Friday, March 23, 2007

It's time for another round of waffling about England

There was an article in the Guardian the other day about why England don't play like Arsenal. And, in fact, you probably wouldn't want them to. But it reminded me of something I've been wondering for a while, namely: Why can't England play like Manchester United?

I'm not suggesting that United are the be-all and end-all of the English game. But you can't argue with their dominant record this season and -- unlike, say, Chelsea -- they're racking up the wins while playing what's generally acknowledged as an attractive brand of football. They've found a balance between pretty passing and direct attacking football, which I think is what most England fans would like to see from their team.* They even (usually) play 4-4-2.

So how come they can do it and England can't? Let's compare the two teams:

In goal, we've got Edwin van der Sar for United versus Paul Robinson for England. Robinson, unlike Van der Sar, isn't a world-class keeper. There's a slight lack of confidence there that gets transferred to the defenders, but overall the team in front of him is (or ought to be) solid enough that he doesn't have to make a ton of spectacular saves just to keep them in the game.

As for that back line: United have Gary Neville, Rio Ferdinand, Nemanja Vidic and Patrice Evra. A stereotypical hard-nosed centre-pack paired with a supposedly more cultured, ball-playing one**, with a couple of fullbacks who are solid defensively but also like to get forward. For England, it's Neville and Ferdinand again, plus John Terry and Ashley Cole -- pretty much like for like.

Up front, for either team, you've got Wayne Rooney plus another striker who likes to play further up the pitch and stretch the defence. For United, that's been Louis Saha for most of this season. For England, well, Michael Owen would be the ideal choice, but for the time being Andy Johnson or Jermain Defoe is a perfectly adequate replacement. Peter Crouch is not. I don't mean to slight Crouch as a footballer -- I think he's probably just as good as Johnson or Defoe -- but if you're building your attack around Rooney, their styles just don't complement each other. And I don't think having a traditional target-man up front is so vital -- at least not as long as you're not resorting to just punting long balls towards the goal.

Midfield is where it gets a bit more complicated. United's usual line-up is Cristiano Ronaldo, Michael Carrick, Paul Scholes and Ryan Giggs. What's notable about this is that they don't have a true defensive midfielder -- and yet they're doing just fine.*** So, is this then an argument for playing Frank Lampard and Steven Gerrard together in the middle? Not necessarily. Carrick and Scholes have built up a good rapport, taking turns pushing forward and dropping back, which is more than Gerrard and Lampard have ever managed. And they've been trying since, what, Euro 2004? It's time to accept that it doesn't work and move on.

I think the problem is that Lampard and Gerrard are just more selfish players. Yes, I am still harping on that quote from Lampard about how he thinks of himself like a striker; Gerrard is slightly different in that he doesn't necessarily want to score all the time, but he does want to make the big plays -- whether that's goals, or 40-yard passes, or whatever -- and so he doesn't always make the best decisions for the team. I'd still pick him in midfield over Lampard, though, and not just because Lampard's a twat but because I think Gerrard offers more all-round. As for who to pair him up with, I suppose there's an argument to be made for Carrick, with Gerrard playing the Paul Scholes role, but I'd be inclined to say Owen Hargreaves, because I think that'd be more balanced in terms of both passing and tackling.

On the wings, we've got Cristiano Ronaldo and Ryan Giggs versus...I'm not really sure. And herein lies the problem. England don't currently have any truly world-class wingers. True, Joe Cole has been playing well, despite his conspicuous lack of a left foot, but they don't have anyone of his calibre to play on the right. They certainly don't have anyone like Cristiano Ronaldo. The question is whether they need him, or if he's just a bonus. Obviously a big part of United's success this year has been because of their quality on the flanks, but maybe someone like Aaron Lennon is good enough, if you get the rest of the team working too. (I'm still not convinced about this, but I think it's worth a shot, instead of the Steven Gerrard/Stewart Downing combination.****)

Now, there are a few legitimate reasons why England have had problems. First of all, injuries. I can't think of a single time in the past year or so when they've been able to field what I'd consider their best XI. And I've seen how United's form suffers when they have to swap in players. England also don't play together week in, week out, and it takes time to develop the sort of understanding with your teammates that you need. What bugs me is that half the time they don't even seem to try. With United, even if they're starting Park Ji-Sung and John O'Shea, the game plan is still the same; with England, there's no plan, period. Other than "stick the players out there and hope for the best."

So the bottom line is that it's a problem with the coaching. (Yeah, surprise.) Footballers are just not that bright. They need someone to give them direction and a kick in the ass when they're not performing. In the England squad, there are certain players who know they're going to get picked every time, even if they're crap, and there are certain other players who know they're probably not going to get picked, no matter how well they do. At United, I think it's down to merit -- and when it's not, it's the manager exerting his power over the players, rather than vice versa. I do bitch about it when Sir Alex sticks Wayne Rooney at left wing against Benfica and expects him to like it, but I'd rather see that than Steve McClaren shoehorning Gerrard, Carrick and Lampard all into centre midfield so nobody's feelings get hurt.

* This is leaving aside that large subset of fans who want to see England suck, so that they legitimately have something to bitch and moan about.

* In Rio's case, What this means is occasionally sauntering forward with the ball and then fucking up, combined with randomly dozing off mid-match. Which reminds me of this series of Umbro ads I saw in the last 442, which had pictures of the England players with a word for each of them -- "passion," "commitment," etc. The one they'd picked for Rio was "focused." Oh how I laughed.

*** I am thoughtfully sparing you all my rant on why Liverpool don't just play Steven Gerrard and Xabi Alonso together in midfield, instead of having Momo Sissoko in there giving up possession every 30 seconds.

**** Oh god, Stewart Downing. I despair, really


Anonymous said...

I found someone who I couldn't agree more with except for Carrick who is as overrated as Lampard and Sussoko or Sissucko who manages to lose the ball too many times. CoachMom

Jen said...

Carrick's been all right for United this season, but I'm still kind of underwhelmed by him. Hence why I probably wouldn't pick him to start for England.