Saturday, 19 June 2010

Back in the Overlook

The size of the task is starting to dawn on Capello. The reverse alchemy of England's performance in World Cup finals left him nonplussed: "what happened to the team that qualified?" Meanwhile, amongst the pundits, the old English xenophobia that eventually saw off Sven is now simmering over with unseemly haste, as they rush to blame Don Fabio for the shortcomings of the team. (The pundit consensus seems to be that it's the role assigned to Gerrard that is crucial; but Gerrard has laboured through a number of World Cup finals, long before Capello was on the scene, with limited impact.)

Some commenters have misunderstood my point about England, which is not so much that they play well in World Cup finals and go out unluckily; it's that they often play badly, but these performances aren't explicable in terms of the ability of the players. (By the time they do go out, they sometimes are playing quite well - it's then that they seem unlucky. Hence the wisdom of Danny Baker's observation that England aren't playing well enough to go out yet.) There's a deep psychological blight at the level of the team, which lingers no matter how much the personnel change. Playing for England is like being in the Overlook Hotel - generation after generation of players become possessed by the same spectres. Some are blaming money and the Premiership for England's inadequacies, but, in truth, this syndrome long precedes the high-rolling days of the Premiership. How can we account for players like Lampard and Rooney - by some distance, England's worst player last night, worse even than the red-faced Carragher, who looked all night as if he was on the verge of a stroke - devolving into these shambling shadows? Last night, it wasn't only that Rooney posed no threat; it was that he couldn't even trap a football. It was like a reverse of the situation in the old comic strip Billy's Boots, in which a schoolboy became a crack striker when he wore an old centre-forward's football boots. Rooney has looked like Billy without the boots: laborious, petulant, nothing coming off. He was like a superhero whose powers had suddenly and inexplicably worn off, raging uselessly against his new mortal limitations. Players who are imperious, deadly-ruthless assassins for their clubs become wretched cringing wrecks when playing for England, terrified of the ball and impotent in front of goal. Perhaps it was a foolish hope that Capello could summarily end this. It wasn't even that Algeria played that well - they kept the ball effectively, and they had some pace down the flanks, but they posed no real goal threat, even in front of an England defence so jittery it looked as if it would be relieved to concede a goal.
On the upside, England have never yet failed to get out of the group stage. Carragher has two bookings so can't play against Slovenia. England are in a better position than they were in 1986 (when they lost the open game to Portugal, and drew 0-0 with Morocco after Ray Wilkins was sent off), and the same position as they were in 1990 (when they drew with both the Republic of Ireland and Holland, before a late goal by Mark Wright sealed the win over Egypt in the final group game). The situation and the performances seemed even worse in 86, but, then, England had Lineker and Hoddle in reserve; in 1990, a reorganisation brought the best out of Gasgoine. It's not clear who or what England can call upon this time - Cole maybe, who, unlike the ineffective Lennon and Wright-Phillips, can score goals. But it's the intense, crushing force of The Fear - which robs England players' feet of their skills and their minds of imagination - which Capello must exorcise, a task that may be beyond the competence of even that great man.


  1. I had my reservations about your "it's not lack of ability" theory, but it's hard to disagree on the evidence of this game. Spain and Germany lost better than England drew yesterday and it was, yes, a little eerie and inexplicable. The petulance and lack of mutual belief were almost palpable - how about when Gerrard remonstrated with his teammates after he himself had failed to make an easy pass in the Algerian box?

    I still pick them to go through, though, and who knows, needing to win against Slovenia may be the jolt they need. They won't have the luxury to sit back and let the shootout decide their destiny - and I pick them to be the better for it.

  2. Yes, that Gerrard moment summed it up - what was he moaning about?
    You're right - both Spain and Germany looked better in defeat than England did drawing yesterday. In fact, England's performance was, I would have thought, by far the worst by any of the seeded teams in the tournament.
    Stirring themselves to victory against Slovenia would fit the formula, though. These group games remind me of 86 and 90 - when they started listlessly, but then managed to put in a few memorable performances. In 98, 2002 and 2006, they qualified with relative ease from the group, but without ever sparking to life.

  3. Hi Mark,

    I share a lot of your thoughts about the psychodynamics of England's failure to perform, but I do continue to be puzzled by the argument about footballing ability. I agree entirely that their failure thus far at this World Cup can't be explained in those terms: they have clearly been putting in performances way below their own average standard, and that has to be explained in other ways. But their record in major championships, as I pointed out in an earlier comment, isn't a record of underperformance at all: they have reached their level, both on average and, since Eriksson took charge, in individual tournaments too. That level corresponds to the quarter finals. Even putting aside psychological considerations (though we can't: I agree with you that they are central in thinking about England), when we talk about 'footballing ability', surely we should mean the team's collective ability - in every dimension, tactical as well as technical - as much as individual skill (we aren't talking about keepy uppy, after all). And there has been no year since 1970 in which I'd feel able to say that England will have been a 'better' side than (perm four from eight, depending on the year) Brazil, Argentina, Italy, France, Germany, Spain, Holland and Portugal, with a few others thrown in at particular championships. Euro 1996 might be the only exception; that side, one felt, was genuinely as good as any other in the tournament. It was exceptional, too, in being apparently psychologically sound; home advantage turned to confidence rather than dauntedness.

    Keep up the good work; this blog is already my favourite to take me the whole way in this World Cup.

  4. Small bone with your otherwise good comment, Paul:

    The argument that 'England reached the quarter-finals last time, top eight is about their level, so they're not underperforming' is a little muddled.

    England's final placing in the tournament in 2006 didn't reflect their drab and awful performances - they may have reached the last eight, but they weren't playing anything like one of the top eight teams in the world.

    Asking for a better team *performance* than that doesn't necessarily equate to having unrealistic expectations of the team (to get to the final every four years, or whatever).