By John Cartwright

After watching the England v Spain friendly at Wembley, it was Mourinio, the coach of Real Madrid who summed the result up brilliantly, “ a win without touching the ball.” The limited number of times the England players gained and held possession of the ball was laughable; and yet they won!

Two worrying points stem from this game;

1. For Spanish football; how can they have so much possession and not score?

2. For English football; how can they not gain and keep possession far better than at present yet win?

Well, the Spanish problem is one that has become obvious for some time; when teams’ ‘park the bus’ as England did, at international level they lack an attacking variation and a ‘Talisman’, a Lionel Messi. Their possession football lacks penetration and variety at vital times and an individual, creative genius to ‘kill’ defensive blocks. At the Barcelona club their game-style, copied by  Spanish national teams, has similar difficulty with opponents who are prepared to play , or are forced to play in a negative, defensive way against them and so often it is Messi, who is the difference between success and failure.

The English problem is far greater; we lack quality standards both in playing ability and tactical intellect. Our problems are not easily overcome in the short term, for we do not possess the players in all positions who have individual playing qualities that are so important for retaining the ball; nor are we comfortable playing a game-style that demands patience and poise. Lack of individual playing quality in general, combined with the scarcity of potential ‘Talismen’, has turned our game into a combative ‘fightball’ version of ‘the Beautiful Game’ as Pele describes Association Football.

Yet, even with Spain having such an overwhelming advantage in playing qualities, England won the match! We are still a ‘difficult to beat nation’, whether on the football field or in any other sporting, business or academic sphere of life. But are we to be satisfied with winning in an ‘ugly’ way? Surely, long-term success demands more than physical effort, it requires ability as well! Spanish football, even though they are the present holders of World and European titles, will not be slow in recognizing the inadequacies developing within their game and begin to adapt their style of play accordingly to deal with them. We, however, will glorify in the glare of victory over such a prestigious football nation as Spain and continue along the same pathways as before. We will remain ‘the Terriers’ of the game, difficult to beat but unable to combine our physical qualities with the attractive and effective playing attributes that are such an important part of the game.

Perhaps, being the ‘home of the game’,  we have invented a new version of Association Football;  ‘ how to win with the least number of touches of the ball’ !!


  1. John

    I still think that Spain would beat us 7 times out of ten ..draw 2 and win 1. The game at Wembley was reminisscent of the World Cup semi final and the final where Holland and Germany were prepared to concede possesion and hope to nick something on the break. Holland and Germany however have more quality than England and actually have the skilful players to hit you quickly given that Spain will have most of the ball. I still think Spain are ahead of the rest of Europe. Messi is just so exceptional ….is there a european player who has anything like his overall star quality? but you are right of course about England. I noticed that in some of the post match chat ( I call it chat because to call it analysis would be an insult) the possesion problem was dealt with in terms of not having “forward” options…an instance comes to mind in the first half where Parker played a forward ball into space? analysis would show that his decision was wrong and was in fact an example of needing to turn out and go home but this is a habit that is so underdeveloped in our game that even someone of Parkers experience merely “lost the ball”.
    John Barnes made this point in opposition to comments by Trevor Brooking on a recent Radio 5 prog called The Perfect 10. Brooking was insisting that coaches should be getting kids to play “between the lines” and bemoaning the fact that so much of what he see’s in acadamies is “backwards and sideways”. Yes we would agree but Barnes was making the point that we do not do the “backwards and sideways” stuff well enough to move onto the penetrative stuff. If the U21 team cannot sting 4 passes together against Spain where on earth is the penetritive play going to come from. Barnes was way ahead of Brooking in his understanding of where we were failing nationally. Recommend the program if you can locate it.

  2. To be fair, I think the majority can now see how short we are, as a nation, in terms of technical capability and game understanding as compared with our continental near neighbours.

    I think only the deluded few will honestly think that, well, if we just defend for half a dozen games next summer we can get to a final.

    A great deal of grassroots coaches have seen the light and are actively doing their bit to promote a new generation of enlightened players. Clearly at least some of the pundits only see a result – hopefully we can keep pressing for the tipping point for the majority to say – we have to change. Enough of us ARE making a change, but it may take 10 years to see a major swing. Keep plugging away everyone !

    Nice new blog format, by the way – matched the corporate colours !

  3. Great blog John, my comments below have already been posted on your prevoius blog as you but I think my comments are more relevant to this blog rather than the previous one.

    “Often the result is confused with the situation” an old quote from Johan Cruyff and one that could be applied to England’s one nil win over Spain. This quote rings so true after yesterdays sickening game.

    Que the madness from journalists, football fans and even the kids. At the last world cup Switzerland beat Spain in a similar fashion, got men behind the ball, defended, defended, failed with the ball and somehow with the aid of luck, nicked a goal. Chile and Spain got out of the group because of their superior ability with the ball, Switzerland went home!

