WC2014 Engerland 1 – 2 Italy

Oh that sickening feeling as it becomes sadly obvious that something has gone horribly wrong

Oh that sickening feeling as it becomes sadly obvious that something has gone horribly wrong

Can A Loss Ever Be Good News?

It’s weird. I can’t help feeling less enthused for Engerland’s chances I ever have.  Yet I don’t feel despondent. I don’t think anyone realistically expects them to win the damn thing, and precious few expect them to get out of the group. What we all want, irrespective of results is an improvement in performance and some idea of future development.  In this, amazingly, Engerland just about delivered.


Football: World Cup 2014 Engerland 1 – 1 Ukraine

Classic Man U Play… Or Nearly

They say it’s the mark of champions (or championes as we apparently say round here nowdays) that they can play badly and win. Less lauded is the ability to play very badly and scrape out an undeserved draw. But that, it appears, is the Engerland way. Faced with a side that had a little more spine, ability and tactical nous than the 146th ranked team in the world, Engerland began to show their true colours – and they were as drab and empty as the white of their Umbro shirts (soon to be replaced by new spangly super white Nike ones as the FA rakes in another lotto bag of cold, hard cash).

Sure there were moments of genuine hope. There was significantly less aimless hoofery as Engerland tried gamely to pass the ball around on the floor. And, yes, some of the passing was more incisive than the usual redundant back four recycling we have come to know and detest from Ferdinand and Terry. And, yes, there was the attempt to bed in youth as once again Cleverly and Ox formed the bedrock of the new spine. But these were fleeting moments of surprise in an otherwise depressingly familiar performance.

Brazil World Cup 2014 logo.

Among the many bad points were Engerland’s inability to deal with the tactical movement of Ukraine. The Ukrainians were constantly sharper both on and off the ball. One of the principle irritants of Englerland performances is the awesome lethargy with which players move when off the ball, rarely breaking sweat and almost never creating space and opportunity for others to exploit. Ukraine weren’t great, but they were head and shoulders above Engerland for large chunks of the game, even if the stats appear to show otherwise.

Engerland’s key faults are clear. An inability to deal with the ball when passed to (those ricochet shinpads are still working a treat). General tactical incompetence. The concept that heading the ball is something that inevitably involves the use of the arm (principally to bash your opponent’s head with) – that’s not heading, that’s call a foul. The concept that thrusting your hand into someone’s face is somehow a legitimate defensive move – also better known as a foul. Astonishingly poor positional play. Inability to defend, track back or regain possession effectively. The list, I’m afraid, goes on. And on.

Principle culprits are the Engerland Old Boys. The Lampard Gerrard Axis once again failed to ignite, which amazingly did not come as a surprise to anyone bar possibly Uncle Roy. However, thanks to Gerrard’s ability to get himself sent off it won’t be tried in the next match. Defoe, once again, was penalised for his inability to understand the fundamental Laws of the Game (this time it was facepalming your opponent rather than his usual offside shenanigans). But the main bad boy was Glen Johnson. His positional play is, frankly, atrocious. That’s not to say he isn’t dangerous going forward, or that he doesn’t contribute to Engerland’s attack. It’s that he’s supposed to be a right back. Not a winger. And that implies a certain degree of responsibility for actually getting involved in the frankly tiresome business of defending. In particular getting back into position fast once he has lost possession.

Johnson’s failure to do this destabilises Engerland massively. It drags the defence out of position, creating a vacuum either on his right side (where he is supposed to be), or on the left (as centre backs and left back move over to accommodate his adventures). And often it pulls back a genuine attacker who is forced to cover for Johnson’s escapades, removing them from the attacking threat. You wonder why Walcott gets such a bad press when playing for Engerland? Just look at how often he is pulled out of his normal role and forced to cover for Johnson. The fact is, for all his attacking threat (and these days full backs have to have some), his defensive behaviour is a catastrophe. Hodgson needs to decide if he wants Johnson’s attacking skills enough to actually play him as an attacker, because playing Walcott and others as emergency defenders to cover for him is idiotic. Compare Johnson’s behaviour to that of the left back Baines, who was just as much an attacking threat but actually also managed to defend, and you see what a liability the Liverpool player is.

