Could we be more? Part One: “Our Style”

(by Hugo Saye)

With the club season drawing to a close attention now begins to turn to the international scene and this summer’s World Cup. Having qualified strongly England will be confident of a good performance, but looking deeper there is much more to the game in this country than four weeks in South Africa. Starting here, I will be presenting three articles- ranging from the core issues to the slightly abstract- that ask if English football is fulfilling its potential, or whether it could be improved. All I offer is opinion and of course all discussion, whether in agreement or not, is encouraged.

“You in England are playing the style we continentals used so many years ago, with much physical strength but no method, no technique…When it came to modern football, the Britons missed the evolution.”

In the early-mid twentieth century Argentinean football gave rise to what became known as la nuestra- simply translated to ‘our style’. La nuestra was a celebration of skill and flair; of open, attacking football with its roots in the tango halls of Buenos Aires and the Argentine joy of individualistic expression. There is a common anecdote of two Independiente inside-forwards from the 1920s, Alberto Lalín and Manuel Seoane, which goes some way to encapsulating this spirit. With the team’s beautiful game struggling to make an impact, Seoane encourages his teammate to adopt a more direct style of play and before long this results in the opening goal. In celebrating his goal and the success of his thinking, Seoane runs towards an unenthusiastic Lalín who simply replies: ‘Yes, but I’m not having fun’.

We are not without ‘our style’ in England too. Our style is direct, physical, aggressive and gritty and lying largely at the opposite end of the artistic scale to la nuestra. Of course the ideal lies somewhere towards the centre, a hallowed middle ground where that elusive balance between beauty and efficiency can be found, and we are slowly starting to fumble towards it but there are still far too many in this country who- unlike the Argentineans who have moved on- refuse to acknowledge the inherent weaknesses of “our way”.

Throughout the land, from pubs to Premier League dressing rooms, we find people besotted with an absurd form of romanticism, spouting clichés about English grit and determination, that foreigners “don’t like it up ‘em” and that with a solid (but of course ‘honest’) kick followed by a hopeful thud to the big man up top our boys can overcome superior technique and leave those bewildered, Alice-band wearing foreigners disorientated on the battlefield, rueing their fancy stepovers and quick, intricate passing.

Of course this nonsense was firmly disproved by the diminutive artists of Spain and their wonderful victory at the 2008 European Championships- a tournament that was infamously devoid of ‘English grit’- and compounded by Barcelona’s equally inspiring domination of the club game in the year or two following.

Add to that the fact that the greatest showmen of all- those twinkle toed boys from Brazil- enjoy the most successful national team in the sport’s history and remind ourselves that in 44 years our steel and determination have only twice got us further than the quarter final of a major tournament (and not once beyond the semi final), and it becomes increasingly difficult to see the logic behind our tragic misreading of the modern game. As fathers of the world’s favourite sport we seem blinded by a blustering arrogance that binds us to our old ways and instills in us a refusal to accept that maybe we don’t know best after all.

The scary thing is that the deficit in our game has been evident for decades. The quote with which I opened this article is from an Argentinean and it could have been uttered yesterday. In actual fact they are the words of Helenio Herrera, then Barcelona manager, after his side had recorded a 9-2 aggregate win over Wolves in the European Cup way back in 1960. England’s problem was so obvious to him back then, but 50 years later his words are still startlingly relevant as our nation is handicapped by a kind of ignorant machismo.

Fortunately recent years have seen our national team achieve moderate success and stability under the guidance of heavily remunerated foreign coaches (Sven Goran Eriksson is often criticised but three quarter final appearances from three tournament attempts is a sound record), and in Wayne Rooney, Frank Lampard and Joe Cole we are not without players capable of a deft touch and a clever pass. But they are still the minority and the prevalent way of thinking from those native to this land still veers along the route of long balls and a physical battle, and the danger comes when these ideas are passed on to the next generation. When a friend of mine was at primary school, the sole piece of tactical direction his coach offered the team was “thud and run”.

As a result of poisoning our youngsters with such blunt advice they end up light-years behind those of many other nations in terms of technical ability. In other, more successful countries children of 11 or 12 are left in the streets with their friends to enjoy the game, to explore it and the limits of what can be done by simply playing with a football. This is where they intuitively learn the sort of ball control and technique that becomes second nature and leaves so many British defenders floundering in their wake as they get older. And when formal structures are imposed it is done so by specialist coaches who make a career in guiding one specific age group, not who see the under 11s as a stepping stone to bigger things.

At such ages in this country they have already been playing competitive football for years, having drilled into them a win-at-all-costs, ‘route one’ mentality which becomes hopelessly flawed when competing with superior technique in the adult game. In fact, by their teenage years many have breathed a thankful sigh of relief and given the game up altogether, associating football with nothing more than screaming parents and being told to “get stuck in.”

By no means am I saying that our children would be better off abandoned, but surely the over-competitive nature of the game at that tender age needs to be eliminated. The FA, with the help of Ray Winston, has launched an important campaign against such over-bearing parents but they are giving it precious little publicity beyond the confines of their own website. They need to push it further and think again about the whole way we look at, and make our children play, the game.

Once the youth are allowed to flourish under the ideals of football being about fun, expression and creativity, before implementing a more practical side later on, then we might start to see some real leaps forward in the technical levels of our players. A degree of physicality is necessary, but if technical excellence can be married to those more effective ethics of “our style” then future generations may just become something more than tournament also-rans.