England: The “Copy-Cat” Football Nation

By John Cartwright

Prior to 1950 England, ‘sailed an independent course in the waters of world football’. We played ‘friendly’ international matches but did not enter into major international competitions until 1950. The World Cup of that year was played in Brazil and was won by an exciting Argentine team; we lost 1-0 to the USA and failed to qualify for the latter stages of the Tournament. It was from this point, in my opinion, that confusion and mis-interpretation of how we should play entered our game.

Our football pride was further damaged in 1953 when the fabulous Hungarian national team ‘destroyed’ us, first at Wembley and then in a return game in Budapest. We had ‘lived’ in our own football world for too long and were now suffering the consequences. Although we had some outstanding, self-made players we were miles behind the leading nations when it came to producing performances that utilised this talent collectively.

Soccer - Friendly - England v Hungary - Wembley Stadium

The ‘search’ for a playing style began. We have played ‘copy-cat’ to numerous nations that have succeeded in international tournaments over the years; Brazilian -‘master-classes’, Dutch -‘total football’, German – ‘organisation’, French – ‘free spirit’ and Spanish -‘Ticki-Tacki’ football have all been introduced into our game in some fashion over the years. To add to the confusion, in the late 1980’s the FA introduced their version of a game-style – ‘Direct Play’.  The result over time of these multiple attempts to copy the cultured football of others whilst immersed in the principles and practice of Direct Play’s ‘long ball’ method has made our game a bloody, confused mess! ……..But let me say here, we need a playing formula that promotes a suitable combination of force with finesse, for force, intelligently used, can provide the opportunities for the game’s skilful aspects to be displayed

At present it seems we have hit a ‘brick wall’ when it comes to finding a way forward that suits our national culture, our beliefs about the game and how to achieve lasting success. Old habits are hard to dismiss, none more so than when it comes to our thinking, teaching, playing and watching of the game of football. We need to visualise a true picture of how we should play the game and then set about bringing that picture into reality. The wholesale introduction of ‘copy-cat’ playing methods should be dismissed with only small variations introduced into the system as deemed necessary or desirable over time.


We must accept a basic principle about playing the game of football; – players must have the skills to play it! Limited playing ability lessens standards of performance and we are not producing skilful players with all the ‘tools of the trade’ to do the job properly!

Our latest attempt to copy another country’s football is that of Spain and their possession-based game-style. Our attempt to copy it however, fails miserably due to our woeful inability to produce the  skills and intelligence that their game-style contains. It seems we have not realised two important things with regards to Spanish football; firstly, they have spent a considerable number of years perfecting the way they play and in developing the players to play it; secondly, Spanish football has recently had to modify and vary their game-style to offset the effects of difficult defensive tactics used against them. They have been able to make these variations quickly and successfully because they have talented players who are able to make those changes!

‘Nothing stays the same’, so the saying goes and whilst the successful nations of the football world ‘juggle’ and  make adjustments to the way they play the game, we ‘muddle’ with our game and rely on copying the latest successful method of someone else……….which we have neither the know-how to teach or ability to use. …..…. ‘DAFT AINT IT’!



13 thoughts on “England: The “Copy-Cat” Football Nation

  1. Coaches this is not just a criticism John always inserts those little pearls of great knowledge for thinking coaches to substantiate their coaching and game style development.
    ” We ( as coaches ) need to visualize a true picture of how we play the game then set about bringing that picture into reality.” then the fundamental truism “The basic principle is players must have the skills to play it ”
    I hope the FA take note.

  2. Hi all. Even with the introduction of foreign talent— coaching and playing — into our game we still have great difficulty in incorporating their more tech/tac playing styles into the fast and furious game we have been brought up with here. Patience and possession football have not been seen as important facets of our game and both on the playing and watching sides of the game we are having problems accepting changes.
    I have never believed that our interpretation of the game and the over-use of direct play was the correct formula for success either in domestic or national competitions. However, i believe the correct use of a combination of direct play and possesion football is the way to success. Team ethic and work ethic are solid aspects of our game but high individual playing standards are missing. The ability to make the right game-style choices —long or short, individual or combined team-play — in games is virtually non-existant and until we subscribe to an improved development and playing belief we will continue down the ‘hit and hope’ pathway.

  3. John’s latest piece got me thinking about the concept called ‘The Cultural Cringe’ that relates to artistic pursuits such as art, architecture, film, theatre and the like. It means that something is of unknown value until it is judged by people outside of your society.

    Applied to football John has done the hardest thing and that is to look at his country’s football from different spectacles, from someone outside ‘English’ football. To do that you need a fIne understanding of the ‘other’ and then try to use that perspective.

