Insufficient Individual Cleverness

By John Cartwright

It’s the 25th of May 2016 and there is still 17 days to go before the start of the Euro. Championship in France. I’m sitting on a beach in Portugal. I’ve read my Newspaper and am looking for something to do. Got it! I’ll write my ‘blog’ on my expectations of England’s performances in the competition.

Once again, everyone is saying in all branches of the media that we have a great chance of success – getting into the quarter-finals!


We have topped a very ordinary qualifying group and have played three ‘friendly’ internationals prior to going to France. I am concerned about the lack of individual cleverness in the squad; it is a young squad that does not seem to have player(s) who have that extra quality to change a game in an instant. The preferred game-style of our squad seems to be based on a simplistic possession method.

I am concerned with this ‘one style fits all’ approach for it has been a noticeable aspect in all previous international and national club competitions that the winner tends to have several individual ‘game changers’ in their squads. These players have occupied all positions and have been capable of turning hard-fought battles into victories in an instant. I don’t think we have anyone with the ability to go 1v1 on a regular basis and ‘turn the key to unlock the closed doors’ of defending tactics used so frequently in today’s football world.

So why are we devoid of this important type of player in our football? Well, throughout our game the individualist tends to be considered too unpredictable for the over-predictable playing style preferred here. The individualist has a difficult journey from junior to senior levels; teaching and development methods are inadequate and inclusion into our simplistic playing style is often not seen as necessary.


I’m now back in the UK and have watched our games in France with interest. The opening matches showed that we are an ‘ok football team’ but lack that extra special ingredient called individualism. The game v Iceland is the obvious proof of my beliefs about the mediocre standards too easily accepted by followers of the game here. We were unable to ‘unlock’ the defensive shield that Iceland set up with our simplistic football style. It was plain to see that there was a lack of tactical variations to our game-style as well as poor game understanding on the part of all involved – (slow offensive play: poor penetrative recognition: no aerial threat: no individual creativity, were obvious failings in this disastrous display. Our ‘copy-catting’ of others must end and the formulation of an English playing vision combined with a development ‘pathway’ understood by all must become a priority if we are to achieve success in major tournaments at club and national levels.

I have been a long-time critic of development and of the game overall here for many decades. The latest ‘disaster’ in France is confirmation of my stand against those inside and outside of the game who continue to call the mediocrity of our game ….. greatness!

Never mind, as always the start of a new season is just around the corner and the ‘carpet’ will be lifted and all the rubbish will be swept under it to conveniently conceal the real truth about our footballing incompetence.       



23 thoughts on “Insufficient Individual Cleverness

  1. Agreed wholeheartedly John, I have been saying for years that we coach the individualism out of our players with a cookie cutter style of coaching (one method fits all) what a lot of crap. We have to change the end goal when we coach and reward entertainment and individualism. Unfortunately our game is boring and is only watched by those that are only interested in the winning score line. I remember my good friend Ron Tindal telling me one day that he was asked to nominate the man of the match in a very one sided cup u15 match where the score ended up 17 -0 and Ron nominated the goal keeper of the losing side as without him the score would have been 40 -0. Well the winning coach wanted to kick Ron’s head in.and said that all his players were better than the goalie that Ron picked even although 5 of the winning side hardly touched the ball in the whole game due to the opposition being so poor.
    We have to reward individualism and those players that do things differently. When I was coaching I just loved players with attitude, they always had something different to offer, especially if you knew how to encourage them.

    Hope you are well John.


  2. Hi Colin. I’m well thanks but increasingly frustrated and annoyed at the constant ‘take-over’ of our game by inexperienced, theoretical, ‘gift of the gab’ intruders.
    We fail consistently to find a playing style that suits us —- both in the playing and the WATCHING of the game here that would excite and win!
    We could dominate World football if we placed appropriate experienced, knowledgable and practical people at the helm and not ‘bluffers’ who ‘talk a good game’. Bull……t baffles brains so they say. It’s about time we realised it and instead of following wrong pathways, we go forward with principles that decorate our game in glory and not grime.

