So… what have we learned about England?

Maybe not much. Because we can only speculate about what might have happened should Roy have been moved to (say) bench Rooney and Wellbeck for Uruguay. Or Gerrard/Henderson – or whoever. Because the wry, chortle-inducing truth is we’re into the lurid, ridiculous and (c’mon!) essential business of this or any World Cup now: that sanctuary or graveyard or AA Meeting equivalent for all of us lovers and/or bitter haters and bawlers who just wanna say something about England. Because England are out (already) and that’s what we’re left with.

We may love to have known how an out-and-out 4-3-3 might have gone. Or how a yet more decisive lurch into free-form, youthful expressionism could be – dispensing with the presumed anchor that was the Liverpool skipper and casting off instead around flashers and dribblers and marauders like Barkley and Sterling, with Wilshere and A.N. Other manning the hospital ship. We may.

At the more caustic end of the spectrum we may be muttering darkly about the criminal, soul-draining absence of Cole, Terry and Carroll, whose presence might have a) stemmed the right-sided success of Italy in particular and b) dug the ribs of artsy pretention wherever it threatened to indulge – for or against.
There are a zillion great arguments for why England have failed again, many of them accepting of and possibly even grateful for the mild resurgence (or emergence) of some occasionally brightish attacking football. But what do we need to take note of? Is there cultural stuff as well as specific technogubbins around individuals or areas of the park? What can we learn – even if we can’t agree on it – what have we learned?

A few thoughts, vaguely geographically put.
• It might seem weird to start here in the context of arguably bigger issues elsewhere but… our goalies. Hart – himself another fumble away from outright membership of Dodgy Keepers Inc – is almost certainly the best of a mediocre bunch. That briskly faux confidence worries me and more importantly surely undermines any defenders quaking out front. He made minor errors again early in last night’s game, including patting away two corners like a reluctant twelve-year-old schoolboy press-ganged between the satchels. I freely admit he is not our biggest problem but he is a crack in the foundation.
The bigger question, of course is where are our ‘keepers? Answer – not in the Premier League.
• Full-backs. Twelve months ago Baines was a genuinely fine modern full-back. Bossing games with his energy and craft; ‘bombing on’ with almost undeniable vim. This season’s form has gently dipped and in this tournament we’ve seen just a wee hint of his best. (I’m thinking last night, either side of the Rooney goal – something worth noting, perhaps?) Then, without entirely blossoming, Baines was finally rolling; available, incisive, as opposed to nervy and literally withdrawn.
The chronic failure to defend ‘his’ flank during the Italy game was a strategic as well as an individual flaw. Ar Leighton might certainly have done more but Rooney let him down and so did Hodgson, for failing to direct remedial action or changes.
I confess to being mildly interested in the argument (however) that A Cole Esquire might have barked more successfully for support when Pirlo and co were unpicking England down his side of the park. Tight call as to whether Cole should have remained in the squad – with Baines then a candidate for either an advanced wing-back slot (possibly even in front of Cole against Italy?) – or the full-back position proper. Lastly on this it seems only sensible now to play Luke Shaw in the final game, does it not?
• Johnson. Has been something and nothing – which may not be as bad as forecast. In defence not exactly routed but crucially last night sloppy and slow to close down Cavani pre that peach of a chip for Suarez’s first, headed goal. In attack, where he can look positively Brazilian when the flow is with him, he was broadly unable to find the necessary pass or the surge to take himself clear. Johnson was medium pallid rather than petrified and diabolical –as he had been in South Africa.
• The two holding players disappointed. Henderson was in there to buzz about and cover but also to hit committed passes forward – to thread things. He did little of this, being if not an irrelevance, a minor minor player. Gerrard we needed – bigtime. We needed him to find both that easy control from deeper positions but also the whiff of, the threat of Roy of the Rovers that changes things. The cruel errors aside, he has significantly underperformed again, being simply too marginal when he – being one of few who could inspire in this way – had to grab a hold and shake his side to action.
Stevie G has been wonderful but not, in my view, for England; he’s been solid or so busy playing within himself that he forgot to really play. Ludicrous to criticise, perhaps but he will know (and he has said) his England career is a six out of ten not the eight he should easily have achieved. And now that career I think is over.
• The three who played behind Sturridge agin Uruguay will all feel England’s pain acutely. Wellbeck because he was relentlessly awful – presumably simply nervous beyond the ability to co-ordinate – Sterling because he fluffed too many passes and never broke the shackles and Rooney because he should have added to his single goal. Sterling, having been hearteningly in his pomp against Italy, has shown enough to get more opportunities; the other two… I’m not so sure.
Rooney was visible, without being eye-catching. In a first half that was largely (let’s be honest) barely of international standard we wondered if he was heading for a dispiritingly early seat back on the bench. Later he did improve as England had a goodish spell and he scored that goal/removed that monkey. But without being the calamity that his previous tilts at major championships have been (after his international infancy, as it were) this has been another low-key affair; Wazza has shown the world little. The brutalist view might be that this is the moment to move on from not just Gerrard and Lampard – the obvious oldies – but from Rooney too.
Wellbeck did reasonably well against Italy but we know he is no striker. He can sprint beyond folks but rarely does it. Mostly, he looks reasonably comfortable at elite level and yet… it doesn’t quite happen. When Townsend is back competing for a place and if the vogue turns towards Lallana and Barkley, he may be struggling.
• Sturridge was a tad isolated and a tad wasteful against Uruguay but he is our best genuine striker, no question. Much sharper and more dynamic than Lambert and yes, clearly ahead of Rooney. Like Rooney last night there were times when he failed to provide that crucial option for the midfield – he was too static, too markable – but he is a threat, always.
So much for the Director’s Notes. Where does this leave England?

