players buying a new car, but there is an argument that the vast wages on offer to players under the age of 23 breeds complacency, subconsciously or otherwise.
With English players, the problem is even more pronounced given the lack of young, exciting talent around them. The cliched ‘English premium’ does not just apply to transfer fees and wages, but reputation. The lucky few are placed on a pedestal, worshipped before they have even turned 21.
You can criticise those individuals if you like, but only if you can honestly say that you wouldn’t have acted exactly the same in the circumstances. I can only repeat what I said when Memphis Depay was attacked for spending his money lavishly: If I had been paid £100,000 a week at the age of 21, I’d have been dead within a month.
The pertinent question here is whether that money lowers the desire needed to win a major tournament. Put simply, did Iceland want it more?
‘The other big problem of training in England is that life is too easy too early for young hopefuls,’ writes Henchoz on this issue. ‘At 17 or 18, some sign contracts for four or five years to 300,000 or 400,000 francs per season while they have zero games in the Premier League, and sometimes even zero games for the reserves! At Easter, I spent a week at the Liverpool academy. I watched the workouts and, clearly, a 12-year-old stood out. One of the coaches told me that Manchester City had offered 60,000 francs to engage. Double the annual salary of his father, an electrician.’
Does any England player go into a major tournament concerned for his future career and therefore livelihood? No. Does that affect performance, even marginally? Perhaps.
I’m not blaming Pochettino outright here, merely using him as an example of domestic football’s dominance over the international game.
Tottenham provided five of England’s starting XI against Iceland. Eric Dier started 50 matches last season for his club, in a formation and style that demands high pressing, high-intensity work. Kane too started 44. Is it any wonder that they all look knackered?
Yet what do you expect Pochettino to do? It is hardly his responsibility to rest English players when Tottenham were fighting in both Europa League and for the Premier League title. Tottenham gain is England’s loss, unfortunately.
This is the dichotomy we face: We want young English players to be good enough to play for our top teams every week, but then when they play every week they’re knackered. I’m not even going to pretend to try and answer that one, other than to wish for a probably non-existent happy medium.
The ‘media’ sometimes take a kicking on this site, but the blame for England’s sorry exit and performance level can hardly be placed at their feet. The defeat to Iceland is one that England’s staff and players must own, and Hodgson refusing to take post-match questions hardly assists the relationship.
Yet there are those within the industry who have not helped England in their task. Front pages showing secret shots of training notes, leaking team news two days before a match, publishing character assassinations of players’ partners; none of these are useful. Even the overriding mood has been one of “We’ll be sh*t, we’re always sh*t”. Self-fulfilling prophecy?
No national team is immune to media criticism and scrutiny, but the success of Wales and Iceland in this tournament demonstrates the power of all pulling in the same direction. It was Peter Crouch who spoke after the game on England’s players, coming from a position of experience: “I don’t think there’s a fundamental fault with English players, I think it boils down to pressure.”
Anything that eases that pressure can only help. Perhaps we all play a role in that?
Who is the real criminal here? The man in charge of the Football Association? The man who picks the team and coaches the players? The men who underperformed so woefully? Or those who insist on playing the Great Escape 296 times a tournament? I couldn’t possibly say.
(It’s the first lot. But I still want to shove his instrument so far up the trumpeter’s arse that I could play it by blowing into his mouth.)