Friday, 26 August 2011

THE ANATOMY OF ENGLAND: A History in Ten Matches Jonathan Wilson

Having invented and then dominated the early game of football England, with the notable exception of 1966, have regularly failed to conquer the world. Jonathan Wilson examines ten key fixtures to find out why. 

The fixtures – Spain 1929, Italy 1948, Hungary 1953, Argentina 1966, West Germany 1972, France 1982, West Germany 1990, Norway 1993, Netherlands 1996, Croatia 2007.

Have England learnt little since Hungary won 6-3 at Wembley in 1953?

Defeat against Spain showed England had plenty to learn. Hungary confirmed they were no longer the best as the match was played in conditions purists saw as ideal - namely a damp November afternoon. 

Some things did change but every footballing culture has a line it reverts to when under pressure. The Italians become negative whilst England hit it long to try and find the big man up front.

Why choose the 1966 Argentina match rather than the successful final?

To show manager Alf Ramsey’s pragmatism, a policy since maintained by those who’ve followed him. In 1964 England lost a game they dominated against Argentina. Ramsey thus considered playing without wingers and keeping it tight. The quarter-final was the first competitive match England played 4-4-2 and without a winger. Geoff Hurst came in for Jimmy Greaves. Ramsey also refused to compromise when Argentina had a man sent off. He didn’t surge forward but ensured his team kept the same shape and England won 1-0 with a header from Hurst.

It was also about class and English football has always had tension around class. The great Huddersfield and Arsenal manager Herbert Chapman ignored the establishment belief that the centre-half should be the focal point of a side’s attacking ambitions. It was a pragmatic decision leading to great success and putting food on the table. 

The Independent on Sunday said your book ‘should be required reading for all future England squads?’ Will it be?

The idea of modern footballers reading books is quite a distant thought.

What’s wrong with newspapers being “cheerleaders” for the England side?

Any newspaper has to have a level of objectivity and it means that when things go wrong the crash is much worse and the criticism of the players and manager goes over the top. That restricts genuine analysis in the future.

If they can find one or two great players then surely England will rule the world again?

It might be a circular thing, but there’s a problem as international football is clearly not as good as the Champions League. So, in general, the players aren’t as concerned about England. 

There’s a choice.  Either a good Premier League producing entertaining teams that are competitive in Europe or a good England team. It takes months of practice for club players to become familiar with each other’s strengths and weaknesses - what’s called ‘being on the same wavelength.’ To replicate this at the World Cup you’d close down the Premier League in February and take the best 40 players off into a training camp. South Korea did this in 2002 and they reached the last four. But no Premier League club would allow their players to be with England for months.

Prior to the 2007 Croatia match Frank Lampard said: “we’re always at our best when it matters.” You’re sceptical.   

First it’s an absurd link to Churchill’s statement after Dunkirk. But it also implies the earlier games didn’t need to be won and suggests players can just click their fingers and play well. True, some players respond well to pressure but others don’t so it’s not a given.

What might make England great?

Football culture has to alter radically with far less focus on individuals. We create great heroes and when they fail to meet the impossible standards we set they become great villains. The truth is eleven decent players playing coherently will be better than nine decent players and two great players playing incoherently. Jimmy Hogan was the English coach who turned the Hungarians into the best in the world and his theory was simple - choose the right pass, whether long or short. That’s something that has to be instilled very early and involves tactical intelligence and we struggle to produce players with that.

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