There is little dispute that the period of 2002 to 2010 saw England possess its most talented group of players since 1966, but famously the side managed quarter-final finishes at best. With pundits and players disagreeing on what caused these failures, I’d argue it was down to three key factors.
Perhaps the most important element to consider is the playstyle. Throughout the 2000s, England played with a rigid 4-4-2 with Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard in midfield. The pair have spoken retrospectively that they felt they needed a player like Michael Carrick to sit behind them, but neither Sven-Göran Eriksson nor Fabio Capello ever thought to try this.
Michael Owen has also suggested that England should’ve played a 3-5-2, with David Beckham and Ashley Cole as wingbacks, whipping in crosses for himself and Wayne Rooney. Nowadays, Gareth Southgate may not have as talented of a squad, but he has a core way of playing that he always sticks to.
Another aspect is the cliques that formed within the squad. The golden generation had core elements from Manchester United, Chelsea and Liverpool. The current England team does not have quite the same feed from the top clubs, with Leicester and Everton players making up key parts of the squad. In a revealing interview, Rio Ferdinand, Lampard and Gerrard all admitted that they did not socialise with each other for fear of giving away information about their clubs. It’s hard to imagine Harry Maguire, Harry Kane and Raheem Sterling avoiding each other for the same reason.
The final factor has to be the lack of preparation for tournament football. Peter Crouch has mentioned on his podcast Capello’s poor preparations for South Africa 2010. From leaving the players alone in the hotel for long periods of time, to having poor player morale management – Southgate’s considered approach demonstrates that the camp around the players is just as important as their ability.
However, England’s most common misadventure is that of penalties. The frequent arrogance to refuse to practice has thwarted England on countless occasions. The acceptance to understand the psychology around them has led to two successes in as many years.
One may wonder what may have happened if these lessons were learned sooner. Ultimately, the deciding element was that the players never played out of their skins for the shirt. They could have tried harder and the shadow of what could have been will loom over the country for as long as the years of hurt continue.