What makes the English way of football so English?

After Wolverhampton Wanderers defeated the Hungarian side Honved, containing the great Puskas, in 1954 the British press eulogised the hard fought, battling win. It characterised the tenets of English football that were so conservatively and obstinately clung to: spirit, pride, and directness. But the truth is Wolves cleverly used home advantage to restrict the Hungarians by heavily watering the Molineux pitch (in December mind you, when it had been raining incessantly for four days anyway) and it soon became a quagmire, not allowing any kind of possession passing play, favouring the direct long balls into the front men. Even then, it took a late winner from Roy Swinbourne to send Wolves to a thrilling 3-2 victory.

The victory is an example of two variables that have greatly influenced the unusually slow progression of English football. The first is a cultural conservatism to anything new – in this case, an advancement of tactics in the game. England had been badly beaten by the Hungarian national team (7-1 in Budapest and 6-3 at Wembley) and the defeats highlighted the need to progress from the W-M formation that was almost uniformly employed through all levels of English football (much like the 4-4-2 until recent years in the domestic top flight). Many publications sadly reflected on the decline of the national game and understood a change was needed yet not a great deal actually changed and the Wolves victory, counterproductively, added steam to the argument that spirit, speed and long balls were still all that was needed to contend with the best sides.

The second variable is inextricably linked to the first. It came in the form of a press more willing to adhere to past successes than feel the need to evolve. Though there was an understanding that the W-M was largely at fault, it was nonetheless implicitly defended by many commentators, ‘Hungary’s ball jugglers can be checked by firm tackling,’ wrote Frank Coles of the Daily Telegraph. Hungary right back, Jeno Buzansky, acknowledged that although they had at their disposal some truly great players (Puskas, Hidegkuti, Czibor and Kocsis) it was primarily a tactical evolvement and superiority that led them to their crushing victories:

“It was because of tactics that Hungary won. The match showed the clash of two formations and, as often happens, the newer, more developed formation prevailed.”

As standalone examples these aren’t enough to justify why pragmatism was still preferred to innovation. If we take Tottenham Hotspur as an example of radicalism in the 40s, before the humiliating defeats to Hungary, Arthur Rowe had brought back to English shores an extended understanding of the fruits of the passing game. Rowe had been working with the Hungarians and complimented Tottenham’s history of preferring a close-passing game when he was appointed manager in 1949. They won the title in the 50-51 season yet even their success was regarded by many with scepticism and did not cause a mass progression in the English game.

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A further stigma to evolving ideals on the football pitch came in the form of Charles Reep (and later Charles Hughes’ FA coaching policy) and his pedagogical analysis of statistics in the English game. Reep posited that direct long balls provided far more success and led to more goal scoring opportunities – 91.5% of all moves consisted of three or fewer passes and 80% of all goals scored resulted from moves of three or fewer passes. What’s shocking is how quickly these stilted statistics were perpetuated and misinterpreted by those responsible for the future security of the game. Why didn’t anyone counter Reep by saying that if only 8.5% of all moves had more than three complete passes yet led to 20% of all goals scored, logic would tell us that the long ball is less effective. We seemed to have misunderstood the common play as the best play. Even more myopic was Reep and his followers discounting conditions and the dynamics of a real life football match (hotter climates would mean possession is more important, the stats ignored possession play leading to dead ball goals, or chances that were forced by tiring an opponent and inducing error).

This has all led to a strict distaste for innovation and set an early precedent for speed and athleticism taking priority over technique and tactical flexibility in the English game. If we look at the England team that just faced Mexico – even throughout qualification – I found it frustrating and boring to watch a modified 4-4-2 being employed when it has seemed, for a while now, that something more like a 4-3-3 would suit a forward trio of Gerrard (he’s played as an auxiliary forward for more than two seasons now at Liverpool), Rooney (proved he can be spectacular when leading the line alone) and a right sided winger (most likely Lennon). Two holding midfielders – since without Hargreaves we don’t seem to actually have one player who’s a destructive, genuine ball winner – would also allow Lampard the freedom of position he’s thrived in at Chelsea for more than five seasons. I concede that this example isn’t so much the players’ fault but in 2004, prior to the European Championships, I remember the team requesting a change from Eriksson to a flatter 4-4-2 that they were most comfortable playing in. This is a sure sign of tactical inflexibility and it’s something that is the product of generations’ worth of staunch, sometimes blind, adherence to past successes.

Pragmatism is a word ascribed to the English method far too easily and it ameliorates the stubborn lack of innovation that has dogged our leagues, from non-league to the top flight. Managers such as Mourinho and Benitez have facilitated a much more tactically astute approach to the past ten years in the Premier League. Though their teams are by no means aesthetic they have proven successful and it has certainly aided a development in the top teams. But the rigidity of Reep and Hughes can still be found outside the Premier League. A problem, as I commented in an earlier article debating the progression since the uniformly adopted 4-4-2, is that it is difficult to find the cause of: do we play rigid football because we do not have the skill to expand? Or do we not have the skill to expand because we play rigid football?

It’s certainly clear that a passing oriented game requires technical mastery and at lower leagues, where this is lacking, the attempt to play possession football inevitably leads to more errors and opportunities for the opposition. With the onus being on winning instead of innovation/progression it is tough to see an evolution of football at grassroots level because we’re still perpetuating the inflexibility characteristic of the English way. I maintain it is wrong for our youth players not to understand the need for depth in tactical knowledge and broader insights into the game need to be introduced if we are to break the cycle of rigid conservatism.

“I can’t believe that in England they don’t teach young players to be multi-functional,” Mourinho said whilst at Chelsea, “To them it’s just about knowing one position and playing one position…a striker is just a striker and that’s it. For me, a striker is not just a striker. He is somebody who has to move, who has to cross, and who has to do this in a 4-4-2 or in a 4-3-3 or in a 3-5-2, each of which is different….Because what happens if later he has a manager who likes to play 4-5-1 or a 3-5-2? What happens to him then?”

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Sources:

Inverting the Pyramid, Jonathan Wilson

The Italian Job, Gianluca Vialli & Gabriele Marcotti

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