Friday, June 25, 2010

Big in Japan

The Asian teams are among those having a good World Cup, which has enabled British pundits to patronise them once again. Last night at half-time in the Denmark-Japan game, Alan Shearer’s analysis of Japan’s fine, fluid, attacking performance stated that ‘this is the only way they know how to play’. This is further evidence that Shearer doesn’t bother to do any research before his punditry appearances on the BBC, because I’d previously seen a grand total of 55 minutes of Japan at these finals and that alone told me Shearer’s analysis was manifestly untrue.

Japan have played a very smart group stage indeed. Having beaten Cameroon in their first match, they clearly realised that a win over Holland was neither likely nor strictly necessary. As Denmark had gone down 2-0 to Holland, the crucial thing for Japan was to avoid losing to the Dutch more heavily than that: a three- or four-goal defeat would have massacred their goal difference. So they set up for a draw and came away with a 1-0 defeat.

When Denmark only beat Cameroon by a single goal, it was clear Japan’s strategy had paid off: with a one-goal advantage, a draw with Denmark in the last game would put them through. All the pressure was on Denmark and they cracked. Accordingly, Alan, it was a quite different approach we saw from Japan – higher-tempo, hassling and getting men forward – and it worked very well. This seemed to cause some surprise: surely you’d expect Denmark to do better? We have after all heard of more of their players, so it stands to reason.

In a globalised football world pundits seem to have become lazier, blithely assuming the good players will come to their attention. Yet this World Cup seems intent on springing surprises. People often complain that the World Cup has lost some of its allure because (a) the Premier League is full of foreign stars and (b) the ones who haven’t come to England can be seen in the Champions League or the other big European leagues, which are all televised here. However, I think this tournament will make one or two names currently unknown to UK audiences very famous.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Rip It Up And Start Again

I’ve been posting here less because I’ve been doing World Cup stuff for MSN, but I had to get this off my chest so here it is.

There’s precious little balance when it comes to discussion of the England football team. When I scribble these blog posts, I do try to bring some balance – I don’t believe it’s our birthright to win the World Cup, neither do I believe we are inherently rubbish. But after the game against Algeria, even I am inclined to advocate a clear-out of the team.

The term ‘golden generation’ has always been used ambivalently – in fact, I can’t recall ever having heard it used to earnestly describe Beckham, Gerrard, Lampard, Ferdinand, Rooney et al. More often, it’s been used ironically or in the context of them having failed to live up to their potential. Yet individually these players have all shown high quality, which accounts for successive England coaches’ persistence in trying to create a high-quality team out of them.

This has failed. Rooney aside, the players in question are almost thirty or over thirty. I don’t see the point in giving most of them another chance to come good. They’ve had several and when it’s come to the big tournaments they’ve under-performed. They also seem to be getting worse. I’m no longer interested in the reasons why this happens. Nobody seems able to fix it, so the reasons are academic. I just want them gone.

Even if you do want to look for reasons, I’m coming to the conclusion that the problems can’t be fixed if certain players stay in the team. Admittedly, this highly scientific analysis is based on the fact that I’ve decided I don’t like them despite never having met them. But it’s about attitude on the pitch. It’s notable that Beckham has left a hole in the squad. A hyped-up multimillionaire he may be, but he always played like an honest trier who loved turning out for England. By contrast, the likes of Gerrard, Lampard, Terry and Ashley Cole all seem to have peculiar ego problems – and I think it goes deeper than the often-identified complacency of cosseted players.

Many pundits adore Gerrard and believe that if England could harness his strengths we’d be awesome, but perhaps he thrives at Liverpool because there’s no question that he will always be the fans’ hero there. He’s become symbolic of the entire club, and modest as he is in interviews, the way he plays suggests a need for matches to be all about him. I’d suggest that this is why he’s never the same player with England (and why he might not succeed at another club).

I’m not going to psychoanalyse the lot of them, but if the personalities are the problem it would explain why nothing has really changed. You can change the system but you can’t change personalities. So I’m advocating that we just get rid. I don’t buy this idea that the next generation isn’t good enough – I think we need to give them a chance. Other teams have done better than England with more limited resources in recent years, so it doesn’t automatically follow that dumping our ‘best’ players will make us worse. (The next generation might be better than you think, anyway – England recently beat Spain in the final of the Under-17 European Championship.)

