Why, when England can draw upon a host of talented players who match the best in the world at club level, has our international team only managed a thimbleful of commendable performances over the last five years? A word that has been widely used to describe England’s performances in Germany, which seems quite apposite, is ‘joyless’. Sven Goran-Eriksson may have made some dubious tactical decisions, but can one man really be to blame for the joyless malaise which grips English international football?
Several members of the England team consistently under-perform when representing their country, even against lesser opponents than they typically face every week in domestic matches. Steven Gerrard provides perhaps the clearest example. In the highly competitive Premier League he is the individual most capable of imposing his will upon a game and dictating the play; yet at international level he rarely intimates that he has the capacity to reach these heights. Do we really think that Gerrard is completely stifled by the tactics Sven deploys, or that the close proximity of Frank Lampard somehow diminishes his ability? Surely a player of Gerrard’s range and skill should have managed a couple of spirited performances for England over recent years, regardless of the team’s structure or the surrounding personnel. This is a footballer who has put in exemplary performances for Liverpool in several different positions. Why then should he suddenly require the minutiae of managerial strategy to be in his favour to play well for England?
We must therefore seek a deeper reason which can explain the disparity between players’ club and international form. I suspect that the pressure imposed by an expectant nation and hostile media pushes players beyond the optimum level of arousal required to realise skilled performances. An onus on success at all costs and fear of vilification means that performing for England is a joyless experience. The only release from the burden of expectation is victory; there is no pleasure to be derived from the means of attaining victory – playing football! The constricting impact of over-arousal is most apparent in penalty shoot-outs. During open-play England fail to work as cohesive unit, but queries over tactics and form conceal the core factor [pressure] inhibiting performance. In a penalty shoot-out, however, we are presented with a discrete unit of activity and it is apparent that England, more than any other nation, are afflicted with pressure-induced anxiety.
The destructive effects of this anxiety seem to weigh heaviest on England’s midfield. Shackled by excessive fear of defeat, it is asking a lot for a midfielder to reconcile defensive duties with attacking verve and imaginative link-up play. It is also interesting that one of the few players to have performed to their capabilities for England recently is Wayne Rooney – notably at Euro 2004. In the aforementioned tournament, Rooney was a highly confident teenager not yet beset by the neuroticism engendered by such a high pressure environment. Perhaps this is why Sven took a chance on Theo Walcott!
It may appear that that England, post-Sven, require a highly charismatic and Machiavellian leader to shield the team from counterproductive English ‘support’. But how long would it be before a Jose Mourinho-type figure was ridiculed and typecast as a bombastic whinging loser? The media will never change their approach and the fans’ expectations will not relent: playing for England will therefore continue to be a joyless experience for the foreseeable future. Pity Steve McClaren!