Wednesday, 30 June 2010

England expects too much

England were humbled on Sunday in a 4-1 defeat to Germany in Bloemfontein. This result, together with other abject performances in the group stage, has led the English press to erupt in a fit of rage, spewing stinging criticism at the manager and the players. Fabio Capello has been accused of getting his tactics wrong, of picking the wrong players and wrong formation. The players have been lambasted for their apparent lack of ‘spirit’ and ‘desire’, and their inability to replicate their Premier League performances. The England team is now seen by the majority of English football fans as a complete failure and disgrace to the country, but do England fans expect too much?

The majority of the media seem to spend months force feeding the masses false hope, presumably in the hope of selling more papers. Advertisers churn out faux-patriotic beer commercials and ex-professionals are constantly on television telling the camera that they think we have ‘a real chance of winning it this time’. With all this hyperbolic rubbish constantly streaming into the nation’s sub-conscience, it is not hard to understand why so many people feel let down or devastated by England’s comprehensive defeat in South Africa. If only people were told the truth about our chances before the tournament began, it may not have been such a surprise to so many.

England certainly have a selection of experienced players that play in big pressure situations for their clubs. Lampard, Gerrard, John Terry and Ashley Cole should have contributed more to helping the team be more intelligent with the ball and more solid without it. Wayne Rooney also clearly did not play to his potential and may have buckled under the weight the pressure. Rooney was seen as England’s hope and his performances were sadly very cumbersome, wasteful and somewhat out of character. However, even if Rooney had been more on form, the England team would still have come up short. Matthew Upson, Jermaine Defoe, Gareth Barry and Glen Johnson are not International class players. This balance of irrelevant experience and lack of quality is not exactly a recipe for success. England have no problem creating box to box midfielders who are energetic and direct, neither do they have a problem making big, lumbering centre halves. However, England simply do not seem to produce players who are creative or skillful, players who can control the ball, keep possession and make defense splitting passes. The current England team even lacks real defensive midfielders, who protect the back four and win the ball back for their team. Germany showed England how to play with imagination, precision and speed. They continually overran England in midfield and broke time and time again through their lackluster back line. If the England players believed their own hype, the Germans certainly did not. After being told that they were young and inexperienced, Germany went out and played as though they had been set free. Germany enjoyed the game, England became tight and ragged.

The English media continually portray the England team as World beaters, and the English public lap it up. England were ludicrously third favourites to lift the World Cup before the tournament with British bookmakers. This collective delusion is the reason why people cannot seem to comprehend why England came up well short against a bright, if not brilliant German team. The simple truth is that Germany have better players and a better team than England. Portugal and Holland also have better teams than England, they are smarter in possession and while Portugal are far more solid defensively, Holland’s attacking options easily out-gun the English. On top of this, England also fall desperately short when compared to the real favourites for the World Cup. Brazil, Argentina and Spain are streets ahead of England in almost every regard. They have squads full of genuinely world class players, and unlike England they have a team of square pegs in square holes. These teams have real depth in reserve, mouth watering attacking options, intelligent ball players, tactical defensive strategies and marvellous technical ability. Why should it be a surprise that England always come up short? It seems perfectly obvious to me.

Saturday, 26 June 2010

European teams on the decline?

The World Cup in South Africa has reached the the second round, sixteen teams have departed and sixteen remain. As the 2010 tournament begins to heat up, I’m taking a look at the composition of this knockout phase in comparison with World Cups from the past.

The second round of sixteen format was first introduced in 1986 and it has been mainly populated with European teams ever since. In the six World cups between 1986 and 2006 Europe has had 10 of the last 16 on five occasions, in 2002 there were 9 European teams. In South Africa, things seem to have changed. Having seen 7 teams from Europe depart in the group stages, only 6 remain. This is a dramatic drop considering the consistent level since 1986. To make things worse for the European teams, the remaining 6 are all facing off against one another, guaranteeing the departure of 3 more.

France and Italy who contested the 2006 World Cup Final both finished bottom of their respective groups and looked very jaded and lethargic in comparison to some of the other supposedly smaller nations. The thing is, we all knew that France and Italy were in massive decline before the tournament, but many of us still begrudgingly believed that they would grind their way out of their groups and maybe reach the Quarter Finals before lamely bowing out. Refreshingly, teams like Uruguay, Mexico, Japan and Chile have really stepped up this World Cup, beaten European opposition and marched into the Second Round looking sharp, dangerous and playing exciting, entertaining football. The knockout rounds in South Africa look set to be one of the most diverse and intriguing knockout rounds ever.

Is this the beginning of the end of European dominance of the knockout phases of the World Cup? 2010 could be the beginning of a more evenly balanced World Cup future.

Saturday, 19 June 2010

England’s lack of excuses

I imagine that England’s 0-0 draw with Algeria in Cape Town last night was not a particularly entertaining watch for a neutral viewer. For me, watching England is usually a frustrating and painful experience, however last night was a little embarrassing also. Watching the tournament unfold over the first week, it seemed that matches were starting to open up, goals were starting to flow and teams were beginning to express themselves. Last night at the Green Point Stadium however, England and Algeria did their best to drag the standard of football down to new depths.

