England, Oh (dear) England & Problems with Rankings

It’s a rest day at the World Cup, so I thought I would reflect briefly on England’s tournament – not as a fan of the team (admittedly I’m not), just because it seems to have been huge news back home that England didn’t do all that well. I argue that, in fact, England did about as well as should have been expected. I then ask why there is such a disconnect between the perceived quality of the domestic league and the international team, and finally, why there are such huge over-expectations from the English fans.

England, after a pretty unconvincing group stage in which they contrived to take only five points from fairly weak opposition, lost in the second round to Germany. While England were slight favourites with the bookies (at around 13/8 to Germany’s 2/1), this will have been skewed massively by ‘patriotic’ betting. It was no real surprise that England lost to Germany, the much better team on the day; what has caused such an outcry was the magnitude of 4-1 defeat. This led to the overall performance at the World Cup to be labelled a flop, failure, disaster, etc. I think, actually, England’s achievement at this World Cup was about as much as could be expected with the squad and institutional set-up which they currently employ. England were ranked eighth in the world going into the tournament, and with all seven teams ahead of them actually playing (often there is a notable absentee – this time the highest ranked missing teams were Croatia, Russia and Egypt at 10, 11 and 12). England could reasonably have expected to squeak into the quarter-finals then, but only if they managed to avoid a stronger team in the second round.

There should have been crumbs of comfort before that second-round game was even played – Italy (ranked three above England by FIFA) and France (one below) had fallen at the group stages, along with a couple of teams fancied as possible quarter-finalists (Serbia, Ivory Coast, Denmark). Then there was the fact of losing to Germany itself: Germany are, and have been for quite a long time (maybe a decade), at least a bit better than England. FIFA rankings are hardly flawless (Greece at 16 pre-World Cup! – see note below on problems with rankings), but the top ten are pretty indicative of some level of quality. On top of this, 4-1 is a brutal result, but it might easily have been 4-2 or 3-2 had Lampard’s phantom goal been awarded. Heck, it might even have been 2-2 followed by penalties. However, there’s not much doubt in my mind that Germany had the talent and drive to go through even if Lampard’s goal had counted. My point here is that the score shouldn’t be taken too seriously – once Team A is two goals down in the second-half of a knockout game, there are always going to be opportunities for Team B to extend their lead as Team A increasingly desperately pushes forward (in partial contradiction of this, Argentina got thumped 4-0 without looking particularly like scoring. That’s a whole other set of problems which might get addressed in some sort of World Cup round up next week…).

So, I argue that England did about as well as could rationally be expected (though had they got more than five points in their group, and played Ghana – well, they still may have lost, who knows). There are two problems raised by this assessment – first, why are England “only” the eighth best team in the world when the Premier League is almost certainly the top domestic league (and the entire England squad plays domestically)? And second, why , when many great, objective analysts pointed out that England would be lucky to get to the quarter-finals, was their second-round exit seen as such a surprise?

It’s becoming fashionable to say things like “it turns out the Premier League isn’t so good after all”. I think this is daft. It’s pretty clearly one of the top three leagues in the world, and because of the lack of great teams below the top three in Spain (and top one in Germany and Italy), I think it is perfectly reasonable to claim that as a league, it has the highest number of top-quality club teams. The problem is, for me, in the style of play. And it’s not a problem for me, if you follow – it’s only a problem for the England players, all of whom play in England,* and only know the fast, physical game played there.

I like watching the Premier League. A lot. I’m happy watching Villa-Everton, City-Birmingham or Spurs-Blackburn. There is quality down to about 13th/14th place in the league, which is untrue anywhere else in the world (I’ll draw the line at Bolton-Stoke though). The top six or seven was a tremendous dogfight this year, and while the overall quality of the top three was down from previous years, it was still a really exciting season with some great football. The problem is, for England, that the style of play in the Premier League is – rightly or wrongly – not acceptable to most non-British referees (they’re even more lenient in the wilds of the SPL!). Sure, there is plenty of fouling in the World Cup – I think it’s been a huge problem actually – but it is sneaky, insidious, unpunished fouling, not a socking great body-check from the likes of James Milner or an agricultural tackle which gets the ball but also gives the man a bit to think about.

