Why England are as good or bad as they are

Beckham prepares for a set piece. Wow: Beckham...
Good against the rest, bad against the best CC Attribution 2.0 license (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

After the defeat, the scapegoating and recriminations. The typical post-tournament soul-searching in English football may have been a bit muted after the defeat to Italy, because the general consensus is that we actually met expectations this year.* Yet even this year we may hear similar wide-ranging suggestions about how England can improve, from overhauling our youth system to introducing a winter break to changing formation. I don’t have much to offer here in this minefield of discussion, but have identified the problem as opposed to the answer. The problem, which won’t come as a surprise to many, is that we have a terrible record against the traditional powerhouses of international football.

Analysing England’s matches over the last ten years – from just after the 2002 World Cup – it is obvious England is actually quite consistent. The old adage fans of some teams give about being able to beat teams better than them but losing against teams they should beat is certainly not the case for England. I have determined the ‘big sides’ to be Brazil, Argentina, France, Spain, Portugal, Germany, Holland and Italy. Based on FIFA World Rankings these teams are not always the best in the world, yet by popular perception, and I would argue by results, they are. To give an indication, over the last ten years, they have all reached at least one final of a European Championship, Copa America or World Cup, and the only others country who reached a final in this period were Greece, Uruguay and Paraguay.

I have split up England’s results over the last ten years into results against the eight big teams, and against everyone else. Against ‘everyone else’, England win three quarters of their matches, and lose just one in ten. Yet against the big sides England have only won three games out of 23: against Argentina in 2005; Germany in 2008; and Spain in 2011. We are even worse against the big sides in tournaments (although with only six matches it is maybe not enough to draw a reliable conclusion) with just one result, last month’s 1-1 draw against France, which wasn’t a defeat (although of course three of the defeats were on penalties). In light of these stats, we should have been expecting a defeat against Italy.

This gives us a clear picture of where England are in relation to the rest of the world. We are one of the better teams in the world and in Europe, yet are just behind the elite group of eight. I think being stuck in the middle, being good but not great, leads to our insecurity and flip-flopping between thinking we are the best and thinking we are the worst.

As I said, this doesn’t really offer a solution. It doesn’t explain why our golden generation of players didn’t do better against these big teams from 2005 to 2009, or how we should run or coach the game now. Yet, obviously, if we want to get further in a big tournament it is very likely that we will need to get better at beating good teams, whether this requires a change in players’ mentality, a change tactics, reliance on luck or something else.

*The fact this is the general consensus is surprising given fans and the media’s normal polarised reaction of despair or elation. Imagine if Ashleys Young and Cole had scored their penalties and we reached our first semi-final in a major tournament for 16 years. We would consider Euro 2012 a very good tournament, despite what actually happened in the matches: we were outperformed against France and Italy (and probably would be against Germany) and only narrowly won against Sweden and Ukraine. Such is the strange nature of international football.

Matches against big sides

year opposition result type
2012 Italy loss (penalties) tournament
France draw tournament
Holland loss friendly
2011 Spain win friendly
France loss friendly
2010 Germany loss tournament
2009 Brazil loss friendly
Holland draw friendly
Spain loss friendly
2008 Germany win friendly
France loss friendly
2007 Germany loss friendly
Brazil draw friendly
Spain loss friendly
2006 Holland draw friendly
Portugal loss (p) tournament
2005 Argentina win friendly
Holland draw friendly
2004 Spain loss friendly
Portugal loss (p) tournament
France loss tournament
Portugal draw friendly
2002 Portugal draw friendly

Record against big sides

win 3 13%
draw 7 30%
loss 13 57%

Record against everyone else

win 68 75%
draw 14 15%
loss 9 10%
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