England need to find a style and stick with it

The bare facts are laid before us. Since England went to Germany and beat them in their own backyard, smashing them 5-1 in Munich, they haven’t surprised anyone in a good way. 

Not the fans. Not the manager. Not the press. Not the watching world. Not even themselves. Not in a competitive match that matters. Not since 2001. 

If England hasn’t been the favourite, they haven’t won. 

Purple patches from lesser known opponents have also stung us, as we discovered once again this week. Defeats to Croatia, Northern Ireland and Ukraine, three successive draws against Montenegro, and stalemates with the likes of Macedonia, Poland, Austria, Israel, Switzerland and Algeria in recent campaigns are all a testament to that. 

So, why do England crumble so often when the going gets tough? Is it a mental block?

Yes, partly it is. 

However, the root cause of that psychological problem isn’t down to pressure. 

Every single England player knows how to cope in the spotlight. To shine on the Premier League stage you need the thickest of skins and the toughest of characters, and Roy Hodgson’s men have those qualities. 

They can blame unrealistic expectations and press criticism all they like, but those ‘pressures’ really should be water off a duck’s back. 

Our problems aren’t caused by a dearth of talent either. 

Yes, compared to the likes of Spain, Germany, Holland and Argentina, Roy Hodgson doesn’t have the same plethora of game-changing world class individuals to choose from that’s for sure. But the players can hack it. They’re not out of their depth at international level. 

So what’s the issue? Personally I believe it’s down to uncertainty and a lack of clear tactical direction. 

Spain, Germany and Holland don’t change their style for anyone. The faces alter from time to time, but the side always plays in the same way; stress or no stress. 

When they’re up against it, the players can usually look at one another safe in the knowledge that their mate knows what needs to be done. The group’s strength and system will prevail. 

That’s the ingredient you need most when your back is up against the wall for 30, 60 or 90 minutes. 

You can be playing kids football, parks football, serious football, five-a-side, 11-a-side, for fun, for your profession, or for your country, and the feelings are just the same. That period when your opponents seem much sharper, stronger, more fluid, energetic, determined and ruthless than you; better as a team than you, is hard to take. It’s easy to cave in and to panic. 

However, if you know your individual role inside out, if you know that you can trust your team-mates, if you know the team’s strategy and tactics are spot on, then (even when you’re being outplayed) it’s possible to ride the storm. Together, you can dig in and get a positive result. 

Where there’s a lack of belief, where there are doubts and uncertainties, you’re stuffed. 

And this is where England fall down at the very highest level of international football. 

Game to game we switch tactics. Game to game we alter personnel. Round pegs are still being put in square holes to appease certain players, certain managers. 

There is no clear style, no continuity. Is it any wonder the players look confused and make silly mistakes?

Find an identity, a harmonious and distinct team balance, a style and a system the players are comfortable with. If that means leaving out some of the best 11 players to do certain select jobs for their country, then so be it. 

At least then, the mistrusts will disappear. With clearer minds, those familiar psychological frailties might even be cured. 

Even if England aren’t the best, if they’re together as one and completely comfortable in what they’re doing, when faced by the very best, when faced by opponents who are on fire, they might just be more capable of springing that surprise we’ve all been waiting for. 

And win when it matters. 

Read more from the former professional footballer turned journalist Adrian Clarke