England: The Blame Game, Part 2

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 Media

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.

Verdict: Nah.

The Players

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.

Conclusion

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.

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Martin Demichelis Kicks Man While Down

These aren’t words you’ll read often, but spare a thought for poor John Terry. You’ve just got back home to face an angry nation after the worst individual performance of your career contributed to a 4-1 loss to Germany. And now the rumours are starting up that all the nonsense in the camp was your fault. You just want to forget all about it.

But Martin Dimichelis will not let anyone forget about you. The Argentina defender said yesterday that, should he play as badly against Germany as England’s Conceited Sex-Addicted Disabled-Bay-Parking Loverat Brave John Terry did, he wouldn’t be allowed home.

Dimichelis has been criticised for his poor form, with the Argentinian media unhappy over his error that lead to South Korea scoring in Argentina’s 4-1 win during the group stage. The Bayern Munich defender rather put that into perspective with his slight at Terry.

“Seeing the way Terry played against Germany, if I was Terry I wouldn’t be able to go back to my country,” said Demichelis. “I’m strong but I’m not a masochist so I don’t read every criticism about me. I know that when the team is playing well there are always people who look for a weakness, for example me, but I know I can overcome this bad moment.”

Demichelis has found this week’s war of words between Germany and Argentina trickier than most, as he plays for Bayern Munich, and has appealed for respect ahead of the crunch quarter final clash tomorrow.

“I have been in Germany for seven years,” he said. They know me and they know I won’t change. But it does seem Germany don’t have a lot of respect for us. I am not paying much attention to it, but maybe they should show us some respect.”

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Maradona: Still Making Friends

Well, not really. The Argentina coach openly mocked Bastian Schweinsteiger yesterday following comments the German midfielder had made about Argentinian gamesmanship.

“If you see how they gesticulate, how they try to influence the referee,” Schweinsteiger had said. “That is not part of the game. That is a lack of respect. They just are like that.

“I hope the referee will pick up the feeling of who is provoking whom,” he continued. We saw that again in their match against Mexico at half-time. This behaviour shows their character and mentality.”

The build-up to tomorrow’s quarter final clash has been rather tetchy, with both countries still bristling over Germany’s win on penalties at the same stage four years ago, which saw a mass brawl break out at its conclusion.

Many modern coaches would downplay Schweinsteiger’s comments, say he is entitled to his opinion, that he should be respected as a player but nothing else matters. But Diego Maradona is not your typical modern coach.

Which is why his response was to look directly into a Fox Sports camera, put on a bad German accent and say: “What’s the matter, Schweinsteiger? Are you nervous?”

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Dunga Hits Back At Cruyff Criticism

Brazil coach Dunga has dimissed criticism of his team by Dutch legend Johan Cruyff ahead of the two nations’ World Cup quarter final clash in Port Elizabeth this afternoon.

Cruyff, part of the Dutch side in the 1970s that pioneered the Total Football concept, said earlier this week: “I would never pay for a ticket to watch the matches of this Brazilian team. Where has the Brazil team we all know disappeared to in this World Cup?

“I look at this team and I remember people like Gerson, Tostao, Falcao, Zico or Socrates. Now I only see Gilberto, Melo, Bastos, Julio Baptista. Where is the Brazilian magic?”

To his credit Dunga chose not to point out that the 2010 Netherlands side have been slow and stodgy throughout and that their best player has probably been Dirk Kuyt. He did, however, make the observation that Cruyff probably hasn’t paid for a match ticket in 30 years.

“It’s up to him,” said Dunga. “Cruyff can pay to watch this game if he wants. But I am sure Cruyff is not going to pay for the ticket, so therefore he can watch it if he wants to.”

Dunga then went on to stick the boot in, suggesting the 63-year-old Cruyff was little more than a grumpy old man: “My grandfather said in his day football was excellent,” he said. “My father said that, I say that and I am sure my son and my grandson are going to say exactly the same, that in their day the football was very good, that the players could dribble magnificently, they could head magnificently. We know world-class players are always outstanding at any time.”

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England: The Blame Game, Part One

As reported this morning, John Barnes has spoken of the “blame game” that inevitably follows an England exit from a major tournament. Never one to disappoint, Nathan’s World Cup takes a look at the various possible explanations for England’s dismal showing in South Africa.

The Ball

The theory: Adidas’s Jabulani ball, which came in for such criticism from keepers, players and coaches alike early in the World Cup.

It would be lovely to blame England’s litany of over- and under-hit passes, abysmal first touches and shanked shots on the ball but this excuse holds no water.

Germany were first to disprove it with their 4-0 hammering of Australia. It turns out the Jabulani had been made available to national associations at the turn of the year, with the German Bundesliga using it for six months before the World Cup. England had the same opportunity but the Premier League has an exclusive deal with Nike, so the Adidas ball could not be used.

Cristiano Ronaldo struck the bar with his first shot against Ivory Coast: Japan scored two excellent free kicks against Denmark. Spain pinged the ball about with their usual ease. Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Mexico, Germany and Ghana have all played fluid pass-and-move football with few problems.

Most of all, England’s players may not have been using it in the Premier League but they surely had plenty of time with it in training. It might be a different ball, but it’s still a ball, and these are footballers. Go to Brazil, watch some kids kick some rolled up newspaper around a field, and tell them your ball is too round.

Verdict: Forget it.

