If England are to learn anything from this year’s World Cup, a lot more than personnel needs re-thinking
The World Cup may have been considered a successful one for many things: holding midfielders, Abby Clancy’s television career, Luis Suarez’s goalkeeping credentials and Sven’s credit rating. However, South Africa 2010 will most likely be remembered for what didn’t benefit from it: anyone who appeared in a Nike advert, Jabulani balls, North Korean football managers and what will without doubt linger in our minds the most: the condition of English football.
England, after labouring through their single victory against a nation whose population is dominated by roughly 45 rather jovial Slovenian shorthaired goats, were kicked out of the world’s most popular sporting event with a whimper by one of the oldest tricks in the book: they were out-thought on almost every level. When Thomas Müller fired Germany into an unassailable lead in Bloemfontein, panic was so endemic among Capello’s men you could almost hear it screaming from the television set, and – more distressingly – nobody had the strength of mind to drag everyone above it. Perhaps the anguish of thought was too much; perhaps faith in their ability deserted them. Whatever it was, all they did was resort to age-old English type, of lumping the ball forwards and lumping it quickly. This inability to keep calm and the weeping as a result is enough to freeze the brain and sap every last inch of creativity has characterised English football throughout the age.
If Capello keeps persisting, like McClaren before him did, that the answer to this is to keep going on doing what English players do best – high tempo, 110%, in their faces, out to the wings and into the target man – we will not have learned a thing from this humiliation. The rest of the world has seen English high tempo for decades now. The rest of the world has dealt with it, the rest of the world has stuffed it. Next please.
Grandiose posturing will be made by politicians and administrators about reform of the professional game, but the problem is far more basic than that – English footballers are not tactically bright. High tempo is an asset, but only when tied to intelligence. It is not about playing quickly or slowly, long or short passes, but about playing them at the right time. England, when under pressure, have historically resorted to pace above all else. That is bad enough on a rainy night in Wembley, but at a summer tournament when the temperature calls for possession at a premium, it is hopeless.
The World Cup has exposed the problems of England’s traditional 4-4-2. It is not just that the midfield is outnumbered, but that the space behind it can become exposed. It is this gap that Mesut Ozil exploited so well (as Pelé, Maradona, Gullit, Zidane, Rui Costa, Riquelme and many others have done over the years.) It was the fruitless and badly thought out desire to compress this area that lead to England’s comically high defensive line which Germany benefited so much from.
It would have been far easier for Capello to have told the truth: that the 23 he took to South Africa were largely the best we have and that they need to be stronger tactically and intellectually to withstand tournament pressure. What he instead did was indulge the notion that there is an inexplicably ignored, other 23 of world class Englishmen ready-made out there, more than capable of bringing home a World Cup. There is indeed an extremely valid argument that a whole new young generation centred around future regulars Jack Wilshere, Adam Johnson and Jack Rodwell should be blooded and educated as a group, but over half of Capello’s 11 against Hungary were with him during this summer’s tournament.
The dream that a clever foreign gentleman would save English football is over. With or without Capello we must save ourselves, an imperative which can only be spurred on by the thought of a campaign built on the world class talents of Zamora and a one-legged Owen Hargreaves.