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The England Retrospective, Part 1
5-1 and free kicks.
Reminder: this is part of a lengthy series on England’s tactical story of the last two decades. You can read the introduction here. This one is free, but future sections will be for paid subscribers only, so consider joining if you want to read more of this.
It starts with the 5-1 against Germany, because of course it does. This was the first football match I can really remember watching, and it became a beacon of national hope thereafter. Through some Second World War related angst, usually expressed in crude and xenophobic ways, England has become obsessed with Germany. They’re the yardstick against which we judge ourselves. I think this inferiority complex is an underrated factor in the Brexit vote. The Germans are, correctly or not, perceived as the dominant nation in the European Union. We say that bothers us due to notions of wanting “independence”, but I suspect we secretly just don’t like the idea of being a junior partner with Germany. Surely we should be in charge of the EU, not them?
I’m not German, and I’ve spent a total of about three days of my life in the country, so I can’t say anything about this for sure. But you often feel like they don’t even think of us at all. I’m sure they do, but no more than France, say, or Italy. Less than the Netherlands. And we hate it. We’re the noisy neighbours who think we have a divine right to an important rivalry. Meanwhile they’re just going about their business.
A 5-1 win away to a major rival is a great result regardless, but this was even more seismic as it cemented Sven-Goran Eriksson’s position as the messiah. The first foreigner to manage England, Eriksson came in at a point of crisis. Kevin Keegan resigned after a defeat to Germany, the final game at the old Wembley Stadium before it was to be demolished and rebuilt and, much more importantly, the first game in the 2002 World Cup qualifiers. A draw with Finland under caretaker Howard Wilkinson didn’t help either, and the Swede came in with a real job to do.
This was at a point when foreign managers were really starting to become a commodity in English football. Three teams in the Premier League employed bosses outside the UK or Ireland1 at this point: Claudio Ranieri at Chelsea, Gerard Houllier at Liverpool and, most famously, Arsene Wenger at Arsenal. Just as Eric Cantona had shown everyone in the early ‘90s that elegant foreign stars can do it in the cold and rain against tough tacklers wanting to put a foot in, Wenger was showing for managers.
Eriksson had won his first three qualifiers on the bounce after taking over, but the Three Lions went to Munich in a tough spot. England were six points behind Germany in the group, albeit with a game in hand, and only the winners were to qualify automatically. They had to win away at the three time World Cup winners.”We couldn’t afford to lose it”, said Eriksson years later, but a draw wouldn’t have done either. It’s only the qualifiers, but these were as high stakes as you can get outside a tournament proper.
Eriksson’s great irony is that he was the first foreigner to manage the national team, but his ideas about football were as English as you could get. “English football was very important, and very popular, in Sweden”, he explains. “The pitches were bad, it was raining, and the ball was heavy, so there was a lot of kicking it long and fighting. That’s what Swedish people were born with.
“When I was coaching, playing with a 4-4-2 instead of with a sweeper was easy to introduce because of that. It might have been new in Sweden, but in England it certainly wasn’t.”
England fans came to begrudge Eriksson’s love of the 4-4-2, but this was at the very core of his identity. His first steps in management were spent as part of an ideological case for Swedish football to move to a flat back four, marking zonally in open play, just as the English did it. Another future England manager, Roy Hodgson, was in his corner here, and the pair would both come to fight the same battle in Serie A, led by the charge of Arrigo Sacchi. In the clash between old school Italian tactics of “catenaccio” against the Sacchified 4-4-2, Eriksson served as a key figure in the latter camp. More importantly, he seemed damn good at it, winning the scudetto with Lazio in 2000 as the shining achievement of a glittering career that saw him earn medals in Portugal as well as Italy and Sweden.
Back to the game. Eriksson obviously played his favourite shape, and this was a time when almost every Premier League club favoured 4-4-2, so it was an easy fit. David Seaman was the undisputed number one goalkeeper. Rio Ferdinand partnered Sol Campbell in central defence, with Ferdinand the elegant ball playing and carrying defender, the “street centre-back”, while Campbell was a more conventional English defender, though no slouch with the ball at his feet. At left-back, a 20-year-old Ashley Cole was yet to add all his defensive composure to that attacking threat, so needed Nick Barmby to play just in front of him in midfield and offer protection. On the right flank, you had Gary Neville and David Beckham’s instinctive world-class partnership from Manchester United ported straight over.
