The problem with England’s starting 11 heading into the 2006 World Cup quarterfinal matchup against Portugal wasn’t a lack of talent. Rather, it was the opposite: too much talent, specifically at one position. Attacking midfielders Frank Lampard and Steven Gerrard came off seasons where they combined for 43 goals for Chelsea and Liverpool, and they were paired with each other in the same midfield for country. It was a dynamic midfield on paper, yet they proved redundant without an overarching style of play. Lampard led the tournament with the most shots without a goal, taking 40 in total. And as they did two years previously at the European Championships, they lost to Portugal on penalties. The criticism of that Golden Generation, a decade later, was how they paid for their arrogance.
“They are incredible team players,” explained Owen Hargreaves, who started alongside the midfield duo in that fateful match. His point was symbolized by Paul Scholes, whom Xavi described as the best center midfielder of the last 20 years, playing on the left wing of a 4-4-2 formation. Hargreaves explained that the issue wasn’t that Scholes played out of position, but that he was too selfless and did so without complaining. He added that while the 2006 World Cup side should have been built around England’s top two midfielders, a side cannot have ten stars without balance. Playing for Bayern Munich at the time, the criticism Hargreaves received reflected the Premier League star centric thought process of that era.
Yet Hargreaves described that side as setting the highest standard he’d ever seen, and how he “used to think we would win every match 10-nil” regardless of the opponent. So why didn’t they? A recent interview with Lampard, Gerrard and center back Rio Ferdinand explains the other side of that competition. Lampard echoed Hargreaves in saying that while the 4-4-2 was good enough to get past the group stages, the lack of structure between him and Gerrard was exposed by their opponents as each star wasn’t used to tracking back in defense. Gerrard added blame on a lack of playing philosophy that was tpo individualistic.
Twelve years later, with England heading into Russia 2018 in a group with Belgium, Tunisia and Panama, there are lessons from that generation for this current side lead by Gareth Southgate to learn from. Even further, many of those warnings, have already contributed to the structure of the current side today.
“We were proper mates when we were 14, 15 years old, we used to do everything together”, eulogized Ferdinand about his relationship with Lampard back when they were both in the West Ham youth academy. The center back reflected on how the pair grew distant when each played for United and Chelsea. Ferdinand blamed the divide on an obsession with winning, and how he didn’t want Lampard to take anything back to Chelsea that could give him an edge. The mentality was so prevalent it become an unwritten conduct between the national side’s top players. In the debate over club versus country, the consensus of that 2006 England side was clear.
And there has always been a dance between club and country. The recent era of the Spanish national side had its two dueling clubs, but Xavi, Carles Puyol and Sergio Ramos united the Barcelona and Madrid camps during their back-to-back-to-back international trophy run from 2008 to 2012. We discussed the importance of consistency and team harmony as exhibited by Brazil, Uruguay and Peru during their run in the CONMEBOL qualifiers. Gerrard described the joy Coutinho had when he went home to play for Brazil in contrast to his experience with England.
If clubs caused the division in the national side, it would be up to clubs to heal the rift. The quality of managerial talent in the Premier League is oft discussed, taking the best from Spain, Italy, Germany and Portugal meld into a league table. But there is one defining statistic: Fifteen out of the last 30 players who made their national team debuts were managed by Mauricio Pochettino at Southampton or Tottenham. Harry Kane and Harry Winks each credited the Argentine manager with their development. Pochettino admitted his dream of one day managing the English national side.
Southgate now reaps the rewards of the Pochettino pipeline. If the most pressing tactical question a decade ago was how to fit England’s most dynamic two midfielders in the same lineup, then Pochettino’s versatility with his group of national team players is the anti-Gerrard-Lampard conundrum. Alli’s best position is playing just off a single striker, but his ball retention ability reminds his manager of Paul Pogba. Eric Dier is a defensive midfielder with the passing ability to play as part of a back three. Winks, who can play holding midfielder or as a box to box, was hailed as the perfect player.
The trend towards team play continues. England’s youth side won the U-17 World Cup in October, beating Spain 5-2 in the finals. The result was a warning shot, lead by Phil Foden, Rhian Brewster and George McEachran of Manchester City, Liverpool and Chelsea. The timing makes sense as this is the generation that rose in the wake up of the 2006 failure, especially in questioning the role of a club’s youth academy. One response was to attempt to manufacture the hunger, drive and creativity in players by replicating a street soccer environment. Brentford and Huddersfield got rid of their academy. Chelsea signed everyone. However varied the solution, there is an international trophy to show for it.
Ferdinand, on the significance of that U-17 World Cup experience, concluded that “what’s new about this generation is that they’re winning trophies together, they’re creating a bond now that will carry out through their senior years.” Southgate said he took the trio’s words to heart to prevent club-related cliques heading into Russia. The standard on this current team does not reflect a national technical program like Germany or Belgium, but emphasizing locker room harmony is an improvement from the previous generation, however small. 20-year-old striker Marcus Rashford admits he was too young to remember the 2006 World Cup, but he certainly is impacted by the fallout from that side’s failures. This new focus may not necessarily result in wins in the group stage or advancement in the knockout rounds, but a decade from now, this generation won’t be wondering “what if?”.