  3. It seems as though the FA’s reactions to England’s Euro2016 shambles is just more of the same. From what I have read, our ruling body proposes to employ even more psychologists, nutritionists and the like. They even want to speak to the failed England rugby coach. I have seen no mention of the current one, Australian Eddie Jones, who has adapted many of his rugby coaching ideas from watching football coaches like Pep Guardiola at work.
    But on the other hand, there is no mention of the poor development process within the English game and lack of genuine talent comiong through the system. In contrast, Portugal have thrust the 18 year old, Renato Sanches, into their team and were rewarded with a briiliant equaliser from him against Poland. I have watched Sanches closely in Portugal’s matches and have to say that he is a long way from the finished product. Hopefully, the high quality coaching he will receive at Bayern Munich, in the forthcoming season, following his transfer, will see him fully develop his potential. But Portugal had the courage to put him in their starting line up, despite his tender years and have been rewarded for doing so. Could England not have been equally brave in giving their outstanding prospect, Marcus Rashford, similar game time. One of the oldest truisms in football has always been – if a player is good enough, he’s old enough.

  4. Absolutely spot on John,
    We are certainly on the same page. The Academy system does not produce players who can think and make decisions under pressure. They are so used to being told what to do. The system churns out robots who conform to a certain way of playing. Our game has been hijacked by people who have never played the game and have no idea what it really takes to perform in the heat of battle with the pressure full on.

  5. We have had coaches and ex players in the country who have been highlighting the problem for many years but the Hughes,s,Wilkinsons and Brookings marginalised them and kept them at arms length.We could have had an advisory group with the likes of Cartwright,Venables,Sexton,Hoddle and a few others who could have directed a way forward regarding coach education and player development 20 years ago!!!.The other hidden problem is that group of “non footballing” F A employees behind the scenes whose main motivation is to protect their own agenda’s.It needs a complete clear out.

    • Good points, I am well aware of both of the issues you raise. It is endemic in the national game as well as the reason that most of our clubs fail to move forward with any real purpose. They just change the manager every year or so instead of addressing the root cause of their under-achievement, which is a values and culture issue emanating from the top down.

      • I am not a coach, but played a lot of football as a kid before drifting away from the game. Now I have a young family. My youngest played his first ever football match yesterday (U7 on a 30m x 20m pitch – too big, I thought!).

        At this match, I overheard some advice being given:

        Q: What do you do when your player has the ball?
        A run away from the ball to find space (that is… everyone run away every time regardless of the circumstances of the player in possession)

        Players were put in specific positions and told to stay in these positions (nope)

        Goalkeeper told to always roll the ball out to a wide player because passing to a central player is too risky (nope).

        This was all depressing to hear.

        Earlier this year, I spoke to Dave Williams about maybe getting a ‘Practice Play’ coaching session run at this club in W Yorkshire. I said to Dave that if my son did join this local club this season I would be in touch again to enquire about Practice Play sessions. Mel/ Dave/ John – when can we start?

        Please contact me to discuss.

        Yours in football.
        (PS – I played against a CoE youth team at Lilleshall in the summer of ’85. The final score was 1-1. I recall the ‘sponginess’ of the pitch more than the details of the match now. It was like a magic carpet).

  6. Well said yet again, John. The result against Iceland was not that surprising. Hodgson is a stereotypical British manager who was trying hard to be modern and play proactively. However, he is not really to blame for the fiasco that is the England football team. I completely agree about the negative effect of Charles Hughes and his acolytes and continue to weep at why English football failed to evolve circa the post Heysel ban. Liverpool were playing a dynamic, fluid style under Dalglish but John Barnes, the epitome of individualism, speed and subtlety was restricted when playing for England. As late as the 1986 World Cup Barnes was just seen as ‘a winger’ meant to just get some crosses in rather than as a potential ‘fantasista’. For me this was English football’s greatest mistake and has haunted us ever since. A succession of clever, thinking footballers or instinctive, unusual, maverick talents were misused from Peters, Marsh, Hoddle, Waddle, Barnes, Beardsley through to Gascoigne, Le Tissier, Platt, McManaman, Scholes and even Anderton. The rise of the Premier League stopped our players from going abroad and broadening their experience. This seriously damaged the chances of the national team progressing. Hoddle, Waddle, Platt and McManaman were actually successes(the latter internationally revered) abroad but relatively unsung back home. Why, oh why? The demise of Lee Sharpe’s career harmed the development of the national team as there was nobody felt suitable to play on the left flank. The very best players like Scholes and McManaman became totally disillusioned with the national set up and being asked to just fill in this “problem” left wing berth. A limited but very hardworking footballer like Beckham became the creative fulcrum for the England coach when in any other ‘top’ nation he would have been a senior supporting player alongside one or two true playmakers. The dismissals of Venables and then Hoddle were the final death knell for English football..! A succession of England coaches have been reliant on one or two superstar players to drag England through qualification and into summer tournaments. After reaching the tournament there is no settled playing style, no real identity and the players are usually totally exhausted after another absurdly strenuous season. Before their late 20s many English players have stagnated or are ‘burnt out’… Wayne Rooney’s career is a case in point. He was never allowed to properly develop as a footballer because of the horrible demands of the EPL, the global machine that is Man Utd and the obsessive adherence to ‘fight ball’. Will the futures of the youngsters Dele Alli and Rashford be similar?! I have little hope for them unless they are lucky enough to come under the tutelage of a great coach or move abroad in the next few years….

