September 17, 2010 10:42 pm

Why England fails: Hiddink sees a lack of footballing intelligence

Guus Hiddink sits drinking his ritual drink, the cappuccino, in his natural habitat, the five-star hotel. This one happens to be in Istanbul, where the Dutchman pops in now and then to coach Turkey. However, the sage of global football also keeps a close eye on England. From his comfy chair, he delivers a masterly analysis of their shortcomings.

In 2006, Hiddink was briefly favourite to become England’s manager. But partly because he didn’t fancy British tabloids besieging his relatives, he became manager of Russia instead. Last year, he heightened his understanding of English football by working as Chelsea’s caretaker coach. This summer, he watched the World Cup at home in the Netherlands amid friends and family. Whereas some English pundits have blamed England’s failures on lack of spirit, Hiddink diagnoses a lack of footballing intelligence.

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Simon Kuper

Specifically, he says, England’s players don’t “coach” team-mates during a game. There are exhortations, but no specific instructions. Take the midfielder Gareth Barry in the game against Germany, says Hiddink. “He could play more intelligently. But because he doesn’t coach, he ends up playing left-back or right-back, which isn’t his strength.”

Barry wasn’t alone, adds Hiddink. “Defensive midfield and central defence is really the nerve centre. It wasn’t sending out any impulses saying: ‘This is how we must do it.’ You can see if coaching is happening, and there was none or almost none.” Hiddink’s diagnosis suggests why England’s players perform better for their clubs: there, their foreign team-mates coach them.

At Chelsea, Hiddink managed two of England’s senior players, John Terry and Frank Lampard. Surely they have football intelligence?

“Terry does coach. Frank is more a ‘box-to-box player’, as they call it in England, and he doesn’t coach much. Although he can do it: sometimes at training he’ll go and play in the back of midfield. But you have to limit them. You have to say: ‘This is your territory and this is your task.’ I don’t know how that works with England, but if you don’t do that, they often do too much. Frank has so much energy and drive. When I began at Chelsea, he’d come back to his defence, collect the ball, then worm his way through the midfield to the front, and,” Hiddink chuckles, “he’d actually score quite a lot, I must say. In his energy-eating style.

“Occasionally we’d sit down and talk about it: ‘Gosh, we really should be able to build up from the back and get the ball to you. Then you can be efficient, and more easily get through a season of 60 matches without being broken every four weeks.’” Lampard would reply, “Yes, yes. I’d never thought about that.”

In training, Hiddink sometimes assigned him a zone, and made him stay in it. He was trying to teach a great player tactical discipline.

Watching the World Cup, Hiddink again saw overeager Englishmen straying beyond their zones. Far from doing too little, they were doing too much. Steven Gerrard, for example, kept collecting the ball in defence and then running forward with it. That gave opponents time to assume their positions at leisure. No team-mate corrected Gerrard.

The status of players is also a factor, says Hiddink. “At a certain point players get a status – sometimes rightly, sometimes forced – that creates a sort of screen around them. Others think: ‘Oh, I can’t touch him or make demands on someone who’s such a big name in England.’ ” Often the high-status player wants to be coached, says Hiddink. But nobody dares do it.

And so you get the disjointed England team of the World Cup. Take the pairing of Wayne Rooney and Emile Heskey up front: “You didn’t see that they were a pair that gelled, even though they’ve perhaps played together a lot and know each other from the English league.”

It is tempting to think what might have been had Hiddink been in charge, but it will never happen. At 63, he says Turkey should be his last coaching job.

simonkuper-ft@hotmail.com

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