Like many of the Old Trafford faithful, my loyalty and devotion to my club surpasses that for the England national team. This isn’t to say I don’t support England, I still become somewhat of a blubbering wreck each time we’re predictably sent packing by far superior opposition at each major international tournament. But I don’t feel that I can connect with and relate to the footballing ethos and philosophy of the England national team, which has a long history of anti-intellectualism and self-righteous arrogance, in a way that I can with Manchester United’s.
The turning point for me was England’s defeat to Germany at the 2010 World Cup. As Martin Samuel of the Daily Mail described it in his post match analysis:
“…. when it comes to football, English players are not very bright. Good, yes; clever, no. Talented, yes; insightful, no. Skilful, yes; ruminative, no. Whenever England exit a major tournament there is always the false allegation that the players are overrated: it is not true. They are, however, easily out-thought. That is what happened at Bloemfontein on Sunday. Germany thought about the game and England did not. Miroslav Klose said he knew his team-mates had the beating of England within six minutes.”
Yet all I could hear from England fans across the country, who have this delusion that this nation of 50 million people should be considered pre-tournament favourites every four years, is that our defeat was due to a lack of “passion”, that these overpaid prima-donnas don’t care about their country or the fans, that with some more mindless running we’d have had the measure on those bloody Germans.
Yet Guus Hiddink, in an interview with Simon Kuper of the FT, agrees with Martin Samuel’s analysis:
“This summer, he [Hiddink] watched the World Cup at home in the Netherlands amid friends and family. Whereas some English pundits have blamed England’s failures on lack of spirit, Hiddink diagnoses a lack of footballing intelligence. Specifically, he says, England’s players don’t “coach” team-mates during a game. There are exhortations, but no specific instructions. Watching the World Cup, Hiddink again saw overeager Englishmen straying beyond their zones. Far from doing too little, they were doing too much. Steven Gerrard, for example, kept collecting the ball in defence and then running forward with it. That gave opponents time to assume their positions at leisure. No team-mate corrected Gerrard.”
England don’t lack natural talent, I’d even go as far as saying that the technique of English players isn’t as comparatively inferior to that of our competitors as some make out (although Gareth Barry is a glaring exception to this), but what England players do exhibit is a reluctance to accept Johann Cruyff’s notion that “football is played with the head”, by which of course he was referring to intellect and not heading ability. But Manchester United does not suffer, and never has suffered from, this footballing disease. Our players play with intelligence and creativity, and our fans understand and appreciate it; we do not bemoan a lack of “passion” as the root cause of all failure.
When Eric Cantona decided to ply his trade in England, the defenders of the country didn’t know how to deal with him. This is because Cantona is of the “false nine” breed, those players that seem to be playing up-front but who drop deep to become the fulcrum of the teams creativity. This was against the orthodoxy of English football, where 4-4-2 meets 4-4-2 and the usual patters emerge. As Jonathan Wilson explains:
“English football, with its simplistic tactical shapes, has traditionally struggled with players who don’t stand where they’re supposed to, which in part explains the success of the likes of Eric Cantona, Gianfranco Zola and Dennis Bergkamp in the 90s. Just by operating in the grey area between the opponent’s defensive and midfield lines, they caused confusion, and created new, unfamiliar angles of attack.”
Dimitar Berbatov is of a similar breed, and the reason that I believe he’s a fantastic player. To watch him play is a treat on the eye, not just because of his immaculate technique and ability to pick out the right pass every time, but because, on the pitch, he is the conductor of the football orchestra. He helps out other players, guides the less tactically disciplined, and operates in an aesthetically pleasing way that one would never witness when viewing an England game.
Paul Scholes is a similar player, and the man who truly represents why United>England. Quite simply, England aren’t worthy of Paul Scholes. They underappreciated and therefore wasted his talent, choosing more “industrious” players to take up the centre of the pitch. Retiring from international duty was one of the best decisions he ever made, and one that endeared him ever more to the United faithful.