Watching today’s dire, dire performance by England, I was struck not only by the fact that the likes of Wayne Rooney and Gerrard failed to bring their blood-and-guts personas to the game — is there any site more pathetic than an England team bereft of passion? — but that England plays without the sense of organization and fluidity that even mid-level European sides such as Serbia and Switzerland have demonstrated to great effect in recent days. Out organized by even a side as limited as Algeria the game was a harsh reminder of just how unsophisticated the English approach to the game can be. And I was reminded of some clear insights into the problem from Jan Molby and Xabi Alonso, a Dane and a Spaniard who had played at the heart of the Liverpool midfield, Molby in the 80s and Alonso until just a year ago.
In a conversation with Spanish journalist Guillem Baillague last year, Molby and Alonso offer some smart reflections on the English game in respect of midfielders. And their insights are important, because what England has so patently lacked in both of its outings so far is a midfielder who can run the game. (Alonso suggests that the man for the job in the current England squad is Michael Carrick, an insight shared by the tactical sages at Zonal Marking, who suggest using him alongside Barry at the heart of the midfield, with Gerrard used as a second striker..) But the problem, as Molby and Alonso make clear, is in the English approach to the game from a very young age.
Jan Molby: The most difficult thing in football is to score goals; the second-most difficult is to control games; and when you see somebody in football who can control games… well, it`s beautiful. That`s what you can do. It`s been a while since we`ve had the kind of midfield player you represent. Football is about making the right decisions, and the more you make, the better the team play. It`s not just about ability, you need to know the game, you need a certain amount of intelligence to be involved in a game that much…
Alonso: And sometimes you need to know not to try the most spectacular, but the easiest thing, because that`s what most benefits the team.
Molby: People always assume that players like us, like Hoddle, make ten to fifteen 60-yard passes in a game. We don’t. Most passes are just to keep things moving. I talk to people now and they think all I did was make 60-yard passes! When I started playing, midfielders were all‑rounders. Now we talk about specific roles for defensive midfielders and playmaking midfielders. In the 1990s, new training methods and tactical awareness were introduced to the English game, and you got your holding midfielder sitting in front of the back four. I started off playing a lot further forward – just behind Kenny and Ian Rush. People who saw me in the 1990s wouldn’t believe that.
Alonso: That’s like my father, too. He played in the 1980s in your position, as an all-round midfielder, in a 4-4-2. Every season he’d score around ten goals. Now, teams employ 4-1-4-1, 4-3-3, 4-2-3-1 – its more about keeping in position than getting into the box. I hardly ever get in the box. You have to know your role and accept it, because that’s what is best for the team. I really enjoy it where I am because I want to be involved in every part of the game and in this position you are right in the middle. You’re close to attack, close to the wings, defence; you get more touches than anyone else. Michael Carrick can do that for England. But the football culture is quite different here in England…
Molby: People in England see young midfielders at an early age as people who are really mobile, physically strong, can get involved in everything. At 13 or 14 years old, players like me or you wouldn’t catch the eye in England. People here don’t appreciate what our kind of midfielder brings to the game, that’s why there aren’t more English players like us. I also think the way you and I play can only happen in good teams. You could end up at a team with not too many good players and it would be very difficult for you to play – you could pass to people and put them in a situation where they don’t want the ball. If they can play, you can play.
Alonso: In England, those qualities of playing it simple, being in the right position, reading the game, knowing the right moment to make things happen around you are not appreciated. Making a tackle, a run into the box, the spectacular things are more appreciated.
Molby: Tackling is for a certain moment. But if you’re in the right position, you won’t need to make a massive tackle. The other day at Anfield, Gerrard made one on the touchline, and you think that maybe that’s not necessary; but it’s necessary for him, isn’t it?
Alonso: It’s not just for him. Sometimes that kind of last-ditch tackle can get the crowd excited and you get a push from that. It’s important to play with that psychological side of the game, but it depends on the quality of the player.
Until England’s football system learns to value the virtues exemplified by Molby and Alonso — a player who thinks like a coach on the pitch, orchestrates the game by using his passing range to change the tactical shape as if moving pieces on a chess board — they’re going to be relatively easy pickings for more organized European teams.