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Something is rotten in the state of England

Image courtesy of ifranz

England expects.

The only problem with that is the England football team so rarely delivers to anywhere the expectations of the nation. And yesterday’s lame exit from the 2010 World Cup is hardly an isolated example of under-performance at major tournaments. It’s time we faced up to facts: we’re a good team, but we’re not that good.

The morning after the afternoon before

I’ve calmed down somewhat since I posted my initial thoughts on England’s 4-1 defeat to Germany yesterday. Although, to be honest, I wasn’t so much angry as resigned. In spite of the controversy over assistant referee Mauricio Espinosa‘s failure to realise Frank Lampard‘s shot had crossed the goalline, it was all too apparent that Germany had been superior in every department. It’s hard to stay mad for long in those circumstances.

What the linesman saw?

Rather than dwell on what might have been, the question now facing England, the FA and coach Fabio Capello is simply: where do we go from here?

As a blogger, I currently feel a strange kinship with the England team. Like England, over the past couple of weeks my work-rate and output have been high, but I can’t seem to locate that sweet spot in my writing which effortlessly leads to high-quality results. The harder I try, the more elusive that form becomes. I know I should be doing better, and don’t understand why I’m not.

That’s where the comparison ends, though. I don’t claim to be a world-class writer, and I don’t receive a penny for doing so. But I’m not fundamentally dissatisfied with that, whereas it is clear to an objective eye that, to paraphrase Hamlet, something is rotten in the state of the England national team.

It is not my intention here to hold some kind of inquest, post-mortem or even witch-hunt. I will leave that to those involved with the England set-up and those ‘experts’ in the media who are well practised in knowing a bandwagon when they see one.

I prefer to deal in facts rather than poorly-informed opinion, so let’s start with some simple ones.

England went to South Africa with the oldest squad in the tournament, so they were not lacking experience. It is also the most highly-paid squad at the World Cup, with all 23 players drawn from the self-proclaimed best league in the world, and led by the most highly-paid national coach.

The squad was not quite at full strength, but it was not far off. Team captain and best defender, Rio Ferdinand, withdrew injured just before the tournament. And the experience of David Beckham and Michael Owen was also unavailable, but neither were guaranteed selections and both would have been fringe contributors at best. But Germany are without the injured Michael Ballack; Ghana without Michael Essien, one of the finest all-round midfielders on the planet – and both these nations are in the quarter-finals, having played good football in doing so.

History demonstrates England are serial under-achievers

Looking back to previous tournaments, it is clear that England have a long-established history of fading away rapidly once the knockout stages commence. Here is how we have done in the last ten major tournaments since the heady days of the 1990 World Cup:

  • Euro 2008 – Did not qualify.
  • World Cup 2006 – Beat Ecuador in round-of-16, lost to Portugal on penalties in quarter-final.
  • Euro 2004 – Lost to Portugal on penalties in quarter-final.
  • World Cup 2002 – Beat Denmark in round-of-16, lost to ten-man Brazil in quarter-final.
  • Euro 2000 – Knocked out in group phase.
  • World Cup 1998 – Lost to Argentina on penalties in round-of-16.
  • Euro 1996 (host) – Beat Spain on penalties in quarter-final, lost to Germany on penalties in semi-final.
  • World Cup 1994 – Did not qualify.
  • Euro 1992 – Knocked out in group phase.

England's last semi-final, on home soil in 1996

All that adds up to England having reached the knockout stages in just six of the last ten major tournaments. And when we have made it that far, we have won just three of nine matches – only two inside 90 minutes – with the other being a penalty shootout at Wembley after a dire 0-0 draw against what was then a decidedly mediocre Spain side.

I’ll say that again: ten tournaments, three wins in knockout games, and just the one semi-final, which came with the benefit of home advantage.

And before we go all dewy-eyed, Gazza-style, about 1990, here are the basic facts of England’s tournament that year:

  • Group phase: Drew with Republic of Ireland 1-1, drew with Holland 0-0, beat Egypt 1-0.
  • Round-of-16: Beat Belgium 1-0 after extra time, with David Platt‘s 119th minute goal avoiding a penalty shootout at the death.
  • Quarter-final: Beat Cameroon 3-2 after extra time, with Gary Lineker scoring an 83rd-minute penalty to force the extra period, and then adding a second penalty in the 105th minute.
  • Semi-final: Lost to Germany on penalties (1-1 after extra time). Gazza’s tears, plus Stuart Pearce and Chris Waddle‘s missed spot kicks in the shootout.

