Wednesday, October 17, 2012

England - pragmatic or ordinary?

This piece was originally intended as a tactical report on tonight's (postponed) match between Poland and England. However, since this contest was as tactically irrelevant as they come, I chose to go down another path and analyse specific details about the English squad.

With both teams arranged in a 4x4x1x1 and virtually mirroring each other in every aspect, there was good cause to believe this would turn out to be a match right up Sir Bobby Robson's alley - "if everyone wins the battle against their direct opponent, we will win the game". Unfortunately, due to both teams' fear and ineptitude, neither didn't. The outcome? A fitting draw, with both goals coming from set pieces - Rooney scoring with his shoulder, Glik putting the ball in the net after an ill-timed approach from Joe Hart.

  • The new life of Wayne Rooney. As his speed dwindled down over the years, Wayne Rooney has been clever in making the most of his footballing and match reading abilities. Never one willing to stay up front waiting for service to come, his work rate has been beneficial for both his club and country. The former Everton forward has now become an almost full-time midfielder, and an all-around one at that. He was often seen deputising for Cleverley when the Manchester United youngster pushed forward and covering for Ashley Cole, as well. By dropping back a few yards (a bit like Paul Scholes did), Rooney's influence may grow exponentially and he may become one of the most dangerous attacking midfielders in the world.
  • Carrick and Gerrard in midfield. Are you sure? Steven Gerrard has been one of England's mainstays and trustworthy lieutenant for the last decade or so. While it is impossible to overstate his historic importance - despite the apparent physical impossibility for him and Lampard to play on the same side -, it's an indisputable fact that his speed, stamina and work rate have been on the wane over the last couple of years. To entrust him with the task of shielding his back four alongside Michael Carrick borders on wishful thinking. As for the Red Devil, he is indeed a masterful passer of the ball and excellent at dictating his team's tempo, but he needs both a ball-winning partner by his side and his team-mates to provide darting runs in front of him. Otherwise, his lack of pace and almost non-existent physicality will become far too exposed and constitute a liability for this team.
  • Hart, the foundation. Joe Hart is undoubtedly one of the best goalkeepers in Europe. He has often stepped up to save his team's ambitions and his evolution has been undeniable. However (like Iker Casillas, for instance), he really has to master the art of dealing with crosses, at the risk of jeopardising his reputation and the faith his team-mates are willing to put in him. Every good team must have a faithful, solid, reliable goalie at the back. Hart only needs to improve that bit to become one of England's all-time greats.
  • The young guns. From everything I watch and read, I have been under the impression for several years now that England's future was bleak - there was an apparently ever smaller talent pool, foreigners (some with limited ability) were stifling the evolution of youngsters and kids these days were less and less interested in playing football (or doing any sort of physical activity, for that matter). Watching tonight's match, I couldn't help thinking that England's future was alive and well. In fact, Welbeck, Milner (he's still only 26, mind you), Walcott, Carroll, Lennon, Cleverley and Oxlade-Chamberlain all provide a strong bedrock upon which to build. Cleverley has the makings of an intelligent midfielder, Walcott and Lennon have the speed to offer the necessary width, and Oxlade-Chamberlain can provide the intensity and versatility so often lacking in English national teams.
  • Pragmatism or excessive fear? As an outsider looking in, I have always felt that English teams (both at club and international level) were too often isolated from the rest of the world. While it has numerous upsides - the atmosphere in an English stadium is still miles away from anything else, to name but one example -, it also has its disadvantages. Although the 4x4x2 (or 4x4x1x1) many teams resort to is not necessarily a thing of the past, the way most squads play it is absolutely outdated. In fact, it's not that hard to remember that the English teams that thrived the most in European competitions have seldom been arranged in such fashion. For instance, since Sir Alex Ferguson decided to step away from 4x3x3, Manchester United have dropping further and further away from Barcelona (admittedly one of Sir Alex's yardsticks) and even Manchester City, their numerous stars notwithstanding, found life in the Champions League hard and were eliminated by Sporting Lisbon in the Europa League. If England are serious about reclaiming their place in European football, they must analyse their performance, but they mustn't be wary of learning from others.
In conclusion, while England's performance in Warsaw was far from impressive, there are still a lot of positives to take from it. A draw is a good result and hopefully Roy Hodgson will realise he has enough weapons in his squad to strike fear in his opponents' hearts. There is one thing the manager of the English team (and their fans) must realise, though: England are neither the powerhouse that must win every single match against every single opponent - as many seemed to believe not so long ago -, nor are they some minor team that should quake in their boots every time they go out on the field.

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