England are guilty of pinning their major tournament hopes on the shoulders of an individual more than any other nation.
When David Beckham broke his foot before a major tournament the entire nation learnt what a metatarsal actually is. We were even encouraged by major newspapers to rub a printed image of Beckham’s foot and collectively pray for it to heal quicker. All this did was prove nobody does eccentric, quirky and ridiculous quite like the English.
All the greatest national teams down the years are just that – a team. Often they boasted incredible individual talents amongst their ranks but the other players were united and cohesive as a team. The great Dutch team of the 1970’s had superb individuals like Johan Cruyff and Rinus Michels – but they played well as a team. National sides who have the very best individuals must ensure they set up to enable their best players to perform but not by sacrificing the collective team effort.
Portugal won the European Championship in 2016 not because Cristiano Ronaldo dominated the tournament but because they performed consistently as a collective. In fact, Ronaldo spent most of the final on the touchline acting as a pseudo-coach-come-cheerleader with a large ice pack strapped to his even larger quadriceps.
When Germany won the 2014 World Cup they had some exceptional players in their squad. However, Germany elevated themselves above all others by ensuring they executed a pre-determined style of football subscribed to by every team member where the responsibility was distributed across all players rather than to just one player.
Not since 1986 when Diego Maradona led Argentina to the World Cup has a single player carrier a country to major tournament victory. Maradona was absolutely instrumental in everything Argentina did to secure the title that year. Although this is an isolated example because Maradona was by far and away the best player in the world at the time and his performance in 1986 forms much of his portfolio towards the title of ‘greatest of all time’.
David Beckham scored a late free kick against Greece in pre-tournament qualification for the 2002 World Cup. What that particular game is remembered for is how Beckham stepped up and saved the country with one swift swing of his previous right boot. However, the game signalled the start of something else. Otto Rehhagel had just taken over as manager of the Greek national side and the game against England was his first at the helm. The game actually ended 2-2 and England secured a last minute draw. In the preceding 90 minutes Greece had dominated England and suffocated them with their strict tactical rigidity.
Rehaggel took over an unremarkable team where even the most hardened footballing anorak would struggle to name any of the players in his team. In the game against England he proved skilful deployment of strategies and methods as a team rather than simply hoping for one player to be brilliant was an effective way to play against so called stronger opposition.
This game started Greece on a road that would see them pull off the international shock of the century – they won Euro 2004.
There is a valuable lesson to be learnt from Greece’s surprise victory. The talent of an individual does not supersede that of the team. Rehaggel deployed tight man-marking, narrow midfielders and mastered attacking from set pieces. His game plan was forensic in the details.
England have made a habit of pinning all of their hopes on an individual to turn up and be brilliant to save the day for all. There are two types of individuals that England rely on. The first is an exceptional club player who quite often, but not always, is at an early stage of their career: Michael Owen, Wayne Rooney, David Beckham and very soon perhaps Dele Alli. The second is a player who performs well in the warm up games a fortnight before the tournament starts and is identified by the media as the player to light up and win the tournament for England: Darius Vassell, Theo Walcott, and again, Michael Owen.
So far, pinning hopes on both types of player has proved fruitless.
Moving forwards England need to cultivate a brand of football which moves them away from what has come before – to an extent they have started this – but sooner rather than later England will uncover a genuine talent of this generation, which will most likely be Alli, and when it happens we must resist pinning all our hopes on this player. Instead we must ensure the team performs well as a collective and is enhanced even more by the individual flourishes of any particular players.
The sooner we realise one player alone won’t win you the World Cup, we will have taken a step in the right direction. Unless that player is Diego Maradona.