Southgate’s diagnosis of England’s woes misses the mark

It was baffling, and slightly wearying, to hear the latest opinion by an England manager on why England consistently fail to perform with any sort of cohesive identity in international football. For Southgate, the problem lies in England’s “small-island mentality”, which seems to suggest he thinks they are prone to lacking a certain hardened edge to them that is required to compete with the best in the big tournaments. However, it is worrying that an England manager once again seems unable or unwilling to voice the truth that England’s play reveals deeper structural problems in their national football culture than simply the wrong attitude. For in the way England consistently fail to bring out the best in players who fit in so seamlessly in their multinational club teams, in the manner in which their players seem to resort to the hoof and hit-it long ball tactics that are symptomatic of a team with no real long-term plan of how to train and play, the players reveal that the problem begins in the clubs themselves. Whereas Spain and Germany prioritise their nationals, allowing them fair chances to make it into the youth levels of elite clubs, and thereby to carry a certain style of play from the school-grounds to the national team, English clubs increasingly block places at the top in favour of foreign talent as part of their search for any edge over their rivals. English players who make it at that level are then exposed to continental styles of play in which they thrive, but the crucial thread from the tributaries of the talent pool to the beating heart of English football has been lost. The chance to create an inner language of football connected to the way the game is played at all levels across the country, like the Spanish have done with their superior technique or the Germans have most recently and impressively done by revamping their system after the 2006 World Cup, is lost. The players who come into the national team appear as foreigners disconnected by any congruent national style and lack the know-how to create a certain style of play on the hoof.

If England consistently focus on pressure, or the attitude of the players, they will miss the way their national culture of football is being eroded by the commercial juggernaut of the Premier League. The disconnect between the FA and the Premier League lies at the heart of England’s problems, and is merely another aspect of the stifling impact the money in football is having on the organic enthusiasm for the game. If there are fewer opportunities to make it at the top-end of English football, where the money is greatest, it may be that teenagers and young children eventually turn away from a career in the lower leagues in favour of something more financially attractive. The earlier young children turn away from football, the sooner the next generation will do the same as the tradition of playing football is slowly eroded. This is what English football faces and what must be arrested if the enthusiasm of English fans and infectious love of football in that country is still valued enough by those in charge not to let it wither away.

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