Now there has been some time for reflection, some space for analysis. The over the top disbelief can be dispelled with and the usual “inquisition” into what went wrong, again, can begin. Sack the coach, the players, cut their pay and give them a break in the premier league season. All of these are trotted out every time England is struggling in international football. Yet the coach keeps changing, a lot of the players too, it is too simplistic to look for immediate changes to solve the problem.
First we should look at the key question, how badly did England really do? What do we actually expect from them? Perhaps beating Iceland is a realistic expectation, but winning the cup or even making the final? Let’s begin by analysing England’s players. Does England have better players in their team than a lot of other countries? Clearly they don’t, most of England’s starting eleven would not be counted as the best players in their club sides. The premier league is considered a strong league in World terms. This is likely to be true, but the best premier league teams are not getting into the later stages of the Champions League. The better premier leagues best players are often foreign, such as Sergio Aguero, Riyad Mahrez or Alexis Sanchez. The best Englishmen, like Harry Kane, are young and inexperienced, including having never played in the Champion’s league. Do we look at a team like Poland as serious contenders, or Wales? They have players far superior in track record to that of England in Lewandowski and Bale. The individual talent in England’s team is by no means superior to what many other European countries have at their disposal and they are certainly lacking a player who can be considered amongst the world’s best. This might indicate that in reality they are just one of the average teams in the tournament. Considering the tournament has 24 teams, making the last 16 perhaps the last 8 would be roughly what you would expect.
England also appear to have many players of a similar, perhaps above average standard, this makes team selection very difficult. Any coach will be tempted to chop and change the side to find “a magic formula” or on medical advice. But evidence is pointing towards the priority of using the same players every game; forget fatigue and work-load management. Leicester, Iceland, Portugal all had basically the same team for all their games. England changed half of it every time. With organisation and tactics being an integral part of the game understanding of the other players on the pitch is of great importance. Recent evidence in sports medicine suggests that overall work load doesn’t actually cause injuries; it is significant fluctuations that may be more to blame. The medical team may be to blame for the culture of rotation and resting players. Alexis Sanchez has cited never taking a day off as his key to preventing injury. If this fear is removed would Roy Hodgson have played the same side every time?
Another criticism often levelled is that the players do not care due to their astronomic pay. “They are so rich they aren’t bothered”. Can this argument really make sense to anyone? Do the German’s get paid very little or Cristiano Ronaldo? What about Novak Djokovic, Andy Murray, Rodger Federer, they didn’t give up winning once they had made enough to be comfortable for life. Something clearly drives sportsmen above and beyond money. A player’s career is defined by how they perform; financial reward is only one barometer of that performance. I am sure many players would be very happy to have a summer of holiday and rest if they only cared about their club performance.
It used to be considered an English problem that somehow “English mentality”, whatever that is, prohibited high performance. But clearly England cricket, cycling, rugby and Olympic teams have all had great performances in just the last decade. You cannot argue their “Englishness” is holding them back.
The coach has been changed every few years for more than two decades. England has appointed coaches from England, from abroad, experienced and inexperienced. None of them have managed to inspire a great performance. Are the FA selecting the coach with the best CV, or analysing what an international football coach really needs? Producing a good league team means buying players, developing them over time, producing consistency. Managing the ups and downs but ultimately trying to accumulate the most points. If your aim is to finish mid-table it may not matter if you lose to Arsenal and Man City twice each if your team beats all the bottom 10 teams. The demands for a tournament coach are different. You need to blend players from different clubs and styles, you can’t buy in any talent, you need to inspire on the day performances. Perhaps the FA should look more to a manager with a great record in cup performance.
Another likely issue is England player’s lack of diverse experience, exposure to a variety of playing styles and matches. Almost no Englishmen play in any other major leagues. They are developed for the Premier League in style and tactics. Perhaps these assets hold them back in international football. Arsene Wenger regularly “eases” new foreign players into the league over many months acknowledging that the style and pace is likely different to the leagues they move from. Knowing how to beat Stoke City maybe very different from how you beat Portugal.
There are many diverse and interdependent contributors to the underperformance of England in football. To expect much to change quickly, or on the back of just changing the coach would be unwise. But margins in high level sport are often smaller than they appear, meaning you can always carry that little bit of (perhaps misguided) hope.