Were England really that good at Italia 90?

The group phase performance in 1990 exactly mirrors England’s results in South Africa, after which they were unable to beat two middling opponents in the regulation 90 minutes, before going out against the first truly good side they faced. To be fair, England could so easily have won that 1990 semi-final, but I think my point remains valid: England generally lose knockout games against good opponents.

It was never realistic to expect England to win this World Cup. Indeed, a FIFA ranking of eight would suggest that we should have been quarter-finalists, at best. And England’s fate was effectively sealed by failure to win their group, pitching them into the same quarter of the draw as Germany and Argentina, who will now face off for a place in the semi-finals.

Now what?

So now it is back to the drawing board for England and the FA, and the beginning of the end for the so-called ‘Golden Generation’, many of whom will have to face departure from international football within the next year or two. England started this World Cup with the oldest team at the tournament, with an average age of over 28. By the time the Euro 2012 tournament kicks off, Emile Heskey and Jamie Carragher will be 34; Matthew Upson will be 33 and Frank Lampard just 12 days shy of that particular milestone; Steven Gerrard will be 32; Ashley Cole, John Terry, Peter Crouch, Gareth Barry and the ever-injured Ledley King will all be 31; even relative youngsters Joe Cole, Shaun Wright-Phillips and Michael Carrick will be the wrong side of 30. Some of the aforementioned will no doubt feature alongside the likes of Wayne Rooney, Aaron Lennon and James Milner in Poland and the Ukraine – assuming, of course, that England get there – but many will expect to be phased out, or at least marginalised, over the course of a qualifying campaign which begins in just ten weeks’ time.

Will Fabio Capello tell the FA what to do with their job? (image courtesy of Dekuwa)

And, of course, there is the small question of who will lead them there. In successive World Cups, England’s players have failed to gel under both the relaxed Sven-Göran Eriksson/Steve McClaren regime and the more disciplinarian Capello. There appears to be something cancerous in the culture and mindset of this set of players which needs to be excised.

It goes beyond a lack of ability and confidence, or even the coach’s shortcomings, and it is not something that will be easy to fix until the composition of the squad changes significantly. The first step in that process is for the players to recognise that they must shoulder some of the blame for a dire set of performances at this World Cup, rather than point the finger at everyone else, as many are sure to do.

Without suggesting that baby needs to be thrown out without bath-water, there is clearly more work to be done than simply shrugging the shoulders and sticking a plaster over a gaping wound. Will the 64-year old Capello have either the inclination or the patience for what could be a lengthy rebuilding job?

Capello has already said he will discuss his future with FA chairman Dave Richards on his return to London. If the Italian walks away from England – my money says that he may well do – the FA will have a difficult decision to make. Do they go for another big name foreign coach, or make an appointment closer to home? If the latter, the name of Roy Hodgson – a manager who can boast two spells at Inter Milan and stints as the national coach of three different countries (Switzerland, Finland, UAE) on his CV – must surely be high on the shortlist.

But for now it is time for the Three Lions – or should that be Three Pussycats? – to lick their wounds and retreat home with a sorry tail between their legs. It is difficult to predict how everyone will respond to this latest setback, but the most pressing challenge now is how to re-energise and potentially start repopulating the squad before the grind of tournament qualifying is upon us again in early September. It is time to look to the future, but without sweeping the lessons of this rotten campaign under the carpet.

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About Tim
Father of three. Bit of a geek. That's all, folks.

16 Responses to Something is rotten in the state of England

  1. Steve says:

    Great post.

    Thank you for articulating what I have been thinking for a while about Italia 90. We squeezed through, despite an easy passage to the semis. It wasn’t some golden age of English football – we just rode our luck.

    As for the current vintage – nowhere near good enough, but I don’t see any quick answers.

    However, there were plenty of things that seemed easy to remedy, but weren’t. Where was the organisation, or positional discipline? Why was the easy ball ignored in favour of the Hollywood 50 yard ball straight to the opposition? Where was the tracking back? I can’t tell if this comes from coaching failure, player arrogance or both.

    • Tim says:

      Thanks Steve. It’s good to know I’m not the only one trying to see wood for trees!

      We certainly did ride our luck in 1990 – a tournament where, like this year, there was also considerable unrest in the squad. I well remember the bafflement both on the pitch and the sidelines as the relatively unknown Cameroon team ran rings around us for much of the quarter-final. And this was a side that contained Lineker, Beardsley, Barnes, Waddle, Platt, Gazza, Pearce etc – to my mind, a superior line-up to the current squad.