Man Utd was a bit of a theme of this side with Sir Alex Ferguson’s former assistant, Steve McClaren, on the coaching staff. They knew how that side functioned. In central midfield there was Paul Scholes in exactly his role of the era, breaking forward from deep and playing cute passes to the forwards. Next to him, Steven Gerrard wasn’t the attacking force he would become, so didn’t seem all that uncomfortable in the “Roy Keane role” adding solidity. His more expansive and risky passing range than the Irishman did make things different, though. Upfront was Emile Heskey, a superb target man with great work rate and link-up play forever undervalued for his lack of goals, supporting the boy wonder himself, Michael Owen.
If the goal against Argentina in 1998 made him the great hope, it was this game when he became a reality. In a counter-attacking display, Owen was the threat every time England broke into the final third. Even with everything that came since, you watch this performance and get excited about Owen. He’s so sharp. He had, in truth, lost a little bit with his injury two years earlier, admitting that he “was running, essentially, on three hamstrings on my left leg and only two on my right”. But my god, if this is what a managed Owen looked like, god help us if we had seen the full-fat version. Owen was the symbol of the much-vaunted Golden Generation, the one sure thing in the pack. If anyone would make it at the highest level, it would be him. Time to dream of his starring performances for years to come.
Outside of his blistering threat, though, England were much poorer than you might think. Germany played a very old school German 3-5-2 set-up, and that allowed them to control the game against England’s 4-4-2. As usual for English sides against continental opponents back then, the central midfield was a big issue, with Gerrard and Scholes constantly getting caught far too flat and played through easily. The key to this shape is compressing the space between the lines enough that opponents can’t play round you in triangles, and England just couldn’t do that. It was a really tactically naive performance, honestly.
England go behind after a very poor opening period, and could have been a man down after a reckless challenge from Cole went unpunished. The Three Lions get an equaliser from a set-piece that Germany make a complete mess of, then go ahead from a Gerrard long-range strike. The first half really felt like a smash and grab. After that, England do a pretty good job of just picking them off on the break, and some of the attacking interplay between Owen, Heskey, Gerrard and Beckham was superb. England provided moments of brilliance, but the truth is this could have been a very different result on another day.
This was the crown jewel of a really impressive turnaround from England. Having lost and drawn the first two qualifiers, the Three Lions went on to win the next five on the bounce, putting the five past Germany but with some other really solid wins as well. From a terrible position, England went into the group’s final day with it in their own hands. Win at home to Greece and they’d be certain of automatic qualification. Draw and they’d have to hope Germany didn’t beat Finland to avoid going into the playoffs.
Eriksson wasn’t quite able to field his full-strength side this time. Nigel Martyn had to come in for Seaman in goal, while Martin Keown filled in for Sol Campbell. Neither were particularly big deals, and both were reliable replacements. But upfront was a bit of a concern. True to form, Owen suffered a slight hamstring strain for Liverpool the previous month that saw him ruled out against Greece. Owen’s quality was obvious, and his near talismanic dynamism would cost any side a lot. But his absence also made England fairly one-paced. His deputy for the day, Robbie Fowler, was an excellent old fashioned goal poacher. He “knew where the goal was”, but didn’t provide anything like the explosiveness of Owen. England were to be much more flat.
England had much more of the ball here than against Germany. When you have more of the ball in an old fashioned 4-4-2 system, that usually means it’s getting worked out wide a lot. That’s great when you’ve got two world-class wingers on their natural sides putting in great crosses and such. England had just the one. Greece anticipated this and did a really good job of shutting down Beckham on the right flank. On the other side, Barmby was never likely to be a great threat, so they had it sorted.
This meant more of the game had to go through an outnumbered Gerrard and Scholes in the middle. “I had an absolute nightmare”, Scholes explained in his autobiography.2 “I couldn’t pass the ball to a teammate to save my life, my tackles were mistimed and I couldn’t get a shot on target.” As a pair, Gerrard and Scholes might have complemented each other a little later in their careers, but it’s worth understanding just how the pair played at this time. At age 26 and used to the aggressive style of Man Utd, Scholes was no one’s idea of a deep-lying controller. That came much, much later. At this time, he was all about pushing forward and weaving cute passes in tight spaces, blowing us away with his sublime technique only in spurts. This was always going to leave gaps that Gerrard would have to plug. The 21-year-old was actually better suited to this, using his physicality and aggression well but not yet someone who got into the box a lot. The problem was that he wanted to be the deep-lying playmaker, pinging all sorts of (often good!) long balls from side to side when a short pass would do. It was a recipe for poor cohesion, and England were thus constantly sloppy in the first half. Greece played the better football and deserved to go ahead.
