Possession, Jon Harley & foreign coaches: Henry Winter's blueprint for a better England

With England well and truly humbled at Euro 2000, FFT took a moment to take stock of the situation and assess what needed to be done to turn the fortunes of the national team around. Henry Winter named the ten things England would have to do to avoid embarrasment at the 2002 World Cup and beyond. Some of them may sound rather familiar...

1 Learn how to keep the ballPossession is ten-tenths of the law at international level, a reality that England have struggled to appreciate under Kevin Keegan’s management. Individually, England’s players made terrible mistakes, continually gifting the ball to grateful, amused opponents. In the high-speed Premiership, teams can be more careless with passes, knowing the ball will soon be surrendered back. Commit such coaching-book crimes on elevated stages like Euro 2000 and the next acquaintance with the ball is when the opposition hand it back after depositing it in your net. Portugal and Romania both revelled in England’s laxness in possession.

New measures, both immediate and long-term, are required to counteract this disabling flaw. Keegan must bring another man into central midfield; Paul Ince and Paul Scholes were outnumbered against Portugal and Romania and, pressurised continually, gave the ball away. From a young age, defenders should be taught how to pass the ball accurately from the back rather than the current hoof, which stands a 50-50 chance of being lost. But to improve the passing properly, the English might have to change the whole culture of the Premiership with fans being asked to accept less pell-mell fare. Unlikely.

2 Give youth its headSteven Gerrard’s ill-timed calf injury hampered Keegan for the Romania match, reducing his options in central midfield. When fit, the Liverpool 20-year-old must become a starting force for England, providing bite and passing in the centre. Paul Ince has been a magnificent servant for England but the time has come for his replacement by Gerrard, who has the legs to race between boxes.

Tired old England need freshening up. Along with Gerrard, Keegan should look at the claims of Gareth Barry, whose touch shames some of the senior players. Both should become fixtures in the England side while other tyros should be brought into the squad. Obvious contenders include Jon Harley, Joe Cole, Michael Carrick and Michael Bridges. Nicky Weaver deserves assessing if he impresses in the Premiership.

Cole, Harley, Weaver, Carrick and Bridges all went on to....well....hmmm

3 Change the tacticsKeegan’s obsession with 4-4-2 leaves England vulnerable in central midfield against opponents who swamp the area with defenders pushing on or forwards dropping back. The 3-2 Portugal defeat was a classic case in point, with Scholes and Ince completely overrun by Luis Figo and Rui Costa, who were too quick physically and mentally for them. The most obvious lesson from Euro 2000 is that Keegan must switch to either 3-5-2, which largely worked well for Glenn Hoddle, or Terry Venables’ occasional 4-3-2-1 Christmas Tree. England players possess the versatility to assimilate different ideas.

But Keegan is old-fashioned and England patently have not improved under him. In fact, it is hard to see which direction they are heading, apart from backwards. One England player privately confided after watching Italy hold on to a lead on television that England could never do that under Keegan because he was not sharp enough tactically. Old heads like Bobby Robson and Venables are such stellar tacticians because they have the mindset and the experience, having worked at home and abroad. Keegan, still desperately new to international management, shows little sign of being able to do much more than motivate the players (as if they should require stirring up to represent England). Many people D want to see a friendly, tactically-aware father figure alongside Keegan, some nous beside the Mighty Mouse. But Keegan’s ego would not countenance it.

4 Expand horizonsIf you can’t beat them, join them. If England’s footballers are to learn how to live with the Continent’s cream they may have to move overseas. Steve McManaman’s transfer to Real Madrid has undoubtedly improved him as a footballer; his distribution is better, particularly in the awareness of when to release the ball. McManaman’s first-time passing is now terrific and, tactically aware, he works hard to cover for colleagues, like the marauding Michel Salgado.

McManaman is a rarity, a bright footballer who was genuinely interested in seeing another culture, in experiencing another footballing life as well as being tempted by the salaries available to players in a world where Bosman is king. If only more Englishmen would follow him. Keegan, who developed his game further at Hamburg, is aware that an exodus from England is unlikely because the ‘financial rewards are so good’ in the Premiership. So the little Englanders stay at home, cocooned in the dark ages.

Beckham, Owen and Woodgate all followed in Macca's Madrid footsteps

5 Kick with both feetIt was one of life’s sad little ironies that the player whose mistake sent England spinning out of Euro 2000, Phil Neville, was assumed by Keegan to be two-footed and so capable of filling that problematic left-sided position. Neville, a willing, likeable lad, is not bad on his left but is far better with his right. If England are to win a major tournament on foreign soil they must produce players comfortable at receiving or delivering the ball with either foot.

