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.

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.

Euro 2012: Day 4

The Trundle Is On! Engerland 1 – 1 France

Cartoon version of England's brave ex-leader John Terry

Frankly that was as good as many people had hoped. Engerland ‘did a Chelsea’, a phrase that has surely already become the cliché  of the tourney, and successfully denied France the victory they so possibly deserved. Quite where this stalemate of a game falls within the panoply of the first round of matches is uncertain, but it’s probably somewhere between the ho-hummery of Spain Italy and the action pack that was Poland Greece. So, nothing spectacular to get excited about.

Both teams flattered to deceive in a match that followed the classic Engerland international pattern almost to the letter. Boring and cagey first half hour, albeit with Engerland passing the ball about a little more confidently than usual to the same non-effect as normal, astonishingly surprising Engerland goal against the run of play, haphazard retreat into shell following shock at having taken the lead, loss of lead, insipid substitutions, backs to the wall chaos of Engerland defending for the last half hour, all back to the pub for a night on the lash. France played the part of irritated floozy with a series of consistent ‘take one for the team’ fouling and annoyingly talented ball play (albeit to the same non-effect as Engerland’s hefferlump play). Ribery, as is his wont, vanished for large periods, Benzema never really got going and Nasri did what only he can by irritating not only the English, but his own fans.

This is an Engerland side that plays to its admittedly very limited strengths. Uncle Roy has had 2 pieces of luck, which he would do well to bank now. First, almost no one expects this team to win anything, certainly not with a midfield that consists of a back passer and a hollywood hoofballer. Second, thanks to Lampard’s unfortunate injury he’s been spared the never-ending pain of the Gerrard/Lampard Conundrum (a logic bomb that has been baffling scientists since the early 1990’s). It’s a shame it wasn’t Gerrard who was injured as he is so much less effective in the middle. Admittedly he has chanced his arm by bringing the likes of Downing and Henderson along, the latter was astonishingly actually given pitch time although as is normal he failed to register as much as a touch.

A draw kind of suits both sides, but they will have to play with a bit of aggression if they want to get out of this group.

That Was A Game That Was. Ukraine 2 – 1 Sweden

Every tourney needs a story as the old journo proverb goes. In Japan/South Korea it was the Koreans, in South Africa it was the Ghanaians, in Switzerland/Austria it wasn’t either of them, which only goes to prove the validity of the rhyme. After Poland’s South Africaesque failure draw on the opening day, it needed something special from Ukraine to ignite the tournament. And, thankfully, against all the odds (they have been the undisputed worst side in the last two international tournaments) Ukraine delivered.

This was a battle between two great Milan strikers, both of whom are probably past their best. In the Sweedish corner you have the enigma of Ibrahimovic, just coming off his first non-Championship winning season in 7 years; while in the Ukrainian one the Chelsea striking enigma that was Schevchenko, who has spent the last couple of years simply preparing for this big day.

In games like this sometimes the football just doesn’t matter, it’s the spectacle, the occasion and the sheer drama of it all. And while this didn’t quite deliver in the way that Aguero’s last second strike did at Man City, this time it was a whole country rather than half a city that was energised. In the end it was the Ibra Sheva show, just as planned. Ibra struck first, only for Sheva to equalise, before Ibra let Sheva run right the way round him to head in the winner. Cue Ukrainian meltdown as the entire country went off their heads with joy.  Pure football magic.

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.