by Daisy Cutter
On a scale that has yet to fully reveal itself – and won’t do for some time – the worst thing that has happened to English football in recent times was the national side’s pyrrhic victory over Spain back in November of last year. It was supposed to be a showcase friendly; an ideal opportunity to pit our young prospects Jones, Welbeck and the eternal teen Walcott against the World and European champions. Instead Fabio Capello used the game to introduce a solid, ultra-defensive system where the shop shutters were firmly pulled down throughout. England allowed their illustrious opposition huge amounts of possession and territory while maintaining an impregnable carapace around the 18 yard line, settling deep and hunting in pairs.
It was a ceding of superiority and a belated acknowledgement perhaps that England lack the talent or class to equally compete with the elite.
In doing so he reduced the three lions to underdogs.
With a fortunate 1-0 victory the plan worked and the general consensus that followed was that the evening was a success. It may not have been pretty and it required some swallowing of pride but unequivocally it gave England another option as the Euros approached. No longer did we have to rely on bluster and lung-busting passion or kid ourselves that we could knock it around with quick-witted ingenuity like the Germans and others. If need be we could grind.
The appointment of Roy Hodgson brought further emphasis on our new-found desire to be team that is ‘hard to beat’ and gritty, bitty 1-0 squeaks past Norway and Belgium in his first two games in charge bore this out quite literally.
For this it would be wrong to carp. I personally cannot ever recall seeing England so compact a unit as they are at present and what Hodgson has implemented in such a short space of time is entirely laudable. What we witnessed against France was each individual implicitly knowing their roles and working hard within that structure and though it is hoped that he will loosen the reins a little against a Swedish side that has less to trouble us offensively the organisational discipline on display bodes well for the week ahead.
However, whilst the pre-tournament pessimism has been somewhat lifted from a hard-earned point in an opener we could ill afford to lose I cannot help but see dark clouds on the horizon and the all-too-familiar smudging of red and white face-paint.
Granted it was a highly competent performance that nullified France for large periods and restricted the arch poacher Benzema to taking pot-shots from twenty yards out. Granted England’s shape was such that our lone front man was rarely isolated – a charge that can be justifiably levelled at several teams thus far.
Granted we looked…good.
But once again the English disease appears to have struck and I fear history repeating itself with an inevitably brave but painful exit further down the line.
It is seemingly de rigueur to blame all of our previous woes (and by God we’ve had a few) on our blood and guts mentality and a distrust of technique and while this has certainly been a significant factor what has really held us back – what has really contributed to us winning just one major tournament in our entire history – has been an inherent inability to adapt. Maybe it’s because we’re an island race that we remain so trenchant, stubborn and one-dimensional in our vision but the cold fact is that as a sporting nation – from every era to the present – we are incapable of being multifaceted. Sadly Hodgson’s England appears to be yet another example of this.
The defeat of Spain was supposed to add another weapon in our armoury. The capacity to park the bus if need be. A plan B. Instead, due to experiencing a handful of victories in what were essentially meaningless friendlies, it has suddenly become our masterplan.
How depressingly predictable are we to do such a thing; to stumble upon something we’re quite good at then embrace it so whole-heartedly and run it into the ground instantly disregarding all other options available to us.
The attritional triumph over Spain last November was no fluke and was predominantly down to organised endeavour but it certainly required ill-fortune to turn a blind eye as chances were spurned against us and posts were struck. If we are to progress to within the reaches of glory we cannot be beholden to such serendipity throughout because if there’s anything our previous campaigns has taught us is that Lady Luck doesn’t like us very much. My guess is her ancestors originate from the ‘colonies’.
On a much more pragmatic level this rigid reliance on withstanding pressure and hitting on the break is simply tempting disaster to strike as illustrated by Nasri’s fine strike last Monday. After going ahead England immediately went into containment mode and relinquished any threat they’d previously shown in favour of settling ever deeper. Absorbing pressure is one thing but inviting it – against the very best locksmiths the continent has to offer – is quite another and should Roy’s men progress beyond a tricky group then attempting to contain the uncontainable in Ronaldo, Ozil, Silva and co will surely lead to a breaching of the white barricades and a flight home.
Tournaments need to be won not negotiated with the mentality of avoiding defeat and while Greece may have successfully done precisely this in 2004 if England are adopting the strategy of a 100-1 outsider then Christ we really are in trouble.
Our newly-discovered ‘hard to beat’ ethos has been accompanied by a nationwide reality check and we have notably entered this competition without our usual hype and delusions of grandeur. But we should not go too far the other way and remember that in Rooney and Gerrard, with a youthful dash of Oxlade-Chamberlain and Welbeck, we possess players who can torment the very best defences around. Additionally it is worth noting that a bit of bluster and lung-busting passion is no bad thing too if employed sparingly. After all, it is what comes naturally and what we excel at.
The recent introduction of a solid, well-organised England team is unequivocally welcomed but let’s leave the cautious underdog mentality to the underdogs.
Roy, in a knock-out tournament a safety first strategy is often the riskiest of all.