‘Breaking down’ is perhaps a convenient title for an article about the England football team because it is exactly what the star studded side have been struggling with recently – dismantling lesser teams with confidence and being clinical enough the beat the bigger teams. Gareth Southgate’s tenure as England manager has been underlined by a certain nervousness in attack, and a general conservativeness in the play that makes every fan groan as yet another pass goes sideways or backwards.
The recent 0-0 draw against Germany was not the first example of a disappointing attacking performance. England scored just 18 times through 10 qualifying games, and that was in a group that contained Malta; a team with a -22 goal difference. When you consider the fact that both Germany and Belgium bagged 43 goals each you start to look at England’s numbers with slightly more disappointment.
So where is it all going wrong? Why can’t Harry Kane score four goals every time he plays for England like he does for Tottenham? There is perhaps no one correct answer to those questions, but there are certainly some factors that might be contributing to the scoring problems.
A European Championship hangover
For many England fans the memory of being knocked out of the European Championships by lowly Iceland (who actually topped their World Cup qualification group, so maybe it wasn’t actually that embarrassing…) is too harrowing to relive, so imagine being one of the players who had to play in that game.
People often underestimate the importance of a player’s mental state. A striker’s confidence can be the difference between them burying a decent chance or fluffing their lines. The same is true of defenders – is a nervous centre back going to make a risky last-ditch challenge? Probably not, and that could well be a problem for England, especially when we face better opposition than we did in qualifying.
Many of the players who played against Iceland also played throughout the World Cup qualification campaign, and fans of the England national team have historically put a huge amount of pressure on the players. To say that the hopes and dreams of an entire nation rest on the shoulders of Gareth Southgate’s squad is not an overstatement at all, and it is perhaps unsurprising that there is a certain conservativeness in the play as England’s finest look to avoid further humiliation.
The lack of a real playmaker
If you take a look at the average England squad chosen by Southgate there is a distinct lack of a real world-class playmaker amongst their ranks. If you look at the Germany line-up from Friday’s game it was clear that Mesut Ozil was the key man in Joachim Low’s midfield, and England don’t really have a player of the creative calibre of the Arsenal man.
There is little dispute that Southgate’s midfield is lined with some real talent, but nobody quite has the eye for a killer pass that players like Ozil or most of Spain’s midfielders possess. Both Dele Alli and Adam Lallana are more fitted to goal scoring roles than being playmakers, and the latter has been injured for much of qualifying. Elsewhere players like Raheem Sterling are hugely talented but play in wide roles, thus require good service from central players to be effective.
However what really hampers England’s creativity is the fact that Southgate has such an abundance of defensive minded midfielders available to him. The likes of Eric Dier, Fabian Delph, Jake Livermore and Jordan Henderson are all players who are better in holding midfield roles and specialise in breaking up play. While this means that England are more defensively solid, as proved by the clean sheet against Germany, it does prove detrimental when going forward.
Players in unfamiliar positions
One of the consequences of having multiple talented players in the same positions is the need to play a few of them out of position in order to fit them all in. This is perhaps most evident when Adam Lallana is fit as either he or Dele Alli are often shifted out to the right hand side to accommodate them both. With the emergence of Raheem Sterling this season this may well change, but the problem continues with substitutions.
Daniel Sturridge, Jamie Vardy and Marcus Rashford are often go to substitutes for Southgate, but all three of them end up playing wide due to the fact that Harry Kane, who is arguably England’s best player and the man most capable of changing a game, needs to stay on the pitch at all times. While Rashford plays wide for Manchester United there is a debate about whether that is his best position, but there is little debate that Sturridge and Vardy are better as number nines.
Bringing these players on in wide areas then is often fruitless, but England also lack enough wingers to rotate that position so the players who are told to play there often drift inside. This means that the fullbacks (or wing backs in a three at the back formation), who are admittedly some of the more talented players in the squad, create all of the width. Against better opponents however the fullbacks are frequently pinned back, meaning that the England team loses almost all of its width and creativity from the wide areas.
Identifying problems such as these is the first step to solving them, but in truth there aren’t many easy fixes. The only way for England’s players to regain their confidence is by winning important games, or by Southgate removing those who are feeling the effects of any anxiety. However anxious players aren’t likely to win big games, and removing them only knocks their confidence further.
Finding a playmaker also isn’t easy because that sort of role is not one that is particularly popular or inherent in the English style of football, and it is likely not really sought after or taught in academies. This means that unless a once in a generation player comes along who happens to possess the right attributes, England will have to make do with what they have.
A lack of depth in the wide areas is perhaps the easiest problem to solve as there are a lot of English wingers around, but the question is whether they are better than the players who are forced to play wide currently. Is Andros Townsend better out wide than Jamie Vardy? A lot of people would argue no, but that does nothing to change the fact that the Leicester striker should be playing down the middle.
English football in general needs a total overhaul if we are to compete with the biggest footballing nations. At present the players don’t have the ability to express themselves and the team lacks a real identity to take into major tournaments. Big changes are needed before fans can enjoying watching the national team again.
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