International Football: Engerland 2 – 3 Holland

Not A Bad Beating At All

True there really isn’t a ‘good’ time to take a beating on the International stage. But if there was (and we’ll say it again, there isn’t), then this was the time. Engerland have qualified well for Euro 2012, dispensed with a manager they didn’t care for anymore, and kicked a whole parcel of ‘football as moral cesspit discuss’ issues into touch. With a temporary coach in Stuart Pearce and no immediate pressure on the team to WIN WIN WIN, this was unquestionable the one match where it was totally acceptable to be as experimental as possible.  And you know what? It wasn’t all that bad, there were even a few positives. No really.

Are You Making A Pass At Me?

Be Afraid World! Be Very Afraid! Engerland do the apparently impossible and actually pass the ball out of defence...

I actually applauded when, in the 8th minute, Engerland managed to deftly pass their way out of defence and convert good, pacy midfield play into a genuine attacking move. A move which I suspect would have been even more effective had its intended recipient, Gerrard, not been suffering from ‘tight’ hamstrings and been able to get to the final ball.

Sure, they didn’t score. In truth they didn’t even get a shot in as a result. And, no, I don’t want them to be doing this every time. But the message it sent, that Engerland have players that not only can do this, but have the nerve to do it on the international stage, was fabulously encouraging. The notion that they actually understand what they’re doing with the ball when it’s on the ground is also something of a revelation. And the confidence the players seemed to have that their teammates both wanted the ball and knew what to do with it once they received it was something I hadn’t seen in an Engerland team for a while.

There’s No I In Team

This was especially pleasing given it was a team which hadn’t played many minutes together. But it was good to see that the relations forged at both club level and the U-21s seem to be paying dividends. Hart and Richards seemed capable of passing the ball around in defence to reduce threat rather than simply hoof n hoping, in a way that Cahill and Baines (who’ve not played together much) didn’t.

We also discovered quite a bit about the players on the edges of the Engerland team. I think the key things we learnt are that Richards is an international class right back (albeit not a great one yet). He and Kyle Walker should be pushing ahead of Glen Johnson. That Scott Parker is the right man for the Engerland captaincy (safe, uncontroversial and a guaranteed starter).  And that both Sturridge and Cahill have deceptively dainty feet.

We discovered a number of other things. Although maybe discovered is the wrong word, it’s more like it reinforced what we suspected. We found out that there isn’t much difference in terms of attacking threat between Johnson and Walcott. That Young can be largely anonymous for huge periods of the game, can’t defend in any way and still scores important goals. That Downing is fundamentally unimpressive. That Hart is the best keeper we’ve had for a generation. That Sturridge is a player who threatens more than he actually delivers (but that’s a great starting point). And that the team is strangely worse when Gareth Barry isn’t playing.

I know, I found the last one both unexpected and disturbing.

And The Same Faults Came Back To Haunt Us

But, as they say, it wasn’t an entirely good news defeat. For all the positive elements they displayed, a patchwork Engerland team were undone by some very familiar faults.

Hoof It!

If there’s one thing that the so-called Golden Generation of Engerland’s past-its could do right it was hoofing the ball accurately into either Row Z or the opponents’ defenders. Now I’m sure people can find occasions when this ‘tactic’ actually worked, but largely it’s an almost perfect way of losing possession and giving the ball back to the opposition. So, along with the ricochet shinpad thing (see below)  it’s one of Engerland’s most infuriating habits (and one of the reasons the passing movement above was so welcome). And while this side didn’t reach the heights of the usual, ‘pass it around the back for a bit to no great effect, then give it to Rio to hoof it’ strategy, there were too many occasions where the hoof was used, not least by the hoofmeister Gerrard, whose trademark hospital hoof was in particular evidence.

Stevie Me

This was one of Gerrard’s worst games in an Engerland shirt. Indeed, he was so disinterested and so poor that I thought his removal in the 33 minute was a genuine tactical substitution. He didn’t contribute, didn’t track back, made some truly ghastly hoof n hope punts and barely got above a slow carthorse trot when he could be bothered enough.  If there’s one clear negative lesson from this game, it’s that Gerrard is not the powerhouse player he pretends to be.

