Arsenal's Wilshere Wrong About England's Style Of Play (But It's Not His Fault)...
21 year old Englishman from Hitchin makes ill-considered comments about who exactly should be allowed to play for England? Big deal, we’ve all been young and quick to spout off stuff we think is a clarion call but is really guff fuelled by the p*ss and wind of youth.
Yet when the same 21-year-old, touted from pillar to post as England’s creative saviour and a future captain says the following, it should be taken with far more than a pinch of old holborn. “England should stick to what they’ve got,” said Wilshere ahead of England’s game with Montenegro. “We have to remember what we are, we are English and we tackle hard and we are tough on the pitch and we are hard to beat. You think of Spain and you think of technical, but you think of England and you think they are brave and they tackle hard. You have to remember that.”
Had he finished with a flourish of “me and me Mum and me Dad and me Gran and a bucket of vindaloo” and volleyed his microphone with a wail of “have it” the effect would’ve been similar. Imagine Pirlo, Alonso, Xavi et al espousing the virtue of kicking lumps out of people and being hard to break down. Yet although I winced when I read the comments, he’s not actually all wrong, but the fact that he chose to highlight this side of the game rather than the more aesthetic is a worry. And I blame one man.
Roy Hodgson is a manager rooted in pragmatism. This we know. He makes his teams hard to beat, he under-promises, he reminds players that they can’t take technically superior players on a their own game, he preached the values of a long ball game away to Ukraine, he loves being the underdog because he is, and always has been, an underdog. And while his appointment and style might have been right for the here and now (or Euro 2012 to be precise), if his pragmatism and half empty nature leak down from the coaching pitches of St George’s Park into the minds and actions of wannabe coaches and impressionable 21-year-olds with the potential to really kick-on then we are truly in the mire.
Where I agree with Wilshere is the need for an identity. I coach 11-year-olds in the top division of a large league that spans Kent and Sussex and we come up against a lot of a academy franchises and skills centre teams in tournaments and cup competitions. 95% of them are now trying to play the ‘Spanish’ way, or indeed their coaches’ approximation of the Spanish way, which in this case means they pass for the sake of passing, ‘start again’ as a point of principle from the corner flag and lack an end product. You won’t be surprised to know that if you play a high-tempo pressing game against these teams they often crumble, because they are blinded by the need to always pass.
Back to Wilshere. I wholly agree that English values, committed, brave etc should be part of the identity of the national team. The thing is, all good and great football teams are committed and brave, it’s the minimum any athlete should given when competing. The big question is, what should be the English style of play? Spain press relentlessly and keep the ball better than any team in history but also work incredibly hard to get the ball back, Germany press high and look to force mistakes to play on the counter. Quick transitional football aided and abetted by retention when needed and outstanding technicians who can interchange at will and physically best most opponents.
Long term, people with far better coaching qualifications and much more experience than me should set a blueprint for this identity and, as in Germany, get the clubs on board. Hoddle back on the FA Payroll is a start, as should be an increase in the frequency of B and A license courses and a reduction in the cost and red-tape pre-requirements that stop a lot of people making the next step.
In the short-term though, the style, identity, philosophy, system, whatever you want to call it should be far closer to Mourinho’s 4-2-3-1. I know England set up like this, but England and Roy, in big matches especially, are set up not to lose, with a striker on the left and an attritional winger like Milner on the right. He might not have the world’s best technicians to call upon, he might not have young players who have as much experience as he wants, but what he does have, in the Barkleys, Morrisons, Sterlings, Lallanas et al is a group of young midifelders unencumbered by fear who are risk takers, players who want to excite, players who would thrive in Mourinho’s version of that formation.
A version that asks for quick transitions from front to back, the three behind the main striker interchanging at will, the pivot players opening up the space in front of the defence to create angles to feed the movement in front of them. Sturridge, Gerrard, Rooney, Wilshere, players with a little bit extra who could easily play this ay are being asked to play in straight lines, lump the ball forward and not concede. Mourinho might be accused of winning ugly, but I’m sure most fans would prefer to see something approaching exciting combined with a zeal to win the matches rather than timid anti-football that fails to capture the imagination and leaves the players open to criticism. Negativity only breeds one thing, and nobody wants that as an identity.