The converse of this is even more important – England players simply cannot deal with the level of deception in the game. They are not sharp enough. (The “best” diver England have is Steven Gerrard, and he is hardly Darcey Bussell. OK, I’m being facetious here, because I would love for diving to be eliminated from the game.) There is a serious point though that England don’t know how to avoid situations in which they facilitate their own destruction – a leg outstretched, even where there is no contact; a raised arm to brush someone away; one too many enraged shouts at the officials – they just don’t have the nous to deal with this. I don’t wish to romanticise the Premier League, as it’s not exactly an advert for sportsmanship, but there is a brutal honesty about it. It is still bad form to completely deceive the referee, and cheating is frowned upon by the talking heads back in the T.V. studios in a way unlike many other parts of the world.

It’s not all (or even mostly) about the play-acting though. In Spain and Italy (less so Germany, which seems to lie somewhere between the British and Spanish ways of playing), possession and patience are crucial characteristics for successful football. This is equally true of major international tournaments – Germany are the only real exception of a purely counter-attacking team doing well in the current world cup, and they have had the fortune to play against some genuinely awful defences. To succeed at international level, a team needs players who are not only comfortable winning and distributing the ball, but players who are happy to hold on to it. So often against Algeria, the U.S.A. and Germany, England players panicked on receiving the ball. Thinking that a Leighton Baines, a Ryan Shawcross or a Danny Murphy was about to bite their ankles, Barry, Gerrard and Lampard would routinely make erroneous passes under little pressure. They looked scared of the ball, something you don’t have time to see in the Premier League, and something that is knocked out of footballers very quickly on the continent.

So, my solution – if the success of the national team is deemed important – is the encouragement of top English players to spend a significant part of their careers overseas. Not on late career pension plans like Beckham either – I mean going to the Bundesliga, la Liga or Serie A when they are 22, 23, 24 years old and learning how to play football in more ways than the very specific Premier League style. Not only to develop skills on the ball – reading and influencing the shape of the game, holding up play, splitting teams with visionary passes (ok, not everyone can be Xavi but you get the point) – but also to develop the instincts to deal with the levels of deceit and gamesmanship which are endemic in the global game. Not to become good cheats, I emphasise, but to learn how to avoid those situations which end in an unnecessary yellow or red card due to the dubious talents of your tricky opponent. So often I would look at the incredulity on the faces of the ‘wronged’ England players who had just given away a soft free kick for a complete dive and think that they just don’t get it. International referees are prone to err on the side of the diver. This is wrong and should be addressed, but until it is, you have to play by those rules and limit the opportunities you give for the referee to be fooled.

As to the second point, I would simply caution that the media is almost completely responsible for the idea that England are a global football powerhouse; it is a structural societal problem of information distribution which is not going to be solved anytime soon. It is too well-ingrained, and as long as it is profitable for newspapers and television to overhype the national team it will continue. Not to mention the wider issue of the crucial role sport plays in maintaining nationalist ideology (which will be addressed in largely Mexico-related post very soon…)

*Joe Cole is out of contract but has never played anywhere else

Problems with Rankings

Just a word on the FIFA rankings to finish. The semi-finalists are ranked 2 (Spain), 4 (Netherlands), 6 (Germany), and 16 (Uruguay). I know Uruguay have been a bit of a trendy pick, but I had money on them doing well long before they touched down in South Africa. There was no doubt in my mind as early as April that they were going to get much further than any of France, Italy or England – they were simply a class above them. I wonder whether people would argue with that now. So why are the rankings so skewed – Portugal third? Italy fifth!? Clearly one problem is the four-year period of ranking – an absurdly (and indefensibly) long period during which a team could, like Germany, have undergone a total transformation – amazingly it used to be eight years, until 2006! (the converse of Germany’s unheralded meteoric rise is Greece’s precipitous decline following their heyday in the mid-2000s). The match status system needs sorting out – I don’t think it is sensible at all that a World Cup game counts as >1.5x as important as a qualifier. The regional weighting reflected in the rankings is also pro-European, and hopefully the fact that five of the eight quarter-finalists were non-European will prompt a change in this (even though all three European teams went through – Spain were bloody lucky against Paraguay and Holland-Brazil was pretty close).

