Vicente Del Bosque sit’s back in a chair during an interview with journalist Sid Lowe and proclaims “There is no English football anymore, not authentic style”. He continues to explain that England’s constant change in footballing philosophy and foreign imports has meant that the soul of English football has been ripped out. He has a point. It is near on impossible to watch England without gritting your teeth and willing them to express themselves.
Interestingly enough when Steve McClaren was appointed England manager his first words were “Evolution, not revolution” – it’s easy to see why the current Newcastle manager didn’t inspire a great deal of hope with those opening words. More importantly, this phrase has bigger significance and is more of a reflection on the current state of English football. Although there has been a number of changes in philosophy over the years, from the adaptation of an academy system in 1998 to replicate France. Implementing a 433 passing style throughout all age groups to mimic Spain. Slowly but surely, England developed the narrow diamond formation to copy World Cup winners Germany.
Whilst these changes do not necessarily the conservatism noted in the title, the ways in which these ‘revolutions’ have been put in to place follow a structure so inflexible that changes haven’t felt as though they have been embraced. For example, academies have been established a la France, but the structured nature of these academies has started to kill off natural flair players. How is a player meant to flourish when they are guarded so closely by coaches – a player can’t be expected to commit an opponent when they have been using three touches at a maximum in drills. These drills are killing off street footballers, those who learnt to ride tackles in the afternoons after school – the Chris Waddle’s, Steve Macmanaman’s.
As well as structure, data should be a massive talking point in shaping the future of the English game. Over the past five years, the FA has invested heavily in data – wether that be to track players movements, their contribution to the game or to identify talent at a young age. A trend that is emerging is the over reliance on data that is collected via GPS systems and documented on a computer. Managers in the mould of ex-Reading boss Nigel Adkins relies heavily on statistics to mould his teams, in particular focussing on pass completion as a key metric. These stats can be misleading, a team can have 95% pass competition, but if these passes are made in their own first third then they are meaningless. Possession has become an obsession in the Premier League and is replicated in the England senior team, if the overall goal is to keep possession and complete a certain number of passes then a player is going to act unnaturally.
To put this in to context, three main analysis points on television are: possession, pass completion and numbers of passes completed. These three core values are replicated within the English national team set-up. With so much emphasis on statistics, the focus moves away from expression of self-belief into a box-ticking exercise. Ross Barkley is one of England’s brightest talents, but has come under criticism from Roy Hodgson because he “loses the ball to often”, looking at top-line stats a fan or analyst can’t help but agree. Looking at the wider picture, Barkley is a creative player and these incomplete passes almost always come in the final third, as the player is trying to open doors and create chances for his team. His wonderful pass for Theo Walcott against Estonia was genius, but had this pass not come off then this counts against the player. Last season, Barkley’s form dropped both internationally and at club level – the player retracted into his shell, afraid to express himself. One can’t help but think this is down to achieving KPIs set by his managers such as completed passes.
These KPIs are suffocating the playing styles of talented players such as Barkley, Oxlade-Chamberlain and Walcott, those who are ready to express themselves on the pitch and take risks to ensure that their team achieves victory. Which can explain why the implementation of the Spanish blueprint has not been as successful as first hoped, the emphasis has been put on possession and not on the flair that creates that chances.
In summary, data can be extremely useful when analysing players and the game. Completely relying on these figures to win games distracts from the building blocks that football came from. Emotion; going with your heart over your head to beat a player with skill. Instinct; picking that risky killer pass to set a team-mate free. Once English football accepts that it can forge it’s own identity, and not half-heartedly implementing others and relying on data to dictate games, then football will advance. Until then the brightest talents will suffocate under a blanket of sums, completed passes and kilometres covered.
About the Author – Ben Jarman
Freelance football writer with a penchant for Spanish and European football. Work published by Fulham FC, Italian FA and the Evening Standard.