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Are England Actually Under-Achievers?

A good question! Simon Kuper and Stefan Szymanski suggest not. Their argument, summarised by Tim Harford, runs more or less like this:

- England do about as well as you’d expect, given their size, economic power, proximity to football’s “core” in Western Europe, and footballing history. That is, you’d expect them to usually make the last 16, sometimes make the last 8, occasionally make the last 4 and make the final very rarely. And they do.

- Managers don’t make much difference to a team’s expected performance. Not even Fabio Capello.

- There is no correlation between the qualifying performance (which in this particular campaign was outstanding) and the performance at the championship itself (which… well, the less said the better).

I have no quibble with that final point. The other two seem debatable, perhaps even rather problematic.

Sure, managers at club level have, in general, a limited impact. Or, to put it another way, money counts for more than any managerial brilliance. Kuper & Szymanski estimate that managers are responsible for something like 7% of the difference in results. Broadly speaking, this is reasonable even if it downplays how vital 7% may be when it comes to reasonably evenly matched and plutocratic clubs.

On the international level, however, managers clearly make more of a difference and not just because they can't buy new players. Culture, intelligence, temperament, organisation, motivation: all these things matter. Scotland are, alas and unfairly, no great shakes but we're not quite the disorganised rabble we were when Berti Vogts was in charge. Elsewhere, look at the job Otto Rehhagel has done with Greece or Guus Hiddinck or Bora Milutinovic (damn you Costa Rica!) with so many sides. Here too, admittedly, one may suggest that the poorer the players the more important the manager.

But that doesn't quite explain the England problem. And this first point—that England do about as well as should be expected—is, I think, flimsy.

Even allowing for the fact that England didn't compete in the first three World Cups, a return of two semi-final appearances since 1950 is poor and shabby stuff indeed. Only Spain, among those we think of as major powers, has a worse record. Put another way, England have only once reached the last four outside England. That's pathetic.

These countries have reached the semi-finals more often than England: Germany (11), Brazil (10), Italy (8), France (5), Sweden (4), Uruguay (4), Argentina (4), Holland (3). And this is the list of countries who've got to the last four as often as England: Poland, Yugoslavia, Austria, Portugal, Czechoslovakia and Hungary.

So, given England's population, "economic power" and "proximity to football's 'core' in Western Europe" I think we can agree that this is a miserable return and that thinking that England "do about as well as you'd expect" is, I'm afraid, a nonsense even if you agree that these are the most useful or obvious criteria upon which to base your expectations.

Now you might say that England were a little unfortunate in that the period when English clubs dominated European football (1978-1985) coincided with good times for other countries and that, anyway, those clubs relied heavily upon Scottish (and Irish and occasionally Welsh) talent or that the English style didn't translate to the international arena or you could say that England were ill-managed in that period (contradicting S&K then!) or you could find any number of other reasons to explain English under-performance. What you might struggle to do, I think, is deny the existence of that under-performance.

Should England expect better? Yes. Might that expectation make better harder to achieve? Perhaps. That's a different matter. Nevertheless it seems odd to ditch delusions of grandeur and replace them with ho-hummery and the notion that England can't really legitimately expect to produce better footballers than it seems to.

PS: For what it's worth, I have no idea why Frank Lampard was playing and Joe Cole wasn't. Not that Joe Cole is a super-magic player but Lampard is, well, Lampard.