Tuesday 21 February 2017

England's finest labouring under a collective burden

Published 19/06/2016 | 00:00

England's Jamie Vardy comes on as a substitute at the start of the second half during their Euro 2016 match against Wales. Photo: Carl Recine/Reuters
England's Jamie Vardy comes on as a substitute at the start of the second half during their Euro 2016 match against Wales. Photo: Carl Recine/Reuters

There is something truly fascinating about watching England playing football, something beyond all the immediate issues of the result of the game and their chances in the tournament and whether they will be hanged in the morning.

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The players all have some talent. And sometimes the management contrives to get all of the most talented players out there, in roughly the right positions - though this seems to go against some natural inclination in managers such as Roy Hodgson, who until half-time in the second game of Euro 2016 was happy to leave out two of the best strikers in Europe until he was left with no sane alternative but to give them a chance.

And yet, even when they have all the right players out there, in the right order, even when they actually win the game in the most joyous fashion, as they did on Thursday, there is something that they clearly don't have, that they haven't had for a long time, a thing which I can only describe as a collective intelligence.

Not only do they not have it, it is clear that they don't know that they don't have it, and nobody belonging to them in the areas of management or commentary or analysis seems to know it either.

Or if they have identified it in some vague sense, they don't talk about it, perhaps because they have no idea how deep it goes - they don't understand that it must relate to something very significant in the culture from which these men are coming, that it is an extraordinarily complex matter, not just a football issue.

But they should be talking about it, indeed they should be talking of little else. It should be discussed by the finest intellectuals on the kind of TV programmes with names like The Brains Trust which, interestingly enough, they don't make any more.

Amid the madness and the grief of a major tournament it may be hard to get a hearing for such a large-scale exploration of the English mind, but there are quiet interludes in which this important work can be done.

A few years ago I happened to be watching an under 21 international between England and Germany which demonstrated this thing most clearly, this lack of a collective intelligence, perhaps because in the dead atmosphere of that game the natural 'resting' position of both teams was most apparent. And so it was startlingly clear that the young Germans were on the same programme, as it were, and the young Englanders were not, that they weren't even on the same radio station, the same wavelength.

At its most simple, a ball would come to a German, and he would seem to have some clear idea of where his team-mates would be, and what was going to happen next, and maybe even what was going to happen after that.

They were all joined up, not quite in the manner of Barcelona, the ultimate exemplars of collective intelligence, but certainly enough to make the English lads look less than the sum of their parts, as if they had been handed a set of instructions just before the game, some of which were in Chinese.

And I suppose it was especially poignant in this under 21 setting because it suggested that this is now ingrained, that there has been some breakdown in the collective mind of the England footballer, and that he is not even getting counselling for it, let alone the far-reaching programme of national rehabilitation which is clearly required, and which might even fix this thing, whatever it is - a lack of curiosity perhaps, some sense of dislocation from the idea of the greater good that may or may not go back to Thatcher, because many things that are bad in England, go back to Thatcher. Or maybe just some debilitating decline in confidence which was wrought by that regime on the once-mighty heartlands of English football, leading to a situation whereby a lad from London who signs for Liverpool is said to be "homesick".

In this environment we need not wonder why England do so badly, but how they have done so well.

Because looking at them one by one, there is not much wrong with English footballers. They're better than most, better than us, certainly better than the Welsh against whom they finally prevailed, not through their superior class as a team, but through the class of one player, Daniel Sturridge.

And you can understand why Hodgson might feel that 'Studge' doesn't fit into the side, because he doesn't really, in a team of no sophistication he is all sophistication, and so he appears to be playing a different game.

At times it looks like he is probing, searching for that collective energy which he just can't find, and so he turns instead to God.

Because God knows, it was there for a few precious weeks in Italia '90 and in Euro '96, that energy, and because we don't really understand why it disappears, we don't know when it might appear again.

Maybe Studge has got it.

Sunday Indo Sport

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