England’s Euro 2012 debacle: My five-point plan to bring football home
AND so, once again, England exit a major tournament, outplayed, outpenaltied, outthought... the pain goes on, and on, and on - and the lessons from those 46 years of hurt fail, fail, and fail again to get learnt.
But, as in politics, as in economics, there is another way, there is an alternative, a Plan B to get the Three Lions roaring again, if only the FA would listen.
To the plan in a minute, then, but first to the best of the reaction to last night’s defeat, starting with the refreshingly realistic response of the English press boys:
“England here proved themselves a Scott Parker of a team, stretching and straining themselves to overcome limitations that are not just rooted in these players but an entire footballing culture. We will be back to debates about grass roots and youth academies.
“England displayed a graft and obduracy which was enough, given pre-tournament upheaval and paltry expectations, to see the country grow to like its football team again... England have very good reasons to stay humble for a long while yet.”- Matt Dickinson, The Times (£)
“What cannot be denied, or indeed ignored, was the chasm in class between the sides. England had no-one to match Pirlo’s ability to dictate, to treat the ball as his closest friend.
“England have been guilty of squandering possession in recent times but this was different. They did not have possession as they were manoeuvred about by master manipulator Pirlo in such a manner that Italy would never have forgiven themselves had they not gone forward to meet Germany in Warsaw on Friday.”- Phil McNulty, BBC Sport
“Throughout the tournament, for richer and poorer, their humanity was apparent, and there was none of the tedious hubris and entitlement of the Golden Generation. For the first time in at least a decade, England at a major tournament were more than the sum of their parts.
“The cliche of England losing on penalties thus had a new twist. In most cases, from 1990 to 2006, there was regret and a legitimate if not always persuasive argument that England deserved to go through. This time only the most intractable nationalist would suggest that justice was not done.”- Rob Smyth, The Guardian
“Hodgson had been trying to make a new team from the broken culture of England's international football and in this European Championship he had succeeded in some ways better than he could have dreamed.
“Here though, as the minutes ticked away, one of Europe's master players, Andrea Pirlo, worked relentlessly to destroy his work...
“And then we had the recurring curse of England, the spectre that before last night had consumed them five times in major tournaments over the last 22 years. For Hodgson, so early in his watch, it must have been almost too much. It proved so as the Italians, buoyed by a penalty of outrageous nerve from Pirlo, made it to the semi-final against Germany.”- James Lawton, The Independent
“This was a chronicle of a death foretold, of a failure to prepare properly. This deserved defeat on penalties, England’s sixth reverse in seven shoot-outs, highlighted technical deficiencies also painfully apparent during the two hours of football. Italy, and Andrea Pirlo in particular, were vastly superior.
“Italy deserved to progress to a Euro 2012 semi-final with Germany in Warsaw on Thursday. Some of Pirlo’s passing was sumptuous; he guided the ball around England’s half as if using satnav. He cherished the ball’s company whereas England, following a deceptively promising start, continued to surrender it cheaply...
“This is not simply the extension of a curse. This was a problem with a footballing culture. England should have practised penalties more but the flaws run deeper. England showed resilience and organisation, especially defensively, where John Terry was immense but more guile was required. England need a Pirlo or a new Paul Scholes.”- Henry Winter, The Daily Telegraph
“Forget the penalty shoot-out. It’s irrelevant. Flee from comparisons with the end of the doomed epics in Turin and St Etienne. They don't work. And don’t kid yourself England are out of Euro 2012 because Ashley Young hit a crossbar. Or because Gianluigi Buffon made a save.
“No, let’s be honest. England shouldn’t have got anywhere near a penalty shoot-out here at the Olympic Stadium last night. It was a miracle they even took their quarter-final against Italy to extra-time. They had no answer to the sweet passing of Andrea Pirlo. And the only answer to the forward play of Mario Balotelli and Antonio Cassano was to form a human barricade.
“The truth hurts but the truth is England should have been beaten out of sight within 90 minutes. Only woeful Italian finishing, the woodwork and a heroic, doomed defence kept England alive for so long.”- Olly Holt, The Mirror
“For England to have progressed last night, Andrea Pirlo would have to have lost. So the providence of penalties seemed, for once, divine.