The other problem is the results-based analysis more generally. Football is unlike sports such as baseball and cricket in which statistical analysis is good at prediction. There’s not really an easy way around it, but I always find that the opinions of trusted correspondents and commentators are actually more valuable in football – even bookies find their odds warped by national pride. Argentina, for example, probably have the best twenty-three footballers in the world – but Maradona left out their best midfielder, Cambiasso; played a peculiar formation which blunted his attacking options; and seemed to endorse the defensive philosophy of comic utter indifference. This should be reflected in the rankings somehow…

Just for fun, here is how I would have ranked (roughly) the top twenty teams in the world (bearing in mind I think this is the first World Cup I have seen without a single great team), as at the start of the tournament, taking into account the ‘knowns’ about their teams and managers:

Spain; Netherlands; Brazil; Argentina; Germany; Uruguay; Chile; Italy; Ivory Coast*; Portugal; England; Mexico; Serbia; Egypt; Paraguay; Russia; France; U.S.A.; South Korea; Denmark**

For the record, my scribbled calculations predicted seven out of eight quarter-finalists correctly, and three of four semi-finalists. I was convinced Argentina would beat Germany, and failed to do what I am advocating here – to take account of selection policy and managerial tendencies. I thought their natural talent would win through – my bad, and it will certainly cost me a bob or two. Even though I accept that Brazil are a pretty talented bunch, I had the Netherlands beating them in the QF because I think Dunga is a clueless and negative manager, and they are a very poorly-disciplined team. I think the only team I seriously over-rated was Serbia, and perhaps Ivory Coast (see below). Okay, maybe Chile, but they played beautiful football and they got star-struck against Brazil, as usual. I thought South Korea were better than Japan going in to the tournament but now I’m not so sure. Even though they play ugly football, I thought U.S.A. were better than most people were giving them credit for. Italy play ugly football and they’re pretty bad, but nobody was complaining about them being among the favourites.

*Not sure what to say about Drogba’s injury here. I backed Ivory Coast to get to the QFs based on him being fit. Had he played 90mins against Portugal I still think they may have done so, and then I wouldn’t look so silly…

**The variance with the FIFA top twenty is huge, obviously, but simply put, I canned Croatia, Greece, Australia and Cameroon and brought up Denmark, South Korea, Ivory Coast and Paraguay, all of which were languishing at 27 or below.

Published in: on July 4, 2010 at 7:11 pm  Comments (4)  

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4 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Love the article…cant really complain about the comments regarding England….

