Arsene Wenger is a genius but is not the man England need to end decades of underachievement

 
Frank Dalleres
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Arsene Wenger favours an improvised style of play that may not suit England (Source: Getty)

It's tempting to believe that Arsene Wenger – one of the most sophisticated minds to shape the English game over the last two decades and a man on the Football Association's shortlist to succeed Roy Hodgson – could be the right man to rescue the national team.

After all, the Frenchman is synonymous with the attacking flair that England have so desperately lacked in recent tournaments and has a silverware collection to suggest he could end the 50 years of hurt.

And yet. Before concluding that he has the cure, it feels important to identify the precise cause of England's enduring malaise, most recently exhibited in their Euro 2016 elimination to Iceland, the smallest nation ever to reach the tournament and one managed by a dentist.

Read more: Could a Brexit-led curb on foreign players in the Premier League really make the England team better?

The key differential between the teams that have exceeded expectations at this championship – Italy, Iceland, Wales, even Northern Ireland – and those that have under-performed – most notably England – boils down to one thing.

Why do England keep failing?

It is plainly not just that Hodgson's players are not good enough or that the standard of the Premier League is not as high as we think it is. As Steven Gerrard has argued, the talent pool is more than a match for Iceland, Wales and perhaps Italy too, and the leagues our players compete in are demonstrably not worse than theirs.

Nor is it because England's stars do not care enough about international success, so fixated are they on their club careers and all the trappings that they entail. The anguished testimonies of players past and present make clear how much success on the world stage would mean to them.

And it is hard to accept that it is, as Jamie Carragher has suggested, a consequence of an elite academy system that breeds cosseted young millionaires with zero self-reliance. While that may or may not be true, it disregards the fact that Harry Kane, Dele Alli, Joe Hart, Chris Smalling and Jamie Vardy all cut their teeth at lower league clubs on their way to the top.

What England lacked – what they have seemed to consistently lack for some time, given that they have overcome just six knockout matches at major tournaments since lifting the World Cup in 1966 – is an established system, a game-plan.

The example of Italy, Wales and Iceland

Antonio Conte's Italy are perhaps the best illustration of how strategic nous can trump more talented opposition. They have beaten Belgium and Spain at this tournament and might well win it. They also reached the final last time, and at the 2006 World Cup. This is not a coincidence but a reflection of their commitment to tactical preparation.

Iceland, with their two well-drilled banks of four, and Wales, with their variations on a 5-3-2 devised to make the most of key men Gareth Bale, Aaron Ramsey and Joe Allen, have also got further than they would have dreamed owing to game-plans that they are familiar with and effective at executing.

Which brings us to Wenger. The Arsenal manager is many things – an almost unrivalled judge of talent, a respected thinker on the game, a popular figure with players – and has enjoyed great success while playing attractive football. But a man famed for conjuring tactical masterstrokes he is not.

Indeed, some of the most fervent complaints during his 20 years in north London have centred on a lack of innovation in strategy. How many times have we heard the lament that his team lack a Plan B? A crude and simplistic characterisation that may be, but England's possession-without-penetration displays in France bore hallmarks of some of the more frustrating occasions of Wenger's Arsenal reign.

In his illuminating biography of Thierry Henry, French journalist and long-time Wenger-watcher Philippe Auclair refers to the manager's preferred method as "collective improvisation"; he prefers to assemble the most gifted ensemble possible and give them freedom to do their thing, rather than impose a swathe of meticulous instructions on his players.

Wenger's approach – likened to jazz – has produced great results and magnificent teams, and – in the seemingly unlikely event that he would want the job – maybe it would with England, but it is hard to shake the feeling the national team needs less hopeful spontaneity and more conducting.

City A.M.'s opinion pages are a place for thought-provoking views and debate. These views are not necessarily shared by City A.M.

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