England face Lithuania tonight in their last competitive match before Euro 2016 in France.
Roy Hodgson’s men have already booked their place in next summer’s European showpiece and will be joined by Wales and Northern Ireland, while the Republic of Ireland look to join them via the playoffs.
Fans of Wales and Northern Ireland are ecstatic with the performances and results that have brought them both to automatic qualification to next summer’s finals. The home nations are bursting with pride at their boys: Wales for their first ever qualification for the European Championship and their first tournament since 1958, Northern Ireland for their first qualification for a major tournament since 1986 and a World Cup in Mexico.
Yet England aren’t. Even though they are the only nation in the whole of Europe to have won all of their qualifying matches. Even though they’re the nation who has amassed the most points. Even though they still have a game to play – World Champions Germany, for example, have played their full schedule of ten games and managed five points fewer than England managed in nine games. Shouldn’t there be some sort of party, a send-off to the Euros in the last competitive game before they start for the brave warriors who have won all of their games so far?
Football is rarely black and white. So the fact that England have won all of their games so far isn’t necessarily cause for celebration among English fans and journalists, and that’s fair enough. When the media decide to write about England’s qualifying campaign, and they decide to write about performances over results that shows nuance and subtlety. It’s a good thing that the press are more interested in how England play against teams like Switzerland and San Marino than they are in the results – although, could you imagine the furore if England lost?
But as someone who has spent years watching the Republic of Ireland with great interest – hardly the most sophisticated of footballing nations – when I look at England I see two things that aren’t present when the smaller nations are playing. England possess negativity and quality where the other Home Nations seem to have neither.
That’s the contrast we’re seeing this week, in many ways. The Home Nations, when they’re on form, on their day, seem to play with a pride and passion that shows them off to be more than the sum of their parts. How else could Northern Ireland top their group? How else could Wales challenge Belgium in their group? How else could the Republic of Ireland beat Germany to go into the final game still in with the chance of topping a group including both Germany and Poland?
England rarely seem to be made up of more than the sum of their parts. That probably shows that there’s something wrong, but it also shows that the sum of their parts is actually a very large and effective sum, all things considered. If England have played without sparkling and still managed to win every game, glean the most points and so far have the best goal difference, then it shows that England are good enough to really turn it on this summer.
So tonight in the final game against Lithuania, Roy Hodgson has promised that an ‘interesting team’ will play the game. The likes of Dele Alli and Jonjo Shelvey, for example, are playing well at club level and they are the sorts of players who England might call on much more before the Euros next year. And instead of looking at these players as individuals tonight, instead of judging them on how they will fit as cogs into England’s wheel, if indeed at all, England and Hodgson should be looking to see whether they can foster the kind of spirit in the camp that will make England seem like more than the sum of their parts.
To bring a group of lower league footballers to the top of a qualifying group for the Euros, like Michael O’Neill has done at Northern Ireland is simply an amazing feat, but it’s one that you just can’t do if every player plays like they do in their club team. You need to foster something more in the group, and the Home Nations who qualified have done that over the last two years.
Except England. They’ve managed to win their group at a canter, winning every game with no discernable need to actually play well. The worry now is that they won’t be able to step it up against the bigger teams. But instilling a sense of passion and pride in the squad will help that. But before we go on about how limp England are, or how they’ll exit in the quarter finals once more, remember that England have won all of their qualifying games seemingly without the sense of passion that Wales and Northern Ireland showed.
If they can add that, who knows where they’ll go.