Offside, 9 September
Great managers are either brilliant tacticians or supreme motivators. Sven is neither.
I spent Wednesday night in front of the TV watching The Spoilers. It was quite entertaining even if many of the best moments were unintentionally funny.
This wasn’t Northern Ireland versus England, though, but a 1942 Western starring Marlene Dietrich and John Wayne. No, really. I missed international football to watch Marlene and John flirt with each other through a half-baked script and a side-order of dubious racial humour. However, ‘The Spoilers’ would be a pretty good description of Northern Ireland: spoil England’s attempts to score goals, and ultimately spoil England’s attempts to qualify for the World Cup. England had 70 per cent of the possession but could only manage three shots on target. In the end, Northern Ireland were unlucky not to win by more than 1-0.
As always, the post-defeat inquiry was as hyped as the capabilities of England’s players. Newspaper headlines included: Daily Mail: ‘Sack the Swede’; Daily Star: ‘Sack the Swede’; Mirror: ‘Sack the clot’; Guardian: ‘England are humiliated’; Daily Telegraph: ‘England are humiliated’. Not a lot of originality there. It makes the Sun‘s ‘Taxi for Eriksson!’ seem positively lyrical.
England do have their best set of players for some years, but they all want to play in the centre of the pitch. Gerrard, Lampard and Beckham are all vying for the ‘forward thinking, goal-scoring midfielder’ job. Rooney is brilliant, but doesn’t really like to play up front as such. Owen does like playing up front but hasn’t been playing much. In any event, Owen likes to play up front with a big useless lump with no greater ambition than to lay the ball off to him. Where’s Emile Heskey when you need him?
As a result, Eriksson has taken to tinkering with the system. He wants to put all the good players into the team, but that leaves them having to do things that they aren’t actually very good at. If he plays Owen, there’s no room for Joe Cole and Rooney’s playing on the left. If he puts Rooney back in the middle, he has to drop Wright-Phillips. Gerrard played in three different positions against Wales. A vital quality of great managers is the willingness to make unpopular decisions for the sake of the team. But Eriksson seems to be intent on fielding all his top players at the expense of any unity of purpose.
Great managers are usually supreme motivators, or brilliant tacticians. There’s usually another bloke who deals with the other half of the job. Unfortunately, Eriksson doesn’t seem to be either. His motivational skills were illustrated by his half-time team talk during the World Cup quarter-final, described by one player as more John Major than Winston Churchill. His tactics in past tournaments have been ‘score one early then defend like it’s the Alamo’ which quickly comes unstuck against a half-decent team (eg, Brazil in 2002, Portugal in 2004).
In recent games, even this idea seems to have gone out the window, leaving experienced players arguing over what they’re supposed to be doing. Worse, he seems to have surrounded himself with other quiet, intellectual types in his own image. It’s a bad sign when you see Steve McClaren doing the shouting from the sidelines.
If Sven’s getting it in the neck, it’s well deserved. Given that there’s no truly outstanding team in world football at the moment, you’d fancy our chances of winning something if we could get our act together – hence the disconsolation of England fans knowing that yet again, a great opportunity could be squandered. But the criticism that’s Sven’s paid too much seems a strange one. I know £4million a year is a ridiculous salary, but the blow of seeing Sam Allardyce or Alan Curbishley screwing it up instead of Sven wouldn’t be softened by the thought that they were better value for money.
What did soften the blow as I watched the post-match analysis on Wednesday was the performance of Ian Wright. While Lineker was clearly disappointed, and Hansen was critical, the brattish Wright looked like a kid who’d had his favourite toy nicked. Seeing the cheekie chappie ex-Gooner slumped in his chair moaning about the stick he was getting from the Irish fans was priceless.
Still, time for some perspective. All England need to do is beat Austria at home next month and they’ll probably qualify as one of the best second-placed teams. But as the guy behind the counter of spiked‘s local caff pointed out the next morning, if they play that badly next summer, what’s the point of them qualifying at all?
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