    England won yes, Spain did not create a lot yes, Spain were not at their usual level yes (friendly & substitutions made due to La Liga title race), but Spain were still so much better with the ball and dominated the ball, and were technically superior.

    Any grassroots coach who does not use this game to educate his/her players is responsible for England’s lack of skill with the ball. Any coach who jumps on the public bandwagon off “we beat the world champions” without realizing the FACT that England were SO POOR is a SINNER.

    As a grassroots coach I have a responsibility to improve my players skill level and understanding of the game. I will use this game to educate our players about Spain’s ability with the ball and England’s LAUGHABLE ability with it. I will show the players the situations when England got the ball off Spain, the poor counterattacks they launched because of poor movement, inaccurate passes, over hit passes, under hit passes, delayed passes, inability to run at and beat defenders who are on the back foot and I will have to somehow tell our players that Phil Jones is not actually really that good despite both commentators going on about him during the game like he is the most skilled footballer of our time.

    England cannot win Euro 2012 playing that way, hoping to nick goals against technically superior teams while England show an inability with the ball. Some might say Greece won Euro 2004 like this. This is not entirely true. Yes Greece were defensive and did not boss the ball however there were games in that tournament where when they did win the ball they were able to sometimes keep it and launch effective counter attacks and control the game. England does not have same skill level of the 2004 Greece team.

    Before the game I told myself to focus not on Spain but on England when they nicked the ball from Spain. The results were shocking.

    – on average put 2-3 passes together (despite Spain not pressing to their usual standard)

    – England GK and defenders including Ashley Cole (best left back in the world!) just kicked ball forward = Spain regain possession.

    – Theo Walcotts attempted dribbles and runs with the ball were done with no awareness of the spaces to attack, no awareness of Jordi Alba’s and Sergio Ramos’ body position and with no ability to manipulate the ball in tight or open spaced 1v1 situations..

    – In fact all the England players were just so direct with their decision making except for Scott Parker (he is not GREAT though)

    – Parker when pressed, shielded the ball, turned with the ball, did sharp cuts with the ball and kept it individually only to give it to someone who couldn’t.

    – Phil Jones in the first half had a couple of situations where he had yards and yards of space with the ball and yet was unable to make any kind of decision. When he did make a decision it lacked skill, because he over hit, under hit passes and he was unable to run with the ball effectively with any guile or trickery. (It does not matter that he is a defender playing in midfield or that he is young – Lucio, David Luiz, Daniel Agger, Sergio Ramos, Gerard Pique, Thiago Silva).

    – If Jones is poor with the ball when he has 30 yards of space in front of him, how will he be when he has 2 yards of space!

    – Darren Bent wore the no. 9 shirt and yet couldn’t perform a trick back to goal or in a 1v1 vs Pique, his movement was shocking and even if he did curve his runs, drag defenders away, the midlfielders behind him probably would not have picked him out or used it to hurt Spain.

    – Danny Welbeck came short to play one-twos with Milner, A.Johnson and Downing. When he received the ball he over hit the return pass out of touch. The crowd applauded when he kicked the ball out of play.

    This list could go on and on, and yes Spain were not at their usual level and the another Cruyff quote could be used for them “well, you can’t score goals if you don’t take a shot” I just hope youth coaches in the UK don’t focus on the result but the difference in ability and IF YOU DON’T THEN YOU ARE RESPONSIIBLE FOR CONTINUNG THE NURTURING OF COWARDLY INCOMPETENT FOOTBALLERS.

  4. Anyone with the love of football at heart would have preferred the Spanish approach to have triumphed over England’s ‘anti-football’ at Wembley last Saturday. However, such is the nature of football, that it is not always the team with superior technical talents which wins the game. England did not attempt to kick the Spanish stars into the stands,as might have happened 30 or 40 years ago with more lenient refereeing, but adopted tactics which, on the day, enabled them to defeat a Spanish team which, I thought, lacked a cutting edge in the final third of the pitch. But, I believe, as John Cartwright intimates, Spain (i.e.Barcelona), will address this problem, because it has been a factor in Barcelona’s performances this season in La Liga. As John rightly remarks, there is far more chance of Spain addressing their shortcomings than of England addressing their more technical weaknesses, which have been obvious for at least sixty years now.
    I think it is ironic that Jose Mourinho should point out that England won a game in which they hardly had any touches of the ball. Was this not how his Internazionale side knocked out Barcelona in the semi final of the Champions League the season before last? It has been said that in the 2nd leg of that semi final, Mourinho was, on many occasions, shouting to his players, when they won the ball, to give it back to Barcelona, because it was easier to keep in position without the ball than with it, and therefore soak up all the pressure which Barcelona exerted. England’s approach closely mirrored this last Saturday, so i think that Mourinho’s comments are a bit rich.
    The FA hired Cappello to improve England’s results – a semi final place in the major tournaments was his brief, I believe. He failed dismally in South Africa and now it remains to be seen whether there is improvement in Poland/Ukraine. Whether he continues down the road of anti-football is his decision. But an improvement in the technical, skill and intelligence levels in English football, starting at the very bottom, is a different issue and one that the FA needs to address with the greatest urgency.

