Fever Pitch: England will never play football like Spain or Brazil - but there are other ways to win
Some fans and critics have developed an obsession with possession - but the team's natural game can be just as thrilling and effective, says Ed Bearryman
Turn to any of the newspaper backpages this morning and you’re sure to find accounts of how England’s ‘inability to keep the ball’ against Brazil in the Maracana on Sunday points to a wider malaise in English football.
The idea being that to fail in mastering one of the game’s fundamentals – passing the ball to someone in the same coloured shirt – should be the source of great shame to the nation.
But maybe it’s time to get real about our possession obsession. It’s unfortunate (especially now that those coloured shirts are supplied by Nike) but it appears England just can’t do it.
Anyway, the fascination has only taken root recently thanks to the emergence of statistical science in the game (we can probably, if we want to, find out exactly how many times Wayne Rooney scratches his left nipple during 90 minutes these days) and the brilliance of both Barcelona and Spain’s tiki-taka regimes.
Before this, nobody spent much time poring over possession statistics, especially when England were walloping the Germans 5-1 in their own backyard in 2001. If they had, they’d have seen that Sven Goran Eriksson’s men spent just 39% of that match controlling the ball, even less than Roy Hodgson’s group at the weekend.
The point is that we’ve never truly embraced the idea of the ball as a vehicle of expression. In the English game, it’s still very much the means to an end of moving the entire team up the pitch as quickly as possible.
How else does one explain the persistent production of Big Men Up Top (think Andy Carroll, Peter Crouch) and the ‘agricultural defenders’ (Phil Jagielka, Michael Dawson) who feed them.
And if we haven’t learnt from our more cosmopolitan chums by now, perhaps we’re never going to. Our football team doesn’t travel the world to adapt to an evolving game, rather in an attempt to smother it with our own blueprint for how the sport should be played.
Just like the way scores of British holidaymakers decamp en masse to southern Spain in order to eat fried breakfasts, drink in British pubs and watch Eastenders, English football imposes, it rarely innovates.
In that sense, the team itself can come to embody the characteristics of a collective troupe of Brits Abroad.
Phil Jagielka, for example, defends like an Englishman ordering dinner in a Spanish restaurant; with a slow, relentless drone of unsublety.
In the Maracana, James Milner turned the kind of hue only a British holidaymaker on a beach can manage, proving that not only can mad dogs and Englishmen go out in the sun, they’re also quite skilled at careering around in it at 100 miles per hour, as if they were operating in a blustery autumnal afternoon somewhere outside of Harrogate.
These approaches are never going to win over the aesthetes, and won’t see their perpetrators go into any hall of fame but, as in Munich in 2001 and Brazil on Sunday, they can be both thrilling and effective.
Besides, life with this England team has never been as entirely unrefined as critics like to suggest.
Wayne Rooney, for example, has often provided flashes of brilliant individual skill even if the group as a whole couldn’t take his lead. On Sunday, he was back to something like his technical best. At times he had the air of the bemused holiday rep – embarrassed by his countrymen’s shortcomings and desperately trying to corral the party into something resembling coherence, with increasing impatience – but his goal was evidence enough that he can still spark this side into life.
Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain’s explosive finish had done the same job earlier in the second half, although he relied mostly on the 'exuberance of youth'; a football cliche that sounds complimentary but which essentially means bobbing about in a directionless stupour, like a precocious seven year old relentlessly bombing a communal pool with no regard for his feloow holidaymakers.
All the same, that boyish enthusiasm of Oxlade-Chamberlain’s did provoke a fight back from a previously spiritless England, further adding weight to Gary Neville’s theory that the old guard should be flushed out in favour of some energetic new blood.
This is what Roy Hodgson will focus on for the remainder of the qualifying campaign: complementing a few jaded gems with the vibrancy of youth, in a bid to secure that elusive spot at Brazil 2014.
He understands what few others seem to grasp. England are not Spain, or Brazil for that matter. It’s time for the rest of us to stop fooling ourselves they ever could be.
Ed Bearryman is features editor at Match of the Day magazine