Saturday, May 22, 2010

Unlike Holland, Poland did not become a true world power. The contrast with England was striking, though – Poland never had strong domestic clubs and exciting championship, but managed to produce sound national team not only in 1972-73. England, with the best domestic league in the world, missed not just World Cup 1974. A long decline started, which never stopped. Occasional spark now and then, but nothing really great, memorable, and, most importantly, winning. Today it is very hard to imagine England as potential European or World champion – a sad result of fundamental mistakes in the early 1970s. To my mind, the decline really started in 1973.
It is not that England was entirely oblivious: alarming shortcomings were pointed out in 1972, when West Germany eliminated England in the ¼ finals of the European Championship. Some measures were taken, yet, without changing fundamental attitudes perhaps best described as gentlemanly arrogance. For instance, Alf Ramsey said after the unfortunate pairing with the Germans that he was happy and let the best team win. Gentlemanly – yes. Arrogant? That too – the English continued to see themselves the best and therefore it was worthy to play only against the best. Sure… if it was a final… which England did not reach. After elimination reform was proposed and kind of attempted. However, it was in stubbornly traditional lines.
It was obvious that the world champions of 1966 were to be replaced – some already retired, others were getting old. Normal change, but football itself changed considerably since 1966. By 1973 Bobby Charlton retired as well Gordon Banks, after terrible car accident leaving him with one eye. England did not have reliable goalkeeper for a long time after the exit of Banks. The other very weak spot was the playmaker – the 70s clearly required a ‘conductor’, someone to organize the game, to change the tempo, to provide deadly passes in attack. Either midfielder like Netzer, or libero like Beckenbauer. Or like Cruiff – free striker, who operates everywhere surprising the opposition. England had no such player and was not inclined to produce one, preferring fixed strikers and long balls in attack – something increasingly expected by opposing teams and easily neutralized. England lacked variety, surprise, and control of the game’s flow. In defense tactical suicide remained the norm – England played in line, the only team to use such tactic as late as mid-80s, thus becoming easy pray to speedy, highly mobile wingers, used to the off-side trap (England curiously did not use often the off-side trap – the best weapon for their kind of defense, and was easy victim of the same trap when attacking. Everybody knew that the English play with long passes, so at the moment of the pass the opposing defense simply moved ahead, leaving English strikers in off-side.) Thus, England was tactically impoverished.
Alf Ramsey continued coaching England.
Alf Ramsey, a likable man, remained a national team coach. Nowadays it is rightly – but too late - pointed out, that English football was governed by the ‘old boys’, who always preferred to keep the job among themselves – radicalism was not to their taste and Ramsey remained, although his last tactical contribution was made in 1966. England continued to play 4-4-2 scheme, with false wingers. True, Ramsey had not much of a choice – when he was asked why he continues to play without wingers, he snapped ‘if George Best was English, I’ll play him.’ It was not only Best, though – the best wingers playing in English clubs were not English, like Peter Lorimer. And not only wingers. England produced identical football players and used identical tactics, no matter which league or club.