England had a really poor shape, so Eriksson responded by doubling down on this. In classic style, off came Barmby for another pure goalscorer in Andy Cole. Heskey had probably been England’s best player in the first half, holding up the ball really well and working relentlessly, but now got shunted to the left-wing. As the manager kept bringing on more forward thinkers, it became harder and harder to figure out if there was a tactical plan here. England just threw everything at it. In truth, they were poor here, only good enough for a draw, but Germany’s 0-0 against Finland bailed them out. But it didn’t feel like that. It never feels like that when a stoppage-time direct free kick sends you straight to the World Cup.
If Germany was Michael Owen’s time to shine, then this was certainly Beckham’s moment. I’d say it was his time in the spotlight, but come on, it’s Beckham, the man never leaves it. Beckham has always been strange in that his on and off-field personas feel so separate. Off the pitch, he’s the definition of celebrity. Beckham was the most famous man in England at this time, and it was only sort of about what he did on the pitch. That’s what seems to rub a lot of people the wrong way about him: he felt like a celebrity who also played football, rather than a footballer who happened to be famous.
Beckham was hardly England’s first famous footballer, but he was the country’s first celebrity footballer. He came just as reality TV and gossip magazines were exploding and rebuilding an entire industry of this “famous for being famous” club. When Beckham scored the winner against Greece, Simon Cowell’s first TV series Pop Idol aired its first episode later that night. Paris Hilton’s stardom was just blossoming, while Big Brother had recently finished its second series in the UK. When he married Victoria two years earlier, they sold the wedding photos exclusively to celebrity gossip magazine OK! He was at the vanguard of a whole new way to be famous.
In popular perception, caring about this emerging celebrity culture was very much a women’s pastime. Beckham spent his day job in the most classically masculine way possible, but everywhere else he was transgressing gender lines. He cared about fashion and made the headlines for his hairstyles. His wife Victoria had become a symbol of “girl power” corporate feminism in the Spice Girls, and Beckham’s effeminate form of masculinity complemented that exactly. You suspect this made some male football fans a little uncomfortable. Yes, part of it was that he no longer belonged to “them” as much as the wider culture, but gender plays its part. His most famous Man Utd teammates such as Neville, Scholes, Ryan Giggs and especially Roy Keane were men’s men. It never quite felt natural to give him the England captaincy. The captain in English football is supposed to be someone who shouts and screams, an old fashioned “leader”. Once again, Beckham was something different.
But when he actually played football, Beckham was among the least showy, least overelaborate world-class players you’ll see (and yes, he was). Every time he had the ball and a pocket of space, he’d put in a delivery to exactly the danger area. Think Kevin De Bruyne, but in a tactical era that permanently glued him to that right-sided crossing space. You add in his exemplary work rate and we’re talking about one of the best English midfielders ever. It hasn’t been remembered like that, but the more of his old games I watch, the more I’m just blown away.
The game against Greece was both his triumphant hour and kind of damning on him. After he really struggled to find space on his usual right flank in the first half, he drifted inside more and more. In the second half, he just wandered wherever he wanted, trying to get on the ball as much as possible. Were I the manager, I’d have been screaming at him to stay in his position, and England would’ve probably lost the game thanks to me. This was a classic Roy of the Rovers style performance, trying to single-handedly win the game and eventually making it happen. Beckham had a number of free-kick attempts in the game that didn’t quite go in, but then everything broke perfectly in exactly the moment it counted the most.
And so England got to the 2002 World Cup. We’ll find out what happens in the next part.
While English football has perhaps more of an aversion to Irish managers born in Ireland than it would like to admit, colonial arrogance often leads to them incorrectly being viewed as not foreign.
Scholes, Paul (2012). Scholes: My Story. London: Simon & Schuster UK.