The Climate

The theory: altitudes and climates in the Southern Hemisphere are too much for Our Brave Lions and the overall poor showing of Western European teams suggests climatic differences are to blame.

Nope. South Africa is in the middle of winter and as such conditions are more, not less suitable for European teams than the South Americans. Altitude may be a factor, as Graham Souness pointed out on Irish broadcaster RTE, but again, that affects everyone.

The Western European argument is disproven immediately by Germany and Spain. France’s myriad problems went far beyond the climate and Marcello Lippi assembled an Italian squad fit for the glue factory with very little flair.

Verdict: No.

The Manager

The theory: Fabio Capello failed to inspire his players to improve their performances.

There is some truth to this but we will likely not find out until all involved have retired and released updated autobiographies. It is certainly true that Capello stuck rigidly to 4-4-2 despite most of his first eleven playing variations of 4-3-3 at club level.

It is also true that he failed to change the course of games with substitutions; most of his changes were like-for-like, even when chasing the game against Germany. With the benefit of hindsight his squad was light on impact substitutions and was poorly balanced.

His oft-expressed intention to select England players based on form and fitness rather than reputation was exposed as fallacy when he tempted Jamie Carragher out of international retirement despite the ageing Liverpool centre back having such a poor season at club level, and his selection of the notoriously injury-prone Ledley King, who broke down with groin trouble after just 45 minutes of England’s first match against USA.

He also ignored Darren Bent, after Wayne Rooney the highest scoring Englishman in the Premier League last season, and took Shaun Wright Phillips over Adam Johnson despite the latter consigning the former to the bench since signing for Manchester City.

It has also been suggested that the players were bored at their camp at Royal Bafokeng where distractions were minimal and playing staff were kept securely in their rooms for security reasons. This might hold some water were it not for those same players blaming their World Cup 2006 exit on the media circus surrounding them and their wives and girlfriends. They surely cannot have it both ways.

Capello is one of the most successful club managers in history but tournaments are different beasts to club seasons. He has the players in his care for 24 hours a day rather than just two hours of training. It is possible, therefore, that he is not cut out for this different style of management: witness Luis Felipe Scolari, whose relaxed attitude to training saw him sacked by Chelsea after just seven months in the job. Being good at one does not necessarily mean being good at the other.

Chelsea were unable to give Scolari time, fearing they would end the season not only potless but failing to qualify for the Champions League, but Capello has two years before the next tournament and is surely far too intelligent not to have learned from his experience in South Africa.

The FA are extremely unlikely to sack him: they cannot really afford the severance on his £6m a year contract, and there are no better alternatives in any case.

Verdict: Clearly made mistakes but he is, quite simply, too good to let go, and at least deserves another tournament with a different crop of players.

Continue to Part 2

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Gerrard, Rooney Pull Out Of £1m Skills Show

England captain Steven Gerrard and star striker Wayne Rooney have pulled out of a planned soccer skills show, saying their participation would have been “inappropriate” following their dismal showing at the World Cup.

The players would have earned £500,000 each for the two-hour A:3K Football event at London’s O2 arena on 17 July in which they would participate in “a gladiatorial skills-based challenge” against the likes of Chelsea striker Didier Drogba, Arsenal captain Cesc Fabregas and Cristiano Ronaldo of Real Madrid.

“Both Steven Gerrard and Wayne Rooney have made it clear they believe it would be inappropriate for them to participate in A:3K at this time,” said Terry Byrne, a director of A:3K, in a statement on its website.

The event has now been postponed until next year when the absence of an international tournament for England to fail dismally at should mean they can appear with reputations intact. “We fully understand and respect both players’ decisions,” said Mr Byrne. We could have replaced them with two other players but feel the players involved are six of the best in the world – and that is what we promised we would deliver.”

The players’ withdrawal comes after England won just one of their four games in South Africa, scoring two goals before a humilating exit in a 4-1 defeat to Germany. Rooney in particular has been heavily criticised for not reproducing his club form after a season in which he scored a career-best 34 goals for Manchester United.

A:3K said those who had bought tickets for the event could claim a full refund or keep their tickets for next year.

“As a football fan I totally understand and respect Steven and Wayne’s decision to postpone their involvement in A:3K until next year,” said Rob Hallett, President of International for AEG Live, the event promoters. “We look forward to hosting the event at the O2 Arena on the rescheduled date in June 2011.”

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Cristiano Ronaldo ‘Disconsolate And Broken’ Following Portugal Exit

Cristiano Ronaldo spoke of feeling “like a broken man” after Portugal were eliminated from World Cup 2010 by a 1-0 defeat to Spain.

“I feel completely disconsolate, frustrated and an unimaginable sadness,” Ronaldo told reporters. The Real Madrid winger scored 33 goals for his club last season but could not reproduce his form for Portugal, scoring just one goal in the tournament.

Ronaldo also spoke out in support of coach Carlos Queiroz, Alex Ferguson’s former number two at Manchester United, whose tactics left Ronaldo increasingly isolated up front against Spain, prompting the winger, Portugal’s captain, to rebuff tactical questions after the match with a curt “Ask Queiroz.”

Ronaldo was criticised at home, with Portuguese media believing his conduct to be unacceptable behaviour for the country’s captain. “When I said put the question to the coach, it is just because Carlos Queiroz was holding a press conference,” he explained. “I was not in a position to explain what was what. I am a human being, and like any human being I suffer and I have the right to suffer alone.

“I know that I am the captain, and I have always assumed and will assume my responsibilities.”

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