Thursday, January 3, 2013

The Critics Corner: A Book Review of The Anatomy of England

photo by Môsieur J. [version 3.0b]via PhotoRee

Ed pops in with a book review:

Having found Jonathan Wilson's "Inverting the Pyramid" both enjoyable as well as an extremely informative account of the history of soccer via the change of formations (really, it's that good despite telling the tale in that manner), I went back for more and just finished Wilson's follow-up, "The Anatomy of England." Anatomy is an interesting book, not just for what it tells us about the history of English football, but also because of what it tells us about the English people themselves.

It's always be fascinating to me how a nation such as England have sunk from intense "rule the world" self-confidence down past humility into full self-loathing. Wilson picks up on this from a different angle. To him, England falsely believes that they should and historically were the best in the world at football, England falsely believes they are the best because of their rah-rah spirit, and England ultimately could be the best (or at least much better) if they played in more of a continental, possession style instead of just booming it up the field and running hard. These themes run through Pyramid as well, though obviously the first book is not nearly as thick with them.

Wilson looks back at England's performances through the years and cycles through 10 games in particular, beginning with a loss to Spain in 1929, moving through their defeat at Wembley in 1953 by Hungary, through three games of the 1990's -- highlighted by what could be considered a peak inflection point in England's 4-1 thrashing of the Dutch, and finally to the crash and burn of the "Golden Age" team's defeat in 2007 to Luka Modric's Croatian side. The Epilogue then speaks of Fabio Capello, the author's initial belief that he might end up the most successful of England managers, which belief was of course dashed by what the author believes were the result of bad luck, injuries, and, well, who knows what else. But ultimately, it would seem that the author thinks one of the toughest things that England has to push through is its own culture -- the impatience of not allowing for development, combined with a carnivore-like press, and finally with their constant return to their roots as a boot it and run it team.

I agree with Wilson in part. English football does tend towards kick and run when the going gets tough. But I think of this a bit differently than the author. I think English football lacks the footwork you see in other nations. Celebrated modern players like Gerrard and Rooney are terrific at runs and passes and scoring, but they simply lack the ball control skills of continentals like, to name a few Spurs, Luka Modric or Moussa Dembele. Players like this can not only maintain control of a ball in a crowd, but also don't feel the content need to charge hard towards the goal and/or set off a beautiful cross field pass. I never watched much of Paul Gascoigne, but from the book it would seem that he was one of the few if not only player in the English national team to bring these skills to the game.

I disagree with Wilson with respect to the English temperament. No, actually I don't disagree, but rather I think he's analyzing it incorrectly. The England he writes about doesn't suffer from the hard charging optimism that we can just outrun you. Instead, the country suffers, I think, from a deep pessimism that weighs down their very best. England hard charge not because they think it's the best thing to do, they do it because they panic due to a lack of belief.
Interestingly, I don't think Wilson can stand apart from this criticism. His criticism of so many things England is also a bit harsh. Instead of merely throwing his hands up at the intractable problems which, it would seem, face all national teams -- lack of patience, star footballers who often get into trouble, poor managers -- I would suggest that Wilson or someone like him author a Can Do book for England. Here's what you should be proud of, and here's how our devotion to this sport, our first world wealth, and our never say die English spirit can get us where we need to go. Too American? Maybe. But perhaps both England and Wilson can use a bit more of that.
This is farlieonfootie for January 3.

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