    • Hi Bill,

      A good piece, very well written, but I don’t agree with all your points. I think our players are very adept at ‘playing the game’. If you look at the attitudes of the top teams in England, they all employ game changing tactics. To highlight one player in particular, John Terry, he delights in pressurizing referees, he excels in dirty unhanded tackles and employs the full spectrum of professional play within the context of the league. Rooney and Stevie G are tough pros who will use the rules book to the full extent. Lampard knows the game inside out and Ashley Cole will always leave his studs in if gets a chance.
      If a Premiership style of play could have been forced onto teams in the WC then we have inevitably done much better. I think the key point about out performance was the age of the team. Week in and out we hear the Imperial Lord Ferg talking about ‘desire’ on the pitch. If Man Utd lose, his stock phrase is ‘they showed no desire,’ if they win, ‘they had the right desire’. I think England lacked the desire, and the legs, to play a team of Germans peppered with technically gifted young fit players. They simply looked their age. Walcott not traveling was a big mistake. Have you seen the Roy Keane interview about the England performance? Heskey 3 goals in the Prem this year, why is he starting? Any thoughts?
      I agree with you about the media’s influence, it is such a destructive whirlwind of words and pressure on the players, which did have a huge negative influence on the team.
      My solution is quite simple. I would tighten up the rules on how many foreign players can play in the Premership, England do not have a big pool of quality players to draw upon. I would sack Cappello, this is controversial, and I know Roy Keane and Yasir Patel disagree with me on this point. He performed well in the qualifiers, but was too slow to make key changes in the team. The big decisions for my liking were to drop under performing big name players. Barry didn’t look fit and he rushed him back, he had Crouch on the bench and never played him, Walcott was not taken, he even phoned Paul Scholes and begged him to come back! He looked out of his depth and he flapped at the wrong moments.
      The atmosphere in camp was again highly criticized for being ‘too Italian’. If you compare this to the approach of Sven and this year the Ghanaian camp of late night gambling and dancing to early hours, then there clearly is a balance to be made, but if Rooney wants to go out for pint the day before the game, because his nerves are shot to bits, let him go, this is how English players need to be treated.
      I believed the hype once again and this was my fault once again. This was the best team since 1990, but their pay salaries, the rampant commercialism of English game, and the crazy media frenzy, all worked against us. We need a younger and hungrier team, who value the chance to play for England at the finals. I wouldn’t send our players to La Liga or the Bundersleague to improve their gamesmanship, but find the right English manager to create a good English style set up, I would give youth a chance, and I would try and slay some of those over inflated egos.
      Well done on predicting the semi finalists. Any tips betting tips for the finals? My favorite player so far has been Robben; full backs are scared witless whenever he gets the ball.

      • Cheers John – lots to address there! In the main, I agree with you, and I think we are just emphasising different points. I was only really intending to cover one of the many factors that I think have hampered England’s chances – the style of play – but I agree that the mentality, squad selection, etc, were all important. I’ll go through in order to keep things simple.

        Regarding Terry, Lampard, Rooney etc being experts at ‘playing the game’: it’s true, but I think the rulebook (and how you can exploit it) is different in the Premier League. It’s fine for players like Rooney and Gerrard to use their physicality or Terry (and Keane, back in the day) to bawl at the ref and try to get a card for the opposition through intimidation, but those things seem to be unacceptable to the international referees (and fair enough, you could argue). The top European and South American sides are very careful about how they ‘play’ the refs – they very rarely look angry – I think there is a big distinction between “I can’t believe it, I’m innocent” and “you ******* ****” – and when they disagree they often vent their frustration on the linesman. Point taken on Ashley Cole, though I would say he was the only player in the England team who acquitted himself well.

        Regarding the psychology of the players, it must be a big part of it – but it’s very hard to quantify (or even to know for sure what is going on). Rooney, Gerrard and both full-backs didn’t stop running for the whole tournament, and they clearly wanted to be in the action, but it didn’t do them any good – they just got dragged out of position time and again. I generally err on the side of the combination of talent/fitness over mentality as a crucial factor, and I think this England squad was seriously lacking in both talent and fitness. On the mental side, I think they probably lacked discipline, but this may be down to the manager. The way Glen Johnson abandoned the right-back quadrant of the field every time he got the ball was a prime example of this – had he been given a free role, or is he just a moron? If it is the latter (and by the time the second game was over, it was clear that his problem was incurable) then he shouldn’t have been playing. This brings up the problem of squad selection, as there was no top-quality cover for right-back.

        I don’t want to be too harsh on England because there isn’t a single truly great team in this world cup (and certainly no great defence), but they just do not have the players. Who, from the England squad, would get into any of Spain, Brazil, Argentina, Germany, or Holland’s best eleven? Cole, and probably Rooney at a pinch. Lampard has great talent going forward and when he is protected, but is so slow as to be completely anonymous when he is called on to defend; Gerrard never stops trying but his end product is invariably laughable; Barry was injured and shouldn’t have been there; Milner looked promising but was asked to play as a defensive winger, so it’s not surprising he looked no more exciting than Darren Fletcher. Basically (aside from Cole and Rooney) the talented players don’t have the athleticism and the athletic players don’t have the talent. Add to this Rooney having a shocker (which might just be down to having been brutally overworked this season – both in terms of games played and Ferguson’s absurd obsession with 4-5-1, but also being rushed back from injury to try to snatch the title race). I really think that with those players, they got about as far as possible.

