Monday, June 28, 2010

Amid the embers

Germany 4:1 England

Forget the Lampard goal. That debate is for another day. What matters is the worst finals result from the inventors of the game.

England's collapse to a competent, spirited but hardly exceptional German team was embarrassing, with some of the most amateur defending yet seen at a World Cup. That lone Anglo hoisting of the trophy sails farther away in the mind the longer the latest crop keeps falling short, and as the sixties celluloid grows grainier, then expectations will revise, rather like those of Uruguay, who have come to accept 1950 took place a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away. 1966 has been a millstone and a false totem in the English football psyche for too long.



The loss of Rio Ferdinand on the eve of the finals could well have been the straw which broke the camel's back, the undermining of a defence which had previously been a reassurance. After three gentle tests, England's back line cracked against a quality vanguard. Ferdinand's replacement Matthew Upson was at fault for Germany's first two goals, and his jaw-dropping lack of telepathy with John Terry carved vast spaces open in which Mesut Ozil and pals ran amok.

Germany's Polish-born strikers Miroslav Klose and Lukas Podolski were lethal on the rebound, but that was also down to horrendous positional play by retreating Englishmen. The first goal was a banal route one strike seen in schoolboy soccer, with two centre-backs committing the cardinal sin of letting a striker slip between them to toe-poke a punt past their goalie. Then there were about nine red shirts on the wrong side of the ball when Thomas Mueller broke away to score their third and close a chapter in the match in which England were dominant.

It was not all gloom as Fabio Capello's men had begun smoothly while the Germans stood off and waited. For a spell at the end of the first half they were clearly on top, scoring twice but having the second goal wrongly disallowed. Yet over the 90, so much of England's offering remained below par - Upson bafflingly picked ahead of Matthew Dawson or Ledley King, Glen Johnson out of position for two goals, an unfit and labouring Gareth Barry a pale shadow of the electric Owen Hargreaves in 2006, a midfield gifting acres of space away and an attack of Jermain Defoe and Wayne Rooney almost invisible.



Capello's substitutions - Emile Heskey and Shaun Wright-Phillips, were as ineffective as his changes have been all tournament. Picking Scott Parker and Adam Johnson instead of Barry and Wright-Phillips could have made a difference, but it is too late to speculate now. All England can do is rebuild with youth and usher the so-called golden generation gently out the door after a decade of misadventure.

England are all played out again, Champions League winners unable to perform in other shirts. At times against Germany, England looked interested and ready to take the game by the scruff of the neck, and at others a sluggish and aging band of brothers knackered by another gruelling domestic season. Franz Beckenbauer was right – the extra games of England's domestic calendar cannot have helped the national team, and they were stupid not to have won one of the easiest groups.

England's near-perfect qualification campaign now looks devalued, with the double-demolition of the waning Croats and defeats of Andorra, Belarus, Kazakhstan and Ukraine far less impressive in the light of today’s tragedy.

The Three Lions never roared in South Africa, but this time is was not a common case of first-round nerves. The team was stuck in first gear from Rustenburg all the way to Bloemfontein.



What went wrong? The truth will out over the next few days and weeks, perhaps with the publication of a diary or two or a whispered snippet to a journalist. But the management team of Capello and Stuart Pearce clearly failed to organise their defence or motivate their charges. I have been trying to avoid WWII references, but was the boss' struggling English and insistence on Italian-style discipline just a bridge too far?

The final scoreline is stark, though the stats show England came top on possession and shots and had an identical passing accuracy to Germany: It is goals that win games. While the Germans never had England on the rack and their goalkeeper Manuel Neuer often looked calamitous, the Mannschaft had a creative ace in Ozil that England lacked and had clearly done their counter-attacking homework to coolly exploit the glaring errors of their sub-standard foes.

Just as their opening mauling of Australia was followed by a defeat by Serbia, a quarter-final meeting with Argentina will provide a sterner test of German mettle than the English wooden spoon they tossed aside today.

England has been here before - a depressing elimination triggering frenzied soul-searching with no denouement. But it has come before in qualifying - Poland in 1973, Holland 1993, Croatia 2007. To lose this badly in the World Cup finals, and in a tournament England had a sniff of winning not too long ago, is devastating all round.

(c) Sean O'Conor & Soccerphile

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1 comment:

Coach Chris said...

It may be time for England to evaluate their National Program, they continually underachieve at the WC. They definitely have the talent pool just somehow unable to put a winning side together.