An opening weekend that was supposed to open the season for the new format of England’s domestic championship has instead helped bring new questions of whether the experiments are helping the English team move forward.
There are plenty of reasons for England fans to be cautious about what lies ahead for the national team after a disappointing end to the World Cup. But the opening stages of the new season, in which the men’s national team crashed out to Switzerland, has added to those worries. The new system also had widespread negative consequences for English clubs, which lost four points to lower-ranked teams.
In his last year as national coach, Gareth Southgate took a number of risks in the hopes of helping England win the World Cup for the first time since 1966. A change of style, a higher tempo and even coaching tactics pushed forward England as a team.
But that theme has not been carried over to the new season, where there seems to be a pattern of England captain Harry Kane getting the ball at the top of the pitch before easily passing it to his partner in the English team, Dele Alli.
Those moves, whether in shape or style, worked in the World Cup, but they haven’t in the Premier League so far. With the sides playing the highest level of soccer in the world, results of games like this will soon shape England’s ability to beat Europe’s elite nations — a route it rarely takes anymore.
There’s a good chance England will not be at the next World Cup, in Russia in the summer of 2022. An inability to reach the next World Cup will mean the national team will go two years without participating, dropping it to its lowest participation level since the 1994 World Cup in the United States.
Southgate has done his best to bridge the gap to those previous 21 years, suggesting a new national identity for England amid the sharp rise of other European nations in the past 20 years. Yet some observers suspect such a mission — or, at the very least, a recognition of it — isn’t even being discussed inside the England team.
“We know we need to move forward but we are doing the opposite of that,” said Harry Pearce, author of “A History of English Football.” “We need to begin looking back at our recent history. We are failing to do that.”
Southgate is said to be concerned about his team’s inability to score goals. While scoring goals may have been traditionally a strength of England, the country has given up over the last 30 years to other European teams, many of which have taken that as the starting point to creating European-style teams. It’s a problem that’s likely to get worse, as even European countries like Switzerland moved to higher scoring efforts from their previous, low-scoring methods.
Supporters and commentators of the new Premier League system believe those two differences — the fans and the players— make it a kinder process for everyone. The more European nations are getting playing styles overseas, they argue, it will ultimately benefit English teams. There’s an increased ability to test experimental and new concepts. The fans are part of the conversation, able to offer feedback. It feels like a progressive step away from England’s reputation as a soccer dark horse.
“For the first time since the Premier League, we have a democracy here — in which opinions can be pushed,” said Alex Horne, co-founder of the Premier League Fans’ Group. “There’s nothing better than that.”
But the Premier League’s first Friday night match is in the east London borough of Battersea — an area where the fan base has often been disenfranchised. For people like Mitchell Teare, 28, it means English teams can still run roughshod over the rest of the league.
Teare said he feels like a side in a nation where they have always stood alone, when in fact it has always been the other way around.
“Yes, we are England, we are the Three Lions and that is who we play for,” he said. “But it is never good enough. We are still the better team but we play the game as though others are not.”
— With additional reporting by Chelsea Powell