England: An Autopsy

28 06 2010

Apologies for the delay. There was quite a lot to take in. Here are a few thoughts on the reasons for England’s weekend elimination:

1) Don’t under-estimate the Germans

Alan Hansen may continue to push the view that they are no better than average, but all the indications are that this Germany team know what they are doing. The defence is largely unspectacular although it must be noted that in Philipp Lahm they possess one of the finest full-backs in the game. Bastian Schweinsteiger and Sami Khedira are a dynamic pairing with good passing skills. Mesut Ozil is one hell of a player with that golden combination of pace, skill and intelligence. Importantly, they all know the gameplan and are comfortable in the system. Throw in young Thomas Muller and the continually under-rated Miroslav Klose and you have quite a team. They will cause Argentina, a side with better players than England possess, more than a few problems.

2) Tactics / Formation simply wrong

Of course England’s deficiencies are not solely the responsibility of Fabio Capello and I have long argued that if a man with his record cannot bring success then surely nobody can. However, it can only be frustrating to see him wedded to a stuttering 4-4-2 that so plainly failed to bring the best out in key players. Wayne Rooney favours a lone role up front. Frank Lampard and Steven Gerrard would appreciate being freed of some of their defensive responsibilities. Gareth Barry and Joe Cole prefer to operate in a 4-5-1. Aaron Lennon is more suited to it. As is Michael Carrick. To be honest, pretty much any creative player you choose to mention would be better served in a 4-5-1 and in the absence of a world-class strike partner for Rooney it is baffling that Capello did not seem to entertain the idea. Even if convinced by the success of the qualifying campaign, surely he had seen that it wasn’t working in the group stages of this World Cup? Even if persuaded by the improved showing against Slovenia, surely the 1st half mauling, with Ozil repeatedly enjoying the freedom of Bloemfontein in between the English lines, would see him change the shape? There are many valid arguments for why England fail to impress at the highest level but the chief reason this particular 90 minutes did not go England’s way was down to the way Capello set his team out. For that, he is surely culpable.

3) We Are Just Not That Good

Ashley Cole world-class? Fair enough. Wayne Rooney top drawer? He had a nightmare tournament, but yes. Frank Lampard and Steven Gerrard? Wonderful players, although they are both the wrong side of 30..

After this, it is hard to make a persuasive case for these players being of the highest order. Robert Green and David James have been involved in relegation battles all season, the latter unsuccessfully so. Likewise Matthew Upson.  Joe Cole and Emile Heskey are not first XI players. James Milner, Gareth Barry, Jermain Defoe, Aaron Lennon.. these guys have not played regular Champions League football. Glen Johnson of Liverpool won’t next season. These are not top-class footballers and there is just no reason for us to think they should be.

4) The Premiership Style of Play

Capello highlighted tiredness as being the key reason for England’s failure to impress in South Africa. With the entire 23 man squad playing their football in the Premiership perhaps it does have some weight as an argument. The best league in the world? It is certainly the fastest. With a high turnover of possession and a heavy emphasis on the physical, players are proving unable to maintain that tempo in tournament play as the opposition prove unwilling to give the ball back so readily

However, my view is that the problems inherent in the Premiership extend beyond talk of tiredness and winter breaks. It centres around the very types of player that it helps to create and thrive. England posses a plethora of powerhouse midfielders with good engines – I am thinking top class players like Gerrard & Lampard in their prime, or merely good ones like Gareth Barry & James Milner. I’m looking at how a supreme talent like Joe Cole who could do anything with a football was converted into a winger, playing on the periphery of the game, and effectively had his creativity coached out of him for the good of the team. Fine players like Deco are derided for not being able to impose themselves on the English game and the 6-0-6 crew will all have a laugh about how his ilk go missing on a cold November Tuesday in Bolton. Harry Redknapp, a progressive coach if some are to be believed, recently suggested we over-rate Brazil – they can’t be that good because Elano and Robinho couldn’t cut it in the Premiership apparently. Well, maybe the Premiership is not the ultimate judge of a footballer? Maybe that is in fact our problem and not theirs?

Whatever the reason, no Premiership footballer has a World Cup winners medal so far this century and should favourites Brazil win this one, the only outfield player in their squad contracted to a Premiership club is none other than Robinho. Food for thought.


