Brief Comparison of British Football

Football fans need rivalries. Whether watching teams at the lower end of the league system such as Linlithgow Rose v Bo’Ness United or games at the very top such as Barcelona v Real Madrid; rivalries add to the fan’s experience, add interest, add passion and add a point of reference as well.

Scotland have England. Historic and fundamental football rivals. As a Scotland fan, looking over at the success or otherwise of our neighbours is always interesting – dishing out banter and gentle ribbing with my Anglo friends is also a common occurrence. There is no “anti-English” mentality, no political motivation behind this, simply an acknowledgement of the need for football rivalries to exist. Culturally as well, we in Scotland do look on at our neighbours with a bit of a chip on our shoulder, albeit with the constant reminders of a dodgy goal in the 60’s and related ramifications continually mentioned.

Through my lifetime, English football has evolved at a staggering rate. The injection of vast sums of cash into English football through television deals in the early 90’s has meant that this brand of football has become hard to miss with televised games on almost every day, the latest obscene transfer fee or wages taking up high volumes of column inches in the press and rolling news feeds serving to hype up and shove the “game” down our throats.

The above is perhaps an indication of me falling into my own stereotype, chip on shoulder, looking enviously southwards at the money and glamour of English football. I am old enough to recall when Scottish football attempted to keep pace with our neighbours, with Aberdeen shelling out £1million on Paul Bernard (who?) and Rangers spewing £12million on Tore Andre Flo. Regardless of your opinion on the validity or worth of these players, just looking at these price tags within a modern day context, the sheer notion of either Aberdeen or Rangers spending such sums is quite absurd.

English club sides have long been able to out-bid and out-spend most clubs within the world, with the pull and wages of the top league proving too good to turn down for the majority of players, with a small number of exceptions such as Barcelona, Real Madrid, PSG or Bayern Munich. This has meant that clubs have been able to pick and choose whatever players they so desire, with the only competition coming from their own league rivals for a midfielder playing in, say, Portugal, rather than having to vie with Porto, Benfica or Spanish clubs as would have been the case even 5 to 10 years ago.  There is a bit of the “Rule Britannia” to this, with English football proclaiming to be the biggest, the best with evidence certainly illustrating that it is the richest.

For a number of years, the ability to out-spend many if not most European teams led to English club sides being highly prominent within the latter stages of high level European competition. This in recent years has tailed off somewhat, with English club sides going the same way as the National team in terms of not quite living up to the media hype, not quite grasping the realism that money doesn’t always buy happiness and subsequently failing to make any progress beyond say last 16 or Quarter Final stages of tournaments.

The reasons behind such failings have been discussed and analysed by those more educated than myself. However, it does seem that there are many parallels between Scottish and English football here.

As above, a sweeping analysis of Scottish football would outline a tactical rigidity, reliance on “big men” at centre half and up top with fast, one dimensional wingers and players able to “dig in” playing in a standard 4-4-2 or 4-5-1 or variation thereof. This characteristic or style of football could also be easily described as being quintessentially British, indeed in being such close neighbours Scotland and England do share many historical tactical traits.

From the very beginnings of football, with Scottish and English teams playing against and alongside each other, with even Queens Park turning out in an English FA Cup Final, tactical evolution between both has been intrinsically linked. Now, without going into a deep analysis of tactical evolution, it can be stated that from the very beginnings that British football has long since been set it its ways. The prevalence of the famous W-M formation as well as the rough and ready, “proper football men” approach to the game as opposed to embracing new and revolutionary approaches characterised much of the first 50 years of British Football. In the earliest days, Scottish football was actually known for its more precise passing game, but as a broad generality tactics were every much rough and ready, the ability to fight and scrap welcomed. The analogy I tend to draw is that of Rugby, another sport with British origins with rigid tactics and where being big and fast is the best advantage. The spread of football throughout the globe heralded tactical revolution, with an almost Darwinian style of evolution in small pockets of the globe before the true globalisation of the game, tactics and styles able to evolve on their own.

Examples and literature exist of the above separate advances. Cultural, political and physical borders meaning that football in, for example, Argentina or Uruguay, gained popularity and evolved at its own pace and in its own way with its own advances to tactics or approaches (early Uruguayan success in World Cups, Argentine success within South America, beating Uruguay during same period). The same can be said for other early heavyweights such as the Marvellous Magyars (Hungary) who were also seen as being extremely advanced in comparison to British teams, with a famous match at Wembley where Hungary and the legendary Puskas came out resounding victors.

Further through time other advancements in tactics have taken place outwith the British Isles, prominent examples being Catenacco in Italy (ultra defensive, but effective) and of course Totalveotbal (Total Football) as pioneered by Rinus Michels and Johann Cruyff, the great Dutchmen during the 70’s and 80’s which could also be argued as inspiration for future tactical advancements such as “Juego de Posicion” as adopted by Pep Guardiola among others. Alternative approaches like the Gegenpress used by Klopp at Dortmund, or Bielsa’s high tempo pressing have also become prominent in recent years.

