It never ceases to amaze me how the English media whip themselves in to an unbearable frenzy of tub thumping and misplaced optimism when England have a big match on the horizon. But in this case, the hype nearly lived up to the reality.
England’s ninety minutes against France was not a display of beautiful, flowing football. It was, however, a measured and almost flawless turn against one of the best sides in the world. Only for David Beckham’s penalty disaster, they would have been out of sight by the time the fourth official held up the electronic board that indicated three minutes of injury time.
And that’s where it all seemed to go wrong.
But in truth, it was all going wrong before then. England’s two banks of four defended stoutly, limiting talents like Zidane, Henry, Vieira and Pires to hopeless long-range efforts and desperately misguided threaded through-ball attempts. Impressive an achievement as that was, it’s always dangerous when your opponents have so much possession.
When substitute Emile Heskey bundled over Makelele on the edge of the English box in the 90th minute, you somehow just knew Zidane was going to make them pay. France barely deserved anything from the game but Silvestre’s red-card reprieve along with ‘Beckham’s penalty hell’ (c The Sun, I’m sure), led you to believe that England’s name just wasn’t written in the stars.
The inability of England’s midfield quartet to stamp any meaningful authority on the game was the first major problem. Lampard is a relative beginner in international football and despite his super goal, it was one of his few quality touches. Steven Gerrard struggled after some early surges and his more defensive demeanour saw his attacking nous curbed considerably. While Scholes did little outside of some eager running and a few accurate lay offs, Beckham once again played a peripheral role, although he was still probably the best of a bad bunch.
The selection of David James was always going to be a debatable point. Unlike James performances, Sven has not flapped in his support of the Manchester City calamity. James’ ability to pull off the occasional wonder save is quite frankly not the stuff of international quality. What clearly isn’t international pedigree is his bemused look as Zidane’s free kick flew past him and the rush-of-blood that accompanied his charge into the legs of Henry in the 93rd minute. James is a disaster with little to recommend him. Is he the best of a bad bunch? With Kirkland not around, Robinson and Walker relegated and Nigel Martyn very much in his final days, perhaps he is.
Eyebrows were raised when Sven chose David Beckham as team captain a few years back. The scandals that rocked Becks family in the last six months have certainly had a negative impact on his performances and maybe his influence. The only less inspirational choice of team captain in the last while was Michael Owen. Who do you choose? Is it time to give it to Gerrard given that he is the most influential player? Perhaps Gary Neville? The problem is that there is no obvious England captain in the squad. There is no Bryan Robson, Terry Butcher or Gary Lineker.
Last night was a special case. The tactics were obvious – men behind the ball, hit them on the break, keep it tight. Fine.
While England’s approach against Switzerland and Croatia will be very different, unfortunately it will be just as predictable. The England midfield is industrious but lacking in imagination. We’ll see a lot of box to box running from them, the odd Beckham cross and if time is running out, some long diagonal balls from deep into the opponents penalty box.
There is no Glenn Hoddle, Paul Gascoigne or Matt LeTissier to prise open a back four with a precise pass. Joe Cole has shown that he is not quite ready yet for the big stage. English football is all about graft, enthusiasm, energy and power. And that’s why Wayne Rooney embodies it so well. It’s not pretty but if it works, it’s effective.
If you nullify England’s power and drive, there is little else they can call on. There is no natural width in the squad so normally ‘Plan B’ revolves around the pace of Darius Vassell, the presence of Emile Heskey or … uh … Kieron Dyer?
But European international football has few top quality teams. France showed that outside of a couple of late set-pieces last night, they lacked the know-how to break down England. Spain were uninspired against an ordinary Russian side and Portugal were awful in defeat to unfancied Greece.
That’s three of the top half dozen teams in Europe, and not one of them looks much better than England at this point.
Can England win Euro 2004? Absolutely. Even if Plan B sees involves Phil Neville or Jamie Carragher? Uh….
How are those predictions of mine going?
|Group A||Group B||Group C||Group D|
Portugal 2 Greece 1
|Switzerland 1 Croatia 3||Denmark 1 Italy 2||Czech Rep 2 Latvia 0|
|Spain 1 Russia 1||France 2 England 0||Sweden 2 Bulgaria 0||Germany 1 Holland 4|
No correct scores and only 3 correct results.
Shoot me, now. Please.