The problem with English football
The transfer expenditures alone have exceeded the one billion euro mark this summer. English clubs invested like never before in new arrivals but only brought in half that amount by selling players. What will you buy for yourself? What would you like to make up for? What is going wrong in English football? A contribution to the debate on mindset, tactics, and coaching.
Power Structures and a New Narrative
The general public in England seem to have come to the realization that English club football has lagged behind the competitive leagues in Europe for some time now. More and more, comments from the “experts” in newspaper columns and in the discussions on major broadcasts have made an attempt at analyzing what’s going wrong. The grievances are particularly evident with the declining quality of the top teams, even though the Premier League is able to attract new stars or perceived stars year after year, and the less respected, physical clubs living in the sflipstream of the Manchester clubs and Chelsea. While the game culture has taken a decisive leap forward on the continent and the teams have changed for the better, England continues on the path of less compact, one-dimensional crossing football.
Commentators like former national team right-back Gary Neville focus their attention on the alleged defensive weakness. Although Neville describes individual tactics quite well, his comments highlight a far-reaching problem in understanding the complexity of football and in the prevailing mindset in England. In fact, during the 2004/2005 season, a total of 975 goals were scored in the top flight. In each of the last five seasons at least 1,050 goals were scored. Neville writes in the Telegraph:
“I look at some teams and feel: they don’t know how to defend. They struggle with crosses, they don’t deal with set-pieces, they don’t know how to work one on one. They have a weak understanding of the game.”
This raises the question of who misunderstands the situation. Is it not the person who breaks down the game to an individual level, disconnects the defending of England’s beloved crosses from their creation, and only thinks of defense as one on one. The power structures in the public, which either create or inevitably drive the conversation are quite clear, and Neville is the perfect example. The former defender goes on to explain how man coverage had been trained to an extreme – that means he even (unconsciously) unmasked the weaknesses in England’s former approaches in training – and believes his remarks are serious suggestions for improvement.
It must be mentioned that Neville’s position as a former professional player is not fundamentally different in nature from various European countries. While in Germany they have given the 90s generation the reins on relevant broadcasts, in France, trainers like PSG’s Laurent Blanc have received protection from their old companions against public opinion. It’s not just the fear of a new generation of intelligent analysts, but also holding onto the old ways of thinking that requires the breaking of a long process.
Back to England. Gary Neville, Ex-Arsenal defender Martin Keown and many others, whether former professionals, professional journalists, or opinionated bloggers, get bogged down on one question: “Why are Premier League clubs defending so poorly”
At the end of the day a false reality is created. The facts are supposedly demonstrated and the problems are clearly laid out by each observer. If the number of goals increases, then teams, especially the players on the last line of defense, must be defending poorly. Which, in this context, will usually be reduced to lax coverage, weakness in heading, and concentration problems. Just as the problems of a dogmatic view of the 4-4-2 were ignored for years and, on the contrary, defined even as the ne plus ultra, new supposed facts are now established. This problem is not limited to England. Before the big turnaround in German football there was also very close-minded thinking and analysis. At the moment, however, this phenomenon mainly affects England and they have arrived at a point where a direct, practical impact can be observed on their future success. The quotes from Gary Neville are a particularly good example because, from a tactical point of view, he absolutely inappropriately dissected the defensive play as an individual responsibility rather than a group responsibility.
This simplification of individual shortcomings will also be applied to new players from other leagues that teams want to bring in during the winter transfer window. But these claims are only a small sign – the problems on the field are greater.
Tactical and Strategic Flaws
How do these problems ultimately pop up on the pitch? Because they are strategically and tactically flawed in several areas. What sticks out most are the problems when pressing, which my colleague Tobias Escher covered in an article in the summer of 2012.
These pressing problems still plague the English teams, even though it has been two years since Tobias’s little declaration. Some trainers – like Brendan Rodgers with his raiding, yet not outstanding pressing at the beginning of games or Mauricio Pocchetino in his time at Southampton – were able to celebrate some notable success in pre-season.
Yet there are few teams that practice a suitable pressing system. This is especially the case in the European competitions. The English teams seem surprised if the opponent is aggressive on the ball-carrier pass options are cut off early, leaving them little time and space in the buildup game. In return, their counterparts from the continent seem surprised by the lack of pressing of the Premier-League teams; but this is a pleasant surprise.
Pressing has evolved into a key concept in recent years. The movements off the ball are flawed and the strategic concepts like forcing, cutting off passes, double-teams, triple teams, the use of cover shadows and pressing traps are mostly attempted in vain in the Premier League. The strategic points themselves are largely ignored. What is particularly noticeable is the fundamental weakness in aspects like ball oriented movements and generating compactness.
