What We Learned From Young Engerland vs Czech Republic (1-2)

Lies, Damn Lies And Statistics

While it’s undoubtedly a good thing that a bit of intellectual analysis is being applied to football, in particular the increased use of in-game/prozone style statistics to monitor a player’s activities over individual matches and seasons, there’s a danger of developing a simple set of ‘dumbed down’ numbers that are positively counterproductive.

Young Engerland manager Stuart Pearce seeks inspiration as those pesky Czechs sneak another goal past his side.

Take, for instance, the much over-used ‘possession’ stat. Scorelines aside, it’s close to becoming the single number that defines a team’s performance, a get out of jail free card should the team lose – ‘well, we had the bulk of possession and were unlucky to lose’ – or a great defence – ‘sure we were under the cosh, they had 75% of possession, but we battled through to a win’. But the truth is that possession is not a simple number.  As has clearly been shown in this Under 21’s Championship. It ain’t how much possession you have, it’s what you do with it. It’s almost as if we should have another stat, Effective Possession.

Take the Young Engerland vs Spain match, Spain had 65% or more possession, dominated the game, yet still only managed to get a draw by virtue of a deliberate handball. Hardly the stuff of dreams. So much so that it spawned Engerland manager Stuart Pearce’s comment that ‘if we had 60% of possession, we would be winning games four or five nil’, a remark that is bound to come back to haunt him, if it hasn’t already. Not least from this game, where it was Engerland who had 64% of possession, but were fundamentally unable to impose themselves on the game.

Possession Is As Possession Does

It all comes down to what you do with possession. The Czechs it seems were happy to give possession to Young Engerland, knowing that Young Engerland were incapable of doing anything significant with it, and for the millionth time, simply passing the ball aimlessly around the back four as they try desperately to figure out what they’re supposed to do with the strange round white thing at their feet doesn’t count as effective possession. Sure Young Engerland scored, but it wasn’t until the 76th minute, and once they did things appeared to fall apart. The Czechs, with their progress to the semis in doubt, immediately changed their tactics, pushed forward and eventually equalised. Then, with Young Engerland forced forward in a desperate attempt to score so that they would qualify, the Czechs applied the hammerblow and scrapped in a winner. You could call it unlucky, but the reality is it was an accurate reflection of a side who simply can’t control games.

Young Engerland Beset By Familiar Failings

Once again, Young Engerland came across as having all the qualities and failings of the senior side. A bunch of undoubtedly talented individuals who somehow become less than the sum of their parts when put into a team. A team (and I include both the players and the management team here) who appear to have no tactical understanding, no ability to shape or change a game and no ability to react intelligently to on pitch events.

You sensed that there was no concept of how to effectively manage the transitions of the game, to move from defence into possession, into attack. No understanding of what the strengths and weaknesses of their opponents were and how to effectively deal with or exploit them. And no thought as to how to make these individuals gel into a genuinely strong team.

Once again, an English team is defeated by the tournament process. We seem to have got to grips with the qualification process, which in itself is no mean feat given that neither France, Germany, Portugal nor Italy managed to get through, but we haven’t yet mastered the experience of tournament football. Pearce looks like a manager who is adept at selecting the most talented 11 individuals for a match (although his choice of Mancienne as a holding midfielder was a classic case of finding a square hole to keep his captain on the pitch), but not the best team. And for qualification, that’s probably all that’s needed, after all any single qualification match is going to be dogged by inevitable injuries and pull-outs, so the team pretty much picks itself. In tournament football, where you have a squad of players, you have to build a team.

Statistically speaking, Loserpool’s new wunderkind, Jordan Henderson, may be every bit the £20 million manboy talent they think he is, but if he can’t link up with Smalling and Jones in defence providing a conduit to the attack, then he’s a lot less useful to this team. Similarly, if the defence can’t find a way to move the ball forward other than bloody minded hoofery, they’re only fulfilling half of their responsibilities to the team. Welbeck and Sturridge may have the most effective movement of any striker in the world, but if the midfield can’t supply them the ball occasionally, there’s something seriously wrong with the system.

