There was something a bit unsettling in the build-up to England’s Quarter-Final against Italy on all the rolling news channels, with the first team being spoken about as if they had won some competition on the back of cereal packet and were just lucky to be there. Getting out of an average group was being treated as a major achievement and the attitude continued into the TV commentary of the game as the Italians took control after the first half-an-hour, going on to produce stats that gave them 68% of the ball over 120 minutes, with England having less possession than the Republic of Ireland did against the same opposition last week.
Both in perception and performance, it is a steep decline from previous England exits in penalty-shoot outs in 1990, 1996 and 1998 when excellent displays against major footballing forces, Germany and Argentina, led to far greater disappointment. Those three tournaments are a reminder that for all the faults with English football, it is entirely possible to have a first team national squad that should be able to compete at the highest level. The FIFA World Rankings have long been laughable, but England didn’t even pretend to show a positivity of a team ranked 6th in the World and 4th in Europe against an Italian team (12th in the World) that is nothing more than decent, and who now qualify for the semi-final with only one win, against Ireland, from their four matches so far.
This Football Column has charted the milestones that have led to England’s performances this summer – the lack of ambition against Spain, the optimism of a new manager, the signs of progression in the backroom, the disappointing squad selection, the inability to keep possession against Norway and the rigidness of the straight lines against Belgium. So a well-organised outfit that has been harder to break-down with less space between the defence and the midfield than in previous tournaments this century but with neither the tactical approach or pattern of play to dictate games, let alone break team downs, was entirely predictable.
Arguably, England were only a brave refereeing decision away, when the Italians were pulling John Terry’s shirt in the box, from qualifying for the semi-final. And it still came down to a shoot-out, which many said was part of a game-plan – to do “a Chelsea”, a term already established in football parlance in the last few weeks for playing awful football but getting a result. But so one-sided was the balance of play that while a win would have lead to a few more days of widespread fervour we all wanted, it would have papered over the large cracks at the focal point of the domestic game – the national side.
In the last two years, since Capello’s calamity in South Africa, it is now more readily accepted that the English game is not as strong as some have liked to pretend. Gareth Southgate, now part of the FA and one of the more reasonable pundits that has worked on British television throughout the tournament, pointed out on ITV last night the Premier League is overhyped, following it up with a tweet this morning noting only five out of a possible 44 players that are likely to start the semi-finals come from the Premier League. And despite Roy Hodgson’s comments in his press conference this afternoon that the Premier League has nothing to do with the national team, all the players he picked play in England, and the lack of footballing intelligence that isn’t always punished in the league has again found the international stage less forgiving.
As John Scales said on this website on the eve of Euro 2012, a factor in Hodgson’s selection as England Manager was that he will oversee developments at the FA’s new St George’s Centre, and Hodgson said today he would be delighted if a successor of his gets the full benefit of that work, as finally there appears to be a plan in place to improve footballing technique from a much early age. As Southgate also said last night, that work needs to happen with 5, 6 and 7 year olds, and the fruits of that labour won’t be seen for sometime.
But while there isn’t the depth of quality and technique in English players, a legacy of a system where winning is seen as more important than developing skill and players are selected on size, there should still be enough at the top of the game for the national side to properly compete in a major tournament. Which is why the ambitions in the selection of the squad and subsequent formations and pattern of play, as highlighted in those past Football Columns, led England to be outnumbered in the middle of the park, and have few options when they needed to play from the back.
The night before England played, Laurent Blanc altered his formation for France’s quarter-final against the Champions, Spain. He pushed the attacking full-back Mathieu Debuchy into midfield, dropping the reportedly disruptive Sami Nasri, and brought in another right-back. As Spain dominated possession at the start of the game, Debuchy dropped further back, with France almost having a back five at times when the ball was on the opposite flank. When Spain did instead attack down the left Debuchy was unfortunate to slip and let Spain get in behind them. As the game wore on though France as a unit pushed higher up the field, enjoying 48% possession in the second-half, but didn’t do enough to create any clear cut chances, with the players lacking quality in the final third.
Spain could face a much tougher game in the semis if Portugal show the intent they showed against the Czech Republic, winners of Group A, who seemed happy to settle for extra-time. A Ronaldo header won the game before it got that far, and if they can put pressure on Spain it will surely be their best chance of winning; if they sit back like they did against Germany in their opening game of the tournament, Spain may remain untested until the Final.
The Germans remain strong favourites in their half of the draw, having had two days extra rest than the Italians who went to extra-time last night. Germany changed their whole front three against Greece, and still produced a fluid passing and moving performance with their dominance reflected in their four goals. The two goals they conceded, and the times Holland got behind them in the group game, will give Italy hope though.
If Germany do overcome Italy, as form suggests, it will be their 12th major Final (as West Germany and now Germany) since 1966, a period in which England haven’t reached a single Final, and have only reached the last four twice. Nothing this summer suggests that is going to change in Brazil in two years time.
The Substantive Football Columnist Mel Gomes’ new e-book ‘Glory Nights: From Wankdorf to Wembley’ is now available to preview and download from Amazon and Smashwords. With past recollections of matches including Clasicos, Milan Derbies and Diego Maradona’s one appearance at White Hart Lane, it covers a journey over land and sea in the 2010-11 Champions League. New, independent writing on popular culture, it is being backed by The Substantive.