By Manish Pandey.
Who expected that? Iceland, a country with more volcanoes than professional footballers, outplayed England. They beat England. England, that supposed football powerhouse. Reality check? Yes. Wakeup call? Yes. The same old story? Damn right.
There are many reasons for why England continually fail to perform at major tournaments. We have exhausted the individual reasons down the years, from fatigue to youth coaching to senior coaching to the players. So why did England fail at Euro 2016?
Let’s start with the man responsible at the end of the day: Roy Hodgson.
Hodgson is the man who has control over every aspect of the England team. It is his job to ensure his players are ready and prepared for each game. It is his job to ensure he has plans ready for different in-game scenarios. Ultimately, it is his job to select the right players.
Hodgson’s managerial background, in particular in the last 10 years, should have told us that England would at best be mediocre. A man used to fighting relegation battles was England’s manager at a major tournament. Not once, not twice but three times. Let that sink in.
Tactically, Hodgson has proven himself to be inept. We all expected Iceland to sit behind the ball and absorb pressure. They surprised us. Iceland chose to employ a high press, left 2 strikers up front so England’s defenders were unable to attack as much as they would want to. Hodgson seemed flummoxed by this tactical surprise.
Throughout the tournament, England had no tactical plan and that is the fault of the manager. He did not know his best team. He did not know his best formation. Having played so many matches since the last world cup, Hodgson did not know a thing.
He selected players who were unfit, tired and simply not in good enough condition to play for England at a major tournament. Raheem Sterling warmed the bench for Manchester City in the 2nd half of the season. Why was he selected ahead of an in form Andros Townsend? Even worse, he started in the knockout game against Iceland despite being below average in the opening two games of the tournament.
Why was Jack Wilshere selected? Why was Jordan Henderson selected? Both players coming back from injury were quite clearly unfit. Wilshere was deemed bad enough to be subbed after 50 minutes against Slovakia yet was tasked with creating an England revival in the 2nd half against Iceland. Henderson looked off the pace against Slovakia and did not do much to catch the eye.
Why take James Milner? He played 3 minutes. Why take Ross Barkley and John Stones if they are not going to play?
The Slovakia game told us much about Hodgson and his ability (or rather inability) to read his players. Wayne Rooney was England’s star man in the opening 2 games of the tournament. There is a common thought around football that when Rooney is fit and firing, he should be playing every game to keep his momentum and should not be ‘rested’. Inevitably, Hodgson chose to ‘rest’ him and he only played just over 30 minutes.
That is by no means an excuse for Rooney. It was his worst performance during his reign as captain. He let the team down and displayed very little leadership in a time the young players needed leaders.
Worse than the Rooney decision, Hodgson changed the make up of a team that had some momentum from the lucky last minute victory over Wales. The buzzword is momentum. Why break up momentum of a winning team? You can change 1 or 2 players, but you need to have a settled lineup, especially if like England, there was no clear plan before the tournament. When you stumble upon a formula, you must stick to it.
The entire country could see Harry Kane was exhausted. Even at the back end of the season, he was not the same as a few months ago. Yet Hodgson chose to play him in all of the friendly games. Surely in training, Kane could not have been showing the usual levels of energy. So why did Hodgson persist with him? He went on reputation not form.
Dele Alli did not perform in any of the games he played in, in the group stages. So why did Hodgson persist with him? Why did he not try a different player or a different system? The answer lies in the next part of the article, namely the manager failed in planning and preparation.
Planning and preparation is the most important role a manager has. Everything in the team links to the manager’s planning and preparation. Hodgson had no plan. The evidence of this is in the confused nature of the players throughout the tournament. Having a plan helps the mentality of a player and takes the pressure away.
England players should have been aware of different gameplans for different situations. The best coaches at major tournaments can relay information to their players about what will happen in each game and will give them a solution.
Looking at the Netherlands in the 2014 World Cup, the Dutch players repeatedly said that Louis van Gaal would inform them about a gameplan for different phases of the game and that gameplan would work. In turn, the players confidence in the manager increased. Van Gaal had a plan involving the water break in the game against Mexico. Did Hodgson have any type of strategy or was he just desperate?
Playing in a tournament has its own pressures. Had Hodgson been able to conjure any type of gameplan, the players would have been able to stay calm under the pressure of potential defeat, instead of having dizzy minds.