Off The Pace

International football is a strange beast, vastly different from the full-on pell mell of the Prem and Engerland still seem incapable of dealing with it. For pretty much the entire first half, the game was a relatively open, flowing match of passing and moving, with the Dutch being slightly ahead in terms of possession and movement, but neither side was really threatening. Then in two minutes in the second half they turned it on. Robben pounced on a ball breaking off as a result of an Engerland attack, then rushed from his own half to the Engerland box and scored. In one turn of speed he’d taken out the entire midfield and, helped by Huntelaar’s clever running beside him, totally disorientated the defence. So much so they clearly hadn’t recovered when Huntelaar headbutted the second a minute later. Engerland have to be more attuned to the pace of the game and ready to react.

That All Out Attack Thing Just Ain’t Working

The secret is out (as Germany’s special Cologne institute showed at the 2010 World Cup). Engerland just aren’t disciplined enough. The defence can easily be pulled out of position, while the midfield won’t supply enough cover to compensate. Again the midfield’s over-enthusiasm for joining the attack left a cavernous hole in the middle of the park for Robben to exploit for the crucial first goal. Indeed that area was so bare there wasn’t even anyone there to ‘accept the booking’ for taking Robben down early on in his break, which you can bet Van Bommel would have been more than happy to do had the situation been reversed.

And while the chaos in the defence can hopefully be rectified once the players become more familiar with one another (it wasn’t any worse than the chaos between Rio and Terry in the Germany game), the lack of midfield cover shows a tactical nativity which will be harshly exploited by teams in Euro 2012 . This is the special role that Gareth Barry should fulfill, providing that key initial protection for the defence, before calmly moving the ball on to the midfielders.

Ricochet Shinpads (Get Them While They’re Hot)

If there’s one thing that epitomised the negative side of the game, it was Engerland’s apparent reliance on Ricochet shinpads. How else do you explain the players’ apparent inability to actually control a pass? It’s bad enough seeing them standing with their backs to the opponent’s goal receiving the ball and doing nothing constructive with it, but to regularly see the ball ricochet 20 yards off their shins every time it’s passed towards them is to know the very depths of depression. If you can’t even receive the ball, how the hell can we expect you to control, command and use it effectively?

What We Learned From Spain vs Holland (1-0)

Will The Real Spain Please Stand Up

6 games in. One loss, three harshly ground out 1 – 0 results, not a lot of genuinely inspiring football played. The Spanish were the team that turned beautiful flowing football into a grim tactical war of attrition, barely raising themselves above the mundane in their previous matches. Following their loss to Switzerland, where their celebrated Tikki Takki pass the ball through the eye of a needle style had conspicuously failed to deliver results, they had seemed tentative at times, apparently going through a kind of crisis of confidence over the best route to win the World Cup. Meanwhile, the Dutch, whose football is inextricably linked to the Total Football style of Cryff et al, seem to have comfortably dispensed with their cultural heritage in favour of a more robust What The Hell It Works philosophy. Given this, which bunch of ‘cultured heavies’ would actually turn up and deliver on what should be the world’s greatest stage was anybody’s guess.

Astonishingly on the balance of the first 5 minutes or so, it seemed as though Spain had been restored to the immaculate side that won Euro 2008. They were awesome, showing the element of ambition and attacking flair that had been missing throughout their previous matches. Sergio Ramos, who is a bit of a diva, was outstanding, rampaging down the right and threatening to score after only 5 minutes. It seemed as though the intellectual torpor which had dulled most of the rest of the competition had been erased. Spain, it seemed, had no doubts and the Dutch would take a real pasting. It might not have been tikki takki, but it was fast, direct, intricate and exciting.

Now the Dutch have two World Cup faces. They have the 1974 Cryff team, the best Dutch team never to have won the World Cup, and they have the 2006 vintage as epitomised by the outstandingly ugly match against Cheating Diva’s Portugal side, where the tempo was set in the first few minutes when Boularouz gave the Diva a full on straight leg into the shin with a neat stud rake to finish as a ‘welcome to the World Cup’ gesture. For a moment it looked like there was going to be a debate about which style was going to take precedence. But in truth, there was never going to be any doubt.