Granted, we might beat Slovenia comfortably on Wednesday and this will all look less important, but at this point nothing less than a semi-final will convince me that these players deserve another chance. I’d keep Rooney, due to his talent and the fact that I generally like his attitude (which made it all the more disappointing to see him grumping at fans who had spent thousands of pounds to travel across the globe to watch that rubbish on Friday night). But the other big names, mostly, have had their time. Watching them clod about the pitch yet again, inexplicably misplacing simple passes, failing to achieve any penetration into the box, I just wanted them gone. The fact that we so often seemed outnumbered on the pitch gave me a strong suspicion that England just weren’t working as hard as the opposition, which isn’t good enough.

Rip it up and start again. Let’s see if we can assemble a whole team of good honest triers. Ideally ones who can focus for the whole match and pass the ball competently, but right now I’m not picky.

Tuesday, June 01, 2010

Natural Selection

I think the England World Cup squad may yet throw up a few surprises, mainly because people are generally talking about it in terms of a first-choice XI we already more or less know, and then eleven understudies. (And a third-choice goalkeeper of course. As an aside, could people please stop all this DO WE RLY NEED 3 KEEPERS? gibberish that rears its head at every tournament? Of course you need three keepers – it’s unlikely that you’ll use them all but if you only take two and one gets crocked or suspended, the team will spend the next match shitting themselves at the possibility of the second-choice keeper going the same way. Do you want to watch England play an hour of a World Cup semi-final with John Terry in nets? Do you want to see it go to penalties? All right, if you don’t support England it might be funny, but the point remains that you’d have to be a gibbering idiot to take only two keepers to a tournament.)

Now, where was I? Yes – the way we talk about the squad suggests a need to have one player to back up every position. I don’t believe this is necessary. Eriksson’s biggest mistake in picking his 2006 squad wasn’t selecting Walcott (although it seems odd now that he nominally went as a striker, rather than a midfielder), but taking Jermaine Jenas. Presumably he was included as cover for Lampard but it struck me at the time that you don’t need cover for Lampard, because his absence would enable you to move Gerrard into his preferred position. If Gerrard and Lampard were both injured, Joe Cole could play there. (Downing was in the squad and could have covered the left wing.) By dumping a midfielder, Eriksson could have taken the five strikers he clearly needed.

I think what you want are a few players in the squad who can cover a few positions in case of injury, and that leaves some spaces free for players who can offer different options. This was Eriksson’s other biggest problem – the lack of a plan B. As Graham Taylor said during the friendly with Japan on Sunday, at this level you need flexibility. In that match Fabio Capello experimented with a 4-3-3 with two cut-inside wingers on either side of Rooney, which is a good idea what with him being amazing playing for Man Utd in that position and what with England having no shortage of wingers at the moment.

In that situation it’d be good to have both Joe Cole and Adam Johnson available – especially because if we played one on each wing we could have Cole and Johnson on one flank and Johnson and Cole down the other, which would be brilliant. But there isn’t room in the squad for both of them and Gerrard, Lampard, Barry, Carrick/Huddlestone, Milner AND two right wingers, is there?

I think there is. We’ve only got one recognised right-back in the squad. Jamie Carragher is officially covering for him, but there’s also Milner, who has played there for Villa several times. With that in mind, Carragher can provide cover at centre-back too – so how many centre-backs do we need? Capello might decide that Ferdinand’s fitness is so precarious that he wants plenty of cover there, but if he could make do with four centre-backs (including Carragher) that would free up space in midfield – enough to accommodate an extra winger.

This of course ignores what should be Capello’s top priority: the narrative. For a successful World Cup we need players with narrative potential, and Cole (J) and Johnson (A) happen to have the best narratives in the squad: the potential comeback (even better, Cole seems to have played his last game for his club) and the rise from nowhere. Who cares about positions and systems? You have to take both of them. Chuck out Carrick if need be, his narrative’s rubbish.