This feature is the first in a three-part series looking at why English football struggles to produce and develop creative midfielders, how it can learn from Spanish football’s success over the past decade, and how it can change for the better. The series includes interviews with journalists Graham Hunter, Jonathan Northcroft, Euan McTear as well as various players and coaches from around Europe.
Part one looks at English football’s struggle to produce creative central midfielders, it’s obsession with physical attributes and the difficulty in changing its mentality and culture.
On 28 June 2016, the Allianz Riviera stadium in Nice became the stage for English football’s most embarrassing moment in recent history. After England opened the scoring with a fourth-minute penalty, minnows Iceland responded with two goals in quick succession. It meant that Roy Hodgson’s men had 72 minutes to find a way back into the game.
This was a full-strength England team, containing the best talent this country has to offer, but it couldn’t find a way to break down Iceland, a country with a population of little over 320,000 people. The goals that England conceded were poor and Iceland’s display was indeed heroic, but what really stood out was the lack of creativity in central midfield. For all the attributes you traditionally associate with a typical English midfielder, creativity, skill and flair aren’t ones that spring to mind.
However, if we are to believe the message that’s rammed down our throat by broadcasters, the Premier League is the best in the world. We constantly hear about the fact that in England, the game is played at a higher tempo, with stronger depth and is full of great teams when compared with other leagues. We’re reminded that this is the league in which any team can beat any other team on their day, such is the strength of the division.
If it is indeed the best league in the world, you would assume that the sheer strength of it would benefit the national team, in terms of the quality of players we have at our disposal. And yet, since the division was founded in 1992, the furthest England have progressed in a major international tournament is the semi-final stage of Euro 96. In that time, Spain, Germany and France have won six international tournaments between them. Italy, Portugal and Greece have also won tournaments in that time.
There’s a certain ignorance within the English football culture, and Pep Guardiola’s arrival at Manchester City highlighted it. His third-place finish in his first season led many English fans and pundits to believe his technical style of football would never work in the intense and physically-demanding Premier League. Prior to joining City, Guardiola had won 21 major trophies in seven seasons, seven at Barcelona and five at Bayern Munich.
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Gary Neville, speaking on Sky Sports’ Monday Night Football in May 2017, said: “It would defy Premier League logic to win in England with Guardiola’s technical style of football. I’ve always thought with any team that have won the league bar none have always had power and strength at the heart of them, even going back to the Man City teams that have won it over the last five or six years. Do the likes of David Silva, Leroy Sané and Kevin De Bruyne have the strength to last an entire Premier League season?”
Paul Merson had a similar view when he wrote a Daily Star column in October 2016″ “Manchester City will not win the league if Pep Guardiola keeps on playing like he is. He says he wants his teams to play from the back and he wants his keeper involved in that. But it’s not working.”
It wasn’t just Neville and Merson who held these views; it’s a popular opinion within English football that you need power and strength to win the Premier League. We have an obsession with physical attributes, neglecting the technical elements within the game. How often do we hear about how strong, powerful and physically imposing Paul Pogba is? Contrast this with how little his outstanding passing and dribbling skills are discussed, his tactical awareness, his ability to control a game, or his talent to find space in order to hurt the opposition.
Sports writer and broadcaster Feargal Brennan believes that despite the recent investment in grassroots football, we are still far behind mentality wise. “There are years and years to be caught up on in terms of a mentality, in terms of how the game is played. In terms of football and what we value in terms of talent in this country is a big issue, there’s still a problem with the language that we use.
“Alan Shearer is the leading goal scorer in Premier League history, still when anybody talks about Shearer, whether they are 50 or 15, it’s still his physical attributes that are the first thing that they refer to. This is a man who was a phenomenal goal scorer, was able to score different types of goals, able to score with both feet, took free-kicks and was really intelligent.
In his second season in English football, Guardiola’s City won the Premier League title in scintillating style. Sticking to his philosophy, inspired by Johan Cruyff, City won the sealed the league title after just 33 games, breaking all kinds of records in the process. His side won a record 18 successive league games, a record 11 successive away games, and are on course to break records for both goals scored and points accumulated in the Premier League. Manchester City have averaged over 70 percent possession domestically this season, something that has never been seen before in the Premier League.
Is this obsession with physicality and the ignorance of our football culture holding us back when it comes to developing quality creative midfielders? Alex Clapham, a coach who’s worked with Sheffield United and Manchester City, certainly thinks so: “There is an ignorance,” said Alex, “Where they say this our game, we invented it, why should we change it just because it’s done differently elsewhere?
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“But if you look across the players in the Premier League, I think Dele Alli is a one-off because in other teams the English players are the tacklers and the runners around the more creative players, who are usually foreign players. I don’t think we have a culture that supports free play and creativeness, we’re very by the book. I don’t see our mentality and culture being able to change, I don’t see it.”
