Three Lions, no identity - does England lack a plan? | Sports| German football and major international sports news | DW | 16.08.2013
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Three Lions, no identity - does England lack a plan?

How do you recognize an England team? The song tells us: "Three lions on the shirt." But if you take those lions away, do English national teams have a recognizable identity - a style? Ex-captain Rio Ferdinand says not.

Not a lot has changed since the Lightning Seeds sang "Three Lions," along with football funnymen David Baddiel and Frank Skinner, ahead of Euro 96 in England. The only real difference is that the "30 years of hurt" since the 1966 World Cup final against West Germany have grown to 47 years without an international trophy.

Undated: Rio Ferdinand of England in action during the Under 21 European qualifying match against Italy in Italy. England won the match 1-0. \ Mandatory Credit: Shaun Botterill/Allsport

Ferdinand played 81 games for England's senior team

As for the World Cup in Brazil, England still face an uphill battle to even secure qualification, let alone end their drought. Ukraine and Montenegro, not exactly football giants, are running Roy Hodgson's team very close in their qualifying group.

Former England captain Rio Ferdinand, who retired from international football this summer, has said he would gladly endure another decade of English defeat on the condition that the national team develops its own style, its own on-pitch signature.

"What is our identity?" Ferdinand asked in an interview with the Daily Mail newspaper. "I've said that on Twitter I don't know how many times and people come back and say: 'What are you talking about?' But what is our identity?"

The wrong identity against Scotland

One stereotype about English football, one "identity," held firm when England beat neighbors Scotland in international football's oldest fixture this week. England sealed their comeback to win 3-2 with a pair of goals from set pieces. That's not exactly the kind of playing identity Ferdinand wants to see.

"We started to see something when Glenn Hoddle was in charge, [there was] a bit of identity then, free-flowing football and you would say we were starting to get an idea of the pattern he wanted to implement in the team," Ferdinand said.

9 Nov 1996: A photo of Glenn Hoddle the manager of England taken prior to start of the world cup qualifier between Georgia and England in Tbilisi, Georgia. (Photo courtesy of Ross Kinnaird/Allsport)

Glenn Hoddle was in charge from 1996 to 1999

Hoddle gave Ferdinand his England debut in 1997, and the coach was a visionary for his time. In an era when almost every English Premier League team played the classic 4-4-2 formation - as traditional as tea and toast for breakfast - Hoddle played Ferdinand as part of a three-man back line. Many in England were so alarmed by this break from tradition, this new identity, that they only noticed Hoddle's defensive record after he was sacked. To this day, his average of 0.464 goals conceded per game is better than any other England boss.

Had the former Tottenham and Swindon Town coach kept quiet about his views on disabled people and karma - namely that they might be paying for sins committed in past lives - he might have kept his job a little longer.

Starting with the youngsters

The key, Ferdinand believes, lies in the youth teams. Unlike an English youngster, Ferdinand said an under-16 player from a top country like Germany, Italy, Spain, the Netherlands or Brazil would know how to fit into the senior international team. They know their country's identity "because that's what they're taught, day in, day out."

England's head coach Roy Hodgson (red shirt) and his team at the Olympic Stadium, Kiev, Ukraine, 24 June 2012. (Photo via EPA/MAURIZIO BRAMBATTI)

Would you recognize them just by their playing style?

"I just don't think you see that connection between our team and the under-21s, or the under-17s … and I think that doesn't bode well for the England team," Ferdinand said. So, what's the solution? Tough love and courage, apparently.

"It's going to take someone with big balls to come and grab it by the scruff of the neck and say: 'This is what we're going to do and we're going to take 10 years to do it.'"

‘New' German identity under fire

Germany's new era of football - started by Jürgen Klinsmann and Joachim Löw during the "summer fairy tale" of the 2006 World Cup, and then continued by Löw and his deputy Hansi Flick ever since that tournament - is nearly 10 years old.

Old enough, in fact, that the public is getting restless. The feeling that Germany is "due" a triumph in 2014 is ever more widespread - and yet recent performances on the pitch suggest this might be less likely than ever before.

One major reason the German team was so highly praised during World Cup 2006 - all around the world - was that a country traditionally known for defensively solid football finally started playing what the English love to call "the beautiful game."

Now, Löw's Germany seems unable to balance its attacking instincts with even the most fundamental defensive stability. Captain and right-back Philipp Lahm didn't sense much of an identity in his back four this week when the side drew 3-3 with arguably Latin America's worst team, Paraguay.

"It's always difficult to prepare for an international game when you only have two training sessions together," Lahm said. "It's not that easy to get up to speed. Especially in the defense, and we saw that again today."

Even after 99 senior appearances for Germany, Lahm doesn't seem to know the German identity quite as well as fellow defender Ferdinand thinks. Judging by Wednesday's performance, Mats Hummels, Per Mertesacker and Marcel Schmelzer could all use a refresher course, while Manuel Neuer needs to be shown how to communicate with players from surely his least-favorite team, Borussia Dortmund. As a Schalke youth product and now as a Bayern Munich player, Neuer has spent a lifetime booing - and often beating - Dortmund.