As far as the new boys went, faced with a better class of opposition, neither Cleverly nor Ox were able to make the impact they had against Moldova. It’s credit to Hodgson that he kept faith with them, and valuable experience for them, but it’s illustrative of Engerland’s paucity of talent that there weren’t more experienced challengers for these positions. Still it’s clear that these two, along with Sturridge, Welbeck, Bertrand, Wilshire (if he ever gets fit) and Walcott will be the future for the Engerland team. So the more time they get the better.

The downside for Engerland is that it’s hard to make that transition when you need Lampard to get the final, equalising, penalty for you. Four points from two games puts Engerland joint top level with Montenegro and Poland. The group is still, essentially a mini-league of these three and Ukraine. So far it’s honours even.

Football: World Cup 2014 Maldova 0 – 5 Engerland

Not Nearly As Bad As It Could Have Been

Brazil World Cup 2014 logo.

Let’s face it, pretty much all the omens were against this game. We’d only just got over the Great Euro Olympic Summer of Sport hoo-ha, barely scraped our way through the stomach-clenching tedium of the transfer window, just about got used to the idea that the Prem was back in action, and we’re faced with this, an international World Cup qualifier away to the 147th best team on Earth.

Oh and it was live on ITV, with all the terrifying mateyness and crap bonhomie Adrian Chiles brings, coupled with the tactical insight of Andy Townshend and Gareth Southgate, and 10 minutes of ads slapped in at half time.

So there we were, bored, disillusioned and patronised to as the whistle went. Surely things could only go downhill from here?

But if you overlooked all of that and just concentrated on the football, it wasn’t all bad.

Sure Engerland started with many of the old skool ‘golden’ generation, and, sure, Hodgson was the latest in a long line of failed Engerland managers to believe that, just this once, Lampard and Gerrard could actually play successfully in the same team and that all evidence to the contrary, that John Terry was still good enough to ‘man up’ our central defence. But there were strange, vaguely reassuring moments.

First, in starting with Cleverly and Oxlaid-Chamberlain, Hodgson confirmed that if you’re good enough, you are old enough and that he’s not totally averse to taking risks. Both played well, reaffirmed his selection and looked to build on their previous good performances.

Second, to a large, often disturbing extent, Engerland played the ball on the floor. Sure there were 50 yard hail mary hoofers every now and then, but they weren’t as painfully abundant as in previous games, and some actually had purpose. But generally Engerland mixed it up on the grass, passing and moving their way through a very poor Moldovan side. And when they did pass, they actually looked like they were trying to accomplish something rather than get rid of the ball to a teammate.

So, a big win, a good smattering of new players, some purposeful movement and tactics, not bad for an evening’s work in the furthest tie away from home in qualification.

Euro 2012: Day 16

Same Old, Same Old – Exit At The Gift Shoppe: Italy 0 – 0 Engerland

Italian football genius Andrea Pirlo puts a useless Engerland team in their place with the most audacious penalty the Euros have seen.

Now loads of people have come down on poor little Engerland. They are, it is said, dour miserablists without a jot of footballing intelligence (that nice Theo and Oxblood aside), they play appalling lumpen prole hoofball, they are most effective when corralled into their patent ‘Roman Tortoise’ formation, they have an almost superstitious belief that Rooney will one day turn out a half-decent performance for the team and that’s just their good points. So naturally it’s all the fault of the ball to feet playing Spaniards.

Arguably the most evenly balanced of the quarter finals, on paper this looked like it could go either way. Italy hadn’t been playing all that well, doing just enough to come through in a group which also featured the flailing Croatians and the utterly abysmal Irish. They looked a bit staid and vulnerable, not unlike their opponents. If there was a quarter final that Engerland could realistically win, this was it. In the end it was as brutal a nil – nil thrashing as you could possibly imagine.

Engerland opened up in typical Engerlish fashion, an awful lot of running about and hoofy looping to varying degrees of success, a half-decent attempt on goal which provided Buffon with his only serious save of the day. However, after 20 minutes or so of pretty footy, Engerland simply opened up. The terrifying thing was that you could see it happening like ripples in a pond as the Italians first regained control, then established utter dominance over the game. In contrast you could watch the Engerlish backline retreating like Rooney’s receding hairline, first it’s on the halfway line, then halfway in the Engerlish half, then their 18 yard line, then inside the penalty area. Each retreat marked by a further retreat in the quality of any response on those rare occasions when Engerland actually had the ball.