Increasingly we’re hearing a lot of talk about ‘footballing brains’, as if they are somehow different from the brains that ordinary mortals like you or I are issued with at birth. But the truth is that both players and managers should be judged less by the brains they have than the choices they make both during and around a game. Pearce’s choices of Mancienne in an unfamiliar midfield holding role and Henderson in central midfield appear to have been poor and his decision to stick with both of them throughout the Ukraine match seems to show a lack of both adaptability and imagination. Lansbury might appear reluctant to leap into a tackle unnecessarily, but he was much more effective than Henderson at moving the ball into dangerous positions.

Lessons For Engerland (Young And Old)

Great teams, tournament winning teams, adapt as the tournament develops, subtly altering structure and formation as they search for the perfect fit. And, inevitably, they are rarely simply the 11 best players or the 11 fully fit players you get during qualification. We think of Jimmy Greaves, undoubtedly Engerland’s most skillful player at the time, who played not a minute of the 1966 World Cup final, but more recently neither Fernando Torres nor Cesc Fabregas started for Spain in last year’s World Cup final and it was Villa, rather than Torres who grew into the striker’s role as the tournament progressed. Indeed Torres, like Greaves before him, found himself being edged out of a team that was somehow more effective when his mercurial talent wasn’t there.

Indeed, Spain typify the kind of adaptation that teams need to display to win tournaments. Their initial loss to Switzerland provoked something of a crisis of confidence, challenging the entire playing ethos of the team. And the Spanish adapted, using fast, mobile substitutes earlier on in the game, when their opposition had become worn down by their attacking possession play and space opened up. And, increasingly, it was Torres who was sacrificed for players like Llorente.

Too often Engerland, Young and Old, are seduced by the cult of the individual, the delusion of the ego. We spent years (entire championship cycles) trying to adapt our formation so that both Lampard and Gerrard could play in the same side, deluding ourselves that two players who fundamentally play the same position, could be accommodated without damaging the team by making at least one of them (frequently both) play out of position. We invent an entirely spurious ‘left wing’ problem because we have to have somewhere to put our extra midfield ego. And still, it’s enough, thanks to seeding and the relatively forgiving nature of the qualification process, to get us to the main event. However, once there, the game moves beyond the egos of individual qualification matches to the team-focused requirements of the tournament. And there we fail. Somewhere around the last 16 mark, as we gaze doe-eyed at the superior teams ahead of us.

This Young Engerland side wasn’t bad. They qualified, beating some relatively serious countries along the way. And, yes, they were in a challenging group. But in three games, they never once looked like seizing the moment, imposing their will on a game or being realistic contenders. And that’s a harsh lesson to be taking away.

It’s going to take a long, long time to sort out the fundamental failings in the system. So we’d better start right now.

What We Learned From Young Engerland vs Ukraine (0-0)

If It Continues Like This It Will Be Bad

Stultifyingly negative anti-football that elevates technocratic defensive organisation and tedious teamwork above attacking ambition and individual flair. Timid teams more afraid of losing than they are of grabbing the initiative, attacking and actually, get this, winning matches. Thoroughly ghastly confrontations between teams that we don’t care for playing games they don’t give a shit about. This is a bad thing.

No not simply my impression of this thoroughly tortuous hour and a half of footballing anti-matter, but the reaction to Switzerland’s match with Spain in last year’s Big Boys World Cup. This scathing could apply equally to both Young Engerland and their opponents, which is unsurprising seeing as many of the Ukraine team are already full internationals.

Are Young Engerland The New Switzerland?

Young Engerland and Ukraine demonstrate the 100m Kick n Run qualifiers. The ball is the black and white round thing.

Like Spain, the Swiss international team has developed its own distinctive style which it has applied throughout the varying age levels. Admittedly where Spain have embraced the beautiful and successful tiki-taka, pass and move, play the ball, buccaneering style that has made them World, European and Acclaim Champions, the Swiss have made defensive obduracy their metiér. They may not score very many (one goal in two World Cups), but they don’t concede many either (none at all in World Cup 2006, that’s none, zero, nada). On the negative side, and it’s a huge negative, they are by some way one of the two most tedious international sides to watch, the other being the team out front, Ukraine. It’s well known that Switzerland and Ukraine played out the single worst ’round of 16′ matches in the 2006 World Cup. A World Cup Round of 16 match where both teams appeared to be playing for a 0-0 draw and penalties from the start. What message does that send?