If a team with genuine hopes of winning the World Cup has ever disappointed more, I can’t remember it. We don’t count the useless flotsam like Engerland, France or Italy, who never had a prayer of winning, or those with little or no genuine style like, well, Italy again who graced finals with little style but less expectation. But the Dutch. From the Dutch we expected so much more. Not that this team had really ever given us any indication that there was more, their contrast of Sneijder’s style and van Bommel’s thuggery not so much a blend as an assassination. They never really showed anything other than a blunt low grade desire to win ugly, or failing that to win uglier.

And so it went. The Spanish, as is their wont, had lots of the ball, the Dutch, as was their gameplan, were more than happy to bump, barge, beat and bludgeon them off the ball anywhere on the pitch as long as it wasn’t in their own penalty area. A typical move being, pass, pass, pass, pass, pass (over the halfway line at last), pass, clatter, foul. Cue free kick over the bar. As has become usual the robust defence allowed Spain little opportunity to attack and the lack of speed in their attack, bar the first few minutes, meant that there were almost no opportunities for real chances. Villa, the previous hero of Spain, was utterly insignificant throughout. Meanwhile, the Dutch were racking up the cards at a rate previously only seen in their ‘special’ Portuguese match (although it has to be said in their defence that neither Portugal, nor in this case Spain, were exactly angels themselves). Nigel De Jong’s chest high, studs up front kick into Alonso being something of a standout moment.

Now it wasn’t boring in the way that the classic ‘boring’ final of 1994 was, in this case there was the excitement of the first 5 minutes to recall, but it was a game where the creativity and elegance were thoroughly snuffed out. As the 90 minutes staggered to a conclusion, the only consolation was that there couldn’t be more than 30 more minutes of this until it was all over.

And when we woke up the Spanish had won.

64 Down 0 To Go, 1 World Champion

What We Learned From Holland vs Uruguay (3-2)

Take That Dirty Suarez

There was something almost ironic about the second Dutch goal being that Van Persil, who still hasn’t broken his duck, was comfortably offside and undoubtedly interfering with play. Oh how we laughed as the Urugs (the dirty cheating, double dealing, African victory stealing bastards) attempted to protest, all to no avail. Oh how we chortled as even the Dutch seemed overwhelmed with the ref’s decision. And once they were ahead, they made sure with a Robben header. I mean a Robben header. Here’s a man who is so worried about his hairline that he barely strokes his head, let alone heads a ball. The Urugs must have thought that the sky had fallen in on their heads. Revenge is sweet.

Will The Real Dutch PLEASE Start Showing Up

How long are we going to have to wait until the Dutch actually play some interesting football. I mean this can’t go on. They are in the World Cup Final and they’ve played about 15 minutes of good football in total. They’re still playing with Van der Vaart and Van Bommel, two of the most wretched players ever to pull on an orange jersey, leaving the lively Elia on the bench until the game is well and truly over. They’ve got Van Persil, who still hasn’t scored, who has barely had a shot and who plays like a rather tall Jermaine Defoe. And yet, they won all their qualifying group matches. They’ve won all their matches so far. And THEY’RE PLAYING SHIT FOOTBALL. Mind you it’s an interesting kind of shit football, it’s neither obsessed with the Mourinho Discipline, nor playing the great game of flowing, attacking football. It’s a whole new kind of shit. Still shit nonetheless.

Meanwhile Back In The Batcave of Loew Leisurewear

Super friend of the Palace, The Other Charles, spotted this fantastic parody of German manager Jochim Loew and his pet monkey Gunther. Well worth the viewing while we wait for the long-hoped for annihilation of Spain.

61 Down 3 To Go, 3 Teams Remaining

Extra, Extra, How About Them Semi-Finals Eh?

Shurely Shome Mishtake…

Hmmm. So when I initially looked at the semis and said. “I see these being Uruguay vs Engerland and Brazil vs Portugal,” I was obviously not taking into account the awesome predictive skills of Paul the Octopus and his reality twisting powers.  Given I’ve only been watching football since I was six, it’s somehow inevitable that a cephalopod with no understanding of the game, but a clear knowledge of which flag belongs to Germany, should be able to outwit me in the prediction stakes.