The most astonishing thing about the game, aside from the mystery of how Italy failed to score in 120 minutes with almost total possession of the ball and about a grazillion on target chances, was how Andrea Pirlo managed to dominate all the play. Now here’s an older, slower player of undoubted talent, whose threat could have been neutralised by stationing an Engerlish player within, say, 20 yards. Prevent the ball getting to Pirlo and you’ve cut out about 90% of the Italian threat, reducing them to 30 yard hoofballs to a rampaging but ineffective Ballotelli. Not a hard concept for the best tactical brains in Engerlish football to get their heads around. And many different ways of accomplishing that, including man marking him with one of Gerrard, Parker or Rooney. Alternatively, bring on the Ox to make Pirlo’s life difficult. Not rocket science. However, not the Engerlish way apparently.

Instead the best minds in Engerlish football decided to isolate Pirlo by providing him with a 20 yard exclusion zone. A move which gave him almost total freedom to dictate play for the best part of 100 minutes. Unlike Gerrard, whose hail mary hoofers are just as likely to fall to an opponent’s able touch as they are to ricochet off an Engerlish player (into the able touch of an opponent), Pirlo can actually do the long ball pass thing. And he spread the play, usually down the right wing (patrolled with all his usually ineffectiveness by Ashley Young), with the ease of an old geezer lazing back in his recliner and puffing a catastrophically large cigar.

That Italy didn’t win in normal time was outrageous. That they didn’t win after 120 minutes was unacceptable and surely requires an indepth review by UEFA, followed by significant rule changes to prevent this thing from happening again. The notion that, but for the regulation couple of useless penalties which they always seem to dredge up, Engerland might have got to a semi final is repugnant to all sport loving Engerlishmen. Fortunately for them, and the world, we had Pirlo to take the most audacious penalty in the Euros to put the Engerlish most firmly in their place. The full scale recriminations will come later.

Euro 2012: Day 12

The Roar Is On: Engerland 1 – 0 Ukraine

It is now clear what the answer to the Hodgson Conundrum is. Given his late entry as manager it was unclear what his general tactical approach would be. After two friendlies and two group stage matches a few things have become clear. He favours a cautious defensive opening, preferring to absorb pressure rather than actively probe and worry the opposition. However, when the team breaks, they are most successful breaking fast, using the wings and putting balls into the box rather than attempting to romance the ball into the net. And so far it’s been relatively effective.

Friendly wins against Norway and Belgium, both of whom appeared to be on their way on holiday, set the tone. Crafty, technical football was conspicuous by its absence, dour, obstinate hoofery more than apparent. None of which has been challenged by the first two group games. Both were filled with long periods of ball chasing, poor possession and control, compact, well disciplined defending and very occasional offensive manoeuvres. Yet they are still grinding out results – one of the signs of champions.

Today they had more than enough to deal with the Ukrainian threat. They were effective at absorbing the inevitable Ukraine pressure. The hosts were, after all, playing to stay in the tournament so were committed to pushing forward. And yet again the goal came from a cross, this time from the right and an easy header tap in from Rooney. After that it was shut the gate, hoof the ball and watch as the Ukrainians exhausted themselves.

That’s How To Do Collapsing: France 0 – 2 Sweden

You have to love the French. At the start of the game they had undoubtedly qualified, while the Swedes had nothing but pride to play for. So inevitably it was the French who collapsed. Armed with what appeared to be their most creative side (as opposed to the one most geared to getting a result), France should have been a joy to watch. After all, the combined attacking talents of Ben Arfa, Nasri, Ribery and Benzema should be enough to set even the calmest pulses racing. Yet if there’s one quality that all four appear to share it is a failure to really live up to their reputations in the really big games. Or to be blunt, all four flatter to deceive. Nasri had one glorious 3 month period 18 months ago, before largely enjoying Man City’s championship winning season from the bench. Ben Arfa has been occasionally sensational for Newcastle, but he is frustratingly inconsistent. While both Ribery and Benzema have shone in their domestic leagues, but come up short in the really big games.