If that sense of a significant cultural shift towards pacier, brighter football moves you – Italy game? Sterling? – you will no doubt draw away from the harsher view. Unless you think Hodgson’s hand was forced only by media pressure towards a gambol with the kids? In which case vent thy spleen fully once the final fling is flung, when rounder conclusions may be drawn on Roy’s inadequacies. (My guess is Hodgson caved in to the pro-Sterling/pro Liverpool style barrage rather than genuinely experienced some conversion to energetic and open play. He remains a decent enough but irretrievably conservative type unsuited and unable to energise the individuals and thereby pursue a dynamic game). But that’s just me; a former twinkling genius in the Duncan McKenzie mode – the sort of bloke, in fact, who never got picked by conservative gaffers.

Look if you played centre-back or full-back at whatever level, them thar Suarez-related cock-ups will define your fury. If you hate Liverpool, you’ll be pleased the whole thing blew up so sharpish. Whatever way we approach this, England are out after two games, which is apparently historically bad (as opposed to the hysterically bad under Capello last time out). And yet…

Seems to me there is no longer (simply) a monumental skills deficit and therefore no (single) imperative to embrace finesse. Improve skill, sure, but finding the blend of characters and the tactical framework to do the job has been as key as anything in Brazil. Part of this is about developing guys who are tough enough to stay clear-headed when the squeeze is on. Are enough of the doughty stoppers and the precious youngsters gifted enough and committed enough and up to it in knockout football – in World Cup games? Weigh up the football of it and the human. This is the work of the top manager and it’s demanding work.

We knew before England went out there that this side was ordinary and the defence weak at this level. We couldn’t be sure how the rarer talents might go. Put simply it was mixed – heinous errors, unsurprisingly punished, with an occasional burst of English footie. Two central disappointments for me personally? 1. The teams that beat us (so far) aren’t special, by any means. 2. My concerns about the gaffer largely confirmed.

England remain a side that tends to lack fortitude – yes! Mental strength! – as well as technical/tactical intelligence. They need a truly great and ideally visionary manager. Expect little to change under Hodgson and no major improvements until somehow… the pool of talent deepens.


A (really crap) Lancashire Panto

It might be nice if life was simple; if I could talk about say… Patrice Evra in all innocence.  If I could simply idle through the only mildly offensive theories generated by my good self regarding his almost unbelievable inability (or will?) to defend.  Likewise, if only I could rave naively about Luis Suarez’s rare gift of inventing space within and around the box, his utter confidence, his unbelievably seamless transition into Premiership groovyhood.  But I can’t – not now, not today.