    • and so it was “back to basics” against Sweden. The only shock in this one was that Sweden were even worse than us. My 13 year old ended up berating me for not changing the channel and questioned my sanity for actually watching the whole game.

  5. “The FA hired Cappello to improve England’s results – a semi final place in the major tournaments was his brief, I believe. He failed dismally in South Africa and now it remains to be seen whether there is improvement in Poland/Ukraine”

    Steve, I know what you’re saying, but Capello is a coach, not a magician ! You can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear. It’s not Capellos fault and, to a great extent, it’s not the players’ either. There hasn’t been enough care in their development that brought them to this point and, without the autonomy of thought; the wisdom to solve football problems, they will be unlikely to ‘succeed’ in the Euros, either.

    As usual, I shall watch in hope rather than expectation !

  6. Hi Steve the Seagull.
    Of course, Capello can only use the material which is available to him and clearly, the talent development in England is always going to be the big problem in this country until radical changes are made. But criticism of his performance in South Africa is justified, I feel, with regard to his tactical deployment of the team, squad selection, ( which I feel showed a lack of bravery, by ignoring a number of inexperienced players who are now showing promising signs of worth), and the preparation immediately before, and during, the tournament. Of course, as you say, he is not a magician, but part of a coach’s job is to get the best out of the players available to him, and I don’t think that Capello achieved this.
    Capello has a superb track record in club management in Italy and Spain but how hard did the Football Association examine it before making the appointment? I think that that this is a common mistake when managers are appointed at both club and international level.
    Capello’s first big job was with AC Milan and they produced one of the all-time great performances to beat Barcelona 4 – 0 in the 1994 European Cup final. However, that Milan team was the product of Arrigo Sacchi, one of the most innovative coaches in the game’s history, and Sacchi ‘left’ Capello his team when he took over the Italian national team. There was a similar situation in England during the 1970s, when Don Revie got the England job. For the previous 10 years, Revie had been the most successful English club manager, but with England he floundered and , ultimately, failed dismally. The FA, on making the appointment, had failed to take unto account the quality of the staff Revie had at Leeds United, and , as is so often the case, that had been a major part of the success which he had achieved.

  7. I was, however, most interested in John’s comments regarding Spain’s inability to produce penetration at Wembley. I for one, didn’t see the match; but judging from his comments and from others, it seems apparent that the Spanish were unable to initiate play-rounds around the edge of the box and from there work the ball into a facing target to lay off for supporting runners to get in a dig; were unable to work the ball to the byline and then cut the ball back, unable to play intricate one-twos in and around the box, to slide little balls between defenders – assuming there were some – for players making angled, straight or bent runs, across or behind defenders; were unable to fashion crosses hitting the space for men to run into; unable to draw England out sufficiently to go in behind; unable to make angled runs in the penalty area to receive weighted balls to set back for supporting to players to dig at goal – aka as Brooking did in ’81 away in Budapest after Keegan laid back the ball from Neal; unable to make third man runs; unable to overlap; unable to get balls into feet of front men to twist and turn. Unable to do any of these actions which in general are more focused on movement than individualism. Take a look at the Brooking goal I referred to. Hungary have seven men in the box (excluding the keeper) and as Neal shapes to cross, Keegan angles his run across the defenders from left to right in front of two and behind one. Neal rolls the ball into his feet and Keegan lays it off with the outside of the foot to the late running Brooking who from smashes it into the goal from just inside the
    Hungarian penalty area. A slowed initial pass, a one-touch lay off and a first time shot. The point I am making is that surely the Spanish, have it in their armory to make good chances because of their movement and for whatever reason on that particular evening did not manage to do so?

    However, the point John makes is absolutely correct, in as much, that every team needs a Messi ‘type.’ Yet, conversely, should the absence of this player be the difference between success and failure? My point – and I make it with qualifications – is that with their great technical qualities – Xavi, Iniesta etc – the Spanish should be able to score goals without a Messi. Obviously, a Messi figure, assures greater success, because great individualism can and does make a difference at vital times. Rest assured, the FA Coaching Model is a massive failure; quite simply – a failed model, like a terminally brain-dead patient, who is being kept alive on life-support; because it is too big an industry to pull the plug on, as those with invested interests will not publicly admit and acknowledge their failures, despite the year-by-year and on-going technical deficiencies of the English game which are masked by the con-job of TV promotion. As the saying goes ‘if you tell a lie that’s big enough (how GREAT the Premier League is ) and you tell it often enough, people will believe you.’ Hence, the problem. I say this in relation to the Spanish performance because I don’t believe the ‘FA WAY’ coaches great movement and does not seem to promote the development of the great individual; or even semi-great individual – one Gascoigne, like a seagull does not make a summer.

