Almost five months on from England’s dismal elimination from the World Cup and the squad have reached a conclusion on what went wrong: apparently they were “too nice.”
Ahead of their match against Slovenia on Saturday, Gary Cahill has said the side has been working on being more aggressive and less naïve. Much of the new emphasis is being credited to Gary Neville, a man that I don’t ever recall being referred to as “too nice” during his playing career.
Cahill describes the required defensive approach as “being aggressive and getting tight – when players are trying to hold the ball up and you’re behind them and they are thinking: ‘What is this guy doing?’”
I must admit it’s a thought that crossed my mind quite often when I played as a centre forward. Some defenders need very little encouragement to ‘get tight.’
I once had a friendly opponent, a practitioner of the not-too-nice school of defending, who suggested that he might be inclined to break my legs (that wasn’t the exact phrase he used). In reply I pointed out that he might first show some inclination to keep up with me (again the phrasing may have been slightly different).
Back in the day I was noted for having a ‘turn of pace’ as they say. I still do; I’m now quite adept at turning from slow to leisurely via dawdling before coming to complete rest. At school though, I was so quick that I briefly caught the eye of the rugby coach. He offered me the chance to play on the wing. I declined on the basis that however quick I was, eventually someone would catch me and thereafter it (and I) would not be pretty.
It’s that sort of fear that Cahill seems to want to inspire in opponents. He argues that since the World Cup, England have become “a lot harder to play against.” That may be true and they have kept clean sheets in their last 5 games but the opposition has got a lot easier. Clean sheets against San Marino and Estonia are nothing to get overly excited about.
Remarkably, Cahill also says that England are learning to play the ball longer when necessary. “Everybody has this philosophy of playing from the back but there are times to think, ‘Hold on, let’s kick up the front for five or 10 minutes.’”
Any time I’ve watched England recently, I can’t honestly say that I’ve been struck by the thought: ‘there they go again with that playing from the back philosophy of theirs.’
Long ball or short, tight or loose, nasty or nice, for this qualifying campaign it doesn’t matter too much for England. By the time they arrive in France though, they are likely to discover that their World Cup failure was not really a question of being too nice.