The World Cup: Spurs v Hull All Over Again

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.

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6 thoughts on “The World Cup: Spurs v Hull All Over Again

  1. Pingback: Kuyt calls for Gerrard stay | International News - Stay up to date with the latest World News, Finance & Business, Green News, Technology and Sports

  2. Outstanding analsysis of England. I was at both games against the Spurs- tbh we were lucky in both games. The 1st- a 1-0 win- we scored a quality goal and shut up shop. The 2nd we shut up shop and nearly nicked it!!

    England have the quality- but I fear they are gonna seroiusly struggle against a decent side. We appear limited going forward. So far we have looked solid at the back- with (to my surprise) Johnson doing the business defensively. That will not last against a team that can play faster attacking football. Would expect some decent team to tear our back 4 apart.

    Even having Barry back did not help. I totally agree that the 4-5-1 formation would be the best way forward. Maybe even play 4-1-3-2 (with Crouch up top in stead of Donkey). Playing narrow with SG, FL and JC behind Rooney and Crouch -this might offer some better play. Width does not work so why not play a little narrower and have some more bite going forward.

    Gerrard in the 1st game did well and worked hard- but Rooney so far has shown very little of the form that nearly won ManU the title (in fact some of the city fans I have spoken to wish he would have played against us like that- then we would have got some points off the Mancs!!). One good thing is we probably can’t play any worse and I think the players will have been so badly stung by the criticsm that they will get their fingers out!!


  3. Spot on as usual. I particularly want people to stop talking about spirit, pride and passion – when its basic footballing competence which has deserted us. It is deja vu all over again (as they say) – why does this happen to England in these circumstances? Is it the weight of expectation or something in the English mentality which freezes under pressure. There is too much expectation but this is not cause enough for Rooney suddenly forgetting how to control the ball. It must be a group thing – its hard for players to play well when all those around them are fretting and fumbling. What is needed I think is a) a bit of luck, an early goal and so on b) a captain who isn’t Gerrard … someone with a bit of steel and who can inspire the others, we need to grow an English Roy Keane clone in a test tube. Otherwise as Klinsmann said on MOTD – this is their World Cup … forget about what positions you are playing and just play! (paraphrased).


  4. The players are to blame, but let’s not let Capello entirely off the hook. When it’s a choice between a donkey or a giraffe to partner Shrek, it’s obviously time to stop the zoo visits and play with 5 ‘humans’ in the middle.

    It’s not much in the way of compensation, but carry on playing as we are and at least we’ll be able to taunt Gerrard, Lampard, et al. with ‘ let your country down!’



  5. Nothing more to say about England that hasn’t been said already. Fingers crossed for Wednesday. I think you’re being a little harsh on Hull though. They showed up at WHL knowing full well they were inferior to each and everyone of Spurs XI. if they had tried to play open football they would have got a hiding. For Hull v Spurs read New Zealand v Italy. Did you have a problem with the Kiwis stifling the World Champions? What a great feeling to hold out against all the odds. Long live the underdog. Shame on the PL for allowing such a wide gap between top and bottom and undermining the competition.


    • Thanks for the comment Willo.

      Just to say – a theme for the blog last season was Spurs’ inability for much of the time to have the wit break down disciplined teams like Hull, Wolves and Stoke, so little blame attached to them for doing what they do and frustration directed at Spurs. Hence the similarities with England.



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