If England learned anything from their two friendlies against the Republic of Ireland and Brazil, it is that they are certainly no longer a major force in world football. The manner in which they were outplayed for large swathes of the match against the Selecao was alarming – they lacked the ability to put even the most simplest of moves together – and indicative of their standing in international football, hanging on for dear life. It does not bode well for the World Cup qualifiers where England can’t afford any slip-ups in their remaining four matches if they want to be back in Brazil this time next year.
England do not have a terrible record this season. In 11 internationals they have only lost once – to Zlatan Ibrahimovic – but they have also played out three 1-1 draws against Poland, Montenegro and Ukraine; not the sort of form that will be the rest of the world sleepless nights. This apparent ability to make their rather average opponents look like world-beaters is admirable, but also slightly problematic if you’re trying to qualify for a World Cup. Add to that another lacklustre 1-1 draw against Eire on Wednesday and it’s not been an annus mirabilis for the Three Lions. On the one hand, after a long season a turgid performance is perhaps understandable – then again the top teams would comfortably dispatch a spirited but limited Ireland side.
There have been some positives for the national side. Two friendly victories against Brazil and Italy are not to be sniffed at (both are incidentally ranked lower that England in the official Fifa rankings). The emergence of Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain as a player of considerable potential is encouraging and Theo Walcott has played marginally less shite than usual this season. Frank Lampard is enjoying an Indian summer and when Jack Wilshere plays, England have the air of a team that isn’t a steaming pile of manure – which is a positive I suppose.
My issue with the current England team is that they never dominate supposedly lower-ranked opposition (apart from San Marino and Moldova – which is hardly that commendable). They always seem to play just about well enough to scrape an undeserved win or to hang on for a draw. Take, for example, the 1-1 draw in Montenegro in March. 10 of the starting 11 had won the Premier League, the other (Gerrard), everything but. Not exactly strangers to the idea of winning a crucial match. In the next 90 minutes, Montenegro (ranked a very respectable 27th in the world) proceeded to dominate all facets of the game, forcing England into hopeful punts up field for most of the second half in the face of heavy Montenegrin bombardment. Now the initiated football novice would have claimed that the Montenegrins were in fact the 7th best team in the world and England the 27th such was the gulf in class, not the other way round. In the lead up to conceding the goal, England had to defend a series of corners and the defence just didn’t take control of the situation. Dare I say it, John Terry would have put his head in where it hurts for the team (about his only redeeming feature). Instead the defence resembled a confused group of schoolboys who had just been asked to recite the complete works of Shakespeare in Swahili whilst enacting the exact choreography to Stravinsky’s ‘The Rite of Spring.’ It was a performance that would have had Alan Hansen tearing his hair out (or licking his lips with glee at the prospect of saying ‘terrible defending’ in his own indomitable style).
Perhaps I shouldn’t be surprised. England haven’t played well in a major tournament since Euro 2004 and quite frankly, compared with the top European nations, they are light years behind. Germany proved as such at the World Cup in 2010 and Italy, more recently at last year’s Euros. One only had to watch the Champions League final to see the difference in playing style. Dortmund and Bayern Munich were both physically and tactically adept at possession, counter-attacking, direct and tika-taka football whenever they so desired. I was struck by the speed and incisiveness of the passing and movement. There was always someone available to pass to, always someone in space or someone willing to make a run. The forward lines were interchangeable making it difficult for defenders to pick them up.
England have often recently been accused of adopting tactics that are too rigid, that they play in lines instead of in a dynamic formation which operates in between the traditional 4-4-2 formation. The truth is that the English are not intelligent enough to play such a system. The top German/Spanish/Italian players have a footballing brain that is all too rare in this country which enables them to act on instinct. This instinct is almost unteachable (unfortunately) because it relies on the player’s awareness of his teammates, the opposition, available space and the consequent passes he can play armed with all this information – something that takes a lifetime to absorb. That’s without even considering the ability to actually execute these skills and the physical attributes required to compete for 90 minutes at the highest level. Jack Wilshere is the only current England player that fits into this category. In the last 25 years, Paul Gascoigne and Matt Le Tissier are the only players that come to mind. The FA has recently changed its coaching blueprint, with the emphasis on technique. This is undoubtedly a forward step because the national psyche needs to adapt and pronto at that. For now, England may now have to accept that simply qualifying for the World Cup is an achievement in itself.