Wednesday, 27 June 2012

EURO 2012: Contenders And Pretenders To The Throne

Do you know where I'm gonna go? 
None of you have guessed, so none of you can know.
If you've been, that's not where I mean, 
It's got class and it's got excellence like you've never seen...

-- England’s ode to the Euro 2012 semi-finalists before their quarter-final*

It was as disappointing as it was inevitable; a spirited England side eliminated from an international tournament by functional, if more skilful, opposition.

This time, though, there are no regrets. No “what if’s” or “if only’s”, no “WE WOZ ROBBED” headlines. Just an all around acceptance that England were not quite good enough.

Truth be told, this energetic if flawed campaign has been walking a tightrope since Day One. We singled out the draw against France as a “good result”, but in truth, Laurent Blanc’s side were never as effective as they were made out to be prior to the tournament. Both Sweden and Spain disposed of them with alarming ease, Ribery had an under-par tournament, and as much as I like Nasri, he’s no Zidane.

But back to England. And you have to say, a draw against an overrated side and two wins – one highly fortunate, the other marred by defensive sloppiness –  don’t add up to much of a party at all.

My friends across the Irish Sea consoled themselves with the reminder that England had been awful in the group stages in Italia 90 and had gone on to reach the semi-finals. (Truthfully, apart from the unforgettable semi-final itself, there was very little in that English campaign to write home about.)

Add that England had twice needed to thank the woodwork for saving them against Belgium in 1990, which had to be a good omen. Hadn’t it?

Alas, there was no David Platt figure to save England this time.

I have praised Roy Hodgson throughout the entire campaign, especially for keeping a downer on expectations and injecting a degree of team spirit rarely seen in England teams over the years. But in retrospect, England’s Euro 2012 was loaded with flaws. It’s tempting to argue that Wayne Rooney should not have played at all; both his passing and positional sense were poor and he rarely had a sniff of goal. The long range shots and eye-popping runs that brought him to our attention in the first place are clearly a thing of the past; he appears to have almost no pace at the age of twenty-six. It’s worrying. At least he can console himself with a goal and a penalty in the shoot out, unlike Ashley Young, whose penalty summed up his dreadful tournament. It’s quite probable that Stewart Downing, had he been given his chance, would have prospered on the left in his place. Although I am not one to join the chorus of James Milner boo-boys – his running and sporadically good crossing added something to England’s game that Young just was not capable of providing.

My philosophy is not that England chose the wrong tactics against Italy, but rather that they ran out of steam. The engine room of Steven Gerrard and Scott Parker both had superb campaigns – Parker especially, who played the Didier Deschamps role to a tee (and if you think that’s not important, look at how many trophies France won following Deschamps’ retirement) – but they did not have the legs to play the high-tempo running game throughout all four matches. Danny Welbeck was starved of service. Most significantly, perhaps, once Rooney returned England looked less exciting, more devoid of class. I personally feel that this was because in the first couple of games, they worked harder for one another as a team, whereas from the Ukraine game onwards it was more a case of “Give the ball to Rooney or Walcott, and they’ll do their magic.” Walcott, unlike Rooney, can leave this tournament with his head held high – as can Hart, Carroll, the midfield duo and the entire back line. (Yes, even Ashley Cole.)

England were basically Russia without the Willy Wonka complex - there was no knowing where they were going, but they lacked pure imagination! Quite simply, they could not compete with the class and excellence of the best teams in the competition. Germany, Spain, Portugal and Italy are all worthy semi-finalists.

And on that note, it’s time to look forward to the semi-finals.

It’s still difficult to look beyond the Germans as clear favourites. One wondered what on earth Jogi Loew was doing when he replaced his classy, dependable strikeforce of Podolski, Muller and Gomez with the aging Klose and unknown Reus and Schurrle. But, luckily for him and us, it paid off. Greece’s “soak ‘em up and hit ‘em when they least expect it” tactic – effective but dour – was deemed ineffective by a swift and clinical German attacking spell. Admittedly, Greek goalkeeper Sifakis was at fault for all four goals – in particular, Khedira’s flew in over his head, and he had no real reason to come off his line and gift Klose such an easy headed goal – but it was obvious that Greece could not live with the Germans, who have added strength in depth to team spirit and a thrilling style of play.

It was just as much, if not more, of a cruise for Spain against France, despite the holders’ unpopular 4-6-0 formation (Llorente must be wondering what he has to do to get a starting place). So, a repeat of the Euro 2008 final, then?

Not necessarily. Not if a certain Cristiano Ronaldo has anything to do with it. One of the unexpected thrills of this competition has been to see this Portuguese man of awe finally show what he can do on the international stage.  He could “do a Maradona” and inspire a functional team to glory – wouldn’t that be “a helluva story”?

Likewise, the Germans should be more wary of Italy. In the early minutes of the England-Italy quarter final (the only goalless draw of this tournament – that’s not bad going!) I was tempted to argue the Germans had the semi-final in the bag no matter who they played. But it’s now apparent that Italy have improved as the tournament have gone on. They look to have added class to their resilience. Whether they progress or not depends on their temperamental forwards finding their shooting boots at the right time.

Si’s Insights will return to preview the final. Until then, as always...

Enjoy the games!

* * * * *
*Actually, it’s the Beautiful South classic “Pretenders To The Throne”, which I’ve posted below for your viewing pleasure.


Mike said...

Nice piece Si. I don't think many English fans had massive hopes entering this tournament, but there was always the possibility that the team could do what was achieved at Italia 90, the last time an England side went to a competition with so little expectation on it. Of course, what we didn't know before that group of players left was that it contained a number of really fine players, plus one genius in the making, and one of the sadder aspects of the current team is the general lack of ability compared with the 1990 vintage.

I think your summation of the players who did well is fair enough and I agree completely that Rooney's return seemed to derail the carefully constructed team spirit Hodgson had built. The trouble with a player like him is that the term 'world class' is thrown about so casually he's almost undroppable, and Roy's hardly the first England manager to be in thrall to such 'talent.' What would have happened had he decided to keep Rooney on the bench and England lost to Ukraine? He'd have been pilloried for not playing him, so he's damned if he does, etc.

After years of watching England fanny about these things, I'm becoming convinced that it doesn't really matter who the manager is anymore. The last four managers all brought something different to the role that their predecessors apparently lacked and England invariably ended up playing the same way. The inherent problem remains the same as it was a decade ago. We all know what that problem is and nobody seems prepared to do anything about it, so I'm ready for more of the same should we reach Brazil in two years' time...

Talking of world class players, for Rooney read Ronaldo, right? 'World class' to me implies someone who can produce the goods on the biggest stage and against the finest opposition, and once again the Winker choked in the Spain match. It's easy, very easy, to do the business against an average team, say Middlesbrough, but you need to be able to do it when you're playing the best, and neither have. Sad.

Anonymous said...

Can't argue with any of that, Mike. It's easy to call Hodgson a "coward" for not substituting Rooney (as Matt Le Tissier publicly has) and yet, as you rightly say, he would also have faced criticism had he taken Rooney off. Form is temporary, class is permanent, and all that, and I'm sure more than a handful of the English press were hopeful that Rooney would somehow "pull a rabbit out of the hat" and spark into life, so to speak.

The saddest thing of all is that the lively, eye-popping teenager that terrorized the Turks in '03 and every defence he faced in Portugal in '04 is unrecognisable from the bloated, establishment figure we see today. And he's still only in his mid-twenties.

You could easily say similar things about Paul Gascoigne, but even in Euro '96, Gazza retained his touch, vision and a real passion for performing on the international stage - something you can't quite say about Rooney.