Stuff’s really gotten in the way.  To the point where the foul blood already slapping the sides of the Manchester Ship Canal collects, minute by minute, further cheap flotsam – further ammunition.  And then it gets lobbed at the other side.

Such is the feeling between Manchester United and Liverpool Football clubs.  Clubs whose realness and greatness in footballing terms is beyond dispute.  Yet the epic scale of their one-eyedness, their capacity to brutally reduce pretty much everything they have in common to a seething conflict currently excels itself.  The annual home and away contest the watching world is exposed to – itself a thing of little beauty – has been further deflowered through the ‘conviction’ of Liverpool’s Uruguayan striker in the matter of alleged racist comments made against Evra (United’s left back.)

At the moment of writing there is a depressingly self-righteous gale of protest and allegation blowing east and west.  Hot on the heels of a strongly worded statement from the club following the Football Association’s decision to substantially (hah!) fine and ban Suarez, the Liverpool players have released a strongly worded message of support for their man.  United meanwhile have spent the recent period belligerently backing Evra.  At no time has it seemed likely that anyone from either side would step forward or, more ideally remain quietly in the background whilst advocating calm.

But what might we expect?  (And this, for me, is the depressing bit…)  The context is generally close to disgraceful.

United-Liverpool games have been effectively brain-dead for ages.  There are almost no moments of class in a matrix of brittle abuse.  Abuse of the spirit of the game; abuse of the ref; abuse of the real, footballing loving fan.  The players almost to a man apparently utterly lack the discipline or will (again) to avoid getting sucked into the ‘heat of the battle’.  They aren’t, frankly, big enough to deny the fraud that is the tackle from behind, the accidentally flailing elbow, the ‘follow through’.  Season after season – even with the influx of allegedly technical players from around the world – the same violent pantomime persists.

So in one sense maybe Suarez has been either unlucky, or miscast as villain of this piece?  For every ‘derby’ match between these two since about 1970 has surely offered up some genuine candidate for an 8 week ban?  Sir Alex, burning with furious and career-long need to outdo his rival from Merseyside is certainly culpable in this general amorality – as, of course, are a series of Liverpool managers.  Don’t tell me that the players are typically eased into the bear-pit without some reminder of ‘what this one means?’   And whilst I concede the likelihood of a caution that all 11 must remain on the pitch… what we used to call “kick-ball-fly” generally ensues; with malevolent knobs on.

Regrettably and shockingly and predictably, the logical extension of this milieu of Vinny Jonesesque lowest-common-denominator clatteration is mere footballers getting themselves or allowing themselves to get twisted up into a cheap, worrying and important controversy.  Difficult to be sure if Suarez dealt in supra-offenses or just the ordinary offensive comments that the derby situation pathetically fosters.  If he has racially abused Evra and he and his clubmates are pinched along a scale between outright lies and loyal delusion, it’s outrageous.  To me it seems very unlikely that he has done nothing for which he might justifiably be ashamed.   However, I am clear that this is no one-sided issue.

Evra, fascinatingly, has previous in the shape of his involvement in a brawl (effectively) at Chelsea, involving a non-playing member of that club’s staff.  Ultimately, after investigation, the word “unreliable” was one of many used to describe his evidence on the matter.  This may, naturally mean nothing whatsoever; I merely take it as a further sign of the disappointing level of understanding and commitment to responsibilities within the beautiful game.

Returning to my own fanlike/fanlit flames of controversy, I have I confess been more than distracted by Patrice’s extraordinary absences or meagre contributions to United’s defending over a period of about eighteen months.  The conclusion has been drawn here that he can’t really be arsed much with stuff happening in the left back zone.  Which is strange, surely, for a no. 3?

Returning to er… the letter of the law, I am clear that this whole, unappealing episode may not tell us much more than this – the obvious.  That a reasonable judgement might be critical of both protoganists – who seem representative of their colleagues in many respects? – plus both clubs, for their unstinting and continuing work towards undermining our faith.