“While England failed to deliver the improvement required by the knockout stages, Italy rose to the occasion through the finest individual performance of the tournament so far. Even Pirlo’s penalty was a work of art: derivative, perhaps, but every bit as beautiful as the gentle chip through space vacated by a goalkeeper’s dive with which Antonin Panenka won this competition for Czechoslovakia in 1976...
“Sooner or later, England are going to have to develop a player of Pirlo’s personal calibre and Roy Hodgson can start with the promising material known as Jack Wilshere. In an ideal world, Hodgson would have a DVD made of Pirlo’s performance last night and hand it to Arsenal’s richly gifted midfielder with advice to watch it every day for 10 years.”- Paddy Barclay, Evening Standard
“England started well, then, even though they remained organised, they gradually faded away on the pitch. They held on for penalties but it didn't go well for them. The laws of football could not allow for a triumph of another English 'catenaccio' after that of Chelsea that won the Champions League.”
“Old Roy, knowing the limits of his team, ordered everyone back. This was an embarrassing England for its lack of ideas and decent feet... England’s paltry possession and reliance on improbable long balls left Wayne Rooney flying from one side of the pitch to the other like a mad butterfly.”
“England wanted to pull a Chelsea. They failed. We knew that they were going to wait for us and try to hurt us on the break but we came here to play our game. The penalties did justice.”
“The cool, calculated way Pirlo chipped it, that is something you have or you don’t have as a player.”
“On a pure footballing note Pirlo just put on a pure footballing master class + the penalty was too much.”
Most on-the-money of all, however, were the ITV Sport panel; not for them the hallucinatory hero-worship of the BBC’s Gabby Logan - all ‘the guys were so brave’ and ‘we were really unlucky, weren’t we?’ - no, what Keano, Carra and Southgate spoke forth with was the brutal, honest truth: that England were utterly outclassed and had no right to win:
“They rode their luck. The further you go in tournaments, the more it’ll catch up with you.”- Roy Keane
“The same things have been said for so long about the team’s poor ball retention. When’s it ever going to change?”- Jamie Carragher
“With the group we had this time, we’re never going to outplay the Germans, the Spanish.”- Gareth Southgate
What’s needed is radical change, the kind of change that’s been called for and promised after exits past, change that surely cannot wait much longer - how many more humiliations must be endured?
Here is my five-point plan to get the FA thinking:
REDUCE THE SIZE OF THE PREMIER LEAGUE:
Time and again at tournaments, England players turn up jaded at the end of a long season. The tiredness factor could be reduced with a downsizing of the Premier League. Though the Primera Liga, Serie A and Le Championnat all have 20 teams like our own, they’re nowhere near as physical or taxing - and the Bundesliga has only 18 teams in its top flight. The DFB seems to be doing alright.
Given the recent megabucks TV deal, in which the team that finishes bottom of the league earns more in prize money than Manchester City did for winning the competition, it seems highly doubtful the turkeys will ever vote for this Christmas, whatever the manifest benefits to England. Clubs nowadays, especially one would imagine those foreign-owned, and probably most fans, would be unwilling to ever sacrifice their place at the top table.
INTRODUCE CENTRAL OR SEMI-CENTRAL CONTRACTS:
The most contentious policy. It would be nigh on impossible to impose central contracts, as deployed in cricket, but semi-central contracts, where the national board has a say in how players’ workloads are managed, could be viable - and would almost certainly benefit the national team.
As with culling the size of the top division, this will invariably help reduce the stress load of the leading players, but the opening up of a legal minefield makes it unlikely to ever see the light of day.
PLAY MORE FRIENDLIES (AND GO ON MORE TOURS):
An increase in the number of friendlies will be resisted by the clubs but this surely essential in building a cohesive team. It goes without saying the more players play with each other, the better they’ll get at playing together, the better England will be. England looked like a team who’d never played with each other before - to their which dire Euro 2012 possession and passing stats attest.
If England are to ever win a tournament, to even make another semi-final abroad, to record a maiden away knockout win against a major power, they will need to get used to conditions abroad. Europe isn’t so much of a problem, with away friendlies, Euro and World Cup qualifiers and the Champions and Europa League; however, the world is bigger than just Europe, and if England are to succeed in Brazil in two years, or in subsequent intercontinental World Cups, they need to be acclimatised to playing in such conditions.