Instead, we saw a complete meltdown of the England players. Misplacing 5 yard passes, loose 1st touches, ball rolling under the feet and running as if boots were full of lead. These were the hallmarks of England’s attempted fightback, in the face of tournament elimination.
Even in the group matches, you could not discern how England wanted to play. There was no evidence of patterns of play being worked on in training.
What was the Plan B? I said in my preview of the game that England needed to be radical if things went wrong. They had to do something different. Hodgson ended up bringing Marcus Rashford on which was smart. Of course it would have helped had he brought him on with more than 4 minutes left.
Rashford was England’s best player having only been on the pitch for 4 minutes. Imagine if he had been on for 15 minutes more. Proactive management? Never for Hodgson. He froze.
Tournament after tournament, England managers do not have a clear gameplan. That translates to the players. Players who already feel the strain of the England shirt, cannot rely on the manager to help them.
Preparing for a job interview or exam, those who have prepared well always feel more confident and under less pressure, than those who have not prepared as well. The same theory applies to England in football.
Alas, it is that pressure which creates so much fear. Fear which inhibits the players and makes them play as though they are playing Sunday League. They were not playing the situation. They were not playing the game. They were playing as if they had the future negative headlines in the mind.
Joe Hart is the most visible example of an England player playing with fear. Of all the players, he has the biggest insecurities and self-doubts. All the bravado and shouting in the tunnel whilst jumping up and down, getting ‘pumped up’ is just that – bravado. Trying to act the leader and show the world he is the man. In reality, he is an overrated goalkeeper and mentally soft.
An example of under-preparation can be seen in Iceland’s opening goal. Everybody knew about Iceland’s long distance throw. We all knew they had tall players. Why then was Wayne Rooney marking a player over 6ft? Why did Kyle Walker forget to track his man? Surely having seen Rory Delap at Stoke for so many years, coaches and players understood that the 2nd ball in the area is always the most important.
Nobody would say Iceland have better players than England. Yet Iceland had a clear gameplan. They knew what to do and when to do it. They pressed high, they attacked, they left 2 strikers forward for most of the game. It was only the last 20 minutes did they decide to defend deep. The players trusted in the gameplan. They emerged as deserving winners.
Whilst Hodgson rightfully shoulders a lot of the blame, it is important to not absolve the players.
Ultimately it is the players out there on the pitch. Some of those players have had stellar club seasons but could not produce under pressure. These players are mentally weak. They are the 3G generation of academy players. They are not street smart in life so why do we expect them to be able to handle the pressures of tournament football.
Nowadays, everything is done for the players. They have agents and assistants and cleaners and drivers and so on. The players nowadays do not actually have to do anything which shapes them as characters. Everything is manufactured, from image to press conferences. The inability to do anything for themselves and think for themselves in life, eventually translates onto the pitch.
Young kids aged 11/12/13 are being offered agents and large sums of money. Clubs are offering £50,000 to families just to enter into negotiations to get a player to join the academy. Can we really expect players growing up in this environment to be street smart?
The manager cannot tell you when to commit a cynical foul, waste time or kick long. It is about decision making under pressure, something only the individual player can do. England players need to toughen up in life and then they can learn to play like men.
The children growing up nowadays, will have a warped idea of football. For them, it will only be what they see on Sky Sports & BT Sports. They will play on 3G pitches, perfect surfaces and have the best equipment. That is not a true love for the game. This, as Jamie Carragher says, will lead to us producing babies not grown up men.
In different countries across Europe and especially South America, children grow up playing football on the street. There are no signs saying “no ball games allowed”. Children play on grass which has more mud than grass. They use jumpers as goalposts. There is seemingly an organic love for the game.
In our country now, children do not go out and play football on the street. They do not spend hours kicking the ball against a wall like Dennis Bergkamp did. Instead they turn on the XBOX and PlayStation and are addicted to video games.
These seem like petty and insignificant at a time when England have been knocked out of a major tournament, but these things all matter for the coming generations.
So where do England go from here?
They need to find the right manager. A manager with the right mix of tactics and psychology. A manager not afraid to make the big decisions. Preferably, a manager who already has tournament experience.
There are no English candidates who fit the bill.
Approaches should be made to Slaven Bilic. Laurent Blanc is another who should be a contender. Jurgen Klinsmann has the right attributes.
They need someone who can change the mindset of England players. By whatever means.
As it stands however, the England job looks very much like a poisoned chalice.