I don’t usually write about football (aka. soccer) here because I know it’s not of interest to most readers. But I just have to get this off my chest. Last night’s England-Italy game was the most inane approximation of a football match that I’ve ever seen our sorry excuse for a national team perpetrate.
I am used to England going out of major tournaments at the quarter-final stage — but usually it’s at least with a fight and with some semblance of a plan that was tried and failed. This time: abject surrender. After a decent opening twenty-five minutes, England seemed to give up all intention of playing actual football, surrendered all possession to Italy, and retreated to defending the edge of the penalty area. They made it through to the end of extra time still at nil-nil more on luck than pluck, and their elimination on penalties was a simple matter of justice. A team that doesn’t even try to play football doesn’t deserve to win.
Defeat to Germany in 1990 and 1996? Heroic, if doomed. Ditto the losses to Argentina in 1998, Brazil in 2002, Portugal in 2006, even Germany again in 2010. In all of those matches, even the 4-1, you can legitimately point to a real contest — and to some appalling piece of bad luck, bad refereeing or both. This time, no. Just an abject lack of ambition compounding a lamentable tactical rigidity.
That would be bearable were it not for two things. One is the national press’s utterly predictable response — lauding “our brave boys” as though they had actually achieved something rather than going out of the tournament having conceded the majority of possession in all four of their matches, and with the lowest average possession stats of any team in the competition. I read on Twitter that England’s most frequently successful competed “pass” last night was the long ball from goalkeeper Joe Hart to the head of substitute striker Andy Carroll. Kudos to Hart and Carroll for pulling it off so many times, but really — is that football? Or is it a historical re-enactment of the rise of Wimbledon FC in the 1980s?
The second and more depressing response to the defeat was the complete cluelessness of the manager, Roy Hodgson, about what went wrong and why. Is it too much to ask for some hint of insight, of understanding, of strategy, from a national team manager? Instead, all we get is:
I’ve been delighted with the players, and the way they’ve responded to the demands of an England shirt … That sort of cool, calculated way that Pirlo had the confidence to chip the goalkeepe: you either have that as a player or you don’t, and no amount of coaching or training will help reproduce that. We stuck to our guns right until the end and the players should be very proud of what they did. I have learnt a lot about them and their determination and dedication to the task. There were some heroic performances.
So, then, Roy: no actual analysis, then? No ideas? No plans for what to change next time to avoid the exact same thing happening? No looming sense that the rigid 1980s-bound two-banks-of-four formation might not be cutting it? No worries about the fact that all Pirlo needed to do to find all the time he wanted on the ball was to drift ahead or behind of the “bank of four”? No, of course not. Nothing could have been done differently to stop Pirlo because “you either have that as a player or you don’t”. It’s fate, you see.
Makes me want to weep.