Monday, 28 June 2010

Don't blame Capello, blame the players

With his talk of "unrest in the camp" yesterday, Alan Shearer was starting to play his part in the standard responsibility-shifting exercise with which the English media always collude: blame the coach, not the player. A story is being prepared: the players weren't happy, Capello was too strict (just as, according to prevailing tabloid opinion, Sven, Mclaren and Venables were too lax), OK, Capello made mistakes (what coach doesn't), but, if anything, the problem was the Don's inability to impose sufficient discipline on the (golden) shower of players. I'm not resiling on my previous claim that the problem with these players is not their lack of technical ability; what most of the "golden genetration" lack, rather, is a certain kind of humility. (And athleticism: the most evident physical failing of the England team yesterday was their alarming lack of pace.)

Compare Schweinsteiger to Gerrard and Lampard. Most of Schweinsteiger's work is unfussy, even anonymous; it's a matter of short linking passes and rapid worker-bee movement. But Gerrard, with his raking, would-be defence-splitting passes to nowhere, and Lampard, invisible until he squanders a goalscoring opportunity, won't come on set if it isn't Hollywood. The longstanding difficulty with playing them together isn't just a question of the incompatibility of their playing styles. It's that (1) you can't afford players like this who contribute so little to the humdrum cohesion of the team and (2) in order to thrive, such players depend on others who will do this more mundane linking work. The problem for England in many ways is not that the players can't make the step up to international football, but that they are not willing to make (what they see as) the step down to the menial watercarrying duties that are essential to team play. The case against Gerrard was made by the graphic showing his contributions during play for England. The fact that Gerrard can't hold his assigned position was being posited as a reason for Capello not playing on the left, but really it is a testament to his indiscipline and egotism.

No-one sums this up this syndrome more than John Terry, as Sid Lowe argued yesterday:

    Germany's opener came directly from their keeper, the ball bouncing twice before Klose scored. As the ball flew through the air, John Terry was in line with Upson. But not in line alongside him, as you'd expect two centre-backs to be, but in line in front of him, by six or seven metres. He'd come out from the back for no apparent reason whatsoever.

    When it sailed over Terry's head neither Upson nor James dealt with it well, but they had been sold down the river.

    In England, Terry is held up as one of the best defenders in the world. But where the hell was he going?

    Pretty much the same place he was going for the second goal, as it happens. Again he left his post, leaving a huge gap in his wake. Most the fingers were pointed at Glenn Johnson when Podolski got away from him to finish the move off. But the goal was actually created on the other side of the pitch.

    Again, Germany exploited a huge space in the channel between Ashley Cole's position and the centre-back slot that Terry had vacated - it had come from exactly the same place as a chance James saved from Klose three minutes earlier.

    It was no coincidence that throughout Muller, on Germany's right, was the game's most dangerous player.

My theory on yesterday's defensive anarchy is that players like Terry decided to rebel against what they perceived as Capello's restrictions, thinking that they knew better than the Boss, and choosing to roam wherever they pleased. How else can you account for the crazed indiscipline at 2-1? England were creating goalscoring opportunities; Germany's defence looked nervous. Why push most of the team up, in a straight line, for free kicks and throw ins, leaving yawning, cavernous gaps for Germany to run and pass through at will?

The roots of this individualism no doubt run deep in recent English culture (Enric Gonzalez blames Thatcher's destruction of social cohesion and working class soldarity). If Capello remains in the job, he now has a mandate to crush the golden generation. If someone else, such as Hodgson, comes in, it is imperative that they do it. Gerrard and Lampard can blame the coach if they like, but the reality is that they have underperformed at major international tournaments under a sucession of England managers. Mark E Smith's article on the management of the England team, which Alex Andrews linked to a few days ago, describes exactly what needs to be done.

    The way the England team is now is ridiculous. A team of superstars is like a supergroup. It's like picking the best guitarist in Britain, the best drummer and the best singer, and expecting them to produce something that isn't prog-rock mush. It doesn't work: this England team will never work at the highest level. I know that. See, Sir Alf Ramsey [who managed England's 1966 World Cup win] - people never liked him for it, but he'd always have the full-backs from the second division. He took players and moulded them, like I do with musicians. Gordon Banks, the goalkeeper, was from Stoke City, who were bottom of the first division. They'd conceded more goals that World Cup season than anybody else. But it works. You want a goalie who gets bloody shot at every week!

It's strking how closely the German team - with Klose and Podolkski, who, as I said yesterday, couldn't score a goal for their club to save their lives - fit the model that Smith describes. Meanwhile, teams full of lesser known Premiership or even Championship players and their equivalents, have performed much better than England. But if even Capello can't break the superstar culture at England, who can?


  1. I'd probably still say that technical ability plays some part, but other than that, you've almost perfectly summed it up. Sid Lowe is spot on as well.

    On a side note, its worth adding in support of your latter point, that Podolski is apparently something of a figure of fun in Germany for his domestic form leading to a couple of common jokes badly reproduced here -

    Q: How do they know it is Thursday in Koln?
    A: Because Podolski turns up for training.

    Q: How come Podolski knows where he is on the pitch for Germany but not for Koln?
    A: Because he just runs up the left touchline.

    Mark E Smith model indeed, I've never seen Germany play without Podolski turning up, even if he is sometimes less than ruthless with his opportunities (see the Serbia game).

    great post great blog.

  2. Superstar is a menace, indeed...look at Portugal, they only started to play well in the qualifiers when Ronaldo went down. At that time, the diva was the centre of the attention, couldn't score a goal, didn't pass to anyone, a petulant egoistic fella who couldn't take a booing from the public without showing his true colours(i'm portuguese and, although i'm not currently living there, i can assure that Ronaldo irritates a lot of Portuguese fans, only the female fans stuck with him all the time).
    Look at France at 2002, what a bunch of lunatics as a " we're the World, Euro, Universal champions, on va gagner, everyone is afraid of us!".
    There are several examples, even Germany at 1994 was similar.
    England should get younger, not only because of the (lack of the) pace, but more because when you're young, you are hungry for success, you will respect a coach more often and you will understand that to win you should do more that be the best player in the world.


  3. Yes, the lack of spirit and camaraderie in the team was shocking - highlighted in 'leader' Terry's pathetic mutiny and withering assessment of the team's attacking options (did he even *know* how insulting he was being to his teamMATES).

    Rooney's distrust of those players surrounding him was equally awful to watch. In almost every game on receiving the ball he'd turn to the right to see Milner in space and, a disappointed look on his face, quickly turn the other way to see if his bessa mate stevie g was available. Invariably he wasnt and on turning again a defender would by now step in and easily remove the ball. Rooney's reaction would be a look of contempt at a Milner or a Lennon, not for any of their actions but for their actual existence.

    In yesterdays match Milner ended up having a half decent shot on target, which may have been tamely saved or drift wide I cant remember. When he gave the player closest to him, Rooney, one of those looks footballers often do that seem to seek encouragement or affirmation (others being those 'thumbs up' that greet passes that have sailed yards over a player's head) Rooney simply failed to acknowledge him and walked off. His refusal to be 'brought down' to these inferior players levels is my abiding memory of his performances and is greatly disconcerting.

    The shock is that Capello, with all his experience and otherness, wasnt able to impose some sort of unity into them. Surely it is not truly an impossible job but Capello's failure certainly strengthens that argument.


  4. Just gotta say that Gordon Banks was playing for Leicester City in 1966.