June 15, 2014 at 4:23 pm

English Football Realism


In his book by the same name, Mark Fisher defines ‘Capitalist Realism’ as “the widespread sense that not only is capitalism the only viable political and economic system, but also that it is now impossible even to imagine a coherent alternative to it.” While the analogy has only limited scope, some of the reactions to England’s loss against a very average Italy side suggests something similar has happened with the expectations of England fans.

Instead of bemoaning another poor showing in which England ceded possession and sat deep in the kind of warm, sapping conditions where it is best to keep the ball and make your opponents tire themselves out chasing it, many fans and pundits feel Roy Hodgson has enhanced his reputation. This, despite his side struggling to get the ball from Italy in the first half and ending the game with only 45% of possession despite trailing for nearly half the game (which usually means you see more of the ball). It was only when Italy were 2-1 ahead and happy to batten down the hatches that England managed to wrestle any control of the match away from Pirlo and co and by then the Italians – who had made the ball do their work in the first half – were in their element against an England team running out of steam.

So why is this being seen as a positive? As with Capitalist Realism, the idea that There Is No Alternative pulls the horizon of what English fans, pundits and the manager believe the team can possibly do so close that a defeat in this manner is deemed not only acceptable, but a triumph. The general consensus is that “England were always going to struggle to get the ball against Italy” but this pre-supposing of what is reasonable to expect is more prescriptive than it is descriptive of any realistic limitations.

The idea that England should “play to their strengths” (which are always the lowest common denominators of letting the opposition have the ball and attacking directly) is nothing new, and for a long time it was at least perhaps pragmatic, if short-termist. But what are English footballers” strengths today? Are Theo Walcott, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Jack Wilshere, Jordan Henderson, Raheem Sterling, Ross Barkley, Danny Welbeck and Daniel Sturridge ‘typical’ English players?  This is an England squad comprised largely of players from Brendan Rodgers’ Liverpool, Roberto Martinez’s Everton, Arsene Wenger’s Arsenal and Southampton players until recently managed by Mauricio Pochettino. All these sides play progressive, continental styles of football that value possession, so is it not really Hodgson who is out of step and asking his players to do things to which they are not suited?

Yet despite another way not only being possible for English players, but already existing and working to such an extent that it actually favours the modern English footballer, English Football Realism still exists, lowering our expectations and fulfilling its own prophecy. If you never accept that another way is possible and take the leap to coach players into it you will never have players suited to playing a more expansive form of football. Making the leap might involve taking a step or two back while players adjust, but Hodgson and England need not worry about a transition period because foreign club managers and Brendan Rodgers have already carried it out for him.

In an Interview with the Guardian, Rodgers explains why it is a preconception projected onto English footballers that has been holding the England team back:

“I would say talent can be coached out of players, absolutely,” he said. “It’s just fear. It is easier to get rid of the ball than to pass it, and I understand that as a coach you need to win games, so you smash the ball up the pitch so you don’t lose your job. But don’t then say that is the type of player we have in this country because it is not. Boys here know how to pass. We need to stop blaming the players because it is not their fault. The problem is the coaching.”

For all the talk of ‘Golden Generations’ in the past, this is a young crop of England players more technically and tactically gifted than any that came before it. It has its weaknesses; the back four is mediocre whoever the manager picks and England have no natural holding midfielder, but this is just another reason to take pressure off them by playing with the ball.

Of course, while Roy Hodgson remains in charge notions of this kind are only unrealistic ideals. For Hodgson is a reactive, cowardly manager afraid of his team having possession of the ball. Liverpool fans who saw him telling Daniel Agger – one of the best footballing defenders in England at the time – to “just launch it” know this only too well, but some decent results since 2012 have papered over the cracks and fooled some English fans into thinking he knows what he is doing. At a certain level of football – in Scandinavian leagues or at WBA or Fulham – maybe he does, but whenever Hodgson has managed at an elite level he has come a cropper. This is what happens when you base your style of play on the lowest common denominators of which all professionals are capable. It can be effective, but always has a low glass ceiling.

Hodgson’s use of Jordan Henderson last night illustrates how behind the times he is. Henderson has his own limitations, but what he does have in boundless supply is stamina and a desire to work hard for the team. He has come on leaps at Liverpool where he’s used either high up the field in a high press, or as part of a midfield three where he can close down opponents without leaving a big gap in midfield because the other two will cover. So what does Hodgson do? Plays him deep in a midfield two beside the now immobile Gerrard, negating his ability to do what he does best.

Any Liverpool fan will tell you that Steven Gerrard is no longer capable of playing as part of a double pivot. He just doesn’t have the legs to do 50% of the midfield work anymore, so like Pirlo at Juventus (where it is Vidal and Pogba) or Italy (where, as last night, it is De Rossi and Verrati) he needs two workhorses to either side allowing him to focus on what he does on the ball. Had Hodgson sacrificed Rooney (not literally) and opted for an extra man deep in midfield England might have been able to wrestle more control of the game and keep the ball better. Instead, Gerrard and Henderson were so deep for long periods of the first half that the entire midfield became disjointed.

If There Is No Alternative and England are constrained by our own inability to imagine playing a way that is not only more effective (most of the best teams play attacking, possession football) but actually more practical given the players we now possess, then maybe this is good enough. If England ever want to be a real force in international football again, though, the nation must wake up to the new reality being shaped by courageous, progressive managers at club level. The Russian climate in 2018 will better suit players who have grown up in England than the Amazonian humidity of Brazil. If those in charge of the national team can break through the confines of their own collective imagination by then, England will have a great chance of winning the World Cup for only the second time.

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