Sunday, June 27, 2010

World Cup 2010: England Mediocrity Explained

The Internet will presently be deluged with innumerable narratives explaining or rationalizing England's destruction by Germany in their 2010 World Cup knockout tie.

There are a few that should remain more salient than the countless others, for posterity's sake, before history is revisited, revisioned, and rewritten over and over under the bias of regret and disappointment.


Capello left Adam Johnson at home, meaning England had no natural left-winger—the same issue which plagued their attack in the last two, or even three World Cups.

The Italian manager opted for a midfield of James Milner, Frank Lampard, Gareth Barry, and Steven Gerrard across in England's last two games, essentially employing four central-midfielders across.

The result was a total disability to counterattack or play any meaningful attacking football. If Capello wanted to have a defensive midfield setup, he should have played 4-5-1, with Rooney alone up top, three central midfielders, and two natural wingers. At least then their attack could be released with true attacking, wide players.

Instead, he used a narrower 4-4-2 without any wingers, therefore without any width, and therefore without any flowing or attacking promise.


Perhaps Capello's first mistake was assigning Rio Ferdinand captain of the squad despite alarming injury concerns. Ferdinand featured only briefly for his club side this year with an omnipresent back issue dating back several seasons. He withdrew from the tournament just weeks before it started.

On form, Ferdinand is arguably England's best defender. And like him, off-form, John Terry is horrible. He was slow, detached, and thoughtless against Germany and was shaky throughout the tournament.

It's hard to begrudge Capello for choosing him and Matthew Upson, but unfortunately for everyone involved neither were good enough— individually or together—at all Sunday. Nor did anyone in England's backline, besides Glen Johnson, inspire confidence at any time in the tournament.


Terry, Upson, Barry, Lampard, Gerrard, and Wayne Rooney, especially, were plodding against Germany and throughout the tournament. England, as a whole, without Shaun Wright-Phillips and Aaron Lennon, relied almost completely on fullbacks Johnson and Ashley Cole to provide overlapping width and speed.
The English were neither particularly strong or fast. Germany's Miroslav Klose out-muscled and outran virtually every member of England's defense Sunday.

It's one thing to be a quick side that counterattacks through the wings and runs in behind defenses. It's another to be a physical side, winning headers, sticking in and controlling matches. England were neither and did none.

Cultivated arrogance

The attention England garners from the media, domestically and abroad, is significant. However, it's no different—in magnitude, at least—to that found in rabid South American countries, or France or Italy.
The stark difference in the attention and pressure applied by both media and fandom is in the receiver, not the sender.

England's players are largely overpaid by their clubs, the result of surfeit only now rearing its head back upon the owners, as debt piles throughout many Premier League  outfits. As a result, the individual egos of the British are more sensitive and more predisposed to being affected by it, being generally coddled and overly revered from without, and overly complacent, self-indulgent, and vain within.

Their lack of chemistry compounded an evident dearth in skill and athleticism, exposing them as a second-rate national side once again.

Reliance upon an overrated Wayne Rooney

Being one of the most marketed players in the world, it's not totally Rooney's fault that he's one of the most overrated. Each time he touches the ball, casual fans around the globe bate their breath, expecting anything. But there was nothing in his replies in an England shirt in June.

Rooney, on any team, will retrieve the ball on the left side, but doesn't have either the skill or confidence to dribble in that direction. Instead he opts to cut back with his right foot almost invariably.

Without the ability to sell movement to the byline, or the balance to switch the ball between his feet naturally, his offense is completely predictable. His only meaningful moments against Germany were a few fouls that he was gifted with as he ran into German defenders standing in his premeditated path.

Rooney has a low center of gravity and above-average vision, passing skill, and shooting power. But he is not strong enough to out-muscle large central defenders, nor fast enough to (or having the inclination to) make darting runs in behind them.

Therefore he often finds the defender between him and the goal. But what can he do to get past them? He is a very unambitious dribbler. He doesn't even try to create for himself with the ball, opting instead to usually turn back (to his right) to play square or across.

It's disappointing to realize how little trickery the Englishman picked up from a former clubmate—ironically also one of few players vaunted as a world soccer superstar, Cristiano Ronaldo; although the Portuguese striker actually deserves it, and lives up to it.

At club level this year, Rooney scored 26 goals, the majority of which completed United counterattacks through close range headers or tap-ins.

Unfortunately, though, it's hard for a player to push himself to improve when he is constantly being trumpeted as already one of the worlds' best, which Rooney, in reality, is not.

He remains a good striker on a great team at Manchester United, and an average player on a mediocre team in England. In the 2010 World Cup, Rooney played like a grumpy ghost, visible but immaterial, haunting England's dreams instead of opposing backlines.

Epitaph 2010

For posterity, let it be known that Barry, Terry, and Rooney were England's worst players in the tournament. Barry's dribbling, passing, and forward play was wholly regrettable. Terry's frazzle, lack of composure and speed, and insecurity marred his declining reputation. Rooney didn't get sent off, but may as well have been, by the lack of effort and effect he had on any of England's matches again, still scoreless across two World Cups.

Capello was supposed to be the difference to take England to the 2010 World Cup finals. In the end, he was one of the many reasons they crashed out prematurely.

His tactical reversion to vertical attacking play, without natural width (especially on the left) hearkened back to 2006 and 2002.  His inclusion of Heskey instead of Crouch was nostalgic at best.

Employing Gerrard on the left side was an egregious repeating of the same mistake of manager's past, despite it being well-documented and lamented then, and surely again now. Lampard and Barry consistently left huge gaps in front of their defense as they over-committed forward, and not just against Germany.

