You know how when you watch the England football team, it feels as though the players have never even met before? You wonder why there’s no anticipation of each other’s passes or movement, why crosses arrive into barren wildernesses, hopeful 60 yard balls bounce into touch, and it seems like the ball has one of those security devices installed in it that supermarkets use to prevent their trolleys from being stolen – it looks like it can only travel sideways or backwards. As for tempo, have you ever listened to a Nick Drake album?
There’s a very simple explanation for this; the players quite possibly haven’t met on the pitch before. During the 12 matches that the current England manager, Gareth Southgate, has been in charge, he has averaged four changes to the starting line-up from one match to the next. As Joe Hart has played in 10 of the 12 games, these changes have almost always been to outfield players. Consequently, almost half the outfield team is different each time the national side plays – and often more so.
Surely though, to steal the hapless Prime Minister’s slogan, strong and stable leadership on the pitch should be able to overcome this to some extent, you might be thinking? Maybe so, but unfortunately Southgate has switched the captaincy eight times during his tenure. Wayne Rooney, Jordan Henderson, Joe Hart, Gary Cahill and Harry Kane have all had a play with the skippers’ armband – none of them more than four times.
But this doesn’t account for why our top class attacking players haven’t been able to establish a working relationship and hammer home the goals against very weak opposition, you may rightly suggest. Of our attack-minded players, only Dele Alli has begun more than half the matches (nine) since Southgate took over. Harry Kane and Raheem Sterling have both started six times, Adam Lallana five times, Marcus Rashford four times, Daniel Sturridge three times, Jamie Vardy twice and Jermaine Defoe once.
In fact, only seven outfield players have started more than half the games (and not necessarily at the same time) and only one outfield player has started more than 75% of the matches (Gary Cahill).
These statistics are devastating for multiple reasons. Motivation and team spirit are built around feeling like part of a team – as is a players’ respect for the manager. If you are constantly being dropped, you are likely to feel resentment toward both the manager and the player(s) replacing you. In such a haphazard selection system, a player is also less likely to feel an affinity with the shirt or play his heart out to retain it when he gets his chance, partly no doubt due to fears that he will be dropped next time, regardless of his performance. If England caps are made to feel like a lottery, don’t be surprised when performances resemble a lucky dip.
Bizarrely, as shown above, these problems are only exaggerated when a light is shone upon the forward selections, and with predictable results. This England team were only been able to score 18 times in 10 matches in a group that included Malta, Lithuania and Slovenia. To give this some context, Germany and Belgium netted 43 times, Spain 36 times and Portugal 32 times. Only Iceland scored fewer goals (16) than England as group winners but they had quite a tough group.
This awful reality that leaves the fans so dispirited, presumably further undermining the teams’ performances, can only be due to Southgate selecting a different attacking line-up in every game, given the general poor quality of England’s opponents in the qualifying group. How can they possibly develop the necessary understanding or confidence required to breakdown stubborn international defences? Ironically, Southgate has often pointed towards opposing teams ‘parking the bus’ as a reason for our lack of success in front of goal, without apparently being aware that the one solution available to solve this conundrum is being thwarted by him.
Most people’s ideal attacking four for the world cup next year, injuries aside, will be Lallana, Alli, Rashford and Kane, yet they have never played 90 minutes together to date. They did all start once – four months ago against Scotland, but two of them were substituted in the second half – just before Scotland scored two goals!
At a glance it appears as though England qualified comfortably for Russia 2018. But injury time goals against both Scotland and Slovenia, and only a penalty against Lithuania, give gloss to what was actually a rather uncomfortable affair.
If England wants to avoid the embarrassment of the last two international tournaments, Southgate must settle upon his best team and formation and play it in every game going forward between now and June next year. International football is not the same as club football. You don’t get months to work on different systems and you don’t need to rotate the squad due to the amount of matches played. Being able to focus on the very best scenario ought to be viewed as a luxury, yet successive England managers seem to be utterly befuddled by this and contrive to turn an advantage into a disadvantage. Focus Gareth, focus.