Algeria’s lack of ambition was not surprising, they played for a 0-0 and they achieved their objective. It was a risky strategy from the Algerians, especially considering that they lost their first game, but they now still have a chance to qualify from the group if they can beat USA in their final group game on Wednesday. Algeria did well last night, they were defensively compact and managed to squeeze England and not allow them any space out wide. They had few attacking opportunities themselves, but never looked uncomfortable dealing with England’s front two.

Despite setting up so defensively, Algeria managed to have 47% possession over the course of the match. Compare this with Switzerland’s 33% from their game with Spain and it is easy to see that England did not put nearly enough pressure on the Algerian defense. I am sure that Algeria were expecting much more from Fabio Capello’s team, and they were defensively prepared for an onslaught which never came. In certain periods of the match, Algeria seemed to gain confidence from England’s ineptness and came forward themselves, albeit without much result.

It is not unusual to see uninspiring England performances, but last night’s was truly terrible. England often struggle to break down determined defenses, but they are normally left with a referring decision or two to complain about, a wasted chance here and there or some other freak stroke of ‘bad luck’. Yesterday however, England didn’t even have any excuses to lamely cling to. Their play was unimaginative in the extreme, their work rate was well below par and almost every individual performance was timid and terribly poor. Lampard and Gerrard couldn’t complete 10 yard passes when not under any pressure and Rooney decided to forget how to control a football. In one particularly funny moment, Emile Heskey attempted a bit of skill when cutting in from the right, only to trip all over his own feet and the ball before kicking it straight out for a goal kick, classic. Heskey’s hold up play was also only marginally better than having a wheelie-bin up front.

It is difficult to see how England’s problems can be fixed. Players like Rooney, Lampard and Gerrard should not be constantly misplacing short passes and allowing the ball to cannon off their shins as they attempt to bring it down. Something other than tactics and personnel must at fault here. This morning’s press are indicating that the player’s could not deal with the pressure of playing in a World Cup. Fabio Capello said "We lost too many passes, it was not the same team that I know, the team I see when they train". Maybe the pressure has become debilitating for the England players, and this is not necessarily a bad thing. A goal can do wonders for relieving pressure, and beating Slovenia on Wednesday could see England finish top of Group C.

Friday, 11 June 2010

Why Spain probably won't win the World Cup

Spain are favourites with the bookies to lift the World Cup on the 11th July, and with the immensely talented squad that the European Champions have, who would argue? Well I would actually. Spain are capable of beating any team in the competition, and their success at Euro 2008 will have given them confidence in their own talent and in their ability to win a major tournament. However, Spain could very possibly have the hardest route to the final of any team in the competition. If things go to plan (which they almost certainly will not) Spain may have to beat Portugal, Italy, Argentina and Brazil one after another to become World Champions. I believe that this run of matches will prove too much, even for this great Spanish side.

It is often forgotten that in their masterful Euro 2008 triumph, Spain had to rely on winning a penalty shoot-out against the always resilient Italy in the quarter final. To win the World Cup in South Africa, Spain will have to make their way through a tough knockout draw, and penalties could quite conceivably crop up once again. They will have to find a way past world class teams who are likely to set up in rigid defensive formations, they may have to overcome dodgy goals, or poor refereeing decisions. World class players such as Ronaldo, Messi and Kaka will not go down without an almighty fight, Spain have got one hell of a job on their hands.

What I am trying to say is that for Spain to win the World Cup they could very well have to pass the sternest test any international side has ever faced. I have no doubts about the squad's quality or their ability to win, and they are rightly favourites for the competition, but football is a hard game, even for the best.

Wednesday, 9 June 2010

World Cup Preview

Keep checking your watches people, if we all stare at them hard enough, maybe we can make Friday come sooner. The World Cup begins on the 11th with the hosts South Africa taking on Mexico in Johannesburg.

The 2010 World Cup will involve all seven previous winners of the Trophy, and each of its 32 teams and 64 matches promises to be fascinating in their own ways. Italy are looking to equal Brazil's World Cup record of winning the competition 5 times, while this is Slovakia's first ever World Cup. At 22 years old, Lionel Messi is aiming to set the World Cup alight with dazzling skills, while Miroslav Klose who is 10 years older needs six more goals to pass Ronaldo and become the highest ever World Cup goalscorer. Every way you turn there is a record to be broken or a story to be told.

Of the 23 players that were short-listed for the 2009 FIFA World Player of the Year award, 19 will be on show at the World Cup in South Africa. While it is no surprise that 6 of these players belong to the Spain squad, England actually have the second highest amount of short-listed players with 4.

The groups themselves are also promising to be most interesting. Italy arguably have the easiest group, and the average FIFA World Ranking of the teams in Group F is 37, compared to 18 in Group D. In Group G the highest ranked team in the World, Brazil, are grouped with 3rd ranked Portugal and Ivory Coast who are ranked 27. Group A is probably the most balanced group of them all. Hosts South Africa should be boosted by their home advantage, and France, Uruguay and Mexico are ranked 9th, 16th and 17th respectively.

Everything is ready, lets hope for an unforgettable month.