Tim Wade looks at the FA’s quest to solve the perennial problem of how England should play football.

2016 seems destined to become the year in which British national identity cleaved itself in two, though I expect both Northern Ireland and Scotland might point to respective wars and referenda as evidence that all of this was a long time in the making.

Back in Merry England, however, readers of FA press releases might have wondered whether the nation was experiencing its own existential crisis. Players, managers and philosophies have come and gone and yet agreement over how England should play is no closer. Indeed, the FA appears committed to a vision of football forever ‘coming home’, rather than actually arriving. Think Three Lions on the Shirt rewritten in management-speak, ‘innovative’ and ‘creative’: ‘the start point [sic] for the creation of a world-class culture of elite player development that leads to winning England teams’. As we start to create a development that leads somewhere, it’s clear England football is on a journey of self-discovery. The Beatles are off to India. Except India is the conference-centre-cum-astroturf of St George’s Park.

Indeed, the FA appears committed to a vision of football forever ‘coming home’, rather than actually arriving.

In 2010, the FA released The Future Game: a ‘playing philosophy based on quality passing, possession and building play through the three-thirds of the pitch’ that reflected the experience of watching Spain and Spanish clubs dominate the global stage with football’s equivalent of piggy-in-the-middle. Diagonal passes were played. Rooney’s pitch position began to recede faster than his hairline. England did have the ball – 68% of it against Iceland – but results failed to impress. By the time Sam Allardyce was appointed, the logic had suddenly flipped. Phil Brown even took to The Guardian to announce that Big Sam’s biggest strength would be to offer England ‘the identity that was clearly missing as we lost our way during Euro 2016… We won’t be copying Spain or France or Italy or Belgium… Sam’s message is: Stay true to yourself, be yourselves and don’t try to copy anybody.’ England’s ambitions to play the beautiful game had given way to hard-headed pragmatism. What was needed was a manager widely perceived to make the best of bad players. A grafter.

Unfortunately for England, Allardyce’s graft extended well beyond the team meeting room, to the thorny issue of third-party ownership. But even prior to Allardyce, the FA had reoriented around a new jargon. A December 2013 press release triumphantly revealed that ‘Key FA figures’ were ‘close to finalising English Football’s DNA’. The Nobel Committee held its breath. No doubt Dan Ashworth, FA Director of Elite Development, had been given permission to swab down England greats from Charlton to Gascoigne. That might explain why it took a further year for the FA to finally begin releasing the precious code.

Does Geoff Hurst’s DNA hold the key to future England successes? Image by Graham Smith via Flickr [https://tinyurl.com/ycexw8en]

Philosophy had always felt a little too European. But DNA was reassuring, merely buried away waiting to be discovered; it would not require too intense a soul-searching. England were once again beginning an irresistible, ineluctable and unavoidable voyage to being ‘ready to win in 2022’.

More importantly, DNA was intelligent. England would now ‘aim to dominate possession intelligently’. They would also ‘aim to regain possession intelligently’; and ‘to sense changing moments in the game both in and out of possession, reacting instinctively and intelligently’. If the message had failed to quite sink in, the newly appointed Gareth Southgate was on hand to remind everyone that he would work ‘hard and intelligently’, a mere five months after he had ruled himself out of becoming England manager. Smart.

England, then, continue to waver between two poles: the act of defining a style to play by and the opposite urge to make-do and mend. Head of Elite Development from 2011-2 and U21s coach from 2013 to 2016, Southgate is in many ways the ultimate FA disciple. But don’t expect them to return the favour. Even as it commits to Mr Sensible and the latest DNA reinvention, it admits that England senior teams will need to ‘play with tactical flexibility, based on the profile of the players available and the requirements of the match or competition’. A wonderful future of footballing talent is envisaged. Meanwhile, the question of how to successfully arrange 11 moving parts on the pitch remains unanswered.


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