In the compelling group meeting between Holland and France in Amsterdam, Boudewijn Zenden charged up and down the Dutch left, whipping in crosses with his left but then burst through to score with his right. As England discovered, Luis Figo has a hammer in his right boot but he can also glide along the left, happy to use his supposedly weaker foot. One of the games played by the English media party at Euro 2000 was to watch the Continental footballers and guess which foot was their favoured one; so many are two-footed. Italy’s Paolo Maldini has a left foot anointed by the Gods but he readily uses his right to get him out of tight spots.

As a child growing up in the North-East, Bobby Charlton used to practise shooting and passing with either foot; skills forged at an early age brought him football’s ultimate reward - a World Cup winner’s medal. Clubs, which are now able to work on children as young as nine, must reverse the recent trend of one-footedness, so ending the time-consuming activity of transferring the ball from one foot to the other.

6 Use McManaman properlyMcManaman has just starred as an inventive, industrious force in Real Madrid’s European Cup triumph. His talents should be harnessed properly by Keegan, not naïvely on the left but in the middle. A central triumvirate of McManaman, Gerrard and Scholes would offer England composure, cunning and running, while also liberating Scholes to pursue his productive darts into the box. Keegan seems wary of using McManaman, perhaps because of the Merseysider’s apparently languid approach to training and games.

Yet his Champions League form must be acknowledged and exploited. McManaman is one of the few Englishmen who does not treat the ball as a ticking bomb.

McManaman's Euro 2000 lasted just 58 minutes

7 Make the Premiership smallerMichel Platini, the fabled Frenchman now advising Fifa, has always argued that England will never dominate a summer competition because their players are too tired after the crazily intense season involving, for the stars, the Champions League, the domestic League and two cup competitions. Even allowing for expanded squads, rotation systems, suspensions (which some players welcome simply for the break) and the elite’s indifference to the Worthington Cup, players D are on a draining treadmill from August to June. They play, they recover, they play again.

There is little time for real coaching or skill-development once the starter’s orders have gone on the season. English games, whether cup or League, are so quick, so fierce for every one of the 90 minutes that players are exhausted. If English footballers were racehorses, there would be protests from animal-rights organisations, letters to the Guardian and questions in the House.

If the Premiership was reduced in size, which is sadly highly unlikely on the turkeys-voting-for-Christmas principle, then the players would have more time to train and would be involved in better games. Playing against Watford and Wimbledon hardly improved the footballing education of Manchester United’s players. What practice was that for Europe? What use was that in preparing Scholes, Beckham and the Nevilles for facing Romania? None.

8 Know your enemyTalking to England players in the build-up to games can be frightening because their knowledge of opponents is minimal. A culture exists in parts of the English game that focusing excessively on the opposition worries the players. Yet preparation matters. It is important that David Seaman knows Luis Figo will shoot from range, for Ince and Scholes to understand how dangerous Dorinel Munteanu is around the box, for the defenders to be aware where opposing corner-takers are likely to aim the ball.

Keegan’s squad really only knew the Romanian who was not playing, Gheorghe Hagi. In the place of him came Adrian Mutu, and he, along with Munteanu, thoroughly enjoyed themselves. Portugal and Romania had done their homework on England and poured down England’s suspect left. Keegan has many coaches and scouts but the players did not absorb their information.

"Hi, I'm Gheorghe Popescu, we have actually met before..."

9 Temper the foreign influxKeegan has lamented the proliferation of foreign bodies in the Premiership, but nothing is going to stop the flow in the era of Bosman and the Treaty of Rome. Clubs must simply develop their own, as Liverpool and Manchester United are doing. Even cosmopolitan Chelsea have some fine young English players. Premiership clubs could improve matters by having a gentlemen’s agreement to include a certain number of English under-21 players in the matchday 16.

The foreign influence could prove useful for England. When the FA eventually look beyond Keegan, probably when the Three Lions are out of the hunt for the 2002 World Cup, they would be advised to turn to a foreign coach, to thinkers of the quality of Arsène Wenger or Gerard Houllier. New ideas are needed.

10 Stop the hooligansIf any good for England comes out of Euro 2000 it will be an acceptance, finally, by the Government that action is needed to stop hooligans ruining tournaments for others, whether genuine, peaceful followers of the Three Lions or innocent residents of the hosting countries. Politicians from both parties, from administrations past and present, should be squirming with embarrassment at their failure to introduce proper legislation earlier.

Westminster’s tardiness contrasted with the meticulous planning of the German government, which worked out who could cause trouble and crashed through their front doors, ordering them not to stir from their sofas during Euro 2000. It was a curb on civil liberties at which the English baulked. And so the lowlifes invaded the Low Countries, set the sirens ringing in familar fashion and England were almost thrown out.

The hooligan horse having bolted, Jack Straw lamely announced he was shutting the stable-door with a string of stricter measures. But the problem will only be fully addressed when those the FA calls ‘criminals’ are held in the country of their crime and locked up.

Henry Winter is football correspondent for the Daily Telegraph and columnist for the Sunday Telegraph. This article was originally published in the August 2000 edition of FourFourTwo.

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