Alex also tells a story about one of his coaching colleagues, who experienced an example of this stubborn English mentality first-hand. “I had a colleague who was being assessed for his UEFA B licence, he was doing a session around playing out from the back and there was a big panic around it. We bring the centre-backs wide by the goal line and he got taken into the classroom and the assessor told him that if he did that in his assessment, he would fail him.
“He said it’s not the England DNA, we don’t do that, I thought this was unbelievable to say there’s only one way to do something. Manchester City have had quite a lot of success with it this year.”
Jonathan Northcroft, a sports journalist for The Sunday Times, believes flair and creativity aren’t traits that come to British sportspeople naturally. “Historically, flair and creativity aren’t really at the forefront in terms of British sporting traits. That’s probably been the case with English football down the years, I think of England teams and the really creative players stand out, like Paul Gascoigne, it’s quite obvious because there’s not that many of them.
“The flair players, particularly in that midfield area, it’s few and far between in English football history. I went to a conference a few years ago at St George’s Park about how to coach creativity, because the FA recognise this has historically been an issue in the English game.”
The statistics speak for themselves. This season, in the top five European leagues, when you compare central midfielders who make the most successful key passes (passes that lead to an assist or a goal), you’ll find just one English midfielder in the top 50 – Dele Alli.
When narrowed down even further, according to WhoScored, only 14 English central midfielders are ranked in the top 50 players in the Premier League for key passes. That means 72 percent of the most creative midfielders in the division aren’t even eligible to play for England. When you compare this with Spain, 32 Spaniards are in the LaLiga top 50, with 64 percent eligible to play for La Roja. In Germany’s Bundesliga, 48 percent are eligible. England are well behind other major countries when it comes to the size of their central midfield talent pool.
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This lack of talent in the central midfield area has led to an overreliance on the injury-ravaged Jack Wilshere, a player who is one of few in the squad who can create chances through his use of the ball, dribbling and ability to control a game. Genuinely creative and technically gifted players like Wilshere, Alli, Ross Barkley and Raheem Sterling have so much pressure put on their young shoulders because they’re players that are unique within English football.
When you consider the recent injury to Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, England’s central midfield options heading to the World Cup are limited to say the least. This is likely the reason for Gareth Southgate preferring to utilise the 3-4-3 formation, seeking to take advantage of England’s pace on the counter-attack, sacrificing control in the middle of the pitch.
England haven’t got the best record with technically gifted midfielders. When former England manager Sven-Göran Eriksson had Steven Gerrard, Frank Lampard and Paul Scholes at his disposal, he elected to shunt Scholes out to the left-wing. Both Gerrard and Lampard’s supreme talent was never allowed to flourish at international level, all due to Eriksson’s insistence on the traditionally English 4-4-2 system.
Three of the greatest midfield talents England have ever produced were never given the freedom or structure they needed in order to hit the heights they would go on to achieve at club level. Scholes, thought of by many as one of the most technically gifted players of his generation, went underappreciated and underused, his tremendous ability wasted.
Indeed, English football history littered with a raft of technically gifted players who couldn’t flourish at international level. Matt Le Tissier, Steve McManaman, Glenn Hoddle and Chris Waddle are names that we didn’t hear anywhere near enough.
Football journalist Graham Hunter, a Spanish football expert who’s been based in Barcelona for over 16 years, sees an intelligence difference between the two nation. “I don’t have any question that Gerrard and Lampard, if they had taken a Spanish passport, they could have fitted straight into the Spain midfield without there being a blip, and Spain would have won. Scholes too.
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“Latterly, we’ve seen a poor harvest of the kind of tactical and creative intelligence you see. I see an intelligence difference [between English and Spanish players].
“It’s simple things like England international teams not knowing when to kill a game off, like the qualification game against Croatia at Wembley ahead of Euro 2008 when a scoreline that was positive for England to qualify wasn’t good enough. They went chasing and Croatia caught them out.
“These kinds of devolved intelligence, particularly in the controlling part of a team which is the midfield, that’s something that for whatever reason has diminished in recent generations and Spain has increased.”
It’s that element of control that England struggles to achieve with the players at their disposal; the lack of technical, tactical and creative quality that separates the good teams from the great. We may do well against Panama and Tunisia, but against the likes of Spain, Germany and Brazil in the latter stages – I doubt it.
What you’ll likely see is how well they dominate the middle of the pitch, controlling the game through possession and marshalling our counter-attacking football. There are, of course, many ways tp play football, but my point is that due to the lack of technical players in midfield, England are severely limited tactically, in a way that the other major nations aren’t.
Take Spain, for example, who could quite easily take two great teams to the World Cup, such is the depth they have at their disposal. Spain produces an astonishing number of creative, technically gifted players, particularly in the midfield area, something England simply haven’t been able to do. However, they weren’t always a haven for midfield talent. That journey all started in 1995 with the unification of a footballing philosophy that would change the face of football forever.
By Nathan Bliss @Nathan_Bliss14