Sunday, July 02, 2006

England: The inquest

What to say about England's elimination from the World Cup by Portugal in a penalty shoot-out after having their star player sent off? Well, in one sense, you really couldn't make it up, in that if you had done, everyone would have gone: "Nah, that couldn't possibly happen again now, could it?"

But lightning does, it seems, strike twice in the same place, in that what happened on Saturday was precisely what happened against Argentina in 1998 when Beckham was sent-off and then David Batty missed in the shoot-out to condemn England to defeat.

All the national newspaper pundits have had their say, and there's no point me linking out to them all. But for me the best summing-up of the selectorial and tactical mistakes by which Sven-Goran Eriksson blighted England's challenge came from the Observer's Paul Wilson.

"By the time Eriksson had taken a blind leap of faith over Walcott and decided four strikers would be plenty even if two of them were injured, he appeared to be behaving as if distracted...his entire philosophy now seemed to be based on the premise that you might as well hang for a sheep as for a lamb, and so the cautious, studied approach disappeared in favour of bizarre selections and a new formation every week. And still England played terribly."

Quite. But I think that, collectively, the national media - and I'm not singling out Paul Wilson or any other individual here - can sometimes be guilty of 20/20 hindsight in relation to such issues.

To me, it was obvious from the start that this squad had been poorly selected, and that as a result of that, the team was performing poorly and Eriksson failing to make the best use of the available talents at his disposal.

Yet the papers, for quite understandable reasons, seem to see it as their patriotic duty to get behind our boys and not question too closely either the validity of the team selections of the effectiveness of the performances, even if these things are staring them in the face.

Take Theo Walcott, for instance. There should have been a press campaign against this crazy selection, ahead of Jermaine Defoe. Instead they simply took it on trust that Eriksson knew what he was doing, and that the untested 17-year-old really could become England's latest World Cup hero. In fact, Eriksson himself didn't even believe in him.

Similarly, the media have been muted in their criticisms of Frank Lampard who was, to put it bluntly, not worth his place in the team in this tournament. He was obviously trying too hard to score and his presence in central midfield inhibited Steven Gerrard, the one player apart from Rooney who could have won the thing for us.

Eriksson's reluctance to drop one of his stars distorted the team formation throughout the campaign, forcing him into playing a negative 4-5-1 when we would have been far better off with Rooney and Crouch up front and Gerrard at the head of a midfield diamond.

World Cups are often about discovering your best formation. That's what happened in Italia '90. If England had not switched to 3-5-2 in that tournament when Bryan Robson went home injured, we'd never have got near the semi finals. And of course we only discovered Geoff Hurst in '66 as a result of an injury to Jimmy Greaves.

For my part, I never believed England could win this World Cup. Yes, we had the players to do it, but not the management capable of getting them to play together as a team. I am far more shocked by the elimination of Argentina, whom I am happy to admit I tipped for glory at the outset and who possessed, in Juan Roman Riquelme, the player of this tournament

At the start of this World Cup, I listed my Top 10 World Cup memories, and reminiscences of Italia '90 inevitably loomed large in that. Sadly, there is nothing from the 2006 tournament that I will be adding to that list.

What was so memorable about the challenge by Bobby Robson's men was that it was so unexpected, in contrast to this over-hyped side and their over-hyped manager who somehow managed to convince a nation that we had a genuine chance of the world's greatest prize.

It's not all doom and gloom. In 2010, Rooney will be in his prime. Robinson, Terry, Gerrard, Hargreaves (a star yesterday), Joe Cole and Aaron Lennon could still be around to form the nucleus of a new team. It's not a bad basis on which to build.

But as for Sven, it really is goodbye...and good riddance.

Update: Throughout the World Cup, I have helped produce a series of podcasts with colleagues on the this of websites. Now England have packed their bags, we're hanging up our mikes, but our final verdict on England's campaign can be heard HERE.

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Tommy said...

And by 2010 we might have seen Theo play a few games and then decide if Sven knew what he was doing?

Anonymous said...

Rooney kicked an opponent in the balls and got sent off. We lost. This seems a just outcome to me.

Now can we talk about the tennis or the cricket?

skipper said...

I fully expected England would not win-though secretly hoped for a semi-fianl berth- but did expect something like the Rooney sending off: this kind of disaster has become almost traditional by now. A bunch of talented players, we were just waiting for them to click, gel, ignite but it never happened. I suppose Sven must carry much of the blame as this tranformation from talented players into winning team is what the manager is supposed to be good at bringing about. This is what Woodward did for the rugby team for example. But there's no science to it- it's an elusive art and sometimes I think it's just written in the stars. Whatever, I'm quite relieved it's over and that most- but by no means all- the St George's Crosses have disappeared.

Anonymous said...

A lack of close questioning by the press at the time? Didn't Paul read James Lawton's forensic dissections of Eriksson's numerous mistakes? Lawton's column is about the only thing which keeps me reading the Indy.

Anonymous said...

Did Walcott actually play - if yes, in what games ???