We learn nothing from friendlies
England’s defeats to Chile and Germany told us nothing we didn’t already know.
So, what do England’s two friendly defeats to Chile and Germany tell us? Not a sausage in my opinion. Whatever the result, international friendlies are meaningless.
Well, admittedly, we did learn a few things from the two games: that Chile keep the ball better than England; that Jogi Löw’s understudies are pretty decent; and that German fans have a sense of humour – singing ‘Football’s Coming Home’ after they scored was brilliant. Sieg Deutsche Ironie. But beyond that we learned very little about England’s prospects at the World Cup. We could beat ourselves up over losing to a second-string German team. We could marvel at Germany’s strength in depth. However, we shouldn’t forget that, in November 2008, an under-strength England team beat Germany 2-1 in Berlin. Did it augur well for England’s World Cup campaign in South Africa? Don’t be daft. England were poor in South Africa, scraping through the group stage before being put to the sword by – yes, you’ve guessed it – Germany.
Friendlies, you see, are deceptive. They look like football matches. They feel football matches. But they’re not real. Friendlies are pseudo-football. Sure, the players wear the proper kits and sing the national anthems. There are all the trappings of a proper football match. But they ain’t kosher. Why? Because the essence of a football match is competition. The objective is to win. So when there is nothing at stake all you’re left with is a glorified exhibition match. You can talk up the rivalry between England and Germany all you like. You can wax lyrical about Bobby Moore, Geoff Hurst, 1966 and all that. You could – whisper it – mention the war. But I’ll bet you that most of the players on the pitch wanted to avoid injury more than they wanted to win. German coach Jogi Löw decision to rest most of his stars players showed how little he cared about the fixture. And it showed. There was no needle. No crunching tackles. And nobody got booked. That says it all really.
As I said, performances friendlies are extremely deceptive. Players who flourish when there is nothing at stake can just as easily wilt when the pressure is on in an international tournament. Matthew Upson, Gaby Agbonlahor and Stewart Downing all put in eye-catching performances against Germany in that friendly win in 2008. And where are they now? Peter Crouch is probably the best argument against selecting players who perform well in friendlies. He was on fire in friendlies for the national team. He scored goals for fun in meaningless warm-up games against third-rate opposition. We mistook him for an international footballer. But when it came to competitive games, Crouch’s limitations were time and again exposed. We were duped by the friendlies.
Even friendlies between historic rivals lack that competitive edge. Do you remember England beating Argentina 3-2 in an international friendly in Geneva in November 2005? As friendlies go that game was a lot more hotly contested than most friendlies. But ultimately, it was worse than useless as a predictor of how England would go on to perform at the 2006 World Cup. The inhibition and fear, which weighs heavily on the shoulders of England players at major tournaments, simply isn’t there in friendlies. No friendly can replicate the psychological pressure of a tournament. There is no quarter-final simulator in which players can practise how not to choke.
Even where here’s a trophy at stake, it doesn’t necessarily make a friendly more meaningful. One of the great false dawns of all time was England winning Le Tournoi in 1997. The tournament, a precursor to the Confederations Cup, was essentially a warm-up for the 1998 World Cup. Glenn Hoddle’s England beat Italy and France on their way to lifting the trophy. Had we finally assuaged 30 years of hurt? I think we all know the answer to that. England suffered a trademark heroic defeat on penalties to Argentina, and France won the World Cup. It doesn’t matter if you’re awarded a big piece of silverware. It doesn’t matter how much Sepp Blatter tells us that it’s a proper tournament. A meaningless friendly is still a meaningless friendly however you dress it up.
All of this begs the question: why bother playing friendlies at all? I can see the argument that friendlies help to develop team spirit. The international break will have enabled Roy Hodgson to get to know his team better, to work on drills and tactics and to encourage team bonding. Wouldn’t a training camp in Spain have achieved the same objectives? Or a golfing holiday in Dubai? Or even a weekend of paintballing or tenpin bowling – the staple fare of corporate teambuilding events. Any of these options would have been simpler and a damn sight more enjoyable.
If you want to know how England will fare in Brazil next summer you should look at our recent track record in international tournaments. There is a clear pattern. The England team often lacks cohesion. We are poor at keeping the ball. We lack the invention to break down more defensive teams. And we always lose on penalties. Always. We’ve also got problems getting things into perspective. We’re prone to chronic mood swings, lurching from wrist-slashing self-loathing to delusions of grandeur after a half-decent performance. The reality is that we’re neither as good nor as bad as we sometimes think we are. We’re not losers, but nor are we champions. We’re just average. And you don’t need a friendly to figure that out.
Duleep Allirajah is spiked’s sports columnist. Follow him on Twitter @DuleepOffside.