Sports

This England Team Feels Different

Regardless of how the 2018 World Cup shakes out, there’s finally cause for English optimism.

Harry Kane of England is seen with the match ball at the World Cup.
Harry Kane of England is seen with the match ball following scoring a hat trick in his sides victory in the 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia Group G match between England and Panama at Nizhny Novgorod Stadium on Sunday in Nizhny Novgorod, Russia. Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Alex Morton/Getty Images.

England’s supporters have been conditioned by years of disappointment to believe that their team is destined to fail. But coach Gareth Southgate has promised that this group of players is different. After England began the World Cup with two successive wins, fans are starting to wonder if he might actually be right. And if he is right, might it be because English football’s supposed weakness has actually given it new strength?

For years, English coaches, pundits, and journalists have complained that the Premier League has become too internationalized, that the influx of so many foreign players, attracted by the highest wages in the sport, has made it too difficult for young English players to break through, shrinking the pool of talent available to the national team. “The Premier League is the foreign league in England now,” said ex–England coach Sam Allardyce last year. Southgate expresses himself more mildly than Allardyce, but too has lamented the fact that “we pick from 33 percent of the league, which is quite a unique situation.”

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It’s time to acknowledge that internationalization brings advantages as well as disadvantages.

First, the influx of quality players and coaches has raised the general standard of the league. There are fewer English players at the top clubs, but they get better coaching and a higher level of training and competition. Today’s England players are coached at club level by tactical brains like Pep Guardiola, Mauricio Pochettino, Jürgen Klopp, and Antonio Conte. When you work with the best in the business, you can’t help but pick up a few things.

The current generation of England players had already grown up with a different idea of football in their heads. Starting in the 1990s, weekly doses of the Champions League on TV brought the best of the world game into English homes that previously only caught glimpses of it every couple of years, when the international tournaments rolled around.

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So instead of idolizing players like Bryan Robson, England and Manchester United’s “Captain Fantastic” of the 1980s who threw himself into tackles like he wanted everyone involved to die, today’s players grew up wanting to emulate the likes of Ronaldinho and Thierry Henry, Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo—players of superlative skill who played with teams that kept the ball on the ground.

After decades of failure in underage football, England has lately won both the U-17 and U-20 World Cups. It is becoming plain that young English players are more tactically sophisticated, and more inclined to a technical approach to the game, than their equivalents of 20 or even 10 years ago.

Not that this would be very difficult. To get a sense of how primitive English tactical thinking used to be, consider the fate of its “Golden Generation,” that bunch of superbly talented players including David Beckham, Paul Scholes, Rio Ferdinand, Frank Lampard, Michael Owen, Steven Gerrard, John Terry, Ashley Cole, and Wayne Rooney, a group that began to emerge in the mid-1990s and notionally peaked between 2004 and ’06.

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At that time, selection for the English national team was governed by two Iron Laws. First of all, England had to play in a 4-4-2 formation, or some variant thereof, because according to an almost-unquestioned national consensus, English footballers could not perform at their best in any other system. Second, there is obviously no point having a Golden Generation if you leave some of the gold on the bench, so the other Iron Law was that all the biggest names had to play at all times.

The application of these laws created multiple problems. In Scholes, Gerrard, and Lampard, England had three of the best central midfielders in the Premier League. But in a 4-4-2, there are only two places for central midfielders: How to fit them all into the team? At Euro 2004, Sven-Göran Eriksson’s solution was to play Scholes on the left, which Scholes considered such an insult that he retired after the tournament at age 29. That simplified the problem, and yet brought England no closer to a solution.

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Gerrard and Lampard were both incredible footballers. Their performances for their clubs had established them among the very best players in the world in their positions. In theory, they had the all-round skillset to form a strong central-midfield partnership. In practice, the combination was always disastrous.

The problem was clear: They were too similar. They were both great attackers, and both preferred the glory of scoring goals to the less glamorous role of staying back to control the play from midfield. For years, they made do with an ad hoc division of the midfield tasks. Depending on the situation, if Frank goes, Stevie sits back, and if Stevie goes, Frank sits back. It was a silly fudge that left both obviously confused, inhibited, sullen, and resentful.

It’s almost incredible now to think that the international careers of two of the best English players of the past 20 years were blighted by a tactical conundrum so simple that it could be solved by any football-literate 10-year-old of today in approximately three seconds. What England had to do was change formation: drop a striker and play a three-man midfield featuring Lampard and Gerrard as twin No. 8s, with freedom to join the attack. All throughout this period, England had obvious candidates to play that third, holding midfield position: Owen Hargreaves, Michael Carrick, and Gareth Barry. And yet somehow, successive England managers failed to see the solution.

They couldn’t see it because the Iron Laws made it unthinkable. English players needed 4-4-2—nobody ever questioned why—and none of the big names could be on the bench. A switch to a three-man midfield would have been bad news for the then-face of English football, the captain, David Beckham, who performed best on the right of a 4-4-2. Playing with one striker would have meant dropping Michael Owen, who was thought to be England’s best “natural goal scorer,” whatever that means.