    Their is no doubt that the Europeans studied Liverpool during its Heyday period in the early 80s to catch up and improve the areas in which they were deficient (English teams had dominated Europe for a while) when playing against the
    British. Recognizing dealing with crosses and being good in the air, and physically committed. Many successfully addressed these issues, without altering their game styles. They added bits to advance their own game.

    Co-incidentky, Liverpool themselves had added bits from the Europeans, such as the value of the first pass after interception.

    They – the foreigners ( for ease anyone outside of England or overtly-influenced) play a more skillful ground based game with changes in tempo, relying less on crosses, but not entirely so.

    They do not generally copy-cat but intelligently and carefully make additions to their ‘ways’ of playing.

    Essentially, as John states highly competent individuals need to be able to combine. The irony is that English football persists in being ‘fast and furious’ (JC) and at certain levels too direct…too often, which limits the effectiveness of the talented individuals , and because of the decline in street football the decline in potentially great individuals.

    The FA needs to recognise the problem and then take the best measures to fix the it, as they short-sightedly helped create it in the first place…otherwise mediocrity will continue to prevail…AND it doesn’t have to!

  4. “They do not generally copy-cat but intelligently and carefully make additions to their ‘ways’ of playing. ”
    Spot on Brazil 94 and unless you ve developed a gamestyle based on individualism and quality your add ons tend to be random and are often just a change of mediocrity rather than an enhancement to your quality.

  5. As John states in his article, the search for a playing style began after Hungary trounced England 6 – 3 at Wembley in 1953. At the time there were endless discussions and debates about where English football had gone wrong, what should be done about it and how we should actually play the game. Similar breast-beating has occurred at regular intervals over the years, whenever England have suffered demoralising defeat and elimination in international tournaments.
    In 1953 the concept of a coach, or even a manager, in English football was practically unknown. The man in charge of a team was more a secretary than anything else, and the only real ‘football boss’, who actually set tactics and prepared his team in that era, was Herbert Chapman at Huddersfield Town and Arsenal. He was some years before the Hungarian visit and he worked and died during the twenties and thirties, before the start of the Second World War. He was way ahead of his time and an exception that proved the rule in Britain.
    When Hungary handed England a football lesson, coaches had been working on team play in central European countries for some years. Austria were also very good in that era and probably just as good as Hungary. Consequently, the Hungarians were highly organised and came to Wembley with the withdrawn centre forward who created space in the middle of the England defence, exploited by the other two strikers to devastating effect. Basically, the Hungarian coaches had invented ‘third man running’ and the England players , of course, had never met anything like it before.
    What I actually liked about the English football mentality of that era was the way in which the players, in the absence of real managers and coaches in the game, took responsibility to find out and enquire about, what the central European football countries were doing in their training , coaching and team preparation in order to scale the heights they had at Wembley and then a few months later handed out an even bigger hammering, this time 7 – 1 in Budapest. Under the leadership of Walter Winterbottom, it was senior pros of the time, like Ron Greenwood, Malcolm Allison, Dave Sexton, Gordon Jago and many others, who took every opportunity to visit the training of foreign teams playing in England and study their match play, in order to introduce new methods into English football. I wonder if the modern player of today would make it his business to study the foreign teams in the absence of coaches and managers, as was the case then?
    I once heard a talk given by Malcolm Allison. He chatted about his years as a young player and when he went away to do his National Service in Austria, shortly after the Second World War. At every opportunity he went along to see the local club to where he was stationed, doing their training, continually adding to his notes. When his stint of National Service was over, Allison returned to Charlton Athletic, where he was a young pro, and told everyone how poor the training was that they were doing, compared to what he had seen in Austria. Needless to say, the older senior pros did not take well to the young upstart and he was soon on his way to West Ham!
    Anyway, the key element to all this is a story that an old friend told me a few years after the 1953 England – Hungary match. One day during the late fifties, a convention of the top foreign coaches of the time was held at the Crystal Palace National Sports Centre. There were coaches like Herrera, Guttman and many others, the really top names of that era. Naturally, the place was packed with English football’s top brass, everyone desperate to learn the ‘secrets’ of Europe’s leading football brains. At last the magic formula would be revealed. But instead, my friend told me that there was widespread disappointment among those present at what they saw and many scoffed at what was on offer. The reason why? It was because what these great coaches showed them was work to improve the skills that were required to play football of a higher level as had been exhibited by the Hungarians at Wembley. They weren’t going to present them with magic formulas for them to copy at their next training sessions, even if such formulas existed, which they never do.
    The English coaches tried to say – “but we already do all this” – but they didn’t because it had all been neglected and ignored, as Herrera, Guttman and the rest forcefully told them. And as John points out in the article, we keep on making this mistake every time we try to copy the latest ‘flavour of the month’.

