After on the first round of games at Euro 2012, two teams that stand out as being technically inferior to the rest are England and Ireland. Whilst the argument is there that, due to their thrashing by Russia, the Czech Republic are the weakest side, they were simply overawed by an opposition who were deadly on the counter attack. They also had a creative midfielder in Rosicky, a type of player absent in the English and Irish sides. But why?
4-2-3-1 may be the popular formation in international football at present, but this doesn’t necessarily equate to being the most dynamic. However, whilst even the previously defensive Italians rejected their tactical stereotype, both England and Ireland played a rigid 4-4-1-1 formation, with a complete lack of creativity so depressing that questions need to be asked.
First of all, a slight disclaimer. England and Ireland are not even part of the same British entity. In football terms, conversely, they are strikingly similar. Whether this is due to the prodigious Irish talent being taken on by English clubs is a future debate, but the notion exists that coaching in the UK and Ireland is woeful in comparison to continental Europe.
At grass roots level, where I coach, I encounter a wide range of problems. Firstly, by the time I inherit a group of youngsters at the age of 11 their ideas are pretty set. They would have had a year of playing competitive, eleven-a-side football on a full size pitch. Thanks to this, they are encouraged to exploit the space by launching the ball forwards, where invariable a small, rapid striker is racing through to score.
Whilst there are obvious discrepancies across grass roots football, school teams are predominantly encouraged to play a long ball game. During a game last season, I was frustrated at the opposition tactics, and called out that we needed to defend deeper because all the opposition are doing is playing long ball. A disparaging response from an opposition parent was that this tactic was working, as they were 3-1 up at the time. They lost 5-3, unable to cultivate an alternative tactic. Nevertheless, the juicy fruit of success is always something that a competitive football player wants a bite of. For some, school football will be the nadir of their footballing career, but it all relates to the longer term objectives.
One aspect of play that is evident in both England and Ireland’s play is the inability at maintaining possession. This is a cultural notion, deep rooted within years of simplistic coaching. Qualities such as passion, determination and physicality are only truly effective when complimented by ball retention, calmness, short passing and interchanging.
Ireland in particular were abysmal, having two holding midfielders who lacked the full discipline to hold, and a false nine in Robbie Keane who was ill-equipped to play the role. England looked brighter, but were once again hindered by Steven Gerrard, a man whose reckless enthusiasm disguises his one trick long pass. By chasing players across the park, he leaves a large space to be exploited. If France had a player in the mould of Arshavin, England would have been soundly beaten.
Things will never improve for the ‘home’ nations, and Scotland and Wales are even worse. Being unable to be comfortable on the ball is a huge limitation in modern football. Barcelona have exacerbated matters by playing beautifully, but the Spanish national side, it could be suggested on the basis of the Italy game, are in danger of becoming a parody of themselves.
In spite of this, coaching in the UK and Ireland needs to improve. Is it realistic to create small, six or seven a side pitches so that young footballers can be taught the art of the game, rather than learn the physicality? Playing without fear is vital, as the creative, free-spirited geniuses need an environment where they will not be castigated for their mistakes. Euro 2012 has seen most nations with an artist in the team, but England and Ireland are being exposed on an international stage.