    • Hi Michael. I fully agree with the points you make. We are unable it seems to ‘see a picture’ for our game and transfer it into a positive playing style. I have mentioned in a reply to the following comments (twice as I didn’t think the first had gone through) by Steve, of the success of Wales in France.
      It’s a pity our football hierarchy can’ t put their theories aside and listen to a more practical approach to development and playing of the game here.

  7. Although taking on board and agreeing with many of the points made concerning the poor development process in English football, the fact remains that Wales are enjoying a remarkable European Championship with far fewer Premier League players than England to choose from.
    It seems to me that Chris Coleman decided early on in his management/coaching role of the team, what the best approach was in terms of players, formation and game plan and stuck to it. His players are given roles which they have had two years to perfect, in qualifying and friendly matches and the reward is a semi final against Portugal, a match that the Welsh are well capable of winning. I would feel even more confident for them if Aaron Ramsey was not missing through suspension and i fear that his absence could be a critical factor. Nevertheless, reaching the semi final represents a fine performance by the Welsh. Against Belgium in the quarter final, they produced football of pace, intensity and skill which, as Leicester City have recently proved, is how the British game can be played effectively.
    If the opposing team push up to defend high then the space exists behind the defence which Vardy can exploit with his pace as he did all season for Leicester. Drinkwater provided so many of those passes but did not even make the final squad and that looks like a serious error of judgement. But if the opponents defend deep to eliminate that space behind them, then the space exists in front of them. Cannot Kane drop into this space to receive passes into feet and would not Rooney be more effective at playing in the space between the lines to link up with him, rather than dropping back so deep that he is sometimes alongside his own centre halves? If Kane and Rooney can`t/won`t do it then has Rashford not shown that he can and will?
    This issues should have been sorted out before the tournament but they clearly had not been. In contrast, Wales had settled on how they were going to play, whatever the approach of the opposition, and they have received their reward.

  8. Hi Steve. Wales are playing a Briitish style. They have players who understand what’s required of them. They have ‘game-changers’ in Bale and Ramsey. They are displaying a nationalistic passion.
    These essential specifics are simply what I have been promoting for our game for decades.

  9. Hi Steve. Wales are playing a game- style they are familiar with and understand. They have players in positions that suit their ability and the functioning of the team. They have two ‘game-changers’ in their squad — Bale and Ramsey. They are displaying a nationalistic passion.
    These specifics for the game are not ‘hidden mysteries’ they’re basic winning requirements —– and I have been trying to convince our football hierarchy for decades to follow this vision for our game.

  10. Hi John… As I feared, Ramsey’s absence from the Welsh team was critical against Portugal last night. I did not quite understand the substitution of Williams for Collins which resulted in Wales going to a back four instead of their usual three. The full backs therefore did not play as high to get round the back of the Portugese defence and so, when he came on, Vokes did not receive the type of cross from which he scored with a good header against Belgium. Those type of balls were not going in. It was a good decision, having fallen behind, for Chris Coleman to take off a holding midfield player, Ledley, and replace him with an extra forward, but Vokes needs the right kind of service. Church for Robson-Kanu was like for like.
    I was at the match so I don’t know what the British media and press are saying and so perhaps there are some issues i am not aware of. Also, I assume that Pepe’s absence for Portugal was due to injury and that could have been a serious omission for them, but they coped adequately.
    Nevertheless, Wales have given a very good account of themselves in the Championship and there was a lot that they did that England could pick up on and take on board, for their own much needed improvement.

  11. Two Euro Semis defined and decided by individuals…Ronaldo and Greizmann…and note some individuality from Pogba
    (twinkling feet!)

  12. Germany dominated the first half against France in their Euro semi final but Muller has been off form with his finishing during the whole tournament and for much of the season with Bayern Munich as well. Similarly, Gotze seems to have lost his touch since he got the winner in the 2014 World Cup Final and is often on the bench at Bayern.
    It’s a pity that coach Lohr did not have the courage to introduce Leroy Sane into the game earlier. He showed great promise for Schalke last season and provided some nice touches when he came on but needed longer.
    What with Rashford’s few minutes for England and now a similar situation of Sane for Germany, it has been a tournament of missed opportunities.Perhaps on Sunday Renato Sanches will repay the faith of his coach, Santos, and win the title for Portugal.