      What went wrong? I think Capello made some mistakes, but he hasn’t become a bad coach overnight despite what the tabloids would have you think. I think there are cancerous elements in the squad – John Terry is the obvious target, but he’s by no means the only one – in terms of team harmony, we are more like France than, say, the USA. And I think our players (a) aren’t as good as they think they are and (b) struggle with the chess-like nature of top-level international football. The blood-and-thunder of the Premier League is one thing, a World Cup knockout game is something else.

      I despaired yesterday at how easily Germany found space between our two centre backs and the two central midfielders, and how quickly we resorted to throwing the kitchen sink at Germany, throwing eight men forwards and allowing Steven Gerrard to shoot on sight. It was real chest-thumping caveman stuff that looked completely out of place in the modern game.

      The long road back has to start with the players. Take responsibility for your own failings,and work with the coach, not against him.

  2. jennyk05 says:

    Really interesting article, highlights England’s long-term failures. I agree when you say ‘we’re a good team, but we’re not that good’ but I still believe that we should have been a lot better than what we showed in South Africa. On reflection we didn’t have a team or a formation to win the World Cup but we should have got further. The formation, the form of the team and the fact we finished second in our group and had a much harder route to the final all played a part.

    ‘but many will expect to be phased out, or at least marginalised, over the course of a qualifying campaign which begins in just ten weeks’ time’ – I think this has to happen! Fringe Premier League players like Wright-Phillips, Heskey etc.. who under-perform for England need to be replaced by younger more energetic players like Adam Johnson, Ashely Young, Agbonlahor etc..

    • Tim says:

      Thanks for the positive comment, Jenny.

      Totally agree we should have done better than we did. It was not so much the results that disappointed me, it was the performances. If we had done a solid job on Algeria, say, and gone out with less of a whimper yesterday, I would have been OK with that. Instead, we were decent for maybe 20 minutes against Slovenia and 15 minutes yesterday, and truly terrible the rest of the time. As a team, we were so much less than the sum of our parts. This is not what you expect from the highest-paid national squad with the highest-paid national coach. It’s certainly not what we expected from a team which had been hyped up as potential tournament winners.

      Still, at least we’re not France or Italy …

  3. kolys says:

    You make some very good points here, most particularly with regard to our less-than-stellar record over previous tournaments.

    To extend your metaphor, the ‘something cancerous’ can only be excised with radical surgery – I don’t necessarily agree with showing Capello the door, but I think the team needs an emergency player transplant.

    I don’t think there are enough young English players being brought through the ranks within the English league, certainly not in the top flight – and until that changes, we are going to be looking at disappointment after disappointment in major tournaments.

    Perhaps Joe Hart is the future answer to our goalkeeping crisis. Perhaps Michael Dawson can one day be the kind of solid centre-back we once had in Tony Adams.

    Perhaps not.

    We have a reasonably comfortable draw for Euro 2012 qualification; let’s say ‘out with the old and in with the new’ and put it to good use.

  4. Tim says:

    I think Capello should stay. After all, who out there is (a) available and (b) better?

    We do need to start bringing through some younger players, because this squad is ageing and not always harmonious. You mention Hart – I think his promotion will be immediate. Dawson is also likely to feature more – can’t argue with that (even as a Gooner – possibly also Gary Cahill.

    There are also those who have been in and out of the squad: Walcott, Young and Agbonlahor spring readily to mind.

    And then there are those for whom Euro 2012 may come too soon, but who could potentially be introduced into the squad set-up for future development: Villa’s Nathan Delfouneso, sy, or Arsenal’s Jack Wilshere.

    Whatever the plan is, Capello (or his replacement) need to sort it out soon. The first qualifiers are in the first week of September – a mere 10 weeks away!

    • kolys says:

      It’s a rare day when Arsenal and Spurs fans speak with one voice, but I’ll second Walcott and Wilshere just as readily and sportingly as you seconded Dawson.

      What do you think of Tom Huddlestone? I’ve always thought he had a lot of potential, but he still seems rather erratic at times.

      I’m not all that familiar with Delfouneso, but I’ll keep an eye out for him. It’s tough being a football fan based in the USA. Getting easier, but still tough. Oddly, I think the goal disallowed for the US against Slovenia has probably done more to interest Americans in ‘soccer’ than anything short of winning the World Cup could have.

      • Tim says:

        I’m unsure about Huddlestone’s mobility and fitness, although he seems to have improved both this season. Passing and shooting – fine. He could find some game time for England next season, for sure.

