England players must shoulder blame as Germany tame Three Lions
June 27, 2010 8 Comments
Let the blame game begin. England crashed out of the World Cup in the round-of-16 this afternoon, courtesy of a humiliating 4-1 defeat to Germany. The fact they had the tailor-made excuse of a ghost ‘goal’ which, indisputably, should have been awarded should not detract from the fact that, yet again, they have delivered much less as a team than the sum of their individual parts would suggest.
Since Wednesday’s narrow win over Slovenia, optimism had been gradually building among England fans, to the point where British bookies had them as marginal favourites at kick-off. But the big question was: what type of performance would we get from England, and what kind of game would this be as a result? The ecstasy of the 1966 World Cup final or the 2001 5-1 World Cup qualifying win in Munich? Or would it be more like the agony of the 1990 World Cup and Euro 96 semi-finals, in both of which England perished in penalty shootouts under the steel-capped boot of German efficiency?
Within 32 minutes, we had our answer. Goals from Germany’s Polish-born strike partnership of Miroslav Klose and Lukas Podolski exposed England’s palpable lack of organisation at the back. On the first goal they were undone by a basic long ball over the middle, with both John Terry and Matthew Upson positionally at fault as Klose finished smartly. BBC pundit Alan Hansen noted:
You will never, ever see two centre-halves in a worse position than when Germany scored their first goal, I promise you.
For the second, with both central defenders and the midfield duo of Gareth Barry and Frank Lampard conspicuous by their absence, Thomas Müller sent a neat ball through to Podolski, cutting in from the left, who smashed it through David James‘s legs.
With England in complete disarray, that looked like it. To their credit, through sheer force of will they surged back into it in the final ten minutes of the half. First Upson nodded in a corner and then, less than a minute later, came the game’s most controversial moment.
Never let it be said the sporting gods lack a sense of irony. 44 years ago, a World Cup final between England and the then West Germany turned on the determination of a Russian linesman that a Geoff Hurst shot had crossed the German goalline, a decision which has been debated endlessly ever since. Here, a Uruguayan linesman decided that Frank Lampard’s raking shot had not crossed the German goalline after bouncing down off the crossbar, despite TV replays showing the ball had done so by about half a metre.
There was simply no doubt, even at full speed. It made a mockery of FIFA’s decision in March to slam the door on video technology as an aid to game officials. The assistant referee was only human, but it was a whopper of an error, and one which could have been easily rectified.
England had been denied the completion of a remarkable turnaround, from 0-2 to 2-2 in the space of a minute, but as the players trooped off at halftime with a sense of righteous indignation, there had been no disguising the fact that they had been comprehensively outplayed by a superior German side for most of the half. Nonetheless, they came out for the second half with a renewed sense of purpose, and when Lampard hit the bar with a free kick from 30 yards on 52 minutes, they may even have felt that perhaps this would be their day after all. England started to pour forward increasingly in numbers, leaving themselves open to the counter-attack as they desperately sought the equaliser. Pressure was applied on the German back four, but without ever really creating clear chances.
Something had to give, and in the space of three minutes at the three-quarter point of the game, Germany quickly and ruthlessly applied a one-two punch to break English hearts. Gareth Barry first lost possession on the edge of the German box, then his lack of pace was ruthlessly exposed when Mesut Özil easily beat him one-on-one to a ball on the touchline. Both passages of play ended up with Müller applying a killer touch.
At 4-1, it was game over. English heads dropped; Germany relented to avoid piling on further embarrassment. The final whistle was a blessed relief to the thousands of England fans in Bloemfontein’s Free State stadium and to the millions watching at home.
England had been outclassed in every department, and the contrast was stark. Klose and Podolski took their goals ruthlessly, while Rooney bustled in vain and Defoe was reduced to the role of hapless spectator. In midfield, Özil and Bastian Schweinsteiger orchestrated affairs with pace, energy and flashes of genuine creativity, making England’s midfield look stiff and pedestrian. And Germany’s back four were troubled only rarely, whereas England’s was unlocked by a long ball straight out of the Hackney Marshes playbook.
