Sorry for the lack of new posts recently. I’ve been distracted too much by the World Cup. Hopefully now it’s finished I’ll get back to blogging on a more regular basis.
Speaking of the World Cup; now I know this post is a little off topic, but I couldn’t really resist talking about the finals (I’ve also tried to justify it a little by using coffee beans). England’s performance was at best, very frustrating and anxious to watch and at worse a humiliation. The press are very keen to blame everyone and anyone for what went wrong, provided that it sells newspapers.
To me the underlying problem for all England’s woe seems to be their formation. A 4-4-2 formation without a proper left winger (no offense to Steven Gerrard) didn’t work. The basic principle of an attack is to stretch the defensive team and so create space for goal scoring opportunities. The problem with England when they attacked was they didn’t keep a good shaped. Other than the occasional width provided by the full-backs getting forward, England kept to the middle of the pitch. This made it easy for the opposition to defend against (particularly as most had 10 men behind the ball), as they weren’t stretched at all. It also made it frustrating for the England players as their bunched up shape left no easy passes on to teammates.
How many times did we hear Mark Lawrenson (or another commentator) use the phrase ‘Hollywood pass’ as Lampard or Gerrard tried and failed to split the defence with a near impossible ball? Some of the intricate play between Rooney and Gerrard was impressive, but it never resulted in chances as 3 or 4 defenders could afford to close them down without leaving space behind for other England players to exploit.
Many of us will remember when Ossie Ardiles managed Tottenham; how he emphasised a triangle passing system, where the player on the ball always had two options to pass to. The truth is that in any formation, if you keep a good shape, these triangles of players exist naturally within. If England kept a better shape there would be easier passes on, they’d keep the ball much better and the players wouldn’t feel anxious. When on the ball they’d know that they’d always have two easy passes on. So they wouldn’t have to worry about threading the ball through the eye of a needle or having to take a man on just to make some space.
Now I know this is the same formation that saw England qualify top of their group with some ease. But their group was pretty easy. The likes of Belarus, Kazakhstan or Andorra hardly provided a tough challenge. Sir Alex Ferguson was recently quoted by the BBC as saying:
“They qualified from a group which you’d have to say was a million to one they wouldn’t qualify from. So it was an easy passage into the finals.”
In these finals, more than any other World Cup that I can remember, the lesser nations (normally the whipping boys) have been well organised. They’ve approached their games negatively, happy to play out for a draw, hoping to get a lucky break on the counter. Out of 48 group matches, only 13 had a two goal or greater winning margin (and this includes Mexico beating France 2-0)!
England struggled against Algeria and Slovenia because of their poor shape. They couldn’t pass the ball around to wear the opposition down and pull defenders out of position. They didn’t trouble the full-backs and fire in lots of crosses, which lets face it, is England’s life line of goals. 3 out of 4 (should have been 5 – thank you Jorge Larrionda) goals scored by England in the finals were from crosses.
One of the most popular theories for England’s failure is tiredness. The players were apparently too tired to perform after an extensive domestic campaign. Many newspapers and pundits alike have suggested the Premier league season should be altered to include a winter break.
Personally, I think they’re all barking up the wrong tree. Nearly 1 in every 7 players at the finals played in the Premier league. But no other team appeared as tired as England. Look at Landon Donovan: he’s hardly stopped playing in two years with two MLS seasons sandwiched between off-season loans to Bayern Munich and Everton. Not forgetting playing in the Confederation’s Cup last summer. Did he look tired at the finals? No – probably USA best player scoring 3 times.
To say all of England’s players were worn out from the domestic season doesn’t really ring true. Glenn Johnson only made 25 appearances in the league for Liverpool after sitting out the middle of the season through injury. Ashley Cole had two months off after breaking his ankle against Everton in February. Emile Heskey spent much of his season warming the Villa bench. So these players surely should be pretty fresh.
To me, what appeared to be fatigue was in fact anxiety: anxiety at not being able to win easy; at not being able to string easy passes together. This anxiety was caused by the formation not working. You could see the players wanted to win. You could see the determination in their eyes. But it was the basics they couldn’t get right: poor passes, poor touches and poor positioning. They wore their hearts on their sleeves and worked hard but unfortunately their anxiety inhibited their skill and ultimately made them look average.