Possession passes England by
Arrivederci England. It was in Italy, in 1990, that penalties first became a byword for national disappointment and it was to Italy, in 2012, that England made their customary exit. This was a familiar theme for England, going out to the first fine team they have faced in the knockout phase of a major competition, and a variation of a well-known pattern: first half good, second half not so good, extra-time excruciating and penalties positively painful.
The wait will be extended from 46 to 48 years of hurt but, as in the last two World Cups, their removal was a merciful release. In 2006 and 2010, underachieving egos got their just desserts; in 2012, an out-passed, outclassed team were spared a potentially embarrassing reunion with Germany. The woeful Ashley Young and the rather better Ashley Cole were the culprits from the spot but, if England were unable to find the Italian net from 12 yards, it was symbolic: they were unable to locate team-mates from a variety of distances.
As Roy Hodgson pointed out, England departed undefeated. They have been hard to beat and, at times, hard to watch. A hotchpotch of a team, thrown together at the last minute by a manager parachuted into the impossible job have shown spirit, exhibited an uncharacteristic unity, made some friends with their modesty and were defiant in defence. In short, England have excelled at everything except the most important aspects of the football – principally getting and keeping the ball.
Yet this is the most fundamental failing of all, a reason why the quarter-finals tend to represent England’s glass ceiling. Technically and tactically, they are European football’s moneyed dinosaurs, still clinging to an outdated ideology. Any side playing 4-4-2 can be outnumbered and outmanoeuvred in midfield. England duly were: humiliated by Mesut Ozil’s incessant, intelligent movement two years ago and Andrea Pirlo’s enduring, elegiac class now.
“He was very good,” said Hodgson afterwards. “I have worked with him in the past, I know what a good player he is.” That regard went unacknowledged on the pitch. Danny Welbeck is many things, but a man-marker is not one of them, especially when the man in question is one of the great passers of his generation. It was a criminal negligence that should have been punished before penalties.
This is where Hodgson is most culpable. Two years ago, Fabio Capello recognised the failings of 4-4-2 and switched for the remainder of his reign, only for his successor to reinstate the system he first deployed in Sweden in 1976. It is where, too, the suggestion that England had tried appointing Italians and tried impersonating them falls down: it is hard to imagine an Italian side proving as poor tactically and allowing the opposition’s outstanding talent to roam unchecked.
The gameplan needs to be redrawn; the philosophy changed. Hodgson is unfortunate that five of England’s seven finest central midfielders were absent – Jack Wilshere, Frank Lampard and Gareth Barry injured, Michael Carrick and the English Pirlo, Paul Scholes, in international retirement – and, running out of players he could trust, he persisted with the lionhearted Scott Parker long after his legs had gone. The sight of Jordan Henderson would have been worrying but he was sufficiently anonymous that few noticed him.
Hodgson’s appointment was so belated that the initial focus on organising the defence was sensible, but that does not excuse England’s deficiencies in attack. Young was a grave disappointment, James Milner a worthy long-distance runner but rarely a threat in the final third and Wayne Rooney showing signs that his two-match suspension took a toll. He looked rusty and, whereas his old ally Cristiano Ronaldo is answering questions about his record on the major international stage, Rooney’s return remains poor.
Apart from against Sweden, England rarely troubled opposing goalkeepers. They are yet to show that order can be married with dynamism, partly because they spent so little time with the ball. Only the valiant Steven Gerrard created consistently, in his finest tournament to date. That he will probably be denied a place in the team of the tournament shows the number of excellent midfielders; that none of his team-mates merit inclusion is a reminder that this is a limited group. Besides Gerrard; Glen Johnson, with a fine line in last-ditch interceptions; Joe Hart, busy but rarely beaten; and Parker, the despairing destroyer, acquitted themselves well.
Yet there is a case for phasing out Parker, along with John Terry, who drags the England defence ever deeper, and all of the thirty-something contingent apart from Gerrard and Cole. They are not going to improve, whereas England need to.
This is a tournament where fortune has favoured them but, if penalties are deemed a lottery, their luck ran out. There should be no hard-luck stories, only lessons. Hopefully the younger players in Poland and Ukraine – Welbeck, Andy Carroll, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Phil Jones, Martin Kelly – will absorb some; hopefully, they will be joined by Wilshere and some of more of the next generation, equipped with an ethos that would enable England to prosper, rather than simply surviving.
Because, while purposeless passing goes against the grain for the English, possession matters. The most worrying quote of the last three weeks came from Hodgson when he said he did not believe in possession statistics. He really should. All England should. Because without the ball, there is only so far a team can go.