by Stuart Moriarty-Patten

It’s becoming a bit of a cliché to quote statistics after a football game, but I think the ones from the England – Italy game are probably worth repeating.  Italy had 39 shots to England’s twelve, and twelve on target to England’s four. They enjoyed 68 per cent of the possession and made 833 passes to 364.  Thirteen of Italy’s players used had a pass completion rate of 80 per cent or above, while England had only five players in that category.  The leading passer, and the undoubted star of the match, was Italy’s Pirlo.  He made 131 passes. England’s highest passer was Ashley Cole with 44.  For me the most interesting statistic was that Pirlo also covered the most ground during the game.  He ran 11.58 km over the 120 minutes, compared to Gerrard’s 11.26 km.  Pirlo is a year older than Gerrard, and yet he still looked fresh and lively at the end of the game. Gerard by comparison looked very tired and had been suffering cramp. Why is this?  England always appear tired in tournaments, and the intensity of the Premier League and the number of games played is always trotted out as a familiar excuse, but if you look at the number of games the other top players played in the last year they more than match those played by the England players.  For example at Barcelona, Fabregas, Xavi, and Iniesta all played around 50 games last year.  Portugal’s Ronaldo played over 60 games, while the most appearances this season for their club side by an English player, excluding the keepers, was Milner, Carroll, and Walcott’s 35 games.  Even if we did reduce the size of the Premier League, to reduce the number of games played, you can guarantee that the club’s owners would be taking their players overseas for friendlies to make up for the short fall in gate revenue.

Is this lack of fitness an indictment of England’s training, or, as Graham Taylor mentioned a few years ago, the England player’s refueling habits when away from the training ground.  How often do you hear of an Italian player being drunk?  Mancini when commenting on a Joe Hart drinking spree a couple of years ago mentioned that the level of drinking done by English players dismayed him.  It’s going to be hot in Brazil in 2014 and fitness levels will be crucial.

The statistics also prove what every commentator has mentioned, England simply cannot hold onto the ball.  A snapshot of play summed up all England’s problems when Terry having won the ball beat a player only to misplace a simple 4-yard pass.  That little passage said it all, physicality, a little skill, but ultimately giving the ball away, and a rush back to defend.

I have no argument with Hodgson recognising that England are not as good as other sides so you have to plan on what to do when you haven’t got the ball.  Yet, when you have got the ball you need to do something with it, and too often England end up knocking it long, only to see it coming straight back at them as they gift the opposition the ball.  My theory about this is that at their Premier League clubs the players are surrounded by players from different countries who are technically superior, and it is simple for them to play the ball to them.  For example, Scott Parker at Tottenham has Modric to play the short pass to.  When England get together there is no naturally gifted leader for the players to look up to.  The England players have looked short of confidence not ability.  When they get the ball the lack of confidence means they want to get rid of it as soon as possible, but with no-one willing to receive it then the only solution is to knock it long, hoping you get lucky.

The media must bear some of the responsibilty for this state of affairs.  Players know they will get slated if they make a mistake so its best to hide, if you haven’t got the ball then you can’t make a mistake.  You only have to listen to programmes like 606 when call after call roundly slate the team, whipped into a frenzy by the presenters, and ex-professionals, who never won anything either, and that was after England won their group.

Constantly being told you are not good enough, and yet still being expected to win in style is surely damaging to anyone’s self-confidence.  The players may be highly paid and feted as superstars, but they are fragile as the rest of us.  If you had a job where you were constantly sniped at and undermined, and you knew that no matter how well you performed you were going to get crucified for one mistake, how would you feel?  I think you can see the effect of this on the players both at the beginning and the end of the match.  In the tunnel before kick off the England players looked tense and grim faced, the Italians though were relaxed.  Same thing could be seen at the end of the game.  The two Ashley’s, Cole and Young, looked like nervous young schoolboys going to take their penalties, you just knew they were going to miss.

A few years ago the England cricket team were at the very bottom of the test nations, and, like the football team copping flak from the experts and ex-pros, who themselves had failed at international level.  However, good management, having a plan, hard work and a belief in the players achieved results.  With the emergence of the likes of Wilshere, Cleverly, Welbeck, and Phil Jones, just to name a few, we may have the players coming through, but is Hodgson the man to organise them?  In the short time he has had available to him he has shown he can get the players on his side and foster a team spirit, but only time will tell whether he can make us a credible international force.