  6. In Germany, Hennes Weisweiler had a major impact on ‘teaching football’, likewise Rinus Michels in Holland. Michel Hidalgo and Aime Jacquet worked for France’s Technical Department.

    However, the ever-wise English England did not use Ron Greenwood, Malcolm Allison, Dave Sexton, Don Howe, and do not use Terry Venables, Glenn Hoddle and John Cartwright to rectify their coaching scheme, and maybe, just maybe therein lies the root of the problem…

  7. Hi Brazil94…After Walter Winterbottom had left his post as the FA’s Director of Coaching, the FA Coaching Scheme was taken over by academics. They were physical educationalists in the PE Colleges. When I started taking an interest in coaching in the late sixties and attended FA coaching sessions put on by FA staff coaches, these were usually staffed by PE educated men and the sessions tended to be very much the same and lacking in creative thought. The sessions always seemed to be produced by academics and aimed at academics.
    Consequently, I think that coaching in England got a bad name in that period and the poplar view became that it was something that the talented player would be better off without.

  8. Hi all. From the late 1950’s into the 60’s and 70’s there was an enthusiasm in football to make changes to our game. At FA refresher courses each summer , first established by Alan Wade, a regular throng of Managers, Coaches met and practiced, lectured and argued over a beer whilst moving salt and pepper pots and vinegar and sauce bottles around tables to describe tactical situations in the game. These meetings generated a tremendous feeling towards new coaching methods and ideas……. it was taking football thinking beyond the levels of the FA’s coaching certification of that period.
    I was there, i never missed these get-togethers and from them i forged my own beliefs about the strengths and weaknesses in English football. Members of Liverpool FC were rare visitors to these sessions however and this surprised me as they were the outstanding club in Europe over this period. It wasn’t until i became a regular watcher of Liverpool that i realised why staff at the club were often absentees from coaching events…………..they already had established their own winning game-style with players able to introduce modifications to it over time as requred !
    In my opinion, their way of playing should have been the game-style that English football followed; it had Englsh strengths combined with foreign finesse and tactical imagination. Unfortunately, i don’t believe these playing beliefs and methods have been followed as staff and players of that era departed and new people have entered the club…… the boot room meeting place that provided tea coffee or a glass of ones preferred choice was closed and along with it the atmosphere of the Liverpool way of thinking and playing of the game………….a tragedy for the the great Liverpool fans and for the English game that needs a playing vision such as Liverpool’s of the past.

  9. It has been reported in the press that the new England rugby coach, Eddie Jones, has spent time watching Pep Guardiola coaching his Bayern Munich team. He relates that much of the work he saw Guardiola do with his players was transferable into rugby.
    Jones said “We talked about how you move the football into space because, in rugby, once you get away from the set-piece, it’s like football. Players have got to know where to move in relation to where the ball is and what the defence does”.
    Guardiola himself has studied rugby and handball to look at how you move the ball into space. This is consistent with the Premier Skills approach of introducing the work initially by using the hands, in order to embed the work into the minds of the players and aid understanding. It has been clear for some time that most sports can learn things from each other. I recall that during his long coaching career, Dave Sexton spent a lot of time watching basketball teams in training and developed many of his coaching ideas from that sport.
    I have always thought that boxing provides good examples that can assist in the development of young footballers. The way that the fighters approach each other in a crouching, side-on stance with good foot movement , illustrates a similar approach for a defender confronting an opponent in a 1 v 1 situation. Poor adjustment of body and feet is, I find, a major problem today when coaching young, or not so young, players due to the absence of motor skills previously taken for granted in earlier generations. So a young player who has had a certain amount of boxing training will find him/herself at an advantage in that respect.

  10. Hi Steve. I have always believed that using the hands in practice is an excellent way to get young players to acquire both individual skills as well as tactical awareness. I introduced the use of hands in ALL the levels of Premier Skills Coaching and firmly believe that players of all ages and playing levels should use practises of this type as part of the sequence of teaching and learning.

  11. Problem I have with some of the articles is it lays down an argument with no solutions. I think many can pick out problems but now for the hard part, coming up with the answers.

    • Sorry, the below was the only solution given. So which should be first? Which small variation should be introduced and when. As we are moving slowly with these implementations yet the game is changing at a rapid pace, do we fall further behind? How do you want your teams to play? TO me it use to be Ajax and Barcelona but now just Barcelona. They have a distinct characteristic and end goal in mind with how they want to play and the type of players needed to achieve this. If you can’t define it you will not be able to teach it.

      “We need to visualise a true picture of how we should play the game and then set about bringing that picture into reality. The wholesale introduction of ‘copy-cat’ playing methods should be dismissed with only small variations introduced into the system as deemed necessary or desirable over time.”

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