Sportsthoughts (152) – Why were England so bad against Iceland?

So we lost 2-1 to Iceland in the last 16 of the Euros. Had we won, we would have been up against France in the quarters, and didn’t have high hopes about that one. But it would have been par for the course – or at least the course until recently, when we have been losing much earlier (last two World Cups as well as yesterday).

I listened to a BBC 5 Live discussion tonight about what went wrong. As host Mark Chapman said, this is a biennial discussion. Every World Cup, every Euro.  Hope turns quickly to pain.

But why is that?

After the ritual slagging of the manager and the players, the discussion turned inevitably to the structure of football in England – the dominance of the Premier League, which is an international festival, the way the game is coached, the win at all costs mentality when the kids are young. The same themes as ever.

I don’t think it’s that bad.

We have good players, though it is true that some don’t get the chance in the big Premier League teams. But what the team seems to lack at tournaments is really basic stuff: a plan, a formation, confidence, leadership. That is in large part a managerial issue.

Here’s an example of why it is so. The England rugby team, immensely talented, badly managed, had a disastrous World Cup in the autumn of 2015. Finally we got a good coach – the Australian Eddie Jones. He’s tweaked the side, with the awesome Itoje the key addition; but largely the same team as in the World Cup has won the Six Nations and just beaten Australia three times in Australia. The latter is unprecedented. Each game was so close, but England battled to victory each time. How did that change? It can only be organisation, structure, belief. Imparted by the manager, but quickly absorbed by the players, who were always good.

Contrast with last night. Credit to Iceland – they had a plan, a structure, and tons of belief. It won them the game with 30% possession. They are a good team – they knocked Holland out of the qualifiers. Undoubtedly we underestimated them – but we should still have beaten them.

Instead it was possibly the most embarrassing England performance ever. By the end, Harry Kane, a fine centre forward, top scorer in the Premier League last season, couldn’t trap the ball, hit a free kick ten yards beyond the awaiting players, and off the pitch. It looked like he’d had a footballing breakdown. Confidence completely shot. I feel sorry for him -what brought that about?

Well, I can only surmise, but it seems like clueless management. The players are good. But they need a plan, a structure. Need to have a plan B. need to know what is expected of them. It looked like no-one knew last night. And there are no leaders to take a grip on the pitch, if things are going wrong mid-half. That’s about confidence. Why weren’t Cahill, Rooney, Hart doing that? It was as if no-one knew what they should do.

That has to be traced back to Roy Hodgson.

His reputation when he became England manager was as a fairly conservative manger who favoured 4-4-2. And 4-4-2 is still what English players instinctively understand. But he bowed to the pressures and tried all sorts of different formations, and ended up not having a clue what he wanted. And so last night we played 4-3-3, with Sterling, whose confidence had gone, and Sturridge, a central striker, out wide. Guess what, it failed. The central striker, Kane, didn’t have to take corners any more, but was still taking free kicks, instead of being in the box to score. Rooney was converted to a deep midfielder at the last minute. He did it quite well, but it disrupted the system that worked well when we beat Germany and France in friendlies. And so I could go on. The point is, it was all improvisation at the last minute, and against the national instinct. Against the grain. With, clearly, little buy-in.

So with a classic 4-4-2 that everyone understood, what could we have done? Kane and Vardy could have done the business upfront. Kane the target man, Vardy roaming, exploiting his pace. Delle Alli or Rooney (not both) could have been the forward-lying midfielder, the No10. A couple of players could have patrolled the middle – maybe Lallana and Wilshere, or Henderson; and Dier could have provided the anchor. The full backs could still have bombed up and down, but with a bit more cover. The particular personnel aren’t the point. It’s the structure, the plan. Players knowing what they have to do – and how to adjust when things go wrong. It’s generally easier to adapt when you know what you should be doing in the first place.

So, maybe it’s the structure of English football that determines whether we can win a World Cup in the long term; but to make at least the semis of these quite weak Euros, it just needed good management and the confidence which would have flowed from that. We didn’t have it. Roy failed the test, just as he did at the Brazil World Cup. He should have gone then.

Of course the players – those pampered, obscenely wealthy players – must take the blame too; but in fairness to them, they need to know what they are supposed to be doing. They clearly didn’t.

So who should be the next manager? Who should we pin our hopes on? You know, I have no idea. I’d love it to be Jose Mourinho, but he’s just started at Man Utd. I’m erring towards an Englishman who really understands the heart of English football, even in these Premier League days. A man who is prepared to delve into the Championship if he can’t get the defenders he needs from the Premier League options (which are thin). My God, I’m almost talking myself into Sam Allardyce, although I hated having him at West Ham.  Some of the stars might object, but, you know why not just leave them out and get a team that plays with passion and discipline.

No, no, no, not Sam! But someone similar. Accept our limitations and build on our strengths.

It might get us to the quarter finals at least.

About John S

I'm blogging about the things I love outside work: music, sport, culture, London, with some photos to illustrate aspects of our wonderful city. And anything else that I happen to think is worth writing about!
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9 Responses to Sportsthoughts (152) – Why were England so bad against Iceland?

  1. Couldn’t agree with you more. But at the individual contribution level I wondered had Vardy been brought in earlier, would it have made a difference.

  2. Was yelling at the TV for Hodgson to bring on Rashford. He did, but far too late. Despite being on for only 5 minutes or so, arguably England’s man of the match!

    • John S says:

      Very worrying, all this shouting at the telly. I do it too! I agree, Rashford should have come on with 25 minutes to go, so he could make a real impact. And he should have replaced Kane, not Rooney.

  3. dc says:

    Rooney was too bad for words- he barely hit a pass that landed and lost the ball repeatedly. he’s a top player but had a shocker on the night.
    I missed the first 3 goals but when i watched from about 40 mins in , the stress levels were etched in their faces and you could see it translate into the play. Handling pressure is something these guys do at their clubs but I think it reaches a new level in internationals and several are not battle hardened as international class players and it really showed.
    I thinks it’s too easy to say it’s Roy’s fault. He was right to go for a young squad but a couple of setbacks in a sudden death game and they can struggle. As for Hart being a leader…it’s not easy instilling confidence in others when you’re letting goals in and repeatedly making mistakes.

    • John S says:

      It’s not all Roy’s fault obviously – the players must take ultimate responsibility. But the lack of structure and a clear plan meant they had little to fall back on when the pressure mounted. Agree Rooney was poor – he looked like he was struggling in the heat. I think that’s been a problem in the past, and might be something to do with lifestyle (eg, smoking).

  4. Resa says:

    It is one of the very few UK sports stories I have ever seen covered on Canadian & American television. It was big news here.

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