The distances between the players are often too large, gifting the opponent valuable space in the important areas of the field (the middle and half-spaces, between the lines, in front of goal, etc.). This also makes it nearly impossible to effectively cover multiple players and develop pressure. Until the nearest defender arrives after the opponent’s pass, the opponent can orient themselves and react. Even if he is pressed, the necessary support and compactness is missing. As a result, the blocking of running paths and passing options doesn’t work and the ball-carrier can easily maneuver out of these pseudo-pressure situations. When the team moves to the side of the pitch the intensity is too low. Often only one player moves out of the formation to press. The rest shift only slightly towards the ball and the furthest players move nowhere. Thus, the compactness near the ball and the team’s horizontal compactness are too weak. If you mix this with the low intensity and the ill-suited vertical and diagonal distances, numerous spaces open up for the opponent. The movement processes – not only when pressing but in penalty area defending and in ball-oriented movement – are so poor. Add to this poor coordination and low intensity in the group’s tactical movements and dynamic situations.
This – in combination with the high individual quality of the offensive players – is one reason why the number of goals has increased in England and why the English teams are extremely unstable on defense against equally matched opponents in Europe.
The number of goals per game would be even higher if the offensive structures were better. Which brings us to the second big problem in English football. It starts with the concepts and philosophies used on offense: possession football is misjudged and its use is unstructured. In addition to this misconception of “possession football as a tool” and “possession as a philosophy” there is also a lack of flexibility and specialization in other concepts, which causes huge problems. There are only marginal differences in the playing styles throughout the league: all teams attempt to play a mixture of ball circulation and counterattack football, but without being too innovative or special at either.
In the Bundesliga, for example, we find the position game of Bayern Munich, the extreme transitions of Bayer Leverkusen, the counter game of BVB (when in top form), Lucien Favre’s DirektPassMonster with rhythm changes from deep possession in Mönchengladbach, and many teams who use interesting tactical aspects (Christian Streichs’ intense Freiburg, Thomas Tuchel and now Kasper Hjulmand’s Mainz, the Daniel Baier-lead Augsburg, and also Dieter Heckings’ Wolfsburg) or at least exhibit a high degree of flexibility. It is similar in Spain with Atletico, Real Madrid and Barcelona, Celta Vigo, Villareal, Rayo Vallecano, Athetlic Club, and also Valencia. These teams also deal with the most important strategic issues in offensive play (especially in Spain) and in transitions and defending (especially in Germany). This is missing in England.
A broad diversification of their strategy, an innovative implementation of a single playing idea, a high-class execution of the basics and great tactical flexibility are all sought in vain. The only teams who step out of line in England are the underappreciated Swansea and last season’s West Ham. The latter, however, was primarily due to their keeper knocking every ball long as they had no playmaking. Since their conversion, however, they are regrettably amongst the best teams in England in this respect.
Although some teams (Arsenal, Everton, Swansea) and the relatively new trainers like Pochettino, van Gaal, and Ronald Koeman have attempted to change things, this has not spread to the other teams; often because they have their own problems and shortcomings. Only José Mourinho seems to be more or less resistant to the English anti-Taktik/anti-strategy/anti-stability poison; of which Koeman also seems to have swallowed a nightcap.
In addition to lacking diversity and stability, many of the ‘simple’ teams in the league lack a consistent role distribution. It often seems as though teams are created on the drawing board. They play with a simple offensive structure. They use mostly the same offensive alignment and the same game plan that focuses on quickly conquering space, the wings, crosses, and individual actions. This has gotten to the point where these teams cease to have their own identity or an efficient offensive style.
It’s almost paradoxical that many coaches using a complex – and almost always player-adjusted – system, would be accused of stubbornly use their own concept rather than take into account the individual players. But the real problem is that not complex enough systems don’t do justice to the complexity of team sport and the high performance levels of the players. Many English coaches and the media are looking for too simplistic structures with which they want to integrate the quite outstanding individuals in the Premier League but simply can’t because they lack the complexity to do so.
This is compounded by the fact that many players are limited not only in their offensive creativity, but in their area of responsibility. This extends to many technically savvy players being asked to take up basic defensive tasks that are counterproductive to the team. Defensively they either don’t do anything or they have a simple man orientation; the wingers then often create a six-chain because of the man-oriented tracking of the opposing full-backs – which is an extremely weak position for transitions.
The same issue shows up in defensive transitions, which when coupled with the strategic faults leads to huge problems defending even poorly organized counter attacks. Gegen- or counterpressing? No. A competent structure in possession to prepare for transitions? No.
It’s almost telling that Jonathan Wilson – who is an outstanding author and wonderful historian and considered by many to be a leading tactical analyst – explains Gegenpressingin this video completely wrong. This makes not only every reader of Spielverlagerung.de better but probably every fan of Bravo Sport (see here). A side-note in a Bravo Sport article explains Gegenpressing better than Wilson on Sky Sports – has England’s incompetence on football ever been better illustrated?
It is no longer surprising that the media discourse and the mid-table coaches in the Premier League are so far behind. The understanding of basic strategic concepts is completely missing – Gegenpressing is merely the most impressive example. But not only is the knowledge full of holes, we also have to evaluate the resolution of the existing know-how critically.
Breaking the Mindset
Even a slightly complex tactic will not work if the right players aren’t involved. To make a player fit either requires a genius (almost never), a stroke of luck (very rare), or adequate training (almost always). Looking back at England and analyzing the “State of the Art”, you realize that a lot of the training and player development is lacking.
