Yesterday this blog began appraising the various issues surrounding the England team’s ignominious exit from World Cup 2010. If you’ve not already done so, go have a read of it. And then come back and read part 2, which is this one. I mean, it’s up to you. But that’s the way I’d do it, I think.
The theory: a jingoistic tabloid press fuels unnecessary hype and false expectation that the players will win the World Cup.
A typical press conference: “Wayne, can this England side win the World Cup?”
“Well, we know we have some talented players. We know it will be tough but we believe that on our day we can beat anyone. We’ll need a good draw and a little bit of luck but who knows? We wouldn’t be here if we didn’t believe we could win it.”
Next day’s headline: ROO ROARS: “WE’LL WIN IT FOR ENGLAND”
Insidious stuff, but also so commonplace throughout the Premier League season that it should not affect the squad’s performances. There was less attention on the squad than in 2006 when the media followed the WAGs around and press had regular access to the entire playing staff, not just the one player Capello sent to a press conference each day.
The media certainly does its best to raise expectations, but while it looks silly with the benefit of hindsight few would have argued with The Sun’s headline the day after the draw for the group stages. They held off on the nationalism until we faced Germany in the second round. However the media have definitely impacted on the squad and the setup with two notable examples.
First, The News Of The World’s exposé on John Terry’s extramarital shenanigans. Few would dispute that it was in the public interest and few would dispute that Capello was right to strip Terry of the captaincy.
However this surely changed the atmosphere around the national side, with Terry apparently – and quite understandably – offended that a non-footballing matter had affected a footballing one, especially when the armband was then passed first to a drugs cheat in Rio Ferdinand and then, in Steven Gerrard, a player who copped a GBH charge for assaulting a man in a nightclub and about whom similar rumours persist to those for which Terry was punished. Stories are starting to appear of a rift in the camp with some following Terry, and some Gerrard.
Secondly the Mail On Sunday’s sting on Lord Triesman, which saw the FA’s Chairman forced to resign for claiming Spain and Russia were trying to bribe referees. This threw the FA into disarray and it sent no senior figure available to the press in South Africa, who might have been able to deflect some attention away from Capello’s setup.
It also prompted Capello to refuse to rule out quitting England for the vacant Inter Milan manager’s position, leading him to request a meeting with the new FA top brass to seek assurances that they were behind him. Scared of losing him the FA agreed to remove a clause which allowed either party to cancel Capello’s contract after the World Cup, meaning that should their two-week period of reflection result in a decision to sack him it will cost them at least £6m rather than nothing.
The media as a whole are also guilty of ignoring the principal failing with contemporary English football – an inability to retain possession – focusing instead on wartime clichés such as passion, spirit and commitment. ‘Our Boys’ do not need the Three Lions Spirit, they need to learn to pass the ball in midfield, and the longer this misnomer persists the longer this English footballing funk will fester.
Verdict: Yes. Managed expectations a little better than in previous World Cups, but NOTW and MoS stings in the runup to the tournament were inconsiderate, ill-advised, and damaging.
Too Many Bloody Foreigners
Oh, shut up.
The Winter Break
The theory: a combination of tradition and a cash-thirsty Premier League meaning the busy Christmas football programme continues to the alleged detriment of the national side.
This one has not been discussed since Sven Goran Eriksson first requested a winter break in 2002, but was brought up again by Capello immediately after the defeat to Germany.
It is true that England’s is the only major European league not to have a mid-season break, and the logic that this affects fitness going into summer tournaments is sound. As long as you ignore Dirk Kuyt, Javier Mascherano, and Carlos Tevez, of course.
Theory: We have tried blaming everything else and it hasn’t quite stuck.
If there is one constant through the Eriksson, McClaren and Capello eras it is the players. Every two to four years brings a different excuse, and we have looked at them all already, and found most of them wanting.
There is no doubt that Gerrard, Rooney and Lampard are England’s major goalscoring threats, nor that they are major goalscoring threats for their clubs, too. The obvious difference is that they are playing in different positions – Lampard deeper and more defensive, Gerrard left wing, Rooney a roving number 10 instead of a number 9 – but think also of the players that surround them.
Rooney scored a lot with his head last season because he had Valencia, Giggs and Nani whipping in pinpoint crosses. Lampard got 30 goals from midfield but at all times has a dedicated holding midfielder behind him and often another defensively-inclined midfielder alongside him. The same applies to Gerrard with the Mascherano-shaped safety net behind him.
In other words I think we are all starting to realise that these players are flattered not only by the foreign talent that surrounds them but by the way that their teams are actively built around them. Lampard gets 20 goals a season from midfield precisely because the team is set up to enable him to make those perfectly-timed runs into the box. Liverpool’s best league season in over a decade saw Gerrard playing in his best position, just behind Torres. Rooney and Berbatov can’t get a partnership going so Rooney plays on his own, Berbatov warms the bench.
At international level it is much harder to build a team around one player – Argentina are just about managing it at the moment but not everyone has a Messi. Evidently these England players are so technically limited that they can only play one position and any slight deviation from it makes them look and play like Sunday league players.
A basic inability to retain possession is not something that Capello can teach these players when he sees them for one week every other month. At club level they are too cossetted, too feared and too effective for any of their managers to bother changing anything. Let Stevie play his shanked 40-yard Hollywood ball because Kuyt will work hard enough to win it back and if not, Mascherano’s backing up.
Lastly this generation of England players has known only failure and it seems to weigh heavy on their shoulders when they wear the shirt. So the time has come to stop giving it to them. Much has changed in the years since the Premier League’s inception, and winning something for your club is now a source of greater pride, more lucrative and certainly a whole lot easier than winning a tournament with your country. Whether the players themselves are to blame or whether they are mere products of their environment is moot: these guys have had enough of England and England has had enough of them.
Verdict: Absolutely. A simple truth that has been staring us in the face for years.
The Brazil side of the late 1970s were shocked at how their skilful, slick side were bumped off the ball by burly opponents. It prompted a period of introspection and change in Brazilian football that culminated with the 1994 side winning the world cup with a mixture of the classic joga bonito and, crucially, power and pace. They looked at what was wrong with their style of football and made appropriate changes with predictable success.
The lines of national footballing identity are becoming ever more blurred. We have African teams coached by Europeans. Of the 23 men in Brazil’s current squad, only 3 play club football in Brazil, the rest dotted around Europe’s big leagues. World Cup 2010 has seen a functional Brazil, a disciplined Holland, a young and skilful Germany.
The Premier League is the most watched league in the world. So we pitch up with the most watched players in the world, play the most popular formation of the 20th century that most clubs have now ditched because it is inefficient and too predictable, and wonder why everyone has our number.
The truth of the matter is that we are all to blame to some extent: the FA, Capello, the players, the media, ourselves. For not realising the simple truth that has long been obvious to those other footballing nations we like to think of as our peers, but who really are our superiors.
We’re just not very good.