Originally published for The False Nine on February 21 2013.
Phil Jones’ second season at Manchester United began muted by injury. The sight of him initially struggling to find form felt strangely and shamefully satisfying, and yet as he limped off on Monday night against Reading the only thoughts that one could conjure were those of loss and interruption.
A series of gut-busting displays last year flicked the switch on the Phil Jones hype machine, which quickly spiralled out of control. In no time at all, the versatile young defender was being touted as the nation’s latest elemental wonderkid and a future saviour and captain of England. It appeared amorphous potential and purely physical gifts had once again seduced pundits into holding faith in one of English football’s most dangerous and enduring myths: the cult of the individual hero.
Thanks to his gurning enthusiasm, Jones was soon praised from on high as the latest wild prodigy of England – a player of such capacity that his mere presence flies the face of the complicated and unnecessary intellectualism of tactics. Fortunately, it is Sir Alex Ferguson and not some blinkered Luddite who steers the young defender’s progress.
The fundamentals of the native English footballing psyche still fetishise the values of speed, power, heart and luck above all other. Jones’ reckless drives from the back, and plucky yet clumsy attempts to put himself about, endeared him to an audience that still largely identifies with Roy of the Rovers as the pinnacle of the English footballer.
Unfortunately for both national pride and youth development, these ideals don’t translate too well into reality. Such no-nonsense super-heroes more often than not make utter nonsenses of themselves and their teammates, pulling away in different directions rather than working towards a coherent vision.
Jones is but the latest in a long line of feted stars who have lifted a torch passed on through the hands of James Milner, Wayne Rooney and Steven Gerard before them. Rather than potential champions for progression in the national game – or inspirations for a more measured and prepared approach – such talents have become rocks upon which the England national team shipwrecks itself. The dogmatic belief in the last stand of the uber-individual has lead to a groupthink mediocrity where talent withers and responsibility is passed on.
Like most of football’s more storied nations, England suffers its own unique inferiority complex. It is born out of confusion as to how and why we lost our grip on some dubious historical supremacy that never truly existed. For more than 100 years England’s failures have been blamed, wrongly, on the poor technique and quality of its player base. While it is true that talented young Englishmen are not the prodigious, born-complete footballers they’re hyped up to be, the self-flagellation of our innate inabilities is ridiculous and false.
There seems to be a commonly held belief that Brazilians, Germans, Italians and their ilk are somehow more naturally inclined to excel technically, a belief that feeds off that perennial national identity of the ballsy underdog. England can only prevail through guts, sweat and blood – heart-felt qualities that must come from within a player’s pride, soul and integrity. The average English player must aspire to make the most of this mental strength, much like Johnny Foreigner and his suspicious mastery of technique. What would be the point in pursuing a more well-rounded football education for all, when most are doomed to be inferior?
English football rails against a self-perpetuating paranoid delusion built upon a misconception, that our methods could never be wrong and that it is a natural poverty within the nation’s talent pool that inspires Baddiel and Skinner and their woe. This climate mistakenly promotes fearless enthusiasm and boundless energy as qualities, seeing the abilities abroad as out of reach for most. Only our one-in-a-million super-heroes such as Jones and Gerrard can hope to compete, through skills that can’t be taught. England’s problems at international level are psychological, not technical.
The knock-on effect for youngsters is that the best players are freed from the shaping restraints and discipline of tactics and roles. Limiting their ability to deploy their raw strengths – charging across the pitch, chasing the ball and blasting their lungs rather than using their heads – is to limit our chances.
Of course, youngsters shouldn’t be tied down to limited, pedantic roles and ground down into robots. The opposite is true: allowing young footballers the chance to learn from and experience a variety of different positions is extremely beneficial, helping to expand their awareness and understanding of the game and how they can contribute towards victory and the team effort. In The Netherlands, specifically at Ajax, rotating youth players through a range of positions is a cornerstone of the “total” approach to football; Dennis Bergkamp’s apprenticeship at full-back is one famous example.
Sadly, English football seems reluctant to shape prospects through roles and positions in such a smart and methodical manner. Away from the elite one-off players, far too many young footballers are shackled to roles based on aged prejudices of body type or mentality – big lads up front, little whippets on the wings, fat lad in goal etcetera.
Great young English players are expected to utterly shatter the conventional mould of players and positions, charging through game plans and formations with impunity. It is as if the concept of tactics itself should be rendered obsolete and irrelevant in the wake of their hard work, grit and flashes of genius. In this absurd hinterland, bullish force of will beget technique and intelligence.
Watching Steven Gerrard struggle to snap out of his last action hero routine while coming to terms with his creaking physique is tragic. For all his undoubted gifts, Gerrard is one of the worst coached players to ever play at the highest level, and the perfect example of an Englishman unable to measure and temper his efforts as circumstances require.
“The thing with Wilshere is that he can play anywhere,” claimed Mark Lawrenson earlier this season on Match of the Day 2 – an endorsement commonly draped over reviews of Jones, Rooney, Gerrard and the rest of them, expected as they are to transcend mere tactics and formations.
However, Jack Wilshere has benefitted from Arsene Wenger’s philosophy rather than the rushed and unfinished approach of England. Before the departure of Fabregas, Wilshere toiled as defensive midfielder – restrained by his role and forced to adapt to the responsibilities thrust upon him and the tactical discipline it required. Rooney too has been defanged by Ferguson: his explosive genius somewhat tempered these days by a more functional if less spectacular player who is one of the most tactically flexible forwards around.
The satisfaction in watching Phil Jones stutter and tumble in his attempts to re-assert himself upon Manchester United earlier in the season came not from a cynicism of the player or what he stands for, but from a hope that these small failures will enrich the defender’s education. Some of the most valuable and challenging lessons can only be learned from defeat and failure.
Against Bale and Tottenham, Fellaini and Everton, and Ronaldo and Real Madrid, Jones was handed the task of playing Ferguson’s terrier, a role he performed with relish. While his future may lie in partnership with Chris Smalling at the heart of United’s defence, seeing Jones graduate and flourish further up field has been a pleasure lately. With each appearance out of his comfort zone, new perspectives and experiences can be taken on board, contributing towards a more rounded and ready modern footballer.
Wenger, Ferguson and other farsighted coaches can see the benefits in teaching tactical awareness, but the onus must also be placed on spectators and their media mouthpieces to take a more patient approach to developing brilliant footballers. After all, progress isn’t simply a case of turning up the hype.