    Premier Skills on the other hand overtly coaches the quality of movement and individualism that in sixty plus years the G R E A T FA scheme has not managed. Like it or not, the biggest challenge facing the FA is not Blatter but themselves.

  8. The question is whether Barcelona, and therefore Spain, over-elaborate in and around the penalty area which prevents them from scoring the goals which their superb build-up play deserves.
    As John Cartwright says, there is more chance that Barcelona will address this problem in their play than we will in addressing the much greater problems, at this present time, which is apparent in our football.
    In fact, I have noticed in recent Barcelona matches that there have been indications they are already taking these lessons on board. In the very good La Liga match – Athletic Bilbao v. Barcelona – which I have mentioned before, Barcelona scored a late equaliser which showed an adaptation of their usual approach. On a saturated pitch, a high cross form the left found Fabregas in the penalty area, pulling off the back of the Athletic defender who was marking him but momentarily ball-watching, and scored with a well placed header. Then last Saturday, after initial indications that Real Zarragoza were another team who had come to ‘park the bus’, Barcelona broke the deadlock from a free kick swung into the Zarragoza box and Pique timed his run across defenders to head powerfully into the net.
    These were not typical Barcelona goals, but if it is the result of work done in varying and adding to their game-style, then it should ensure that Barcelona, and Spain, remain at the top for many years to come.

    • For once I think Steve is not addressing the point I am making and it is this; Did Did Spain at any stage look to use a variety of approaches to create strikes at goal through passing and movement – and a range is possible.

      Steve mentions Pique scoring from an Indirect freekick but nothing new in that; Puyol scored the WC SF winner against Germany in that way.
      Fabregas’ header is an example of the type of movement; but the ball does not have to be in teh air per se;it can be, inasmuch as that might be the requirement depending on the run.

      My thoughts – and I repeat I didn’t see teh game – remain unanswered.

      i will add one point. It ismost crucial that very team has a messi type to unlock the door if necessary, bu on ocassion when one is not present against a team which parks the bus other methods must prevail.

      On the Mourinho comment about calling it a bit rich – and it may have been – surely his Inter against Barcelona over the two legs countered wioth far more quaility that England to get the requred result!

  9. Hi Brazil94 — Your summation of Spain’s performance agaist England is correct, they do need more variations in their game. This is something we at Premier Skills have been saying for a long time when commenting on Barcelona, for it’s Barcelona’s playing style that has been used by Spanish national teams’ at all levels.
    Have a read of a ‘blog’ on Barcelona that i did some months back, i think you will find it an interesting read.

  10. Hi Brazil94.
    Barcelona’s equaliser in the recent La Liga match against Athletic Bilbao was from a high cross from the left, because at that stage in the match, the pitch was covered in surface water and the ball had to be played in the air. Fabregas’s movement was good because he pulled off the back of the defender to make space for himself and score with a well-directed header.
    There always has been a lot of difference in using good movement to create space for getting on the end of high crosses and simple ‘fight balls’ where a big,strong centre forward simply battles with an equally strong defender in what is purely a physical confrontation.
    It is true that when Inter beat Barclelona in the Champions’ League Semi Final the season before last, Inter had shown the other side to their game in the 1st leg, when they won 3 – 1.In that match they played some fine,attacking football in which Schneider was outstanding. The football was technically far superior than english players are currently capable of, and I would not deny that. However, played a deep, defensive game with players olding their positions at all times, in the match against Spain recently, in the same way that Inter approached the away leg of that semi final in Barcelona and so mourinho’s comments are ironic.
    I also recall the Euro 2000 semi final – Holland v. Italy. The Italians lost a player to a red card after only 10 minutes in that match but still held out for 0 – 0 over 120 minutes, (including extra time), to win the penalty shoot-out. No-one closes a game out better than the Italians, (although they were helped by the Dutch missing 2 penalties in normal time in that match!). The Dutch were far too cocky before the game. They had boats already decked out in orange flags and bunting before the semi final, ready to sail out of the harbour in Amsterdam to celebrate their place in the Final.
    Sometimes there are other factors, rather than technical superiority, which decide a football match.

  11. Sometimes, hopefully these ‘sometimes’ are rare and that technical superiority (and tactical superiority) come out on top.

    On crosses, the better technicians can flight the better cross-pass and see the space to put the ball into

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