Without a doubt, Capello's dogmatic and conventional formations, selections, and use of substitutions—in other words, his managing of his side—detracted more than it added for England throughout the World Cup this year.

But he remained, as the last few English managers were, at the mercy of his personnel, a crutch the next manager won't share, as England's current generation will mostly be mercifully cycled out and replenished by 2014, after failing abjectly so far this millennium.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

England suffer from tactics and selection, not pressure, likeduhobviously

One day removed from another vacant performance, several English players sat down last night and had a beer with their manager, the Telegraph reported Sunday.

Understandably depressed, as most English fans are, after a numbing nil-nil draw with Algeria Friday, vice-captain John Terry and several other players reportedly expressed their opinions about England's best formation, over vino and pints, to Fabio Capello on his birthday.

Terry spoke of squad division and differing opinions—some red, some blue—regarding what must be done to ensure progression against Slovenia on Wednesday.

It is rumored that several members of the squad believe Gerrard must play closer to solitary striker Wayne Rooney. Another belief present in the squad is that Joe Cole must start. (Hopefully proponents of both realize that the two are mutually exclusive.)

He also implied some rebellion against their stalwart, cerebral manager, stating "When things don’t go too well it is important the lads stay together. That is what we had the other night when we expressed ourselves.’’

Oddly, with all the talk of unity and division, captains and responsibility, there are no quotables from David Beckham. But, if nothing else, the English are good at camaraderie. Ball-busting and banter are part of their footballing culture.


No, morale isn't much of an issue for the English players. They're mostly too simple to overthink their mateships. Nor is the real problem the media, their country's expectations, or any other arbitrary pressures that all participating sides are struggling to balance.

England's celebrated manager, who made the side appear so attractive leading up to the tournament, despite being a highly-touted tactician, has shifted his strategic paradigm nostalgically similar to his failed predecessors.

When Capello regrettably left Adam Johnson at home, he doomed his side to play like the same-old modern England: hoofing long balls forward, hoping they're nodded on to Rooney, because sadly, like other recent England managers come-and-gone, Capello doesn't have the balls to sit either Lampard or Gerrard in lieu of the other.

Relegating Gerrard or Lampard unnaturally to the left wing, and unimaginatively plopping Heskey next to worker-finisher Rooney, just as McClaren and Erickson did, will see Capello and England fall tragically out of the world's biggest sporting tournament, two years after the same squad failed to qualify for Euro 2008.

Yet against Algeria last Friday, Gerrard was shoe-horned by Capello into the left of midfield just as he, Lampard, or Scholes were in past major tournaments. The result? No width.

Though, it's true, over those several years—and the first game against the United States—Lampard and Gerrard proved they don't work together in the middle of the field, leaving huge gaps in front of their own defense as each of them naturally drifted forward or counter-attacked.


Therefore, either Gerrard or preferably Lampard must sit to allow the other to play with the holding Barry if England are to succeed Wednesday in a 4-4-2.

The Oggmonster Peter Crouch must replace Heskey if England continue to use this formation. He enables England's blunt attack by winning more headers, being more mobile, having better feet, trickery, and generally better at everything than Heskey. The lanky Spurs forward must replace him if Capello opts to use two forwards.

If, as Chelsea's Terry and Lampard wish, their former club teammate Joe Cole is drafted in against Slovenia, he can certainly help on the left side where England now lack a natural left-winger. But he doesn't offer the width that Shaun Wright-Phillips can on that side.

This makes Cole's best position the right side with SWP on the left. If Cole is in the form that Terry suggests, a flier on him out there couldn't hurt, as Aaron Lennon has failed to impress and seems to prefer impacting games as a substitute, anyway.

If Capello plays 4-5-1, with Rooney up front alone—overestimating, as everyone does, his ability—both Lampard and Gerrard could feature in a five-man midfield with two wingers while Barry holds.

But Rooney himself, it must be said, is more effective with a partner, at club level and beyond: Even while he was tapping in goal after goal for United in a 4-5-1 last season, his outfield play was usually quite mediocre.

Besides, England must win to ensure progression into the elimination rounds. Therefore, Capello must use their most attacking formation. Crouch must be drafted in instead of Heskey, and either Gerrard or Lampard must sit, instead of lampooning either uncomfortably on the left wing.


Hopefully this was all sorted out in a bevy of man-hugs and cheers as players and manager relaxed Sunday evening to rationalize over pints.

A source from Soccernet said Sunday that Capello's message to his side would be "Just play." Hopefully his desperate players find his terse imploration more profound than spurious.

Their manager's stern propensity for discipline and sense was indeed useful, if not crucial, to changing the failing atmosphere at the England camp post-McClaren. He led the Three Lions through friendlies and World Cup qualifiers with aplomb and authority, garnering respect, if not outright fear, from a usually domineering British media.

But now that the tournament proper is upon them, his side would likely perform better if they were allowed to relax more, by manager and country, heading into the make-or-break match against a stodgy Slovenian side. Their countenance got them here; they no longer need it.

But, any wide range of understandable pressures, egos, affiliations, or the timing of the team-sheet won't add or detract especially from England's performance if their gaffer dogmatically trots out the same uninspired line-up, employing the same dull, vertical attacking style only freshly inscribed on the tombstones of predecessors he once appeared so superior to.

“It does seem like two years’ work was for nothing,” Capello told The Mirror Monday. Hopefully it isn't any more apparent come Thursday morning.