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On one memorable occasion in 2005, England did try the 4-3-3, with Beckham as the defensive midfielder behind the pair of Gerrard and Lampard. In a classic example of English football’s flair for branding and utter incompetence with tactics, it was styled the “quarterback” experiment. Beckham would sit behind the other pair and direct the play by spraying long passes, somewhat like a quarterback. The problem was that Beckham was almost as grotesquely ill-suited to playing defensive midfield for England as he would have been playing quarterback for the Patriots.

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As a slow, showy footballer who was easy to dribble past and was obsessed with hitting long spectacular passes, he was the opposite of what you are looking for in a defensive midfielder, who is ideally mobile and athletic, and absolutely must be strategic and team-oriented. The quarterback experiment ended in a disastrous 1–0 defeat to Northern Ireland and was immediately abandoned: The three-man midfield was a proven failure. England slipped back into the narcotic embrace of 4-4-2.

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Fast forward 13 years and the current England team is playing a flexible three-at-the-back system that in a previous age would have been regarded as bordering on witchcraft. They play in varying formations and positions all the time for their clubs. Nobody these days still thinks that English players can only play 4-4-2, with left-footers on the left and right-footers on the right. If this increased tactical awareness was the only change in English international footballers, it would have gone a long way to improving their chances.

But it’s not the only change. It may not even be the most important change. A curious word has attached itself to this England team, one that was seldom heard during the Golden Generation years. That word is likable.

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What is it that makes them likable? Well, eight goals in two World Cup matches certainly helps. However, the answer may be that they simply appear likable compared to their Golden Generation forebears. And perhaps this too has something to do with the internationalization of the Premier League.

In the Golden Generation era, the England players were also the top players at their clubs. David Beckham, Paul Scholes, and Gary Neville were part of the core group at Manchester United, while Rio Ferdinand was their best defender for almost a decade and Wayne Rooney would later become the dominant player. John Terry and Frank Lampard were the faces of Chelsea, where Ashley Cole was also a favorite, and nobody at Liverpool was bigger than Steven Gerrard, Jamie Carragher, and, in an earlier phase, Michael Owen.

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But as foreign players have come to dominate the Premier League, all that has changed. Today, the only big Premier League club whose top players are England internationals is Tottenham, where Dele Alli plays Robin to Harry Kane’s Batman in attack. None of the other England players is what you could call the franchise player for his club team.

The top players at Manchester United now are David de Gea (Spain), Paul Pogba (France), Romelu Lukaku (Belgium), and Nemanja Matic (Serbia); Marcus Rashford and Jesse Lingard are popular but as of now are still second-tier. England’s Gary Cahill is the captain of Chelsea, yet his role is largely ceremonial; the real heroes of the team are Eden Hazard (Belgium) and perhaps Willian (Brazil). Likewise at Liverpool, England’s Jordan Henderson is the club captain, but the players most idolized by the supporters are Mo Salah (Egypt), Roberto Firmino (Brazil) and Sadio Mané (Senegal). And while Raheem Sterling and Kyle Walker are big players for Manchester City, they’re not as big as Kevin de Bruyne (Belgium) and David Silva (Spain).

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What this means is that none of the current crop of England internationals has yet had the opportunity to develop the monumental self-regard that once seemed to go with being the top dog at a big English club. This appears to mean that when they meet up on international duty, they can imagine themselves as colleagues and equals rather than bitter rivals. And because England no longer has several superstars whose places in the team are taken for granted, Southgate is free to pick the best players for the best positions without worrying about the controversy that would have attended the dropping of someone with the status of Beckham or Owen.

It may also be significant that these players have not yet earned the hatred of supporters of rival clubs as many Golden Generationers did. Perhaps this squad seems likable to England fans because club football hasn’t yet taught them to hate this set of players.

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Maybe one day Liverpool supporters will despise Rashford and Lingard as once they despised Gary Neville, but that time still seems a long way off. Manchester United fans might mock the footballing ability of Jordan Henderson, but he will never inspire the same visceral dislike as Gerrard. Most importantly, there is no longer anybody in the squad like John Terry, whose misdeeds eventually left him hated by almost everybody except Chelsea fans. Many England supporters frankly struggled to get fully behind a team captained by Terry—it wasn’t as though they liked losing in tournaments, but they did like seeing John Terry cry. Now the captain is Kane, that rare and happy case of a footballer who is loved—for now—by almost everybody.

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England’s demolition job on Panama should not persuade anyone that football is coming home just yet. The English lack real quality in midfield, and Kane might be the only one of their players who would expect to make the first teams of Germany or Spain. But at least they are no longer blindly committed to tactics that are 20 years behind their competitors’. At least they are no longer picking the team on the basis of fame. The loss of these bad habits creates solid grounds for renewed English optimism. If England can win back the confidence of the supporters who had lost faith and interest in them, it will have been their best World Cup for at least 20 years.

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