The terrifying thought is that Young Engerland are becoming not the new Spain, all lovely interlinking passing, game control and goal threat, but the new Switzerland, a decent defence and impotent, hoofball attack. And that, frankly, this is the best we can hope for. All that talent, so little application.

Sheeeeeet Does, Indeed, Roll Downhill

[pullthis]Apparently Passionate Young Engerland manager Stuart Pearce felt after the Spain match that ‘if Engerland had 60% of the ball, we’d be winning matches 4 or 5-nil’. Well Pearcey, apparently Young Engerland did get 60% possession here and it didn’t quite work out the way you thought it would.[/pullthis] Young Engerland were, if anything, more frightened, paralysed and incompetent on the ball than they were against Spain only four days ago.

[pullshow]Once again, you have to wonder just what exactly Pearce and his team do to players who, individually, have proven to display reasonable amounts of technical and on-pitch skills. What is it about Engerland and Young Engerland’s big tournament preparation that so thoroughly separates young men from their talents? What is it that separates managers and tacticians from any significant event that has taken place since the Scottish and Hungarian trainers took football to South America in the 1930s? Sure they toy with radical developments like 4-3-3 formations (if only to pay homage to Sir Alf’s wingless wonders) for the first five minutes, but they immediately default to the utter tedium of the safety first 4-5-1 once they cede their first possession to their opponents.

Young Engerland are so retarded that they think ‘isolated striker’ is a tactical innovation on a par with ‘false no 9s’ as played by Lionel Messi. Which is to say that an isolated, played out of the game no 9 à la Shearer or, better yet, Heskey is in any way comparable to a gamechanging, world-beating, deep-dropping forward like Messi. They seem to believe that they will gain some kind of competitive advantage by actually lopping off the tip of the team spear. Not that the team actually manages to get the ball up to the ‘isolated striker’ that often.

For, defence aside, Young Engerland were simply woeful. Midfielders like £20 million man Jordan Henderson and Jack Rodwell seemed utterly bypassed by the game, incapable of seizing the ball and dominating the midfield. Indeed neither of them seemed to even want the ball, let alone be able to do anything with it should they be unfortunate enough to actually gain possession. As for defender turned midfielder (and captain) Mancienne, he seemed like he was several divisions beyond his depth. The best thing I can say about him is to applaud his decision to move to Hamburg and hope life in the German league improves his play.

Where Is The Problem?

One thing we learned from the last World Cup is that tournament football is a completely different animal to qualification. Both Young Engerland and Engerland seem to have the art of qualification sorted, which in itself is no mean feat given that the 2009 Under-21 champions, Germany, didn’t even qualify for this Championship. What we haven’t got to grips with in any coherent way is the challenges of tournament football. This could simply be because at tournament level you’re playing better sides (Engerland usually being the top seed in any qualifying group) and it’s pretty well proven that both Young Engerland and Engerland struggle with better sides in friendlies. Or it could be something to do with the 4 – 5 high pressure games played once every three or four days.

We need to find some way to allow Young England players to shed the fear they obviously feel so they can actually take responsibility and actually play the ball. Sure they’ll make mistakes, but then I believe Messi made mistakes and lost the ball during the Champions League final and that, get this, Xavi doesn’t have a 100% pass completion rate. But they understand how to work together to correct their mistakes and take the game to the opposition. Too often Engerland players seem to be so afraid of the ball that they’d rather not have it, so risk averse they’d rather not make any kind of move.

Oh and Ukraine? Every bit as disappointing as their full side.

