TOIf Ramsey wasn’t a man of drama, but when he read the team for England’s last warm-up friendly before the 1966 World Cup, outside of Poland in Chorzow, the players noticed a clear pause before pronouncing the eleventh Name.
Alan Ball was on the right, so everyone assumed that meant a conventional winger on the left, probably Terry Paine. But Ramsey’s big reveal was a real surprise: Martin Peters. As he had done against Spain the previous December, Ramsey was going without extremes. For the second time in history, England would play 4-4-2.
Less than a month later, that same 4-4-2 led England to victory against West Germany in the World Cup final. Ramsey was a cautious and reserved man and, perhaps because he never saw the need to explain his thinking to the media, his tactical radicalism was undervalued. But he was also smart and cunning. He had seen how football was going. He knew that the arrival of the back four was lessening the impact of the wingers and he saw the greatest value in having a numerical advantage in midfield.
After the 2-0 victory in Madrid in December 1965, he put away his new system and only brought it out again six days before England’s first game at the World Cup. He was sure no one would be watching; what happened in Silesia stayed in Silesia. And then he hid the 4-4-2 again.
England in 1966 was widely criticized for their performances in the group stage: 0-0 with Uruguay and 2-0 workday wins over France and Mexico. “It was negative, negative, negative, England lacked ideas, as if they were playing a game they had never tried before,” Peter Wilson complained in the Mirror after the opening game. “If the competition continues like this, I suggest that they change the design of the Cup for an urn, a funeral urn.”
Ramsey didn’t care. The group was about to progress. Nobody remembered how you did it. He played 4-3-3 in every group match, using a different winger in each: John Connelly, Terry Paine and Ian Callaghan. But that was the fake war. The real tournament only began with the quarterfinals against Argentina, when they revealed the 4-4-2.
That was a brutal game that depended on the (disconcerting) dismissal of Argentina’s captain Antonio Rattín 10 minutes before halftime. The crowd at Wembley was frustrated. I wanted England to go kill. Reporters the next day seemed puzzled that England hadn’t finished the game sooner. But Ramsey was patient – he believed his plan would work against 11, so it would certainly work against 10. Sure enough, with 11 minutes remaining, Geoff Hurst looked at the winner.
Fifty-five years later, as England finally prepares for another grand finale, there are parallels. That was a different world, of course. There was much less discussion about tactics. Even many coaches were wary of intellectualizing the game too much. Ramsey, the first England manager allowed to do the job alone, without a committee, could have pulled out a board and explained exactly what he intended to do and the story would not have been the intricacies of the midfield but the eccentricity of the England manager. .
This is also an England that won two and tied a game in the group and passed without conceding. This is also an England that did not concede until their semi-final. This too is an England founded on control with a stubbornly determined manager who has ignored criticism from those who have urged him to be bold.
And this is also an England with a tactical plan that they didn’t reveal until after the group stage. Southgate had used a back three in the World Cup before switching to a 4-3-3. At the time, that seemed like a logical progression, moving to a more offensive and sophisticated style as the team matured. It brought the 3-2 victory in Spain which, until this tournament, probably represented the watermark of Southgate’s reign.
But he also looked vulnerable on defense, as seen in the 5-3 win over Kosovo and the losses to the Czech Republic and the Netherlands. So Southgate last year went back to the bottom three. The results were mixed, although they could have looked better had it not been for Harry Maguire’s red card against Denmark at Wembley. And then, abruptly, the three in the back disappeared in March. Perhaps that made sense in the context of qualifying for the World Cup against San Marino, but it seemed like a risk against Poland (and only a late winner prevented England from losing points after a soft concession).
There is no indication that Southgate was performing the same subterfuge as Ramsey. It seems not to be in their nature and it probably wouldn’t work in the modern media landscape anyway. But the three in the back remained in the background, ready to be deployed when necessary against Germany. It is possible that it comes out on Sunday against Italy.
But whether Southgate goes back to that or sticks with the back four, he, like Ramsey, has recognized a basic truth of tournaments that the utopian demands of fans and the media often ignore: There are the games for which you have to pass, and the games you have to win if you want to progress deeply in them. There are no arbitrary abstract demands for a particular style or type of player, there is no sense of “knowing your first XI”, you do not have to choose your best players and let them move on, do not please the egos: simply, within a tactical framework, a series of games, each to be tackled on its merits in turn.
It sounds simple, but, as Johan Cruyff observed, soccer is a simple game; it is making it seem simple what is difficult. At the end of 1966, even Peter Wilson was convinced, saluting “the English Valkyries” and saluting a triumph that made his “heart pound”: “But in the hurricane there was a quiet Englishman: Alf Ramsey. He was certainly remembering his prime, but remembering … there is nothing that becomes a man like modest stillness and humility. “
There are parallels.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism