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“England DNA” - English Football’s Culture Wars

With Southampton not playing during the international break, @shirleymush reflected on English football as a whole.

England v Norway - International Friendly Photo by Jamie McDonald/Getty Images

During a recent email conversation with my coaching mentor (who you can find on Twitter under @lostboysaint), we were laughing about tropes and cognitive biases that are especially prevalent in the milieu of English football. Some of them are demonstrably ridiculous, while others might be rooted in truth but subsequently become almost meaningless through being constantly parroted and divorced from context.

Underpinning it all is a peculiar form of English exceptionalism that manifests itself even at organisational level, for example in the FA's strange "England DNA" slogan of a few years ago. "England DNA" wasn't especially well defined, with Dan Ashworth—now the FA's technical director—merely muttering that "We're England... We play like England.” Thankfully there was little in, say, England's thrilling comeback against Spain in the U17 World Cup final that seemed quintessential to English football. Indeed, if the high pressing and quick combination play on display in that game are anything to go by, it seems as if the influence of foreign coaches like Marcelo Bielsa is beginning to seep into player development in this country, perhaps via the likes of Pep Guardiola and Mauricio Pochettino, both of whom now work in the Premier League.

What follows is a brief look at some of the conventional wisdom that still dominates the discourse around our grounds at every level. Some of it may be provocative—perhaps deliberately so. The aim is to encourage readers to challenge stereotypes and escape incuriosity dressed up as realism, which stretches way beyond the sphere of football in this country.

Peccadilloes of the English football fan:

1. Strength: Small players are broadly bad (unless they're fast—see 2). Big players are good because they're strong. Yet fans seldom ask why top teams aren't packed with blokes who look like Brock Lesnar, or why players are generally carrying much less bulk than they were even ten years ago. Because what the casual supporter perceives as strength is often simply technique: using leverage and timing, sometimes even using an opponent’s weight against him—which is why guys like Javier Mascherano and Sergio Busquets are considered strong despite being short and/or rake thin.

2. Pace: The ultimate attribute, and in many fans' eyes what Saints are currently lacking. In reality, we have pace in abundance, it's just that our fast forwards are either burnt out and short of confidence (Nathan Redmond), raw, unpredictable and out of favour (Sofiane Boufal) or incapable of running fast with the ball under control (Shane Long).

3. Racism: In light of the tawdry business involving Mark Sampson, it would be disingenuous for anyone to deny that racism is still depressingly prevalent in English football. It is disturbing how frequently BAME players are still framed as lazy or unintelligent. These accusations clearly belong in the “demonstrably ridiculous” category. A job that involves pushing oneself to one’s physical and mental limits almost every day seems an odd career move for an indolent person. Diminishing the intelligence of multilingual people capable of making several decisions concurrently, under scrutiny and when on the brink of exhaustion is preposterous. Why do people who have never so much as refereed a game feel comfortable stating that Theo Walcott “doesn’t have a football brain”, or saying Nathan Redmond “doesn’t put a shift in”? Why are players rarely compared with other players who aren’t of the same ethnic group? Why is it still so common to hear a black player referred to as “a beast”? We need to ask these questions.

4. Last-ditch blocks and tackles: Fans love a player who shows “commitment” and “puts his body on the line” by making a desperate lunge, yet a defender who keeps a clean sheet without recourse to such dramatic ends will go unnoticed. Could it be that players who regularly make ostentatious interventions have to do so because they are regularly out of position, caught ball-watching or unable to adequately anticipate? As Paolo Maldini once said, “if I have to make a tackle, then I have already made a mistake.”

5. Two up front: Never mind that it often isolates two players from their teammates. Never mind that it necessarily means a more unequal distribution of players across the playing area. Never mind that 4-3-3 offers three up front, and three is a higher number than two. Two up front means you are “taking the game to the opposition.” Ideally you want one big, one small, the latter looking for a “flick-on”. Which brings us to…

6. …Holding the ball up: This will generally involve a player who has “good feet for a big man,” as well as the quality described in item 1, although there is also the notion that such players must be tall. This is scarcely challenged, despite it being unusual to see a player holding the ball up by balancing it on his head.

7. Crossing: “Get it in the box!” In the history of the Premier League, an average of one in every 92 crosses leads to a goal, and the chances of retaining possession from a cross are less than 25%. This may explain why wingers (see item 9) are often dismissed as having “no final ball” or “no end product.”

8. “Switch it!” When done with purpose, a cross-field pass can be devastating, but a feature of England games for the approximately the last 20 years has been long, lofted passes floated from one side of the pitch to the other. These balls hang in the air for so long that it’s unlikely that the recipient will be unable to reach them, even if they are inaccurate. It’s also unlikely to be effective, as it gives the opposition ample time to adjust. Yet this type of pass will almost always receive warm applause.

9. “Make the pitch big!” Wingers: For true purity this means a right-footed winger on the right and a left-footed winger on the left. This is in spite of width in modern top-level football increasingly being supplied by full backs, making unreconstructed “chalk-on-their-boots” wingers an endangered species. Nonetheless, the English fan will often demand wingers AND two strikers (see item 5). Part of the reason item 5 is so important to English fans is that the 4-3-3 formation and its variants are seen as meaning only one striker with two wingers either side of him, when in reality many of the best teams now operate with what were once called “inside forwards” supporting a central striker, for example David Villa playing just to the left of Leo Messi for Guardiola’s Barcelona, or, closer to home, Jay Rodriguez playing a similar role under Pochettino at Southampton. Yet far from being seen as anachronistic, wingers are still popular with many English fans, partly because of their belief in the importance of item 7.

10. “SHOOOOOOOOT!” Speculative efforts from long range. We all like spectacular goals scored via shots from distance. Part of the reason we like them is scarcity. That scarcity is a result of a high level of difficulty. The “screamer” is special because we don’t see it all that often. What we do see all too often is players shooting from miles out, sometimes when off balance or forced onto their weaker foot. Normally this will lead to the ball being battered against an opponent’s legs or booted over the bar, and often results in the ball being lost.

11. Hatred of squad rotation: This is reasonable when underpinned by a belief in the importance of synergies in developing combination play. It is not reasonable when underpinned by a complete rejection of medical science, which suggests that too many games, overtraining and insufficient recovery time lead to players underperforming or being fatigued or injured.

12. “Just ****ing sign someone!” To most football fans, the easy solution to their club’s problem is to buy players. This goes beyond football and connects with a societal, hegemonic, often subconscious confidence in the ability of markets to resolve all problems. Education (or coaching, as its known in sport) and medicine (or conditioning) are almost invariably subordinate to the transfer market in the hierarchy of what fans believe is impactful. Yet the football transfer market is a notoriously inefficient one. How many transfers could be described as unqualified successes?


There are plenty more where those came from (I haven’t managed to find room for the contention that sending young players on loan to “toughen them up” is essential—no one has, as yet, explained to me how playing in League 1 improves bone density), but let’s leave it there for now. Direct your hatred and abuse at @shirleymush.