One thing in common about the above approaches or advancements is that despite their prominence and proven success, none appeared to originate within Britain nor have they been universally adopted into British football.

Negative examples do exist of where such approaches have been implemented in Britain, with alternative tactics utilised by coaches including Ian Cathro (Hearts) or even to an extent Pep Guardiola at Manchester City where the time taken to educate or implement approaches which do not comfortable compliment the fundamental British approach are often outweighed by a lack of patience or desire to see instant success and are subsequently criticised or seen as being inadequate for the British or “our” game.

Now many commentators, fans or other assembled experts may argue that a good coach for British football or a good approach to British football is one that can bring success, as such playing “good old” tactics and winning far outweighs any desire to adopt more advanced tactics. This is all well and good, most domestic or club fans I’m sure would forego tactical innovation in lieu of success. But as eluded to above, the lack of advancement – as shown throughout the history of football, has not allowed for further advancement on an international stage.

A reluctance of British football to actively innovate and to stick to the default tactical pillars that have served everyone well throughout the ages does therefore appear to be where we are, certainly from a fans perspective.

There are many factors which feed into this, including the high stakes, high pressure, high reward nature of the English Leagues meaning that the risk of failure could lead to financial meltdown – football, particularly in England is a business after all and so instant success is a necessity. Throwing money at players for instant success will always, understandably, take precedence over any notion of slowly building up and innovating.

This in turn could also explain why there are a relatively small number of English, or Scottish, players in foreign leagues. A general lack of language skills may also play a part and is perhaps more of a cultural issue, but with higher financial reward for a mediocre standard of football even in England’s lower tiers, there is no incentive for English (or Scottish) players to move anywhere else to broaden this tactical education. However, this could also be said of footballers across the globe – it is a common “dream” or ambition to play in England where the financial rewards are so high.

The commercial and economical side of English football is therefore an extremely prominent characteristic. This comes back to the sweeping summary offered above that notwithstanding proclamations of English football or the English leagues being the best in the World, they are certainly one of the richest.

This economical side of the game translates into a fan’s language through expensive television subscriptions or ticket prices. I have moaned previously about Scottish ticket prices, being £10-£15 for lower league games and up to £60 for international games. Prices are also a much publicised and criticised issue in England, with ticket prices north of £30-£50 for “standard” league games common.

This is also true of England national team games. Having attended the 2013 friendly and 2016 World Cup Qualifier, with expensive ticket prices plus pricey transport down to and around London (albeit free accommodation for myself at friends and also my wife’s flat when she was completing her PhD in London).

The expensive tickets do however offer admission into a new stadium with extremely efficient transport (London Underground) infrastructure, organised security and stewardship, extensive hospitality and food/drink options as well as organised crowd control upon exit. Wembley stadium is a modern, multi-purpose entertainment arena – and that’s what it does feel like. The vast bowl of a stadium does have a very sanitised feel to it with a manufactured style atmosphere (a point emphasised by Tottenham Hotspur when playing “home” games there in 2017, by playing music/drum beats over the tannoy to create a semblance of atmosphere). With all the wonderful, family friendly, clean, safe, infrastructure it does feel as though a lot of the romance has been diluted, the characteristics of a home ground being hostile or ruthless do seem to be lost at Wembley. There is a conscious effort to entertain with big screens and my personal pet hate, the forced “banter” via some tube with a microphone on the pitch at half time orchestrating some draw or competition or similar glorified tombola.

The middle rung of the three tiered stadium is also apparently reserved for “Club Wembley” which is a more exclusive fan club and adds to the sanitation of the atmosphere and lack of tribal feeling within. Attendance at Wembley for even an England v Scotland game does lose some of its passion and atmosphere therefore. When goals are scored (against Scotland more often than not it has to be said) the lack of noise within the stadium is palpable. With such a huge bowl of a stadium the expectation would be that it becomes a cacophony of noise when goals or incidents occur, but it just didn’t feel that way on any occasion. Fans were perhaps screaming their heads off, but the noise just didn’t transmit for whatever reason – be that a lethargy from fans given an overriding expectation to score against Scotland or a lack of acoustics within the stadium is open to debate.

This in a way encompasses my points above, that the commercial reality of English football has far outgrown the core, or even romantic grass roots view of football being a sport and game first, then a business second. The move towards bigger, better, cleaner, safer stadia is of course a great mark of progress, but it does feel as though something is lost thereafter and that the rivalry or atmosphere – which still appears achievable in similar modern stadia across Europe – is diluted by the move up away from the tribal atmosphere.

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