Still one out of four isn’t catastrophic eh? Even if it does belong to the Cheating C**t Urugs. Who, it seems, have either discovered the irony thing or have completely misinterpreted the whole Hand of God thing from 1986, thinking that it was somehow good that Maradona should so cheapen himself as to cheat a goal in the same match he scored the Goal of The Century. I find it risible that Dirty Suarez (for that is his real name) should receive exactly the same punishment as craphat Harry Kewell for effectively deliberately cheating his team to a World Cup semi-final. However, as Laurent Blanc, the soon to be unfortunate manager of the World Cup power formally known as France and now known as Failure, discovered, deliberate cheating at the World Cup is alive and well. Let’s hope that Dirty Suarez and his hideous team get the same comeuppance as Croatia got.

Meanwhile the Dutch still haven’t built up a significant head of steam. As far as I can recall, they’ve played approximately one ‘last 15 minutes’ of a game with anything like the authority I expect from a semi-finalist (during their initial match against Denmark), and made approximately one dangerous cross into the box (against Brazil), but these appears to have been aberrations. They do seem to have raised their game to the extent that Robben has replaced the shockingly slow and tedious Van der Vaart in their starting line up, but that was presumably their game plan all along.

I see this as being an awesomely tedious match. The Cheating Urugs have, despite everything, a very solid defence, which has only conceded two goals albeit both at the sharper end of the tournament, while the Dutch have done the absolute minimum necessary to win all their matches without ever looking like a seriously dangerous team. I would hope that the Dutch win and ideally start to play the kind of football they’re capable of when Elia is on the pitch. And if they can stuff the Cheating Urugs, say, 5 – 0, that would be a nice bonus. But I’m not holding my breath.

As for the Spanish, they really are painful. They still can’t decide whether Tippa Takki or slothful wingplay is the way forward for football (I think the answer is neither if you can’t do it incisively). And it’s clear that in their panic they have resorted to the strategy of ‘Give It To Villa’. For a team that came into the competition with so much hype and expectation, they constantly find new ways of disheartening us all. Still they did show moments in the last game, which they clearly should have lost, when Iniesta was on the ball and Fabregas was on the pitch, where they did look almost interesting. However, their fundamental problem is that if you neutralise Villa, you’ve effectively got Spain by the balls.

Which leaves just the Germans. Who would have thought it? The Germans. Who, like 2006, came into the tournament with a largely untried team, fronted by a largely untried coach (then Jurgen Klinsman, now the svelte uber-dresser Jochim Loew), and delivered the most exciting football of the tournament. Unlike pretty much every other team here, Germany has remembered that football isn’t about not losing, it’s not about just defending, it’s not about long, slow, tortuous attacking build up around the halfway line while your opponents place their banks of 4 in pretty rows. They’ve remembered that football is about swift devastating attacks, speed of motion, intelligence, aggression, pace and power. Their clinical demolitions first of the spastically useless Engerland and subsequently Argentina, have been compelling viewing and the only matches I’ve kept on my recorder from the entire World Cup.

More than any other coach at the World Cup, Loew has revealed that he has game plans. And tactics. And I suspect that he’s intelligent enough to see where the threat from Spain comes from. And with German captain Lahm the player who will spend most time facing Villa, I can see them putting the Spanish to bed quite easily.  Not as easily perhaps as their previous two matches, where both Engerland and Argentina left their back doors open all game like deluded trusting people living in the country, but relatively easily nonetheless. Still here possibly more than the other semi-final, the first goal will be critical. If Spain get it, they have the power to shut the game down completely. If Germany get it, then Spain will have to come out of their shell and go for it. I see Spain dropping Torres, who has been wretched, and playing Fabregas and, possibly, their big striker Llorente in a more threatening formation. Otherwise this, too will be dull.

The semi-finals in 2006 produced by far the best games of the tournament, with all four teams going all out to win the matches. At some point in both of these semis, the teams are going to realise that they have to actually win these games rather than simply not lose them. It really is Fergie’s Squeaky Bum Time and, for most of the players in either semi, the only chance they’ll get to reach a World Cup Final. Who will discover their cohones? So far only the Germans have consistently shown they want to win matches, so by my reckoning, if not Paul the fucking Octopus’ (who should be dealt with like that Octopus at the start of Oldboy), it’s Germany’s to lose.