What We Learned From Young Engerland vs Spain (1-1)

In The Eyes Of Their Fathers

And so another generation begins its great descent into oblivion. How so much potential talent can be transformed into something as godawful as this is something of a mystery, if not a complete surprise. If the full Engerland team’s recent performance against Switzerland was turgid, unimaginative garbage, then this was the youthful wellspring of rot, the place where the decaying filth that is Engerland’s tactical play originates. Young Engerland, quite simply, are the stinking antithesis of football. And it’s a foul stench they exude.

It’s a mystery what happens in those few days the Engerland team members are corralled together before big games. And it’s impressive. [pullthis]Players enter with talent and ambition and only days later are transformed into Automatons of Hoof, fundamentally incapable of controlling, passing or using the ball in any coherent manner[/pullthis]. What is it that the backroom staff do to so successfully amputate all vestiges of skill or technique? No one seems to know. What is clear is that they are stunningly effective. The likes of Sturridge, Welbeck, Cleverley, Henderson and Smalling, all players who have at least vaguely impressed in the Prem over the last year, were reduced to lumbering, incompetent hulks seemingly incapable of any action beyond dire hoof n hope ballplay.

[pullshow]Spain, in contrast, seem to have it all sorted. After decades of being the ‘Golden Generation That Couldn’t’ they now appear incapable of playing anything other than gobsmacking possession play. Like Barcelona in the Champions League final, they made their opposition look tired, ineffective and thoroughly ordinary. After a brief, 10 minute sounding out period at the start of the game, where Engerland concentrated on getting their barrage range right, Spain exerted an iron grip on proceedings, controlling the midfield and thus the game. In the rare moments when Engerland’s defence had the ball, they were mercilessly harried and prevented from attempting any kind of serious possession. The only reason Spain didn’t have things  locked down in their own third was the ball was so seldom there. Recent Arsenal performances aside, rarely can a team have had such control and yet been so incapable of taking advantage.

Dirty Cheating Bastards

Dirty Cheating Herrera Ander - The new face of Spanish football?

After all that possession and beautiful interplay, it was a shame to say the least that Spain’s goal should be scored with a handball. And a blatant one at that. What is it about talented sides (and individuals) that makes them believe that this is in any way justified? How can Herrera Ander look at himself when it’s patently obvious that he is a total cheat? And if the likes of Rooney can get banned for swearing and Kolo Touré can be banned for taking supplements (both good bans in my book), how is it that blatent cheats like Herrera Ander can survive in this game? The Spanish should be so ashamed of players like him they should a) refuse to accept the points from the game and, b) never play Herrera Ander again. In the same way that Busquet’s pathetic diving and playacting diminishes his own and Barcelona’s achievements, so this demeans everything Spain have done to promote total football.

Say it again. Dirty Cheating Bastards.

All That Cheating Won’t Save Engerland

Perhaps the saddest thing of all is that Spain really didn’t need to cheat. They really, really don’t. But once they had, you sensed that they felt that they had done enough. They were comfortably in control of the game, with tons of possession and had reduced Engerland to such a degree that they were essentially insignificant. And surely that was it, game over. Like the full Spanish side, they didn’t manage to make their dominance stick, but you felt they didn’t really see the point of exerting themselves to get more goals. Sure they had attempts, but they didn’t manage to break the Engerland defence apart the way Barcelona did Man U’s. And, in not grabbing the game, they let Engerland back in.

And maybe, just maybe, that was justice done. Engerland managed to get a goal from one of their few (very, very few) coherent moves and Spain get punished (a bit) for being dirty cheating bastards.

But make no mistake, a point for Engerland should in no way disguise the multitude of failures that they displayed in this match. Their mirroring of the full Engerland side’s many, many deficiencies should be a stinging reminder of the depths of the fault lines facing the English game. Our top young players cannot control the ball, can’t pass, can’t create and seem scared and paralysed in the face of genuinely decent opposition. Until these issues are addressed, none of the Engerland sides will be doing anything remarkable anytime soon.

Because, good though they are, Spain aren’t apparently the best young side in Europe. Apparently they aren’t even the best young side in this group. Meanwhile, Young Engerland, despite being no 1 in the UEFA rankings, are comfortably the worst side in this group based on this showing.

Be afraid. Be very, very afraid.