  13. Hi all. Could anyone tell me how it is expected that players will develop their individualism if they do not have the ball at their feet for long periods of time? Touch – awareness – decision-making can only be achieved by having the ball at ones feet in realistic, suitably adapted situations according to age and ability. Passing the ball is about giving the ball away to another player, staying on the ball and learning when to pass and when to retain the ball lays the foundations for individual ability. We do not understand how to develop individual skills and until we do we will always play a game-style that requires simplistic, obvious, football that lacks that special ingredient —– individual skill in all positions if possible!!

  14. Hi all.I am becoming extremely concerned about the future of the game of football in this country.. As practice/playing time diminishes year by year it has been repaced with short ‘bursts’ of unrealistic practice that then transfers into competitive games that bear little or no obvious development continuity (pathway).
    Producing individualism in the past was not programed, it was an occurence that happenend naturally due to high practice/playing time.This situation still operates in countries where young players can practice the game and then ‘play with the game’. I hardly see a home-bred player mentioned in the buying and selling of players in this country. The reason for this is clear — we fail to produce highly skilled talent and our players aren’t worth buying except possibly as ‘workhorses’.
    Limited involvement in realistic playing situations has made simplistic football a necessity and not an option in our game. The Iceland debacle in France should have sent shivers throughout our game about the real paucity of English talent we have. The Media, Press, TV and those directly involved at all levels within the game here must become more truthful about the mess our game is in. The Premier League is NOT an example of English football quality, it is an international football spectacle that relies on expensive foreign talent to provide the glory!

  15. Young players in England have been exhorted to “keep it simple” for generations. This has been a short hand instruction to pass the ball over a few yards to the nearest team mate and therefore not give it away. Being clever on the ball has never been encouraged, especially when a young player at first fails in his cleverness by losing the ball. As John says “staying on the ball and learning when to pass and when to retain the ball lays the foundations for individual ability.”
    I think that Portugal’s Renato Sanches has work to do in his development on this matter and by moving to Bayern Munich he could not choose a much better place to learn. He always tries to make things happen when in possession of the ball, but his decision making is often at fault. He must recognise situations quicker and react more quickly in thought and deed. I think that Man Utd’s Marcus Rashbrook is perhaps a little more advanced in his development but a bit less dynamic in his his actual talent.
    Both players are at clubs with large playing squads and so it is vital their paths to the first team are not blocked, particularly bearing in mind that each club has just appointed a new coach, with both Ancelotti and Mourinho under great pressure to hit the ground running. But the top coaches today are paid enormous sums and so they must prove themselves by both providing an attractive game style and fully developing the best young talent, as well as stacking up the trophies!

  16. Absolutely spot on Steve. The obsession with ‘keeping it simple’ has riled me since the late 80s. I am biased as a Liverpool supporter but even as a child it hurt me that our footballers were brought up to be so limited. Liverpool signed Beardsley, Barnes and Houghton who could mix it with the some of the tough nuts out there but they also played clever, instinctive football which was a joy to watch!
    I just couldn’t understand how British players could be told to “just get rid” or “just fu**ing launch it” when the proper clubs in Europe – Juve, Milan, Inter, Benfica, PSV, Barca, Ajax(1995-96) were playing clever, intricate football. This mindless style of football in England has diminished British players, very few of whom have tight space awareness or enough spontaneity to change games. Do our coaches even practice this “street football” tuition in order to prepare their charges for top level competition? It is a sad indictment of the Premier League that it has only produced one English player to win the Ballon D’Or (and he was a striker) despite all the hype! Our most creative players are often stifled and asked not to play instinctively – think of the mavericks Gascoigne and Le Tissier, the West Ham protegés – Rio Ferdinand, Joe Cole, the dilettante David Bentley; even our best midfielders McManaman, Scholes, Carrick were restricted in their scope. Most recently Wilshere (albeit injury prone) has been misused. Now John Stones is being castigated and pilloried for making mistakes when he is trying to play imaginatively! It is no wonder that some these players fall by the wayside either at their clubs or in the national team when their talent is neither respected nor utilised appropriately…

