Monday, 28 June 2010

England's Super-GAU

The likelihood is that this match will leave more scars more than any of England's World Cup defeats. I hesitate to use the phrase perfect storm, but almost every detail of the game seems to accumulate into a massive migraine-inducing weatherfront of depression. Practically every potential weakness identified in the team manifested itself, and what should have been its strengths were only demonstrated by the opposing side. [EDIT: I've retitled this post in the light of Locus's fascinating explanation of the term 'super-GAU' in the comment below: 'largest presumable accident: the limit of calculation of breakdown in any particular context.'). Let us count the ways.

There are no excuses: this England team was coached and organized by one of the best coaches in the world. Capello was given absolutely everything he asked for in preparation, superb facilities, altitude training. It was played in the cooler temperatures of a South African winter. Fatigue cannot be blamed. The players had weeks to recuperate and recover from their season. None were involved in the Champions League after the quarterfinal stage. (The 38-game Premier League schedule cannot seriously be blamed: the Spanish, Italian and French leagues all play 38 games, and while France and Italy also went home early, Spain did not, and have in fact dominated the last few years of international football. Above all else, those four leagues are packed with most of the world's best players, so the 20-team, 38-game schedule cannot be exclusively impacting on England's performances, yet not say, Brazil's.)

No consolation: this was no heroic, glorious failure. England only dominated the game for two spells, shortly before and after half-time. Lampard's disallowed goal aside, there was nothing about Germany's goals to complain about, no referee-ing outrages, no injustices, just stunning ineptitude in the English defensive and midfield.

And then the historical ironies. In the build up, Franz Beckenbauer had disparaged the English for playing the same old kick-and-rush percentage game. Germany's first goal? A huge goal-kick straight up the middle into the space left by two dozing centrebacks. The first time an outfield player touched it was also the last, as Klose diverted it past James. And Lampard's goal will of course be greeted as no more than cosmic justice by the many German fans who still dispute Hurst's winning goal in '66.

Even more painful was the degree to which the England team - the apotheosis in theory of all the Premiership's power - was systematically taken apart by a team playing Premiership football: fast, direct, relentless and set up in a 4-2-3-1. As this interview with Jürgen Klinsmann reveals, the Premier League's pace and pattern of play was the explicit model for the reinvention of the German side undertaken in preparation for World Cup 2006. In fact the seeds of this re-invention probably lie a few years earlier, and therein lies another historical cruelty. In 2001, a young English side beat a more senior and experienced Germany 5-1 in Munich. They didn't dominate possession and steamroller their opponents from first to last, but having gone in at half-time at 2-1 after an early German goal, they played superbly on the break thereafter. Germany had to come forward, and clinical through-balls from Gerrard, Beckham and Scholes for the lightning fast Owen and Heskey made the win look more comprehensive than it really was. The effect on the Germans was massive though: a 'supergau', said Oliver Kahn, a nuclear explosion. The year zero from which German football began to rebuild. Only a fifth German goal was wanting to underline this game's lineage.

And England lost playing in 4-4-2, the archetypal English formation.

But this is where things get confusing and discussion of a national footballing ethos begins to breakdown. Because 4-4-2 just isn't the 'English' way anymore. In fact it's hardly ever seen anymore in the Premier League, and one of its most dogged adherents was the not very English Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger.

That 'English' footballing template Klinsmann and Löw adopted? Its directness is in fact a highly cosmopolitan concept, introduced by managers open to ideas from across Europe. The Premier League is often equated with the England team. But as the most popular league in the world, there is little sense in which it is English. Its international audience is massive. Licensing peculiarities mean that it is easier to watch in Iran and Uganda than it is in the UK where it is mostly locked up in pay TV. Its top clubs are owned by foreign oligarchs and billionaires. They are not, and have not been for a long time, managed by Englishmen. These England players have been trained to play the game by the elite of continental footballing technocrats: Mourinho, Houllier, Benitez, Wenger, Hiddink, Ancelotti. I would even include Carlos Queiroz in that list, because though he has never managed in the PL and was a dismal failure at Real Madrid, he is universally credited with organizing Man United's shift to 4-2-3-1, as well as their defensive solidity and dependence on lightning counter-attacks. The fact that the England team hold their own individually in this environment proves not just that they can compete at international level, but that they can play disciplined, structured, subtle and flexible football.

So Capello's choice of 4-4-2 and the players' interpretation of it is a post in itself (coming soon since you ask).

But psychological pressure, the massive glacial pressure of personal confidence (over-inflated by the Sky-tabloid hype machine), multiplied by the nine noughts of national hope and expectation, and then set against the weight of history's defeats, is clearly a problem that had not been dealt with. This is a neurotic team, so fixated on not failing for once that it is drawn magnetically towards the trapdoor exit. You have to hope none of the team had read Richard Williams' piece last week on the stakes of the Slovenia game: essentially the future financial health, even viability of the Premier League and FA, in a period when few promising England players seem to be coming through. Whoever is managing England when qualification for Euro 2012 begins, perhaps the most important signing the FA could make would be this man: Steve Peters.


  1. "SuperGAU" is actually a more interesting term than how Kahn glosses it.

    GAU = "Größter Anzunehmender Unfall" = largest presumable accident: the limit of calculation of breakdown in any particular context. So Super-GAU - an unimagined, if not unimaginable, catastrophe. Chernobyl was when the term became generally current.

  2. Thanks for unpacking that Locus -- it makes for a much more appropriate title than the current one, so I've done some editing above.

  3. As a player, Kahn sometimes looked a bit, er, anthropoid and had a pretty unpleasant affect - petulant and over-competitive. But these days he's a subtle and quite personable analyst on German TV.

    Just goes to show... something or other.