I despair of English football

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.

About these ads

7 responses to “I despair of English football

  1. If it’s critical analysis you want, I think you’ll enjoy this piece from Zonal Marking.
    http://www.zonalmarking.net/2012/06/25/italy-0-0-england-pirlo-tactics/
    Michael Cox is perhaps the only football writer I know that manages to analyse teams as ‘a group with a system’ and ‘a collection of individuals’ *simultaneously*, and then also look at how the two teams’ systems and individuals affect each other.

    (I know it’s not just analysis you want, but analysis and self-awareness from the coach and the newspapers. Still.)

  2. This is one of the rare occasion when it’s actually better to be Italian. Regarding the match, England played well yesterday, penalty is just an awfull way to decide the winned, but honestly I’ve seen a good game. Don’t be too harsh on your players. Regards

  3. Thanks, Sietse, that Zonal Marking article was absolutely bang on the money. I didn’t even expect England to get out of the group, given previous record in this competition and against the Swedes, but we just about managed that. Our frailties were exposed here, though and if I’m being frank the defeat gave us the added bonus of not having to face utter humiliation on Thursday at the hands of a German team who would have destroyed us.

    Hodgson was firefighting here, and did a (dour) job, but his real test begins with the 2014 World Cup Qualifiers. Now must be the time he waves goodbye to the old stagers like Gerrard and Terry and looks at building a side that might start to flower in 2016-18. We may not even qualify for Brazil, but must be ready for that.

  4. Patrick Garvey

    Must disagree here (first time ever on this blog). Yes England didn’t play beautiful football, but that’s because they had a game plan and stuck to it. They actually played as a team, rather than as a collection of individuals desperate to avoid being the next scape goat in the press. Which for the first time in a long while after exiting a major tournament, is finding it difficult to accuse them of being overpaid/cowardly/unarsed (delete as fashionable to accuse footballers of being that year).

    Hodgson had been away from that match for 5 minutes when he said all that, England don’t play again for months. He’s got plenty of time to analyse all that happened. That was him simply being forced in front of a camera, when he’s just exited a major tournament, just trying not to be incredibly miserable about it. Pirlo is a very talented football. With Owen Hargreaves and Gareth Barry gone, what was Hodgson supposed to say, you can’t just inject talent where it isn’t. The only way of stopping him was to do exactly what he’s being criticised for, play two deep banks, and give little room to operate. Italy didn’t score due to statistical variance, but you could say the same about England.

    There is no credible alternative to Roy, and I’m glad he’s staying. He’s not perfect but he’s the best we’ve got, and he’s a cunning operator too (which is why England managed to get out of the group stages with only three real world class players, one of whom was in goal, four if you count Rooney).

  5. Thanks, Patrick, for a different perspective.

    Of course, I am now going to disagree systematically with it :-)

    England didn’t play beautiful football, but that’s because they had a game plan and stuck to it. They actually played as a team, rather than as a collection of individuals desperate to avoid being the next scape goat in the press. Which for the first time in a long while after exiting a major tournament, is finding it difficult to accuse them of being overpaid/cowardly/unarsed (delete as fashionable to accuse footballers of being that year).

    I don’t complain that they didn’t play beautiful football. (Well, I do, but that’s a separate issue). I complain that they didn’t play effective football. Yes, they had a plan; yes, they stuck to it. But that plan was utterly predictable, since it’s the same one Hodgson has used in every single match since 1976. It’s easy for a competent opponent to negate, since you know in advance exactly how he’s going to set his team up. Two strikers with instructions not to come back into midfield (no wonder Pirlo had all the time in the world!) and two of the four midfielders with instructions to stick as wide as possible (no wonder the central two were overrun!)

    The problem is a very fundamental one: England play stupid football. We live under the delusion that what worked in 1966 will work again in 2012 if only we can play with enough heart, passion, belief, bulldog spirit, what have you. But that has never been true: what worked in 1966 worked precisely because it was a tactical innovation, and no-one knew how to play against it. It never will again be new. It’s no coincidence that the two post-’66 tournaments when England have put up a decent showing (WC 1990 and Euro 1996) were the two when we played innovative formations.

    Hodgson had been away from that match for 5 minutes when he said all that, England don’t play again for months. He’s got plenty of time to analyse all that happened. That was him simply being forced in front of a camera, when he’s just exited a major tournament, just trying not to be incredibly miserable about it.

    I will concede that it’s not fair to judge him on comments made immediately after the game. The thing is, I have seen nearly a season of exactly this kind of comment after similarly dire Liverpool games, and bitter experience teaches me what his response will be when he gets the team back together: he’ll have the team do exactly the same thing again but tell them that this time they have to play with more heart, passion, belief, and bulldog spirit.

    Because it’s all he knows. He is a very, very limited manager with a Plan A and nothing else. And no manager that limited has won anything for a long time now.

    Pirlo is a very talented football.

    (Very amusing typo :-))

    He is a talented footballer. But the job of a manager is to find a way to negate the talents of opposition players, not just to hand them lots of space and watch to see what happens. At the very least, it’s the manager’s job to make changes at half time to prevent the same dominance as in the first half. What changes did Hodgson make? None.

    With Owen Hargreaves and Gareth Barry gone, what was Hodgson supposed to say, you can’t just inject talent where it isn’t.

    The problem is not lack of players, it’s misdeployment. It doesn’t take a genius to see that two strikers were a waste of a player when we never got the ball into the last third. Keep one striker on and either pull the other back into midfield or substitute for a midfielder who can break up the Italian shape. Or bring on a second defensive midfielder and free Gerrard up to support the striker. Or pull one of the two wide midfielders into the middle and give the other one a roaming brief to switch sides. Really, there are all sorts of options. And which one did Hodgson pick? Keep doing exactly the same thing with more heart, passion, belief, and bulldog spirit.

    Because it’s all he knows.

    There is no credible alternative to Roy, and I’m glad he’s staying.

    It seems strange to say there is no alternative when right now Redknapp and Benitez are both free agents. At the time of Hodgson’s appointment, Van Gaal and Hiddink were both free. Or of course we could just have retained Capello, who is ten times the manager Hodgson is and (not coincidentally) has won ten times as much.

    He’s not perfect but he’s the best we’ve got, and he’s a cunning operator too (which is why England managed to get out of the group stages with only three real world class players, one of whom was in goal, four if you count Rooney).

    Oh, please. We got out of the group by a lucky draw with France, a lucky win over Sweden, and a defeat of the team ranked 52nd in the world (behind Armenia, Gabon and Panama). And in every single one of those games, the opposition dominated possession.

  6. The problem runs far, far deeper than just “learning to keep the ball”

    http://www.fivecantonas.com/dinosaurs-wrong-english-football-culture/

    We’ve got a whole football culture that’s set up for failure, because we don’t value the right traits in people or players in this country.

  7. I thought it was required by teams and coaches to feed the press “team spirit bs.” The National news is no place to find what they really think.

    As for England’s passing and play in general, I guess Italy had them matched up? Though I’m not quite sure how a soccer team can’t get something going with all the passing and movement involved. Unless they were somehow physically outclassed or were playing lame so they wouldn’t get injured and could go back to making a pretty penny.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s