        So who else is there? I’m a hundred percent in agreement about Walcott. His omission was completely indefensible – with his pace he is a potential game-changer, and much more versatile than Shaun Wright-Phillips, who is fast but incredibly weak and not great at crossing. Before the tournament I suggested England’s best chance was to play a 4-3-3 with Gerrard-Lampard-Milner in the middle and Walcott-Rooney-Lennon up front, and I still think that would have been better, but not by a whole lot. There was no chance they would be able to break Germany down with four leaden-footed central midfielders though, that was crazy. Who else might have made a difference? Hargreaves was injured and Carrick seems to have been permanently damaged by Ferguson, and they at their peaks were two great hopes as world-class central midfielders. There aren’t really any other incredibly gifted difference-makers though, which suggests that it is the team as a whole that needs fixing, from the ground up.

        Which brings us on to Capello, who did quite a lot to hamper their chances – I don’t have much confidence that any other big name would be too different though, again because the media has such a role in picking the side. I’d almost be tempted to give the job to someone like Pearce, but under the close direction of an F.A. strategy committee, with a mandate to completely forget about the European Championships and to start building now for 2014. My suggestions would be: to ditch Lampard, Gerrard, Terry, Ferdinand, Heskey and Wright-Phillips now; put Hart in goal with Foster as deputy and just leave him there for four years; bring in Baines as a left-footed right-back (who has some chance to be as good as Phillip Lahm given the opportunity I think), Walcott and Johnson; give Ashley Young, Gabi Agbonlahor and Tom Huddlestone a chance to make their cases again; and start picking which of Gibbs, Wilshere, Rodwell etc are going to make it and introduce them to the side over the next 6-8 months. Settle on a formation within 15-18 months and then have a couple of years to grow into a much better side before the next world cup. Aim to get to the quarter finals with the idea that doing so would be a good platform for getting at least to the semis in 2018 (on the basis that those players will improve and by then another generation of young talent will be coming up). It all depends on much bigger structural changes to football though.

        One suggestion – as you have included – is to severely limit the number of foreign players. The difficulty with this, other than its legality, is that for me, the influx of foreign players has been what has made the Premier League so good. My favourite United team was the 1993-94 side, but watching the games now the basic quality of the football was dreadful, especially against teams in the bottom half of the table. A restriction of foreign players will have a big impact on the quality (and therefore profitability) of the Prem, so it’s hard to see if happening in an significant way. It’s a trade-off I wouldn’t make, personally, but that’s because I’m much more interested in club football than in England. However… if it could be done, then I could see some sort of incremental improvement over a period of five or six years, because the incentives would still be there in European football. Maybe something like the rise of the Bundesliga over the last several years. I still think it would be just as effective to encourage many more (and I mean dozens) of young, promising players to go abroad – even on loan.

        In terms of egos, I don’t think that’s a problem with footballers but with the rampant Thatcherite attitude to money in Britain, and I don’t think it can be fixed. If those guys can’t pack enough playstation games or (god forbid) books to entertain them for three weeks while they undertake the (supposedly) most important job of their lives, then there is no hope for them. The entitlement mentality that goes with earning £100,000 a week isn’t universal – see many players in La Liga who seem to deal with it just fine – but is tied up with the tabloid, wag-obsessed, image rights, advertising culture which is distilled so perfectly in England. I think that has to be worked around. Even if you pick eleven unassuming, modest, well-adjusted lads for the team (who, in fairness, might have struggled to get to the top of the game if they are too sensible and shy) then the media would create monsters out of most of them; at least, that’s my suspicion.

        Re: the last four, it’s completely up in the air. Germany are great on the counter but have had only one significant test of the defence (against Serbia) and fluffed it. Holland look uninspired and jaded. Spain have great natural talent but insist on carrying the ghost of Fernando Torres so are playing every game with ten men. I have a feeling it could be Uruguay. Suárez to score the winner. (Only joking…. or am I?)

  2. Bill and John to replace Capello???

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