        I don’t know Delfouneso well, but a Villa-supporting friend of mine rates him as one to watch.

        Theo hasn’t developed as much as we were hoping, but he has had a lot of injuries over the past year too. He’ll have every chance next season. Hopefully Wilshere will too, although he will probably have to remain patient.

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  6. mrshev says:

    Great analysis – and why you are not working for ITV? They certainly need the pundits…

    I feel that our players play a game that is unsustainable at international level – you can run and run but no team can maintain that for six weeks. We need to learn to pace ourselves at major tournaments and ultimately believe that the inherent class of player will prevail if we patiently vie for an opening.

    What we do lack is pace and a player or two who can change things around. Gazza for all his failings was very good at doing that; as was Beckham. Gerard has always seemed one dimensional. He suits premiership football (run, pass, run, strike defended ball at edge of box) as does Lampard, but we need a little more than that.

    Anyway, my feelings are on my blog but I think that England need a reality check (as you say) and accept that we are second flight and maybe once we accept that we can begin to punch above our weight.

    • Tim says:

      Work for ITV? How very dare you … 😉

      I completely agree that the ‘British style’ of football is unsuited to the more considered pace of the international game, certainly at its upper levels. It’s a bit like asking Amir Khan to take up chess.

      British media and TV commentary doesn’t help either. I was watching the Holland v Slovakia game yesterday, and the commentators kept calling the Dutch “arrogant” for passing the ball around and not going straight for the jugular. Funny, I call that kind of football “patient” and “intelligent”. Obviously, I was watching ITV at the time – but even the Beeb have been guilty of this kind of jingoistic we’re-better-than-you nonsense – *cough* Mark Bright *splutter*.

      The big problem is a long-term one: how do we change the culture of English football from (to use Beckenbauer’s words) “kick and rush” and a team which can only be happy if they have a beer the night before a match (ahem, John Terry)? It starts with pushy dads on school pitch touchlines yelling at their kids to “get it forward, son!” – and it ends with, well, humiliating defeats by the Germans that keep us bloggers busy for days afterwards venting our spleens …

      • mrshev says:

        It does start with Dads at the touchline. I have seen Dads in England shouting: ‘get in there, son, give him what for!’ FFS, no wonder our players are so guileless.

        I remember hearing Thierry Henry saying that the French youth system was hard because you played football for 5 hours and then academic work for the rest. Most of the French players have quite good qualifications. The English players are morons and in interviews they sound positively stupid.

        Here (in Switzerland – I know, not exactly the football shangri-la) my son is being coached in soccer and is learning how to run with the ball, how to balance on it, do tricks with it – PLAY with it. The coach has a full UEFA license. In Switzerland you can only coach kids if you obtain a UEFA license. In Switzerland I think there are 14,000 holders, France 24,000 and Germany 34,000. England has 2,400. I am not making that up.

  7. Stu Egan says:

    Excellent article. I’ve seen the future and it’s a 34-year old Emile Heskey leading the forward line at Euro 2012!
    I think one thing that’s overlooked when people suggest players that will come through is that there will always be one or two that won’t have been mentioned that will be in the squad this time next year. I don’t think anyone would have predicted Adam Johnson’s rise in July 2009 – even most Middlesborough fans. The time has definitely come to take a few more gambles with selection though.

    • Tim says:

      You make a really good point about left-field candidates like Johnson. It may well be that another unknown youngster currently in the Championship blossoms, gets cherry-picked by a Premier League club and 12 months later (less in Johnson’s case) – hey presto!

      I’ve heard the likes of Chris Waddle in despair about the lack of young talent coming through, but you don’t need lots coming through, just a handful of really good ones. If half a dozen or so emerge between now and Euro 2012, it will be a bumper crop. Let’s say just three of Johnson, Kieran Gibbs, Jack Rodwell, Jack Wilshere, Danny Welbeck and Nathan Delfouneso make the grade quickly – you only need another couple more and it will do wonders to reinvigorate the squad. Fingers crossed.

  8. I am happy Capello is staying – the team has gone through three managers, two of them arguably world class, so the common denominator for the failures must be said to be the players. I sincerely hope he now dispenses with some of the old guard, starting with Terry, and rebuilds with youth. On paper, they are not as strong as the current squad, but it wouldn’t surprise if they did better.

    I was disappointed that some of the ‘big names’ appeared to have become undroppable during the World Cup. It might have done Rooney some good to have warmed the bench for a while, and if Gerrard and Lampard don’t perform when playing together, then perhaps they shouldn’t be? Then again, that might well have made it worse…

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