The matter of England’s elimination is as big or as little a discussion as you want it to be. You can get into issues of foreign players, the relationship between the FA and The Premier League, even the blame culture of modern society if you wish. Or you can say Gareth Barry is slow as death and the linesman was blind. I think the key is to retain some balance between the two. Germany are a good side and they won the match because they tactically outwitted the England side. In many ways it was a textbook example of how 4-2-3-1 exposes 4-4-2 with Mesut Ozil free to roam in the hole untracked by the English midfield and confusing their centre-backs. This was the reason for the defeat. But even if we had won the battle, we are still losing the war. Where is the guile? Where are the skilful and creative footballers who can play a simple, passing game? It does not seem a coincidence that they are missing from the England squad. It appears to be the natural result of the way football is played in this country. Oh well, see you in 4 years time for another disaster.


England Problems All Too Familiar

13 06 2010

There has certainly been a lot of disappointment over England’s result / performance last night. BBC’s Phil McNulty claimed there were  ”very few positives” but this seems overly harsh simply because there were very few surprises either…

Robert Green’s error will take the headlines and it was indeed a shocker. To hear Gerrard and Terry blame the ball is commendable loyalty but when Green made similar comments it just felt too much. This was horrible goalkeeping. The disappointing thing is that any straw poll would show that Green is the 3rd choice keeper in the eyes of fans, journalists and ex-pros. Committee is no way to run a football team but the proof is in the pudding and Capello clearly got this decision wrong when most others would have got it right.

The defence is one area I would point to when people question the lack of positives. Glen Johnson got through a fair bit of good work and you would have to say had a good game. Ashley Cole was not a force going forwards, which for England is a huge problem as he is vital to the side as an attacking outlet, but he was solid and did his job defensively. John Terry put in a strong performance amid the chaos of his ever-changing centre back partner so you could argue three of the back four did well.

Of course, defence is all about how you work as a unit rather than individually and England’s high line as they pressed forward left the ageing Jamie Carragher vulnerable late on. Again, legitimate questions can be asked of Capello. Ledley King’s injury was nothing if not predictable and the selection of Carragher to play with Terry does mean a lack of pace at the heart of England’s defence. It does not feel a good fit and, as a side issue, if Carragher is the next cab off the rank does an injury to Glen Johnson mean further disruption? Why was Dawson called up as a 5th choice centre-back rather than a reserve right-back or even an Adam Johnson or Theo Walcott? Unconvincing stuff.

In midfield, we are back with Frank Lampard and Steven Gerrard in the centre.  Lampard had a quiet game but his partnership with Gerrard was at least responsible. It was admittedly not the biggest test though with the US central midfielders rarely advancing. Gerrard got the goal and showed glimpses of a return to form but it is hard to see reason to be surprised by anything we saw here – the Lampard and Gerrard debate is well trodden ground. Of course, they can play together but if they are going to be handed the responsibility of sharing defensive duties it is nonsensical for anyone to expect them both to play with the freedom we see of them with their clubs. In this instance, it was a subdued display from Lampard and one that should not have come as a shock to any England supporter.

Aaron Lennon was in and out the game but did have the beating of his full-back at times. He should perhaps have done better when put through in the first half when he could have shot or picked a pass but only succeeded in finding the defender with his attempted cross. As I write the last two sentences it occurs to me that I could have written them in advance or indeed at any time in the last three or four years.. and about any one of Lennon, Theo Walcott and Shaun Wright-Phillips. Ahh SWP.. a baffling choice from Capello a la Sven’s decision to bring on Darius Vassell in 2004.. never the best at retaining possession, Wright-Phillips struggled for much of the hour he was on the field and you couldn’t help but feel Joe Cole would have been a preferable option.

In attack, Wayne Rooney was fairly quiet and this could be a source of frustration as clearly much was expected. Emile Heskey impressed with his overall contribution however. Leading the line, taking the knocks and bringing others into play with his unselfish running, never more so than with his assist for Gerrard’s goal. In short, it was everything that you expect from Heskey at his best. Unfortunately, he fluffed his lines in all too predictable fashion when put clean through by Lennon as he fired straight at Tim Howard. Thus, big Emile completed his ‘classic’ performance.


The real source of frustration is not the result or even the performance. A draw hardly threatens England’s qualification hopes and the performance was far from a disaster. The problem is that this was the moment it became apparent to everyone that the reality is there is no Capello masterplan. 4-4-2. Lampard-Gerrard. Two wingers. Big Emile up top. It is a team and a style of play that could have come from Graham Taylor, Sven Goran Eriksson or countless others. In short, it was everything we might have expected.