England: football’s kings of flopability
The only thing that was more tired than the English players was the litany of excuses for their failure.
If Fabio Capello couldn’t coach England to glory, could anyone? That was the question posed by the Daily Telegraph on the eve of the World Cup. Now we know the answer. Turning England into winners is Mission Impossible. Correcting our World Cup flopability is beyond the wit of mankind.
The inquest into why England flopped at the World Cup has raged all week. Don’t expect it to stop any time soon. As I’ve said before, we live in a state of perpetual inquest into the state of English football. You’ve heard all the theories over and again: tired players, too much money in the game, too many foreigners. These arguments are recycled every time England crash out of a major tournament.
The problem with the orgy of soul-searching is that two quite distinct issues are conflated. Firstly, there is the issue of underperformance. Why did England choke? Why did this group of players underperform? The second question is why English players don’t possess the technical or tactical capability of players from other countries. Why can’t we play keep ball like the Spanish? Why do we keep losing possession so cheaply? Should we invest in root and branch reform of coaching and youth development rather than trying for the quick fix of hiring the best coach money can buy?
The second question is something of a red herring. I’m not suggesting that changing our football culture isn’t long overdue. We all want to see English footballers who are comfortable on the ball, who possess good technique, and who can think as well as run. It’s a no-brainer. Howard Wilkinson argued for this back in 1997. Sir Trevor Brooking has been a passionate advocate of grassroots overhaul for years yet, sadly, like Cassandra, whose prophesies fell on deaf ears, no one seems to listen to him.
But, however attractive the idea of cultural revolution might be, it doesn’t explain why England failed so wretchedly in South Africa. If the current squad of players had played anywhere near their potential they would have progressed to the quarter-finals or even the semis. We may not have a Lionel Messi weaving through defences or a Wesley Schneider pulling the strings in midfield, but we have players who are seasoned internationals, players who have appeared in Champions League finals. They haven’t suddenly become bad players overnight. Our best players simply didn’t turn up at the tournament.
We could, of course, blame the coach for the failure. Italian coach Marcello Lippi took full responsibility for the fact that his team played, in his words, ‘with terror in their legs, heads and hearts’. Some argue that Capello’s austere boot-camp regime and his disciplinarian management style was responsible for England’s poor showing. The players, it is claimed, weren’t relaxed. The dressing room was divided. But the England squad weren’t holed up in a refugee camp; they were staying in a luxury hotel. Boredom is no excuse for playing like pub footballers.
Capello’s tactics have been slated. Why did he persist with 4-4-2? Why didn’t he play Rooney as a lone striker? Was he wrong to wait until two hours before kick-off before announcing the team? Capello admits he made mistakes. Maybe he should have tried a different tactical formation. However, why did a system which worked well in qualification fail at the finals? This suggests that the problem lies elsewhere. When your team suffers collective stage fright, no amount of tactical wizardry is going to work. Wayne Rooney was clearly out of sorts so would playing him up front have really made much difference? I don’t think so. Good players can play out of position – look at Spain’s David Villa, who has played much of the tournament on the left wing. If English players can’t adapt then maybe they’re not as good as we think they are.
Capello himself blames the rigours of the Premier League. ‘We have analysed the group of players and I understand that it was not only the body that was tired but also their minds and this is the problem. Too many games.’ Like Sven before him, Capello wants a winter break. Malcontents within the camp blamed Capello for making the players work too hard in training. One anonymous England player complained to the Sunday Mirror that the squad had been put through a ‘physically draining training session’ before the Germany game. Personally I don’t buy the excuse that the players were knackered. Tiredness doesn’t explain the schoolboy defending in the first half against Germany. That was sheer incompetence.
The reasons England flopped are twofold. Firstly, it’s an uncomfortable truth, but too many players appeared overwhelmed by the occasion. In other words, they choked. As the Sunday Mirror’s mole inside the England camp admitted: ‘It was evident that some players almost froze with fear during games.’ What separates the great players from the very good players is that they hold their nerve in high pressure situations. If England’s finest wilted under pressure then maybe we should need to re-assess just how good they really are. Appearing in a Nike advert doesn’t make you a great player.
The other fundamental problem was that England didn’t have enough quality in key positions. When Rooney isn’t firing, the team has no cutting edge. Nor do we have a playmaker like Andres Iniesta or Mesut Özil who can find space between the midfield and defence and create chances. Arguably the biggest weakness in the squad is a lack of pace in defensive positions. Without Rio Ferdinand or a fully fit Ledley King, England’s central defence was too static. The absence of a specialist holding midfielder and Gareth Barry’s lack of mobility were also exposed by Germany. We were given the runaround.
It’s easy to find excuses. You can blame the tactics, the preparation, the man-management, the disciplinarian regime, or the exacting demands of the Premiership. But, ultimately, if the players aren’t good enough, England will always fall short.