Each World Cup holds up a mirror to the world game. We have the opportunity to see the best teams and the finest individuals, to chew over the tactical trends. Unfortunately until very recently, the unedifying conclusion is that the world game is basically a loop tape of Spurs v Hull.
Regular Tottenham On My Mind readers will be soothed in the knowledge that I have made good on my promise to shoehorn in gratuitous references to Spurs throughout the World Cup, but actually this one has some value. Last January Hull laboured long and hard to stifle successfully a Spurs team with more talented individuals. Ten or eleven behind the ball, they harried and harassed us into blind alleys of frustration.
Many teams have opted for a similar approach in the opening exchanges in South Africa and like that January afternoon in north London, it’s been effective but not pretty. As a barometer of its health, the world game is an obese alcoholic smoker. National coaches have a short time with their men – in most tournaments the better teams evolve before your eyes in a matter of a few short weeks, rather than arriving fully formed and ready to go. For most, it’s easier to work on the negative. All modern players have one characteristic in common, fitness, so they can run all day at the coach’s bidding.
Moreover, ambitions are limited by the fear factor. We may laud the plucky minnows, as every small team that over-achieves in any cup competition must be termed, but in their own country they carry the usually inflated expectations significantly these days from their media, their FA and their politicians. It’s only a game but these three institutions seek to capitalise in terms of profit and prestige. Wealth and reputations rest upon some form of success at the World Cup, hence the fear of defeat and failure.
Happily the matches are opening up more. Cameroon against Denmark was excellent last night. Cups are all about knock-out football and the tournament will ignite only when the games have clear consequences. It’s the same in any World Cup.
So if the themes of contemporary football are organisation, discipline and possession, then England have been cast adrift from the rest of the world. Friday’s performance was something out of the Dark Ages, medieval sensibility in the modern world. It was so awful it defies analysis. Never mind the approach or tactics, how can so many decent players perform that badly for so long. It’s pointless comparing systems if Rooney can’t trap a ball in the entire 90 minutes. As the match went on, I yearned for kick and rush; at least it’s a plan.
I’m tempted to say that this was the worst England performance that I’ve seen but of course the saddest thing is the crushing familiarity of it all. Off the top of my head, the semi-final glory of Italia 90 obscures the horrible football we played in the group, barely scraping in to the next round. Watching Euro 2000 on holiday in France, with no English pundits to tell us what to think, there was a vast gulf between our crude and inept football and the smooth efforts of others. Again, we could not pass the ball.
Whenever these things come around, predictably the media and fans alike attach their own particular soapbox theories to the problem, regardless of the evidence. It’s absurd to say that it’s because the coach is foreign – he’s steered us through our best qualifying campaign ever. Nor do I believe that a lack of passion among the players was the cause. In fact, I suspect that passion and desire to succeed ruled their minds at the expense of a more tempered approach. Cool heads were required, stop and think, to play the ball around, to keep it and probe for weakness, to keep your station on the field rather than try to do the job of two players, as did Rooney, Gerrard and Lampard, and ultimately weaken your own efforts. One reason for our failure was that we placed undue value on trying, too little on thinking.
The most worrying aspect of this calamity is that I’m convinced Capello has absolutely no idea what went wrong either. Even allowing for his basic command of English, after the match he was as bewildered and angry as the rest of us. Leaving aside for the moment the question of whether 4-4-2 is the right option, his players clearly did not do whatever it was that he instructed.
I wonder if, in his long career, he’s ever faced a similar situation. Famed for getting the best from players, and for shaping teams that fit their talents rather than arriving with a predetermined tactical plan to which his men must adapt, his eleven performed as if they had met him for the first time only minutes before kick-off. He’s tried everything to get through to them; now what?
Before the tournament, I thought that England had a good team, with cover in a few positions but otherwise had distinctly limited options. Another troubling factor is that Capello has come to the same conclusion. After assessing the squad at close quarters, he’s concluded that several of them may be decent Premier League performers but don’t fit his plans. Joe Cole, Upson, Dawson, Defoe, Carrick and to some extent Crouch are available but virtually ignored. Capello thinks they are not up to it.
Also, Capello is a successful club manager, where he had time to build a team and fine-tune their play, as well as purchase other men to fit his vision. He can’t do that now, so if his best do not do his bidding, there’s no plan B. He’s floundering, a situation that he has faced infrequently and therefore is struggling to find a way to cope. Those of us who have faced adversity in the past, in any area of life, develop coping mechanisms and so survive when the bad times return. Capello does not necessarily have the psychological history and imprinted patterns to handle this, certainly in the international arena where he is a newcomer.
Much has been said about the problems up front but the most serious issues stem from Ferdinand’s injury. He offered pace at the back, alongside Terry’s solidity forming a fine partnership, and the ability to play the ball from the back. King brought the same qualities but has gone too. Pace is essential in any international defence. Therefore to protect his central defence, Capello is that much more conscious of the midfield’s defensive responsibilities. In turn, this restricts the freedom to get forward. Small margins but this is what this England team is about – they never had any room for error. Add the goalkeeping uncertainly plus the choice up front of a provider, not goalscorer, there is no margin for error at all. And if Rooney, Lampard and Gerrard are off, then…..
Having said all this, if Capello is feeling hard-done by because his players cannot pass to each other, then I have some sympathy. It’s not much to ask. In the eyes of the world, it’s plain embarrassing. However, he’s fallen into the trap of compensating by not playing to his strengths, for which there is little excuse. Gerrard must play a central role, alongside Lampard in a five man midfield with Rooney up front and Heskey on the plane home. It’s not about Gerrard ‘playing off the front man’. Instead, have a more flexible view with Lampard and others getting forward. Barry will offer enough protection at the back. Upson and Terry? I’m pretending that will be OK. I can’t worry about anything more. My prediction was for England to stagger into the next stage, and I’ll stick to that.