As Sam Allardyce said in that infamous tape, when he was entrapped,there is now a psychological aspect. Clearly England don’t have very good players at the moment, that is true. This is a weak generation. But what you saw against Iceland, when someone like Harry Kane – who is obviously a very competent high-level striker – couldn’t even hit a free-kick into the penalty area after England went 2-1 down, is that the fear seems to have trapped them.
When they are playing Iceland and they unluckily go a goal behind, they can see the tabloid headlines as they are playing. When an England team takes the field, all the past England teams, with all their failures, takes the field with it. The players are extremely conscious of this history of failure, and England is obviously not as good as Italy, Spain and Germany. But it is better than Iceland but it didn’t look it that day. I think that is just the terror that they now play with, which is exacerbated if it goes to penalties.
In the Bobby Robson era, winning the World Cup was only 20 years or so earlier. There was still some success for a while, in 1990 and 1996 – but it is just the sheer accumulation of failure. With the European Championship having become a more serious competition, every two years you have a major tournament in which England have always failed. So if you are a 25-year-old player this is all you know. It is the whole story and there comes to be a self-fulfilling aspect.
The fact that England has never achieved tactical maturity is obviously another problem, as is the fact that they haven’t produced very good players compared to the other big European countries. But I am asking, why can’t they beat the Iceland-level teams? If you look at how they do in qualifiers, they do fantastically and they almost always sweep the whole qualifying series, often beating teams like Slovenia, Ukraine and Switzerland. But at the tournament stage, those kind of teams frighten the hell out of England.
Simon Kuper is the author of the award-winning Soccernomics, originally published as Why England Lose.