Beating the best by parking the bus
England’s ultra-defensive victory over Spain merely papered over many on-going problems.
The build-up to England’s friendly against Spain was so dominated by the phoney poppy war that the football itself was almost forgotten. The fact that most of us expected Spain to batter England didn’t help generate any enthusiasm either. But against all the odds – not to mention the possession stats – England nicked a win.
A victory against the world champions can only be good for morale. But, sure enough, some people have been getting extremely carried away with the result. There have been calls, from Gary Neville amongst others, for Capello to jettison the old guard and put his faith in youth. David Woods in the Daily Star questioned whether Capello would be ‘brave enough to snub skipper John Terry’ after England’s stand-ins had excelled against Spain. ‘Phil Jagielka, who was excellent, and Joleon Lescott, who was even better, are a natural pairing at centre-back, having got to know each other’s game so well in their time together at Everton’, said Woods.
Certainly, there are question marks hanging over John Terry’s pace and Rio Ferdinand’s fitness. Capello is right to audition prospective understudies in central defence. He also needs to explore different options in attack given that Wayne Rooney will be suspended for the start of the tournament. But does it follow that England play better as a team without Rooney, as some have suggested? ‘England could not have played in such a disciplined way if Rooney had been on the pitch’, argued Woods.
I think we all just need to calm down a little here. Some of the young players performed with freedom and without fear. Why? It was only a friendly. There was no pressure and certainly no burden of expectation – we all expected Spain to give England the runaround. That we didn’t lose was more to do with luck and Spanish profligacy than English quality. We really should have learned the lesson by now: friendlies are meaningless. They tell us very little about how our players will perform in a tournament situation. Peter Crouch has looked like a world beater in friendly games, particularly against the lesser teams. He’s the consummate ‘flat track bully’. But, against decent opposition in a big tournament, his limitations were exposed. Nice chap, funny dance routine but international footballer? No chance.
Let’s be realistic about England’s performance against Spain. It was disciplined and tenacious but it was little more than a glorified exercise in damage-limitation which, rather fortuitously, resulted in a 1-0 win. ‘Capello parked the bus: Accidental Defeat’ was the headline in the Spanish sports paper Marca. Seems like a fair assessment of the game to me. Spain enjoyed the lion’s share of possession (71 per cent) and had 21 shots on goal to England’s three. We didn’t create anything through open play, nicked a goal from a set piece and rode our luck towards the end. The DVD of this game isn’t set to become a Christmas best-seller. It was a classic away performance in many respects, an irony not lost on the Catalan paper Sport: ‘It didn’t matter to Capello that he was playing at Wembley in front of his own fans. He got his team to lock themselves in their own half and wait for a miracle.’
I’m not suggesting England should have played more expansively against Spain. That would have been tactical suicide. Capello had no other option. We’re simply not good enough to play keep-ball against the Spanish and, in that context, parking the bus is a perfectly legitimate tactic. If you can’t outpass them, you have to frustrate them. It was the kind of pragmatic backs-to-the-wall spoiling strategy – one straight out of the Charles Hughes ‘percentage football’ coaching manual – that one might expect from an underdog. ‘It felt like a bit like a giant killing in the FA Cup. We were like Barnet beating Manchester United’, wrote Tim Lovejoy in the the Sun. Capello’s tactic worked on the day, but please let’s not kid ourselves that he has hit upon a winning formula. Putting nine men behind the ball and launching hopeful punts upfield isn’t exactly a blueprint for world domination.
A gutsy but defensive display against the world champions doesn’t really solve England’s more deep-rooted problems. Firstly, there’s Not Keeping Possession Syndrome. Our default mode is to get the ball forward quickly rather than to keep passing and work openings. I didn’t see too much evidence of progress against either Spain or in Tuesday’s friendly against Sweden. English players are still prone to hit long balls when put under pressure; Phil Jagielka in particular was guilty of this against Spain. Capello wasn’t happy about the failure to pass from the back. ‘One thing I didn’t like during the game was that there were too many passes to our goalkeeper. When our opponents pressed our defenders, the defenders need to try something different’, said the England coach. ‘Not always to the goalkeeper, which always produces a long ball’.
Secondly, there’s the Creativity Deficit. Neither performance suggested that Capello has found a solution to England’s perennial lack of craft and guile, which is exposed against more defensive teams. The Sweden game offered England the opportunity to remove the self-imposed pragmatic shackles and go for the Scandanavian jugular. However, it’s difficult to draw any firm conclusions from a fixture in which the Swedish looked like they’d rather be at home watching Wallander. England created chances but failed to convert most of them.
The wins against Sweden and Spain have helped to lift the gloom which had hung over English football since the debacle in South Africa. That can only be a good thing. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. We’ve won a couple of meaningless friendlies. That’s all. We may have shut out the world champions but that hardly makes us world-beaters.
Duleep Allirajah is spiked’s sports columnist. Follow him on Twitter @DuleepOffside