How can English football’s wilful ignorance be cured? - RSA

How can English football’s wilful ignorance be cured?

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  • Enterprise
  • Institutional reform

We need to stop caring about the World Cup. That’s right. We have to learn to treat it as an irrelevance. Every digital and hard copy of a football song that recounts ‘x years of hurt’ needs to be deleted or incinerated. The hurt that really counts is the fact that England have pursued football as an agricultural pursuit for too many decades to count. That is where our focus should be – how does England learn to play good football?

We have deliberately ignored change in the world around us and decided to remain wilfully ignorant of our increasing irrelevance in the international game. Almost any great side you care to name over the past few decades has devoted itself to one thing: the art of football. Read Simon Kuper’s Soccernomics and you will see descriptions of the sharp passing game inculcated at Cruyff’s Ajax or in modern Barcelona. You will find exactly the same techniques being developed at Shankly’s Liverpool in David Peace’s Red or Dead (see the 'sweat box' in particular).

This World Cup has seen great performances from Costa Rica, Chile, Bosnia, Colombia and Mexico. All of them are mid-ranking sides doing a basic thing: control, pass, move. Costa Rica were holding on to a 1-0 lead against Italy and, yet, they almost never punted the ball up field. It was passing triangles until the 94th minute. This basic insight has been obvious for two decades. Yet, perhaps with two exceptions, against the Netherlands under Terry Venables in 1996 and against Italy at this World Cup (though they lost), England has chosen to ignore this basic reality. We are a long way behind as a consequence.

In the Premier League, there are perhaps six sides who play this way: Manchester City, Liverpool, Arsenal, Everton, Southamption and Swansea. They are all good to watch and achieve par or better in the league. Yet, our entire football infrastructure is geared around physical presence and a style of play that is at least forty years out of date. It is the same root cause behind the regression of African football. England and the African football nations have declined in tandem and for many of the similar reasons.

At Ajax, Cruyff decided that the club’s youth teams would no longer play to win. This was hard to stomach. Instead, they would play to play good football. How many teams who take to Hackney Marshes on any given weekend have a similar approach? Few. But this is not just about a style of football. It's about a philosophy of football and a system to replicate that philosophy. Success in football is cultivated around key elements: a purpose or ethos (playing the game a certain way), a pragmatism (playing the game this way is effective), a praxis (develop institutions to ensure the purpose is reflected throughout the national game).

At the moment our ethos is ‘to win the World Cup’. The pragmatism is ‘play as England has always played as that is what our coaches and players know/like’. The praxis is adequate – this is replicated through institutions (the clubs). However, the institutions are designed around the wrong ethos and pragmatism. So actually, it’s a disaster- we’re replicating failure rather than success.

Simon Kuper points to the lack of linkage between England and European footballing networks. There’s a neat symmetry here between our political and footballing isolation within Europe. Perhaps there’s something in this. In a world of wall-to-wall access to European leagues on TV/the internet, mass communications, transport, and access to generous resources, any isolation is by choice. The best managers have pursued a very different approach: learning and engagement. But a few individuals are not enough, England’s football institutions (the FA, youth and professional clubs, coaching institutes and supporters clubs) have to embrace an entirely new ethos and pragmatism if we are ever to re-establish ourselves as anything above the middle rank.

Instead, we start off from a position of ignorance and compound it further. We blame individuals. First it was Rooney then Gerrard and Jagielka. Other players should have played who didn’t. Ross Barkley, Jack Wilshere, Ashley Cole and John Terry could have been our saviours. Perhaps they would have played better but probably not. The manager gets the blame. This is despite the fact that Roy Hodgson is the first England manager since Venables and maybe Hoddle to embrace the modern game (though he is still too cautious). He changed the side in the last twelve months to do so. His trouble is that the old England disinterred itself against Uruguay. Old habits die hard. Then comes in the predictable football nationalism. We have too many foreigners in the Premier League. This doubles the error. Would Raheem Sterling or Daniel Sturridge now be first choice international footballers had they not played alongside Luis Suarez at Liverpool? England’s clubs are not short of mediocre English talent clogging up the subs benches. It’s world-class talent that we lack.

It takes at least ten years to develop an international class footballer. It takes at least as long to get a coach to that level. As Jimmy Hill was fond of saying, footballers are made not born. The same is true of coaches. That means that if we are to re-engineer the national game then the urgent institutional changes driven by a new ethos and new pragmatism have to be put in place now to have an impact by the middle of the next decade. We’ll be making do until then. The changes will have to be symbolic at the national level and coaches, players, and supporters are just going to have to accept that we are going to change our national game and the results may not felt for some time.

Someone badly needs to write a new song that bemoans our lack of quality rather than our lack of World Cup wins. Forget the World Cup. Forget the European Championships. There are no quick fixes and we just need to be honest with ourselves about that. And when asked whether this will all help us win the World Cup, the answer must be clear. It doesn’t matter. What matters is the way we play football. That’s our philosophy.

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  • And you can add Adrian Boothroyd to that list, Sean, a failed manager with a Victorian kick-and-rush mindset who now bafflingly has been given responsibility over England's under-20s team.

    I liked your blog Anthony, and there are many parallels between English football's lack of direction and a wider political and socioeconomic malaise over recent years. Don't ask too many questions of a powerful cash cow if its bottom line looks healthy (read the Premier League or financial services in the City of London), don't be concerned about communities and what matters to them (see the FA Chairman's proposals to plonk a B-team league which would be detrimental to smaller clubs and their supporters around the country), and when it all goes wrong blame the foreigners.

    How would an RSA task-force approach the issue? A better networked 'whole system' approach to national skills development would have clear benefits, and I think there is scope for behavioural economics-style 'nudge' innovations. Something as simple as making girls' and boys' football a summer sport could have a really significant effect I think, providing better surfaces for kids to learn the possession based football you talk about, losing fewer matches to ice and rain, and crucially putting off fewer kids from playing the sport in the first place!

  • Absolutely spot on. And it's worth comparing these arguments with the FA's managerialist response in the form of the Dyke report:

    Visionary it ain't....oh and it targets winning the World Cup- fundamental error.

  • Anthony, you could have written this after any tournament in the last 30 years. The FA have consistently ignored the best European coaches (including innovative British coaches like Jimmy Hogan and Vic Buckingham) and coaching methods, while using people like Charles Hughes, Howard Wilkinson and (unbelievably) John Beck in influential positions. Because possession is not regarded as important in the Premiership an English midfielder (not naming names here) giving the ball away assumes it will come back within 2 or 3 passes. Not in the World Cup it doesn't.

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