England. b. 1950, d. 2010.

A Post-Mortem

The media, as is their wont, overreacted. The fans did too. Even the hotel staff joined in the frenzy, punishing the England team by stealing assorted knickknacks and collectibles from their rooms (including underpants, so I’m assuming that Frank Lampard was amongst the victims and Kirsten had something to do with it). The game was a disaster, the refereeing a travesty, the result a deep wound in the pride of a nation. All in all, Sunday sucked something rather fierce.

 

But there’s no point dwelling on the emotions of a traumatic World Cup defeat to Germany. The team disappointed, yes, but the entire point of the England team is to disappoint somewhere along the path. Now was as good a time as any, and England losing to the Germans is the football equivalent of having a friendly disagreement with an elderly cat that won’t get off your lap – there’s the mild twinge of annoyance which is almost immediately overwhelmed by the utter comfortableness of the situation. This is the way things are meant to be.

Nobody is particularly cut up over losing to Germany, then. What has gotten everyone’s attention is the way in which England appeared to be played completely off the pitch. Rapid German attacks caught the England shield and back line out of position time and time again, England appearing to operate fluently only within the central third of the pitch (barely), lost in the attacking end and with their defenders looking terrified of the ball.  Germany were deserved winners, with Mesut Oezil standing out as England’s prime tormentor, carving out his ground in the space between a consistently flat footed Gareth Barry and the static centre half pairing of John Terry and Matthew Upson. It was a prime example of what happens when a fluid modern formation comes up against a team that looks stuck in the 1970s.

And yet, while England were outplayed in essentially every facet of the game, they scored two goals and hit the crossbar twice – it wouldn’t have been totally outlandish for England to have been the team that scored four times, despite being run ragged. While fighting the technical and tactical superiority of the Germans, stifled in midfield due to putting four men up against five stronger ones, with star striker Wayne Rooney totally anonymous, England clawed their way back into the game with a directness and brutality that only they can muster.

England’s style is antiquated, but they have extraordinarily gifted players, no matter what a rabid English media is telling you. Frank Lampard is not somehow rendered a good footballer by his teammates in the Chelsea attack, nor is Stephen Gerrard made magically potent by Dirk Kuyt operating ahead of him. Indeed, Lampard and Gerrard are the very heart of their teams – they are what make their teammates tick, if anything. The Premiership is at the very pinnacle of football, certainly played at a higher level than the World Cup, and England’s side is comprised of some of the best players in the league. They are not bad players.

They are also not clever players. England seem to revel in directness while the rest of the world relies on intelligence. They barely appear to be playing the same game sometimes. Aside from Klose’s goal, every single German chance was caused by a swift riposte, incisive passing moves drawing the defence out of alignment before the final killer ball put Muller (twice) and Podolski clean through. England, on the other hand, generated their best chances through two crosses, a free kick, and a loose ball which resulted in perhaps the most heroic English effort of the past twenty years. The Germans do not have the stoutest defence, but that England could be so thoroughly outplayed and outmanaged and yet remain in the game is testament to the team’s basic ability.

One dimensionality, of course, isn’t the greatest idea in the world. English attacking players act as the dynamos of their club sides, not the brains, and it shows. When pitted against a team bus parked in front of the goal, they dash themselves to pieces against the rocks. There was a total of one intelligent pass completed by England in the entire tournament (the reserve pass delivered by much maligned Emile Heskey to Gerrard for our opening goal of the campaign). The United States, right now, are a far more complete football team. Slovakia are a much more complete side. That things have come to this, and you’ll have to excuse the basic arrogance of an Englishman expecting his team to be amongst the best in the world, is a national disgrace.

Why is English football in the state that it’s in? When Joe Cole is celebrated as the nation’s most inspired talent, something has gone horribly, horribly amiss (and I love Joe Cole). The English can boast players to match strength and speed, but apart from one glorious Gascoigne-inspired burst in the 1990s, have never mastered technical ability or creativity. This seems to me to be the fault of the Premier League system.

English players have to be exceptionally good to break into a top side. Otherwise, they’re replaced by the Florent Maloudas and Andrei Arshavins of the world. This has the curious effect of magnifying England’s strengths while completely patching up her weaknesses on paper. England has been developing the same player over and over again. Theo Wolcott is Shaun Wright-Phillips is Aaron Lennon is a less sexy version of Ashley Young. The Gerrard-Lampard problem is well known. The centre-halves appear to be lacking use of their legs through either injury or style. They are all the same player.

You never try to develop your strengths at the expense of your weaknesses, but the very structure of the league means that England does just that. This cannot be allowed to continue, but at the same time it would be unfair to force Premier League sides to play inferior English talent as the creative hubs to their attack. How do we fix this without simply waited for a Gascoigne level talent to materialize? I’m not entirely sure. There’s some promise in the youth ranks, but there’s always promise in the youth ranks and the next great England team has never quite sprung into being. No matter what, it’s clear that the team as currently structured is fatally unbalanced, always good enough to inspire hope but never capable of actually delivering.

But that’s what being English is about, I suppose. It’s tempting to hope that the FA reflects on this appalling venture and realises the flaws of their setup and their team, but that strikes me as pretty unlikely. Instead, we’ll get another two years of hype followed up by a massive disappointment. If I had my way, only two players who wore the Three Lions on Sunday would ever play an international match again, and the 2012 European Championships would feature the youngest English team ever fielded. With England, though, I rarely get my way. Maybe I should stick to worrying about club football.

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