There will also, surely, be a monetary boost to having England reach out to and play in the corners of the globe - money which could be ploughed into youth development or used to fund future theoretical semi-central contracts.
DRAW UP NEW RULES FOR YOUTH FOOTBALL:
This is the most likely (one would hope) policy to receive serious consideration from the suits, for it is the one least prone to irk the clubs, to cost the least and to reap the greatest reward... in a nutshell, we need a revolution in the way English youth and schools football is played, perceived and administrated.
English footballers need to learn tika-taka, to hold the ball, to pass to one another. Dead simple. From school all the way up to under-21 level, 5-a-side rules should be imposed. No long balls, no high balls - no hoofing it up to the big man - no obscene tackles, just short passes, building possession, playing it along the grass, learning to love the ball.
At present, ball control and skill, embodied in the lithe little man beloved of Barça and Spain, is akin to haraam in English boys’ football, from primary school upwards. As Chris Waddle said last night (and after our World Cup 2010 exit, and on numerous occasions elsewhere), we’ve got to learn how to pass. It was embarrassing watching England lose the ball again and again and again, lumping it up forward, out of defence, surrendering possession, inviting wave after wave of attack.
This new way has to be learnt early, it has to be learnt young, be drilled into our youngsters - enforcing this law at sub-pro level would reap dividends in years to come. More than any other policy, this is key to producing an England team of the future capable of carassing the ball, dictating play and winning.
ENCOURAGE ENGLAND PLAYERS TO PLAY ABROAD:
Compared to other nations, the record of Englishmen abroad is abysmal. Though it’s great for our national league to have all England’s stars plying their trade at home, it cannot be healthy for the national team - especially with the technical level of the Premier League on a lower plane than witnessed in Italy, Spain or Germany.
No levers can be pulled, no legislation enacted to achieve this aim - yet, in the short- to medium-term, having England players playing abroad is every bit as important as any of the above to securing success on the big stage.
Contrary to what Roy Hodgson says, the stats do matter, self-evidently they tell a story, none more so than the figures for possession, passing and shots on- and off-target. Not once in four games did England dominate possession, mustering a paltry 11 shots in six-and-a-half hours of action - of the quarter-finalists, only Greece had fewer.
As Telegraph Sport explained:
“England managed just one shot on target as Italy dominated over 120 minutes, twice hitting the woodwork. Ashley Cole and Ashley Young missed in the shoot-out, but what happened before the penalty roulette was the real concern.”
A point echoed by James Olley in tonight’s Standard:
“England rode their luck, as they had done throughout the tournament, to the extent that Italy’s shoot-out success was not a travesty of justice but instead the right outcome on balance for a superior team.
“The idea that England could somehow ‘Chelsea their way’ to glory relied on a succession of improbable triumphs that would have created an accumulator only the most myopic of punters would have backed.
“England were better in possession than they have been in previous tournaments but teams simply do not have 36 per cent of the ball at international level and succeed.
“Italy completed 815 out of 1,003 passes - a success rate of 81 per cent - compared to England’s 320 from 522 which equates to 61 per cent.
“Their most regular combination was the 15 occasions Joe Hart searched out Andy Carroll. This statistic encapsulates that while England’s football, particularly against Sweden, was encouraging, they still rely on a technically primitive style to stay competitive.”
We can’t go on like this. It’s time for change - from Team England right the way down to the reeds; there’d’ve been no dishonour in losing having played the right way, kept hold of the ball, passed it around, attacked, attacked, attacked. The days of the Stoke approach must be consigned to history: anti-football must be slayed, football must out.
As Guillem Balague tweeted:
“It is not all about winning or losing, only 1 team wins a tournament. Wouldn’t it be better 2 find a style that leaves less of a bitter taste?”
Given we invented the game, we can sure as Hell reinvent the way we play; the rest of the world’s moved on - it’s time the founding fathers caught up.
• UEFA: Euro 2012 Official Website
• June 2010: Bloemfontein or bust as England take the hard road to Johannesburg