After watching the inevitable thumping by Germany in the second round at this year’s World Cup, I tried to find a logical reason for why England are unable to progress further in tournaments or even play well enough to convince me that they have just been unlucky yet again.
I went through the usual: “too many foreigners in the Premiership”, “no winter break”, “Lampard and Gerrard just can’t play together in the middle of the park” – these reasons are all partly true. Compared to Italy, Spain and Germany we have the lowest number of players eligible for the national team in our league at just 42%. We don’t have a winter break and most Premiership players underperformed dramatically in South Africa (see Torres, Drogba, Rooney).
Finally if any manager wants to try and put two consistently underperforming, aging players next to each other for the millionth time to realise that yet again it doesn’t work then more fool him.
These reasons are convincing but I also think that the reason that we consistently underperform at major championships is a lack of quality opposition in between competitions. England’s current group contains no teams in the top 20 of the FIFA World Rankings, with Switzerland the highest at 21, Montenegro are at 48, Bulgaria 54 and Wales 84.
In theory, this means that since getting comprehensively beaten at the World Cup the only game that should really test the England team would be the two against Switzerland, and as we already know England won the tie in Basel 3-1. But Montenegro got a well-earned draw at Wembley, surely they gave England a test? Yes, but their best chance and only clear cut chance of the game came seven minutes from time and Montenegro were set up primarily for the draw.
This pattern is echoed in previous qualifying campaigns. In the build up to 2006, the second highest-ranked team in the group were Poland, and in 2004 the top opposition were Turkey. In 2008 England did not qualify. Why? There were two teams that actually posed a threat, Croatia and Russia – both teams who were at the top of their game and, in Russia’s case, went on to the semi-finals of the tournament.
Essentially, the amount of poor teams that England play leaves them unable to cope with the better teams. England has not beaten a top team in a competitive game since 2002, when they beat Argentina in the group stages of the World Cup. If England played top teams in international matches more often then they would be better equipped to deal with top teams.
This is a problem across Europe. Since the break up of the former Soviet Union there has been a dramatic increase in the number of teams available to play. Even Montenegro were a different team only a few qualifying campaigns ago. The increase in the number of teams leaves the UEFA region with an average world ranking of 59.56. This is almost double what the South American teams go through in their qualifying stages, with an average ranking in CONMEBOL of 31.57. So, every time the Brazilians and Argentineans play a qualifier they play, on average, a team twice as good as England do.
So, in 2012, when England get ripped apart by one of the bigger nations, all they will have to look back on for recent big game experience could be the last time they got beaten: 27th June 2010, by Germany.