25 June 2012

Euro 2012: In Defence of England

I did the rounds of the British news sites the morning after the England loss to the Italians in the quarterfinals of Euro 2012; and even that soon the savaging of the English national team was well underway. How short people’s memories can be when it suits them!

Expectations were low to begin with when the England team flew off to the finals. The team left behind a reasonable amount of ordnance in the injured Gareth Barry, Frank Lampard and Gary Cahill. Rio Ferdinand, of course was left behind ‘for football reasons.’

And so, when the tournament finally got underway, the general sentiment was that everyone would be happy if England got out of the group stages at all. This was, it was said, probably the first time in a while that an England team set out for a competition with national expectations not the usual burden that it could be.

Albeit playing some really unattractive football, the team not only managed to get out of its qualifying group; it also did so top of the group on points and not just on goal difference.

So what is wrong with these so-called pundits? More importantly, how many of these so-called experts even played anything more than Sunday park football that they feel that they are entitled to deliver the scathing commentary that they do?

I finally saw the match by way of a replay; and typically, the England performance was not half as bad as the write-ups made it to be. A lot was made of the Italians’ thirty-five shots on goal compared to England’s nine. Seriously?

Most of the Italy’s shots were from distances that would not have worried Joe Hart too much; and if the pundits cared to, they could have taken note that this was because of England’s excellent defensive shape and covering.

While Italy hit a post early in the match, had that one gone in Glen Johnson would and should have equalized just moments later. Take away the distraction of Italy’s hit-and-hope shots and the number of chances that really mattered should be more or less equal; perhaps even slightly slanting in favour of the English.

This makes the draw a fair result despite Italy’s frightening advantage in terms of possession. And to go out of a tournament at the quarter-final stage by way of a penalty shootout is an achievement, not a disgrace.

There is also the little matter of dear gramps Roy Hodgson having just over two months to prepare for the tournament. Because he took over when the last Premiership season was still winding down, then it goes without saying that actual time with the players was significantly less.

With the benefit of hindsight, I am sure that what Hodgson will be reflecting on for the future is if he could have played Andy Carroll rather than Danny Welbeck – or even the off-form Wayne Rooney – from the start against Italy. Most of England’s good work in a lively opening twenty minutes came down the wings. When the crosses did come, they simply cried for a strong physical presence in the middle.

He will also wish to ponder the wisdom of wanting to use the Manchester United connection of Rooney, Welbeck and Ashley Young. Against Italy, there was no fluency at all between the three club teammates. Young – who missed a penalty in the shootout – had been looking so not the part from the opening match. Perhaps, there was plenty of time during the group stages to see if Stewart Downing could have done any better.

Also of concern will be the team’s tendency to rush forward on the counter when possession was regained. While this might have worked at Fulham and West Brom, at international level players are of a higher calibre and less likely to be conned by sucker punches.

The pundits were at least correct in pointing out that England might have benefited from a player in the mould of Paul Scholes, who would have seen wisdom in patient square and back passes to build attacks more deliberately as opposed to all the frantic counterattacking. What the pundits could have additionally pointed out was that an older and less impulsive Scholes was needed.

Lest the so-called pundits forget, it was a mindless and totally needless foul by a younger Scholes that led to Ronaldinho beating Peter Shilton for Brazil’s winning goal also at the quarter-final stage of the 2002 World Cup.

But yes, even at Liverpool, England captain Steven Gerrard just is not the sort of silky midfielder who can dictate the flow of a match the way Xavi and Andres Iniesta do so effortlessly for Spain. The question always is if the English have that sort of player at all. If the answer is no, then all praises should be given to Hodgson for using a system best suited to the players at his disposal.

It is no surprise that the most fluent passing teams of Euro 2012 are Germany and Spain. The two teams play with a core of stars from top clubs Bayern M√ľnchen and Barcelona. The players know each other so well from the club connection.

In contrast, England’s starting eleven was culled from four clubs; and was it just me, or did the club teammates tend to interchange passes more with each other? It can be argued that the Italians were likewise pulled from diverse clubs. On the other hand, Italy is nowhere near as fluent as Spain or Germany, either.

And so to the penalty shootout, where the English traditionally lay down and die. This is what miffs me the most. So much has been made of this myth that the English have simply stopped believing that they can win shootouts.

The truth is that any shootout is a lottery. The deciding factors are always skill and ultimately belief.

Young’s missed penalty lacked skill; Cole’s lacked belief. To be fair, Hodgson was quoted to have said that both were excellent in penalty-taking practice sessions. Thus, it all boiled down to belief; or the abject lack of it.

Yet, after all is said and done, and while so much was said about the way England played, the fact remains that the team exited Euro 2012 undefeated and came within a whisker of the semi-finals. What would the pundits have been writing had Young and Cole not missed?

What a sorry lot, the English football press can be! Perhaps, for a change, they can all start being happy with what their team achieves so that players will step on the pitch the next time motivated rather than petrified.

There may be more; but the one article that I came across in the aftermath of the England-Italy game that was in perspective was written by a certain Kenny Dalglish. Who is a Scot, by the way.

[A lot was made of Pirlo’s cheeky penalty. Had Hart stood his ground, what would the press – both English and Italian – have written instead? Put a Filipino goalkeeper in there and that shot would have been saved. Pinoy goalkeepers, at least of my time, try to read rather than guess, which is what goalkeepers are taught to do in Europe.]

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