By John Cartwright
What is the main cause for our continual demise in playing standards? This question has been at the forefront of our football discussions for decades. Numerous answers have been prescribed for the problem but with little obvious success. There have been changes to virtually every aspect of the game here, from off the field preparation to on the field practice and playing, all seemingly with little effect on producing an observable improvement in playing quality at all levels.
It is said that individual ability dictates the game-style used, yet our players, who are not totally defunct of the skills to play the game, find it difficult to deliver those skills into the competitive game using the British way of playing. I watch teams’ practice and see interesting ability from players of all ages but unfortunately it is not reproduced in games. Simplicity dominates playing demands here, why? If we have players who are physically capable, have sufficient skills and game awareness the only answer to our dilemma must be the enforcement of a GAME-STYLE that suffocates individual playing identity.
Direct play methods have been part of our game here since the game was invented. Limited playing ideas (tactics) and low skill levels produced a game-style that was fast and furious; combined with this was the poor surfaces on which games were played. There is however, a question that needs answering; why did our continental opponents, who suffered the same playing surfaces as us, refrain from continuing to play in a direct way and move their game-styles towards a more skilful brand of football?
Fear of failure ‘sits’ on the shoulders’ of all who are involved in the game; winning is important wherever and at whatever level the game is played. However, we seem to ‘digest’ fear to an extent that forces us to employ a simplistic game-style that denies players a ‘canvas’ on which to display their true ability. There are a few brave souls here who are prepared to produce a more ‘total’ type of game-style, but too often they have become over-obsessed with continental possession and have ignored the use of penetration methods in their desire to introduce more sophisticated playing methods.
Our football dilemma concerns a game-style we seem unable to dispense with leading to poor passing/crossing and a lack of clever individualism and team play. We sacrifice the ‘Beautiful Game’ for a ‘Neanderthal’ version comprised of constant speed, strength and simplistic tactics; all of these are part and parcel of the game but should not envelop it totally. The use of all the aforementioned playing aspects is fine — but only when it is either necessary or beneficial to use them.
Long passing forward, especially to heavily marked forwards is an over-used option that provides little opportunity for both players and their teams to develop a playing style that allows ability to display itself. Shorter passing is a playing style that is used extensively throughout the football world – but not here! Patience on the field as well as by fans on the terraces is part and parcel of foreign football. Generally, game-styles used at club level abroad carries over into their international teams and in both situations this allows for continuity and understanding in their playing of the game. They keep possession much better than us with passes that are usually much easier to control even when under severe pressure from opponents. Accordingly, individual skills are able to be displayed and combined movement throughout teams’ is less predictable than the obvious straight line passing and movement we use too often.
As our foreign opponents introduce more variations into their game-style I believe their players and their teams will be able to display their playing ability even more effectively, whereas our ‘up and at ‘em’ game-style will continue to make performances a mere lottery for teams and players. Unless we rethink our game-style and how to develop players correctly from day one we will continue to send players into games involving a game-style that hinders individual and team performance rather than enhances it.