England squad Euro 2012England’s national team continues to divide opinion when it comes to how the team should be run, whether it is a managerial appointment, tactical decision or squad selection. However, taking a step back and analysing the entire situation, it will be easier to clarify what the problems are and how to resolve them.

Pre Euro 2012, the appointment of Roy Hodgson took many by surprise; Harry Redknapp was the media and bookies favourite to take the vacant England position. However once Roy Hodgson was appointed, “experts” had already begun a tirade of analysis, which although marginally true, largely were false and had no substance. The media wanted an England team to replicate European style football, possession based with fluid forward movement but with English grit and determination.

Hodgson knew this wasn’t feasible. During the selection process, Hodgson had many unfortunate setbacks. Kyle Walker and Gareth Barry’s injuries along with Michael Carrick and Micah Richard not wanting to be squad players, being a few. I do feel that Frank Lampard’s injury was a blessing in disguise, for his inclusion would have meant a total tactical restructuring of a team that would need to be built around a player who is too one dimensional. Wayne Rooney’s suspension gave more emphasis on who will be selected for the first two games. Once the final squad was taken to Poland/Ukraine, a quick review would suggest the squad was “bottom heavy”, not in numbers but in the characteristics of the players. The squad was as follows:

3 Goalkeepers/8 Defenders/8 Midfielders/4 Strikers

Of the 8 defenders, Hodgson was relying on the versatility of Phil Jones and Phil Jagielka in order to compensate for only including 3 players who would end up playing defensive midfield (Gerrard, Parker and Henderson) in a system which utilised 2 defensive midfielders at a time, 4-2-3-1. Young would be played behind the striker during Rooney’s absence, Chamberlains ability to play across the attacking line was also a plus and the squad contained a “defensive winger” in Milner. Among the strikers – upon his return, Rooney was deployed mainly in a withdrawn role behind an out and out striker, thus pushing Young into a more accustomed wide role. The saying “players make the formation” was not relevant to this team, in this team the formation made the players.

Steven Gerrard EnglandGerrard, at club level, was never comfortable as a defensive midfielder. His ability allows him to get forward and have a greater influence in the attack. Young and Milner do not play in teams that soak up pressure and employ a counter attacking game, and both of their respective teams are proactive in their approach rather than reactive. The philosophy that Hodgson had imposed on the England team had changed the mind-set of players from being attacking and forward thinking, to defensive and drawn towards reactive football.

During the tournament, England gained a respectable draw to France, won a surprisingly entertaining match against Sweden and a close fought encounter with Ukraine, they managed to top the group. At this point in time Hodgson had achieved his greatest accomplishment, he convinced the nation that playing defensive football is the most effective way to play with the current generation of England players. Media were more than happy to agree as long as England were in the tournament.

Yet, a sense of reality check crept in when they faced Italy. The match was dominated by Italy, all throughout. England couldn’t keep the ball for prolonged periods and looked predictable in their build up. Having chased the ball for the entire game, the tiredness of the players was realized during the penalty shootout. After the loss, the media, fans and ex-players jumped on the bandwagon stating that England change their approach and learn how to keep the ball better.

Well, this generation of players are not capable of doing so because it takes more than a few possession based coaching sessions to impose that sort of style. For a team ranked 4th in the world, England were 12th out of 16 teams at the Euros in terms of possession/pass accuracy statistics. That – my friends is a poor showing.

In order for England to change their identity, we need to focus on the grassroots level and the mentality coaches have of the “model English player”.

Youth Football England FA

At grassroots level, physicality dominates a coaches thinking rather than the technical ability of a player, as Gareth Southgate declared after the Italy match,

“Imagining Pirlo’s report as a young player – can’t run, can’t tackle, poor in the air…. Ahh the importance of focussing on what kids CAN do”.

This statement can be reflected in many players who are small and slight but have incredible technical abilities. Unfortunately, they are overlooked by players who have a much better build and use their physical power to perform rather than what they can do with the ball at their feet.

It’s a common frame of thought that central defenders be tall and physical in their approach, central midfielders be athletic and powerful due to the amount of running involved, wingers be quick and direct and strikers be powerful. Smaller strikers are rare but need to be quick if they are to play. None of these characteristics help in playing possession-based football but rather counter attacking direct football.

In order for England’s national team to progress, the model English player needs to be changed. The characteristics that coaches look for in their selection and the style of football need to change. By educating coaches and enforcing the idea on how a positive change will enable them to make braver decisions and take more notice of players who may not have developed physically yet but have control over the football.

A key example of this theory is comparing the development of James Milner and Jack Wilshere. Milner is your archetype English player; hard-working, honest, athletic but lacks the technical abilities. Wilshere – a more modern English player. Small, has the typical English aggression but has quality on the ball and plays in a team where possession is the key. The question to be asked is how many Milners were developed at the academy level at the expense of one Jack Wilshere.

Further analysis needs to be made into what could potentially happen if half the EPL teams each developed a single player of Wilshere’s quality. It is a classic case that the youth teams belonging to clubs tend to play the same way as the senior team. This is because should the players progress that far, the transition in style should be easier than if they played any different at the youth level.

There is a common misconception that the Premier League teams do not produce enough English players. This argument needs to be rephrased.

It should be that they do not produce good enough quality English players. Until we see changes at the youth level, asking the current crop to a play to a style which is against their norms is unfair.

Hodgson now has a choice to make in terms of his squad selection for the World Cup qualification campaign, should he persist in the style of football that failed at the Euros or should he now take the chances to promote the best of the U-21 players who were very accomplished in their performances under Stuart Pearce?

The coming generation of England players may not match up to other nations who have been developing for over a decade, but the process needs to start somewhere. The talent is there, it just needs to be given the chance.

London based Zaheer Shah is a free-lance football writer and a student of Football at the Southampton Solent University, pursuing his goal of working as a scouting and match analyst.

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