This starts with the trainers that hire fitness experts from completely different fields and contrary theories of training and then complain about an increase in the number of injuries, to the trainers that again and again justify clearly recognizable tactical flaws with a lack of motivation, lack of aggression, or the players’ poor form – all aspects that fall within the realm of responsibility of these riled up coaches.
The recycling of services to specific and contextual aspects – like certain tactical problems, incorrect alignment, the lack of success-stability because of problems in training – hardly ever happens, outside of individual coaches like José Mourinho.
Have you ever heard an English trainer in a press conference complain about a lack of compactness, inadequate distances when pressing, or low intensity in ball-oriented shifts? With all due respect: these are things that Jürgen Klopp and Josep Guardiola discuss at breakfast with their wives. Is the mentality of many English managers primarily responsible or is it that they only occasionally witness training or sometimes delegate it due to other circumstances (like conducting negotiations)?
This is far from the media discussion but the problem is evident in games. We have analyzed more Premier League games here at Spielverlagerung.de lately, some from the basement dwelling teams and mid-table clubs to better illuminate certain aspects. In this analysis it has become clear that there must be some issues in training. Too great a focus on isolated aspects, particularly on physique, is evident from the tactical information presented. Even Neville’s comments about his time as a player suggest this is true. But what is more striking is the players’ lack of tactical communication skills.
Poor decisions, misjudgements of movements, a near absence of harmony in the timing of tactical maneuvers, and overly simplistic movements are evidence of an inappropriate prioritization in training. Teammates’ reactions to players leaving position, covering shifts into open spaces without a teammate directly backing them up, even simple ball-oriented movements and more or less all offensive tactics vary from exceedingly poor to non-existent.
This is also expressed in even smaller and more inconspicuous points, like the Brits designating their player development as “poor.” In a more specific consideration of their training sequence it is apparent that the focus during youth training is a combination of physique and individual tactical skills. Thus, the context and influence of the team is completely lost – in a dynamic and complex team sport that is not a very good idea.
Need an example? How often does the cleanliness, the execution, and the simplicity of receiving a pass stand out? The direct search for a simple pass or the protection of the ball before an opponent’s attack are given greater significance, while anticipating free runs or basic things, like a preparatory glance over the shoulder or making the right decision seem to be neglected.
This applies not only to ball receptions but the defensive game and finishing. This is unquestionably caused by training. There is a big focus on simple things, on “traditional thinking”, individual “virtues” and is broken down to a too simplifying transfer in training. The pursuit of a football-specific, holistic, and complex approach seems to be a foreign concept to the masses; not to mention more specific concepts like differentiated learning.
The mentality of the few trained coaches is also “typically English” – a terrible cliche, but one which seems to represent more than a few. The total focus on physique, individuality, superiority of the individual over their opponent, simplicity, and stability, is evident in the coaching of all levels and age groups, where there is a tremendous lack of maturity and intelligence in implementing game concepts.
Young footballers end up this way not only through prejudices and error-based advice, but also an exaggerated focus on basic techniques, which are completely isolated in training. Clean technique in a non-pressurized and isolated exercise does not protect against errors in pressure situations during a game. These repeated errors develop into a vicious cycle: a trainer with the wrong mentality evaluates these mistakes as a motivation issue and will focus even more on isolated, extreme work on elementary technique. The fear of failure and the confrontation with this in games leads to workouts being made less complex so that errors do not accumulate in training. The contextual importance of football technique thus remains unrecognized and undeveloped.
This was also confirmed in discussions with coaches educated in England who later worked abroad (such as Stevie Grieve) and those who follow coaching development in other countries.
These training problems are more far-reaching than that. In addition to the symptoms, the causes need to be treated. Many youth coaches – whether in school or clubs and societies – are unwilling to get help or can not be swayed by new concepts. Many in the media call for competent foreign coaches to come to the Premier League. It is assumed that Jürgen Klopp and Pep Guardiola would immediately leave everything at the drop of a hat if a top English club came calling. But, as soon as they arrive in England, they will be made to adjust to the English conditions in terms of tactics and training methods. This extends from extreme media pressure regarding the paradoxical demands of club presidents to open rebellions from the players (see Andre Villas-Boas).
Now comes the one billion pound question: how can a foreign trainer positively influence the situation in English football if he isn’t allowed to make an adjustment? It’s almost as if they want to continue playing “typically English” without actually doing so. Prediction: this could be difficult.
This mindset is part of the dilemma. The observer is so far up the tree that he can’t recognize the problems at the roots. The resistance to the implementation of concepts foreign to England – whether tactics or training methods – is the only thing that seems to surpass the incompetence of the typical English trainer. Another vicious cycle. The lack of competence arises largely from lower abstraction of the concepts- the why and not the what or how – whether it be tactical, strategic, or training methods. So how do you hire a competent foreign trainer without being able to recognize competence? Ah yes, a simple answer: Money. Which brings us back to the beginning again.