For decades, ever since the controversial success of 1966, English football fans seem reluctant to acknowledge what is a stark footballing reality. The team is overrated. The result of this has been a string of extremely painful big tournament experiences which have seen the national side fail to live up to hype time and time again.
The ‘rose tinted’ glasses through which the British media view England’s chances ahead of a big tournament seem to draw in many supporters, convincing them that the Three Lions are title-contenders.
A more realistic look at the teams that usually take part would show that England are somewhere between 4th and 10th in terms of chances of success. We have seen this drama unfold in English campaigns in European and World Championships for decades now.
The fact that the true chances of an English success are not recognised in England brings with it unnaturally high expectations. Indeed instead of being seen as perennial underachievers, the Three Lions could even be celebrated as being solid performers, regularly reaching the stages of tournaments they are expected to reach. In other words, last 16 or at best quarterfinals.
The harsh reality is that despite the successes of junior English teams in recent times and the high hopes of English supporters, the Three Lions must once again be rated as a team likely to end their journey, at best around the quarterfinal stage of the forthcoming World Cup.
Germany, France, Belgium and Spain are superior in Europe based on depth, talent, style of play and successes in recent times. The South American powerhouses of Brazil and Argentina are also stronger than the Three Lions.
England can be said to be in the same bracket as hosts Russia, Italy, Portugal and Iceland in terms of overall strength. We shouldn’t forget that Uruguay, Japan and Nigeria all have the potential to progress in the World Cup as well. That’s seven teams in total who are as good as, or near the English standard, not to mention the previously highlighted superior teams.
Why do England never seem to be good enough when it comes to a major tournament? There are three major factors for this and until all three of them change, every rare appearance of England past the quarterfinal stage in a big tournament should be celebrated by those that support the Three Lions as an over achievement.
The most obvious English weakness is the fact that practically all of the players in the squad play in the domestic league and this limits their versatility. With so many different set ups and formations clashing at a major tournaments, English players struggle due to the fact that they all play in the Premier League and are all used to a style of play typical of that tournament. Until such time as at 5 or 6 national team players spread their wings and join clubs abroad, England won’t have the versatility, or the wherewithal to oppose certain sides.
The other two problems are directly related to the first as they concern how the Premier League is run. Having two domestic cup competitions is unwise in this day and age and one that serves only to exhaust players.
Add to this the fact that the Premier League is too big with 20 teams and you have all the ingredients for players suffering from fatigue and, or being injured ahead of international tournaments. For years we have heard calls to reduce the Premier League to 18, or even 16 teams. There has also been talk in some parts of scrapping the League Cup competition, but so far these voices have fallen on deaf ears.
The other obvious issue is that the Premier League is the only major league without a winter break. A 2 week rest period, similar to those adopted by other top European leagues, would be beneficial to the players. Those calling for such a break around Christmas are many. Recently 19 of the 20 Premier League managers agreed that such a time off around the holidays would only benefit their squads. Despite this overwhelming support, change has been resisted by the powers that be.
The high demands of playing in the Premier League naturally drains English internationals and they often look sluggish and tired come the summer months.
Harry Kane is probably the most notable recent example as he seems to be the main reason why England’s hopes for the coming World Cup are so high. However, he starts every Premier League and Champions League game for Tottenham when available and as of the end of October has already had two spells out of action. With a reasonable likelihood of another injury occurring before the end of the season and easily 40+ games for club and country played by next June, Kane will need a miracle to have the energy to deliver should England reach the latter stages of the World Cup.
Kane is just one example, but the same story is valid for most England internationals and thus the Three Lions will never be good enough to be title-contenders in the big tournaments. Gary Neville stated recently that the only realistic chance England have of repeating the heroics of 1966 will come if the tournament is played midway through the season (January-February) when the players are still fresh and in optimum condition.
It was no surprise that a long list of ex-England internationals were quick to agree with him, no doubt able to resonate with the former Manchester United defender by drawing on their own frustrating experiences wearing the national shirt.
For several years the best sides on the continent...