The English, who pride themselves on being a pragmatic nation, always able to assess things calmly and rationally, do lose their heads when it comes to football. And they are in great danger of doing so again at these Euros. Now this may seem a strange thing to say, but bear me out.
The nation goes into this competition in a more subdued frame of mind than at any time since Italia 1990, when English clubs were just getting back into European competition after a five year absence due to the awful events at Heysel. This time round it is not hooliganism, but problems in English football management which has meant going into an international competition under a manager who has been in charge for a mere six weeks. Even for a nation that almost boasts of muddling through, this is a bit much.
And what happens? England take the lead, then concede a goal, could have snatched a win in the last minute and all the talk is how boring and defensive England are. How, in terms of skill, the team was out-matched by France. How the French out-passed the English. But is that a surprise? What do you expect from a manager who was in charge of two matches and ten training sessions before meeting France?
Roy Hodgson, who has plenty of experience of taking over teams in trouble, indeed has made a habit of rescuing teams facing relegation – as with Fulham and West Bromwich Albion – faces a similar situation with England. I know the term relegation does not apply to international football, but in a sense, not being able to qualify from the group for the knock out stage would be the international equivalent of relegation. Before the competition began there was a view that England would struggle. Now after the performance, and given what Sweden and Ukraine offered, it seems highly unlikely that England will not make the knock out phase.
Hodgson has done what he does best, made a careful note of what he has. And if Sir Alf Ramsey brought 4-4-2 to the game, then Hodgson seems to have introduced the 7-3 team formation, the back four bolstered by three midfield players who are essentially defensive, with the counter attacks coming from Young, Welbeck and Oxlade-Chamberlain. And had James Milner’s finish been as good as his run to meet the defence-splitting pass from Young, then England could have started with a classic goal against France.
But, of course, on pure technical skills England are inferior to France, and not just France. But this is an old story. What is the surprise in that I do not know of any international competition where England have not been technically inferior. Look back to 1970 when England probably had their best team ever. Yes, the 1970 team was better than the ‘66 one. Examine that famous match in the group stage when England played Brazil with Banks making the save from Pele even as the great man was celebrating a goal. England eventually lost 1-0 to a Jairzinho goal. Yes, England played well, but in terms of pure skill, the Brazilians were superior. But then, in the view of many, that Pele team was arguably the greatest football team ever.
What basically happened was through the ‘80s, what may be called the Charles Hughes era, England went backwards, even in relation to European nations. Hughes said you only required five passes to score a goal. You do not need to have seen Barcelona play to know how damaging that doctrine was. But as Alan Pardew emphasised to me recently, English football is coming out of the ruinous Hughes era. It will take time to bridge the skill gap and to expect Hodgson to do anything in mere weeks when it will take years, is asking for the moon.
Rooney’s return for the last group match will make a difference. He is our modern day Paul Gascoigne, the one world class player we have. Who knows, as in Italia 90, Rooney could steer England to heights the national team does not often reach.
What England needs to note is that compared to 2004, few teams play the long ball, not even the Greeks. Then, Greece won the competition, but took European football back. Now all of Europe follows, or tries to follow, Spain. It will take a long time for England to, but given how England performed under Roy, you have to say the boy done good. And much better than Sven-Goran Eriksson managed with the so called golden generation back in 2004 when, let us recall, they led France, fell back to defend and conceded two goals right at the end.
This tournament has so far suggested that whoever wins, and at this stage I would fancy the Germans, it will be based on playing good football. The standard of play will be much higher than the dismal show we had in the 2010 World Cup. Then, even the once mighty Brazilians played percentage football. As Gilberto Silva, put it after Brazil beat North Korea 3-1 in a hard fought victory, “Despite what some people expect – that Brazil will score four or five goals – people must know that football has changed. If you don’t do the right things down at the right moments you have problems. If you play a very open game you can have a problem at the end of the day and in this type of tournament you may not have chance to recover. We must respect the game and all circumstances.”
The Euros hold out the hope we may see more adventure, but to expect that from England is asking for the moon.