England Should Embrace Its Identity as a Counter Attacking Team

Graham Ruthven@@grahamruthvenFeatured ColumnistJune 23, 2014

England's manager Roy Hodgson holds his hand to his head during a press conference before an official training session the day before the group D World Cup soccer match between Costa Rica and England at the Mineirao Stadium in Belo Horizonte, Brazil, Monday, June 23, 2014. (AP Photo/Matt Dunham)
Matt Dunham/Associated Press

Spain has (had) ‘Tiki-Taka.’ Italy have ‘Catenaccio.’ And the Netherlands have ‘Total Football.’ The World Cup is a congress of footballing philosophies and methods.

Yet England’s footballing identity has remained as fluid as its society’s. Nobody really knows what Englishness means, and its national team has suffered for it. If the World Cup is a congress, Roy Hodgson’s side mumbled their way through the presentation.

The question of identity is fundamental in football. In such a fluid game, with so many options available to the player on the ball, it’s important to define what these options represent, and what the objectives of the team are. All football tactics spring from this central idea.

Felipe Dana/Associated Press

In recent years England have been deriding for a lack of coherent strategy at major tournaments, because there has been no central idea. Are England a possession side? No. A counter attacking team? No. A defensively solid outfit? Certainly not. So what are they?

England are a team without an identity. It’s something Roy Hodgson has tried his best to change since his appointment a month before the start of the 2012 European Championships.

“One of the things we thought, coming back from the Euros, that we need to improve is the quality of our passing and possession side of our game, but possession in the right sense,” said Hodgson following England’s quarter-final exit in Ukraine, as per Youth Football.

“To do that you need some players who can manipulate the ball, deal with the ball, beat a player and I’m really quite pleased that there are young players coming through who have got those qualities.”

Indeed, Hodgson has tried to align England with what has become the standard paradigm in European football over the past decade or so. No longer do we look solely at the scoreline to gauge the essence of a match. We now analyse passing statistics. That is the legacy of Spain’s recent dominance of the international game.

Michael Sohn/Associated Press

England, however, are too late in trying to develop this style of play. Football has moved on, demonstrated by Spain’s shock group stage exit at this World Cup. Control is no longer king.

If there has been a central idea of this World Cup, it has been lightning quick, unadulterated attack. Look at the teams that have thus far succeeded in Brazil: Argentina, Germany, France, and Netherlands. All are formidable attacking forces, but defensively vulnerable.

England too should have embraced this shift in dynamic football experienced over the past season or two. Hodgson has the players to hit opponents hard on the counter attack.

In a way, Hodgson did recognise this trend in the game. His selection of Wayne Rooney, Raheem Sterling, Daniel Sturridge and Danny Welbeck as a front four for the opening game against Italy brought an exuberance and verve to England’s play.

At times—particularly in the opening 20 minutes—Italy looked genuinely concerned by England’s ferocity in attack, but Hodgson tried to awkwardly mash this approach with midfield control, neglecting defensive responsibility.

Matt Dunham/Associated Press

The best counter attacking sides are built on solid defensive backlines. For instance, the Dutch dismantled Spain by soaking up pressure and smashing the World and European champions with speed. Centre-backs Bruno Martins Indi and Ron Vlaar were unshakeable, but Arjen Robben and Robin Van Persie’s goals left them in the shadows.

England’s defence lacked a player to bring the ball out of back. Neither Gary Cahill nor Phil Jagielka could contribute to the process of starting an attack, meaning Steven Gerrard had to drop deep to collect the ball and drive forward.

It translated into attackers like Sterling and Welbeck filling gaps left by Gerrard, leaving England’s counter attack weakened.

Hodgson tried to play the Liverpool way, selecting a host of Anfield stars, but he failed to understand the intricacies and tactical idiosyncrasies of Brendan Rodgers’s system.

England have always lurched from one concept to the next. With every new appointment, from Kevin Keegan to Sven Goran Eriksson and Fabio Capello, came a new philosophy. But nothing has stuck.

Hodgson has at least acknowledged England’s desperate need for a footballing identity. The problem is, however, he’s trying to impose a number of different identities all at once.