It was that which was most depressing of all. Like France, England looked like a collection of individuals rather than anything vaguely approaching a cohesive team. Their brand of football – predictable, guileless and constrained by fear – is one which will not be missed when compared to the vibrant movement and creative spark of the likes of Argentina, Spain and Chile. When the chips were down, England’s threat was totally blunted. They were reduced to set-pieces and Steven Gerrard shooting speculatively and pointlessly on sight because of a lack of viable alternatives.
Much will be made of the goal that never was, but it should not disguise England’s many failings. To his credit, England captain Gerrard did recognise this, saying:
We can’t use the [Lampard] goal as an excuse. To say that one moment changed the game would be a lie. They were the better team.
For once, extremely hot weather cannot be blamed for England’s apparent lethargy throughout the tournament, but you can be sure that altitude, the much-criticised Jabulani ball and, of course, head coach Fabio Capello‘s methods and tactics will all come under scrutiny in the coming days – not to mention the eyesight of the Uruguayan linesman.
The revisionists will now quickly start rewriting history, reflecting on the relative weakness of a qualifying group which exaggerated England’s successes. They will say that Capello’s strict discipline and rigid tactics – once seen as a sign of a decisive coach who knows his own mind – will be portrayed as stubborn, inflexible and divisive. Every fringe squad selection (or non-selection) will be dissected, ignoring the simple fact that it was largely England’s starting XI who failed to deliver, not their backups.
Yes, Capello has made mistakes. He has made decisions – the selection of Robert Green as his starting goalkeeper, for one – which he would love to take back. But hindsight is a wonderful thing that makes geniuses of us all. To blame Capello for not being the God-like figure many were so quick to portray him as this time last year is to miss the point entirely.
Whatever happens, the media will be least scathing of the players. Sure, there will be some mild criticism speaking of under-performance. And there will unquestionably be a few sage voices of wisdom who will not be afraid to aim a few well-directed sniper shots at particular individuals. But the old boys’ club of journalists seeking to stay on the good side who provide them with the life-blood of soundbites week in, week out during the Premier League season will most likely hold firm.
Already this evening I can see the initial seeds of this campaign being sown. Pundits wonder aloud how this group of players – the so-called ‘Golden Generation’ – who are so exceptional for their clubs can be so mediocre in an England shirt. The insinuation will be that it is somehow the fault of a succession of head coaches to get the most out of these players, an unspoken criticism which will, of course, be reinforced by the players themselves. But the fact is that, since the 1998 World Cup, England have never exceeded expectations, frequently under-performed against them, and rarely played good football in doing so. This despite being led by such highly respected names as Capello and Sven-Göran Eriksson, not to mention the much-derided Kevin Keegan and Steve McClaren, who subsequently took FC Twente to the Dutch title – the equivalent of winning the Premier League with, say, Aston Villa or Everton. Surely not every coach can have got it so catastrophically wrong? One coach, sure. Two, maybe. But four?
Now I’m not saying the players are solely to blame. Of course, it’s more complicated than that, just as it is ludicrous to blame Capello alone. But neither are they blameless. And maybe it is a reluctance to take responsibility for their own shortcomings which has led the England team to where they are today, namely boarding a flight home.
At least one player was saying the right things this evening. Joe Cole, largely unused in South Africa, said:
There are a lot of issues. It is not for me to talk to [the media] about it, but we need to just step up. We will go away and start again, but we have to address the problems that are there. We just weren’t good enough, but we have to look at ourselves as a group. We haven’t been good enough since the start of the friendlies, so it is back to the drawing board. Why is this? I don’t know. F***ing hell, if I knew, I’d put it right. We wanted to do well, but sometimes we just weren’t good enough, plain and simple. Fabio Capello is a great manager and we have great players, but there are issues we need to address.
It’s a start that many others would do well to follow. If England are to learn their lessons and move forward, our self-important, self-aggrandizing players need to take a long, hard look in the mirror for a reason other than to admire their reflections, and accept the possibility that maybe they’re not quite as good as they think they are.
I’m not holding my breath that it will happen, though. I reckon there’s about as much chance of it happening as there is of me looking out of the window and seeing airborne bacon.
England player ratings (out of 10):
Johnson 4, Terry 4, Upson 4, A Cole 6
Milner 5, Lampard 6, Barry 5, Gerrard 5
Rooney 5, Defoe 4
Subs: J Cole 5, Heskey 5, Wright-Phillips