The Welsh Gull

Torquay United, the Football League and other stuff

English football’s head-in-the-sand mentality

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Move over climate change, the Holocaust and the Nanjing Massacre – make way for the denial of the existence and importance of tactics in football.

Yes, that’s right, you don’t need to outfox your opponent by manipulating space and controlling the midfield – all you need is to pass the ball to a winger, and get him to cross it onto the head of a big man. That’s all you need for success – “keeping it simple”, just as Bill Shankly and Brian Clough said all those years ago. Quite how Pep Guardiola and Jose Mourinho haven’t realised this but the man on the terraces has is staggering, you would think…


I’m going to sound like an incredibly patronising arsehole here, but I don’t care. It’s amazing to think that in the year 2012, there are still people out there who think that it’s all just a myth, and that what you need are that great collection of buzzwords like “commitment”, “bravery”, “patriotism”, and, of course, “passion”. But only in England, of course – a country that has refused to accept 60 years of tactical advances due to inherent xenophobia and belief that Roy Race will appear from nowhere to save the day and restore the Three Lions, “the inventors of the game”, to their rightful place as the Greatest Team In The World. This is despite 60 years of results largely demonstrating anything but that was the case – in that sense, England winning the World Cup was the worst possible thing that could have happened, as it reinforced the view that England could/should be a leading force in world football, when as we all know the tournament that they won was largely influenced by outside factors and Alf Ramsey being a much better tactician than the media have made up.

English football fans are united by various common items of clothing – team shirts, scarves, occasionally the humble bobble hat, and rose-tinted spectacles. Romanticism is the scourge of the modern English game – the view that things were much better in the past, despite considerable evidence to the contrary. For instance, many lower league fans will often bring out their dead horse that the Premier League was terrible for the Football League. Never mind the fact that attendances in all of the four PL/FL divisions have gone up considerably since 1992-93. Never mind the fact that the Conference is the strongest and most professional it has ever been. Never mind the fact that, despite the disaster of ITV Digital and various misadventures for each individual club, the vast majority of Football League clubs are financially secure. Never mind that grounds have been substantially improved since 1992. Never mind that racism and hooliganism are a lot less prevalent than they once were. No, let’s go back to the good old days of watching your team play a Dave Bassett hoofball side on ploughed field of a pitch in front of a few thousand people, racially abusing all the black players on the opposing side, and then having a good old pointless scrap with the other fans as post-match entertainment.

English football fans just continue to ignore facts in order to fit their own victim discourses. Tactics is no exception. The fans who deny the importance of tactics usually don’t understand tactics generally. They thus feel aggrieved that the game has progressed to a point where they can’t understand what is going on. They’ve been taken out of their comfort zone, and instead of wanting to understand it better, they snap back, and reject it completely, pretending it doesn’t work. It’s school yard stuff – the smart-arse out-smarts the bully, so the bully punches him in the face.

This is especially the case when foreigners are involved – it’s easy to blame them. There is an interesting parallel here with postmodernism. There has been an enormous amount of cynicism about it in English, far more so than in places like the USA and France. The English reception to postmodernism was typically English – effectively “bloody French froggy foreigners with their stupid French froggy complicated un-English ideas – why can’t they just keep it simple?” I have a feeling this is indicative of something inherent in English society, in the large part. England was a state that was part of a small island that gradually grew to become the most powerful in the world – so why should English people listen to those inferior people from countries that didn’t build as big an empire as them? It’s the same with football – why should the country that invented football be told how to do it by people who aren’t English?