  17. Hi Michael….I think that back in the 1980s Liverpool had a group of strong minded players who were led by equally strong minded coaching and management staff. They believed in how they wanted to play and developed an effective and attractive playing style, as well as learning a lot from the teams they met in the European Cup.
    That strong mindedness also extends to their supporters, and those of neighbours Everton, who are loyal but will also not leave their feelings in any doubt if they do not like what they see being produced on the field. So I think that there has been a problem with two players at Everton who have not developed as well, or as quickly, as they should have done in recent months.
    In 2014, Ross Barkley went with the England squad to the World Cup in Brazil. He played in the last match against Costa Rica, when England had already been eliminated and all those who had not appeared in the first two games were given a game. He was again in the squad taken to the recent Euro 2016 Tournament but he spent most of his time sitting on the bench as a spectator. The situation with his Everton colleague, John Stones, was exactly the same, although in Stones’ case this was his first senior international tournament because he was not included in the 2014 World Cup squad.
    I think that there is a problem with Barkley because he has not developed during the last two years as he should have done. During his formative years, he has shown an ability to run with the ball and awareness of when to retain possession or when to make a incisive pass. He finds space well to receive passes and has the ability to stay on the ball and therefore create havoc in opposing defences.
    Under Roberto Martinez, Everton have been encouraged to develop an attractive passing style, but I wonder if this has really been to the proper development of Barkley? His dynamism when running with the ball at pace across the front of opponents seems to have gone. Has this quality been sacrificed by the coach’s quest for a passing style, at the expense of individuality? Martinez has a reputation as a fine coach, but does he put the emphasis on a passing game at the expense of individuality? This is a big problem in the modern game, because I see evidence of coaches in many parts off the world, as we saw in Euro 2016, emphasise the game plan of passing with much less focus on individuality.
    Stones has great potential, if he is allowed to produce it, of developing into a defender who can bring the ball out from the defence and get involved in the play in the midfield area. But he must be coached in this approach and be encouraged to develop his game where an attacking and creative element is produced.
    I think that the coming season is vital for both Barkley and Stones. They were both under-used in France to the point where you wonder what the point was in including them in the squad. Because we have these players it is a criminal waste of talent not to use them and fully develop them as they would be if they were playing on the continent. So it is not as if we do not have any talent at all. The new coach at Everton will have a big responsibility to develop the talent he has in those two players.

  18. Similarly Rio Ferdinand was underused as per his skill set by Ferguson.

    Now as we have seen at Barcelona and Bayern Munich under Guardiola, a possession-based game lends itself ideally to graphing on individuality… a passing game must incorporate individuality, allowing running and 1v1s with the ball…the icing on the cake!

  19. Great posts Steve and Brazil94. Thierry Henry mentioned this point about individualism explicitly as a pundit on Sunday. He pointed out the essential characteristic of being able to take on other players and master the 1v1 situations in order to unlock packed defences. I was very pleased to hear such a sensible piece of commentary from a recently retired player. It was a shame that Germany had a few injuries and Hummels was suspended for the semi-final as the Germans would probably have played better against the French and may have possibly forced them to play more expansive football…. Overall the standard of football at Euro 16 was fairly low and there was a lack of penetration from many sides and poor decision making closer to goal. This is not just an English problem but a trend across Europe since the preference for possession orientated play. What strikes me recently is that there seems to have been a sort of dichotomy that has developed with some teams adopting a Atletico-lite approach, harassing opponents all over the pitch and waiting to rapidly pounce, catching opponents out with lightning quick transitions. This is in stark contrast to the Barca-lite obsession which even Hodgson and his squad succumbed to. In my opinion only Jogi Low’s side seem to have the correct balance in order to produce enough chances and remain ‘easy on the eye’.

  20. Hello Michael

    Ideally Michael, in my humble opinion, you need to be able to do both…quality on the fast break – clever movement, incisive passing and individuality when necessary – and also play a ‘penetrative’ possession game…Barca of the Neymar, Suarez, Messi, iniesta now seem to be able to do both!

    John has mentioned on this blog, the necessity of penetrations – and I think we get blinded with possession for possession’s sake – and the ball gets circulated side-to-side; without the ability to move it ‘vertically’ through the opposition when the openings arise. Fundamentally, while England sought and achieved a more controlled football style, they still rely too much on aerial crosses – so where was Andy Carroll? And showed they do not possess the quality to overlap, underlap, make blindside runs, and link with 1-2s and third man movement … AND DO NOT HAVE THE CLEVER RUNNERS WITH THE BALL….

    In terms of Hodgson’s squad what was the point of him taking Stones and Barkley…the former could overload and the latter show some individuality!!

    As I said before, Ferguson did not build on the good work done at West Ham United by encouraging/allowing/suggesting that Ferdinand ‘break out’ from the back.

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