What We Learned From Brazil vs Holland (1-2)

Adrian Chiles In Sensible Statement Shock

I don’t normally bother to take any interest in what the ITV panel has to say as I’m quite capable of devising lukewarm footballing banalities myself, but one thing Chiles said struck home, “If you’ve got no discipline and you can’t defend set pieces, you aren’t going to stay in the World Cup”. Not the most complete dissection of the Brazilian team, but it cut to the chase and erased all the bullshit. He may never make such and authoritative, Hansonesque statement again in his hideous sofa-confined lifetime.

It’s All About The Basics

Much as everyone would have liked it to be, this match wasn’t about flair, individual skill, touches of footballing genius, dribbling or total football. It was about what the FA Director of Coaching Charles Hughes thought football was all about, few touches good, many touches bad. It was about the techniques of direct football rather than the artistic machinations of intricate interior passing. Brazil’s goal, like Germany’s first against Engerland was about a single, clinical pass through the middle to your frontman and catastrophic defensive play. Holland’s first was the result of the first genuinely dangerous cross into the box in open play, while their second was from one of only two genuinely effective corners.

Looking at the most effective and dangerous moments of play, these too conformed to Hughes’ maxim. At the tail end of either half, both teams were playing an almost infectious kick and rush style of play as the ball was swiftly moved from one box to the other and back again. Unlike English football, where this is achieve by hoofing the ball over the midfield trenches, the movement here was mainly on the ground, the reason for the swift motion from one end to another was that both midfields had almost completely disappeared and there was a cavernous 30 yard gap surrounding the half-way line. This meant that Hughes’ few touches principle worked beautifully. Conversely, once either defence had settled down to it’s organised 4 – 1 – 4 on the 18 yard line formation, there were no ‘few touches’ moves to be made other than genuinely good crosses (which neither side could apparently deliver with any regularity), so the many touches, eye of a needle footwork needed to take prominence. The real key at this point was not number of touches, but speed of movement, both on and off the ball, and even then it didn’t conjure up very many serious chances.

This Ball IS Shit

So. Two of the best football playing and dead ball specialist sides and no one can take a free kick that is on target? I know it’s the whole bad workers blame their tools thing, but all of the best players bar the Japanese can’t be wrong. This ball doesn’t deviate and dip like others do and thus makes free kicks more difficult to take. This means not only do we not see as many free kick goals (total so far something like 3 and one of those was a mistake by the keeper and two of them were by Japan), but it becomes a much safer option for a defender to foul an attacker around the 18 yard line. Take the free kick, neutralise the attack, get the defense back in position. It’s a no brainer.

57 Down 7 To Go 7 Teams Remaining

What We Learned From Holland vs Slovakia (2-1)

Here Come The Jets (Oh No, There They Go Again)

Unlike gasping toddlers Slovenia, Slovakia has entered its protracted adolescence. And it’s not a pretty sight. Collectively they look like some kind of Newtown estate gang, almost certainly led by evil looking tatmeister Skrtel. They’ve got those ‘nit nurse’ bald cuts and close ups reveal them to have ugly, skulking faces full of contempt and loathing. They’ve even got their part time punk Hamsik, who’s had his mohican specially polished but hasn’t had a chance to brush up on his skills. And they’re not crap, certainly nowhere near the uselessness of their first two outings here. In fact they’re like those feral urban kids in Dublin who ride horses bareback, like street apaches.

And the Dutch are like those sophisticate 6th formers. Five or six years older than the street rabble, you can see they have an air of sophistication and experience that the Slovaks crave. “Hey big kid, yes, you, big kid…” they implore,  tugging on the Dutch boys’ sleeves and looking up with big, red rimmed eyes, “what’s it like? you know, in the Second Round?”. And then they are told.

Four matches in and the Dutch still haven’t had to get out of third gear. They were able to start with Robben, but not overwork him. They didn’t worry overmuch about Slovakia’s pretty please passing because as often as not there was no clear final third finish. They played it calm and then bashed them over the head for the first goal, then pressed a little harder for the second when, once again, the Slovak keeper got it horribly wrong. Out at the same stage as Engerland, the Slovaks will regard getting this far as a massive coup.

One day soon, like Friday soon, the Dutch will have to wake up and play Brazil. And then we’ll see whether they’re genuine contenders, or have just been moseying along in a Dutch stylee.

53 Down 11 To Go 11 Teams Remaining