It is xenophobia in its purest form – a literal fear of foreigners. And what are they afraid of? Them being right, of course. Which, at least in football terms, they usually are. English football has been getting by for many years purely on the talent of their players. I don’t belong to the school of thought which suggests that the ‘Golden Age’ of English footballers was overrated – the honours that the likes of Steven Gerrard, Frank Lampard, Ashley Cole, John Terry, Rio Ferdinand and co have all won outside of the national team demonstrate that they weren’t just untalented hacks who got lucky in club football. Circa Euro 2004, England had a fantastic team, but it was never brought together with the right tactics. Sven-Goran Eriksson generally did quite a good job as England manager but was never able to totally harness the abilities of England’s most talented players, namely the midfield four of Beckham, Scholes, Gerrard and Lampard, which ended up costing him arguably the most talented of the three. Thus they never got a shot at overall honours in the tournaments of the mid-2000s. However, while they never performed to their best, they did at least England into the quarter-finals in three successive tournaments, so there’s enough to “justify” (as far as they’re concerned) the 4-4-2 brigade’s argument to an extent.

The truth is, at all levels of football, you need intricate tactics to guarantee success. Even the teams that on the surface look like having quite a simple way of playing are actually far more complex. Shankly, cited in the argument I was in recently, came up with the Boot Room as a place for him and his coaches to discuss tactics. Clough is believed to have requested that the Baseball Ground pitch be terrible. Sir Alex Ferguson might have stuck with 4-4-2 for the bulk of his career but there have been many different versions. Stan Cullis’ Wolves and Tony Pulis’ Stoke didn’t/don’t simply hoof it to the other end of the pitch and hope for the best.

And it’s not simply something for the upper leagues. Graham Taylor built his managerial career on being one of the first English managers to introduce pressing, which he did not in the top flight but down in the Fourth Division with Lincoln and Watford. So for Torquay fans to argue that Martin Ling is “over-complicating” his tactics by getting his team to play possession football instead of reverting to a “simple” 4-4-2 long ball/crossing game is ludicrous, aside from the fact that Torquay have generally been overachieving this season with these tactics and almost certainly wouldn’t be by playing the way everyone would expect a lower league team to play. Similarly, Stevenage’s draw against Tottenham in the FA Cup was not a fluke – it is the legacy of the fantastic job Graham Westley has done there, by primarily focusing on fitness and a high pressing game.

And we’re not talking just formations. There is a belief among many fans that each player should stick to their respective roles – a striker should be simply for scoring goals; a centre-back should be for defending; a winger should be for running up and down the wing and crossing the ball into the box. This is so ridiculously archaic I don’t know where to start. Even Alf Ramsey, nearly half a century ago, knew that the traditional winger was finished. Rinus Michels largely invented Total Football only a few years later, and that has its basis in earlier innovations. Ever since then, manipulation of space has been the primary aim, even for Route 1. The best players in the world can all now play in various roles and positions – meanwhile, England suffered for years with the problem of some of their best players not adapting to playing well with each other. It might be a bit reductionist to make that comparison, but the point still stands – English players are notoriously inflexible, and curiously no one thinks it’s a problem. Indeed, as I’ve just said, some fans want it to be the case, which is daft.

What we have is a national footballing culture that is firmly rooted in nostalgia and romanticism. This could not be more noticeable on today of all days. Scott Parker is the new England captain – it might only be for a friendly under an interim manager, but David Beckham was also selected in the same way; I can’t see it changing, especially if Harry Redknapp does become the new manager. England don’t need a lionhearted, full-blooded captain or will go diving into tackles and try and win the game himself in the last minute, and they don’t need a manager who has no grand tactical plan to beat individual nations, but does have a few Churchilian speeches and a Cockney accent. This is what every other leading footballing nation realised years ago. Formations have moved on, tactics have moved on, ideas about management and leadership have moved on. But England still think they know better, despite a library of evidence proving that they don’t. No wonder they are a laughing stock in the game – the Flat Earth Society of football.

The potential Parker/Redknapp axis shows how far English football hasn’t come since the Magyars came over and attempted to teach it a lesson. The problem is that in that lesson, English football messed around at the back of the class, completely ignored the teacher, and then refused to do the homework he had set. No doubt the exam results will again be rubbish and they will have to resit them again. At some point they may actually bother to try to take on-board what the rest of the world is telling them.

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Written by James Bennett

February 29, 2012 at 13:12

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