No such misery for Sweden’s Ibrahimovic. Fresh off the first season in 8 years when he hasn’t won the domestic league wherever he has played, he did for the French with a spectacular scissor volley from just inside the box. After that France seemed to get into a huff and strop off at least 45 minutes before the final whistle.

It makes you wonder. How is it that Engerland can be so poor, yet are going through as group winners? How is it that Sweden can be so effective against France, yet couldn’t defend against Engerland or Ukraine? And why, oh why are France going through when they play as badly as that.

Euro 2012: Day 8

Laugh? I Nearly Died: Engerland 3 – 2 Sweden

Who me guv? Walcott gives detailed explanation of his equaliser against the Swedes. Like all good fish tales this one gets bigger every time it’s told.

OK, as the Prem drowns in acres of new money having sold its soul for over £1billion a year, Engerland brought a little bit of the Prem excitement to Euro 2012. For this must be one of the most exciting games the Euros have ever seen. Indeed you might say it was Excitement 10, skills, quality, football ability, tactics, uncle Tom Cobley and all a big fat zero.

Given Engerland matches now follow a script as predictable as a Michael Bay movie, it’s strange that I find them such onerous affairs. Frankly I should just give up caring. The games go like this. A dull, cagey first 15 or so, with Engerland playing it uselessly round the back (as if they haven’t quite understood that the point of playing it around the back is to pull the opposition out of place and give you attacking options). Amazingly Engerland somehow conjour up a goal out of nothing, somewhere around the 20 – 30 minute mark. Amazed at their own success (what a great wheeze they think, we’ve scored) and a-drunk on their own exhileration, Engerland fall back behind their own 18 yard line, lose all coherence and adopt their famous ‘desperate defending’ posture. Inevitably the opposition score, either just before half time or soon afterwards. If Engerland are in one of their really dire moods the opposition will score again. At this point the timelines diverge and either Engerland go on to lose (often on penalties), or even more amazingly than anything that has happened before, they actually score some more goals.

God must really hate the Swedes. They probably didn’t deserve to lose to Ukraine, but the latter desperately needed their fairytale. They certainly didn’t deserve to lose to Engerland. Once they’d scored Engerland played undoubtedly the worst football of any team in any game this tournament. It appeared as if they’d just drafted in 10 people, given them Engerland shirts and told them to get out there for the second half. It was amazing Sweden only scored two and it was impressive that Engerland actually got as many as no chances during this period. Honestly, it was bury your head and think of anything but Engerland time.

A lot will be made of Walcott’s introduction, his excellent goal and his overall contribution to Engerland’s victory, and in scoring one, setting up the winner and almost laying on a fourth (only for Greedie Stevie to steal it off the Ox’s toe and then hit it against the keeper) there’s much to commend. But it was equally important to rid the team of the irksome Milner and try to convince Johnson that his place (as a right back) is RIGHT BACK in defence.

It wasn’t all Engerland. Sweden suffer the same frailties as Portugal, being the sum of one player and a bunch of pals (or in Ibra’s case, not pals at all). Ibra failed, once again, to deliver on the really big stage and it is highly amusing that he will leave the tournament having scored fewer goals than his chief irritant Mellburg.

That Was So Electric: France 2 – 0 Ukraine

Too much potential for humour here as an electrical storm of impressive stature delayed the match for an hour. The rain in Spain falls mainly on Ukraine it appears. France were electrified. Après moi le deluge etc etc.

The Ukrainian fairytale fell off a cliff as France first controlled, then killed the game. Not even Sheva could save them, although he’ll have a much better chance against Engerland should they play as badly as they did today. France pretty much secure qualification as it seems unlikely that the fighting Swedes will put up much resistance (and if Engerland can beat them then the French should put them to the sword).

It seems that the French have finally emerged from the malaise of their last three tournaments, where they went from crown princes to clowns in the space of three group matches in 2002 and then managed to make that farrago look like a well disciplined campaign as they famously imploded in World Cup 2010. Now they look like a proper side again, although Nasri, Ribery and Evra are still very annoying petulant gits. But perhaps most astonishingly almost a third of their best side now play for Newcastle.