With every major championship comes the same unrealistic expectation from the media that England are ready to win a tournament.
Two things are in play here; firstly, the media, and especially newspapers, who lead their support campaigns with statements like ‘Believe’ and ‘Their time has come’ are trying to transmit a positive mindset into the minds of fans. Secondly, it raises the expectation of the team to the point that they will never be able to fulfil what has become unfairly expected of them. The expectation placed on the national side is always either disproportionally high or low. This burden of expectation greatly disguises the progress made by England over the last two decades.
Fans also play their part in adding to the burden of expectation. In every pub or living room on every corner of English streets there will be fans saying “they need to show more passion”, “they need to get stuck in”, or “they need to play for the badge”. It is completely understandable fans want their national side to do well – but a misplaced, passion-based jingoistic comment shows that in reality, the attitude of fans is as prehistoric as some of the football England have been criticised for playing.
The idea of ‘getting stuck in’ or ‘smash him’ has come from a historic tradition of how football is played in England. There are still generations of fans shaping national opinion who believe the best way to play the game is by being passionate, tackling hard, playing long balls and showing desire. These factors do not influence how well a team plays football and make no difference to how a team performs. The stark reality is that England hasn’t failed to win the World Cup because they weren’t English enough.
Of course these players are passionate. How can they not be? All they wanted to do when they were young was to play football like their idols. They aren’t in it for the money. The money is a by-product of the game and proportionate to the amount of capital invested in football. Clearly there are players who take advantage of the financial rewards – but that isn’t what attracted them to the game in the first place. England haven’t won the World Cup because of a number of reasons – and the burdens placed on them play a huge part in this.
Changes have been made to how England play – yet they are still criticised for it. For a number years, they were criticised for not being able to keep possession and carelessly surrendering the ball to opponents. The elite nations protect the ball and use it wisely whereas England try to win it back by tackling aggressively and playing with pride, desire and passion – and still losing. Pride, desire and passion are certainly valued – but they won’t win World Cups.
For years England continued to play in the way they always had – without recognising their failures and putting reforms in place. Historically, England have been the type of team to win games in small moments rather than overwhelm and dominate opponents. They struggled when dealing with teams who push back against them but because England always rely so heavily on certain individuals to come through they were able to be considered a strong nation.
Times have now changed. Under Gareth Southgate, and to an extent Roy Hodgson, England look like more like other international teams. They look more controlled than in previous years. Some have accused them of slow play and keeping the ball in defence – but this isn’t always necessarily a bad thing in international football.
English fans often support Premier League clubs boasting world class talent – so when they don’t see full blown attacking wing-backs or clever inside tens or false nines they assume the team is inferior to what they know and have underperformed or failed. Absolutely there are times when England could have been more forward thinking with their play or made better decisions – but the amount of poor play has vastly reduced.
In the last decade, it was called for England to keep the ball better and reduce defensive mishaps. They have addressed both of these and made improvements. Of course, they haven’t hit any dizzying heights, but English football is finding its way. And that is a step away from the dinosaur football of recent times. Dutch football spent a long time in the 60s and 70s finding its way – England are taking the steps to do the same.
England are becoming thinking players rather than instinct players. They keep possession, build play, and look for opportunities rather than adopt a reckless kick and rush approach with little thought of how to defend. England do not have the added benefit of having any world class players, Harry Kane and Dele Alli are perhaps on their way, but currently they don’t have a player like Ronaldo, Messi or Bale who could turn a match and win it with a moment of decisiveness.
Instead, England are structurally strong and able to do the basics well – in essence they are a team of Michael Carricks – able to do a job well and be consistent. For the first time, they are beginning to look like a team rather than a group of players trying to do whatever they could to get the ball to a Gascoigne, Beckham or Rooney.
Without the false expectations and misguided conceit that England are a world class team it is clear progress has been made. They can be only be compared to other England teams of years gone by – they are all equal in terms of tournament success – but the current state of the England team suggests they are playing better football than ever before.
Rather than calling for England fans to believe and be passionate – perhaps we should be saying for them to have faith instead.