After changes, England in clueless state heading toward Euro 2012
Plucky England, fighting back from two down only to be thwarted by a deflected last-minute winner. A brave effort from Psycho's young lions. Pleasing fluency at times. The start of a bold new era for English football. ... As a response to a single game played with a youthful side under a caretaker manager, such commentary made a certain sense. But the crucial thing to remember after England's 3-2 defeat to Holland last Wednesday was context.
It seems to have been all but forgotten that in the last international break, England beat the world and European champions Spain and then ended a 43-year-old hoodoo by beating Sweden.
Yes, both games finished 1-0. Yes, they weren't particularly thrilling. But the system worked. England, at last, seemed to have accepted its limitations and played to the maximum of what it could achieve, defending stoutly and threatening with counter attacks and set plays. Fabio Capello had established foundations that, conceivably, could have made England challengers at the Euros in the coming summer. Nobody will admit it now, of course, but he was actually doing a good job.
And so England, with three months to go until Euro 2012, is without a manager, without a captain and, frankly, without much of a clue. The whole culture of the English game is culpable. This has been an all-encompassing conspiracy of bloody-minded, belligerent and blinkered self-interest.
Can anybody even remember what Capello did to make everybody loath him so? He didn't have a good World Cup -- that much is obvious. That his understanding of English footballers is limited was made clear by the way he allowed a mood of boredom to settle over the camp. Italian players may need the culture of the ritiro to focus, but you must never let English footballers be bored; if they're bored they'll start to think, and thinking is the last thing that English players like doing.
His refusal to select Joe Hart in goal was mystifying even before Rob Green's ghastly error against the USA. And he must accept some of the burden for failing to recognize that Wayne Rooney's changed role at Manchester United led to him trying to play higher up the pitch, closer to Emile Heskey, destroying the balance that had made England so effective in qualifying.
But much of what went wrong was beyond his control. The spirit in the squad was destroyed by the spat between Wayne Bridge and John Terry -- and thus between Manchester City and Chelsea players -- over allegations Terry had an affair with his former teammate's ex-partner (strenuously denied on both sides). Terry was stripped of his captaincy -- strangely, given that he had survived early stories he had tried to lease out the box at Wembley to which he was entitled, profiting disgracefully from the honor -- which led to further kerfuffle as various candidates competed to succeed him.
Rooney, meanwhile, was distracted by revelations he knew were forthcoming about his use of a prostitute. And Gareth Barry was injured, leaving England without a holding midfielder. It was a sequence of shambles pulling together familiar themes that have blighted England for years. And even then there was the thought of what might have happened had Frank Lampard's goal against Germany been allowed to stand.
After the World Cup, there were calls for mass bloodletting, for the promotion of youth. Capello, wisely, preferred a more managed change, slowly integrating young players. That took the pressure off them and under him Phil Jones, Chris Smalling, Danny Welbeck, Jack Wilshere and Daniel Sturridge have all emerged as having genuine international potential.
The nature of international football -- or at least the asinine way England treats it -- means that wholesale changes are never a good idea. Players withdraw from internationals all the time (five -- five! -- players withdrew from Stuart Pearce's squad for the friendly against Holland at the end of February; does anybody really think at least four of them wouldn't have been available for a club game?) and so managers are commonly forced to scrabble around in a search for players to fill up their squad. Continuity of selection is all but impossible until the final weeks before a major tournament; until then all a manager can do is fight fires.
Capello wasn't wittily self-deprecating in news conferences. He could be prickly. He fell out with people. But he has always done that and, ultimately, he's always been successful. Given the enduring failure of the England national team, it seems bewildering a body with such a lack of knowledge of success should act so peremptorily to a manager who has known little but success.
The handling of the Terry affair has been bewildering on all sides. Getting his magistrates' hearing into the charge of racially abusing Anton Ferdinand delayed until July looks like a major tactical error on all sides. The FA cannot act until the court has made its decision, but equally doesn't want the England captain to be somebody facing a race charge. Stripping Terry of the captaincy made sense in the same way suspending an employee in another business pending a hearing makes sense.
For Capello to protest against that, for him to undermine Terry's successor by saying Terry remained his captain, was bizarre -- not least because Terry's form, not to mention his abortive rebellion in Rustenburg during the World Cup, doesn't merit such loyalty. But it's at least as bizarre that the decision to strip Terry of the armband was taken without consultation with Capello; it doesn't take a great leap to wonder if there might have been an element of deliberate provocation.
Three months ago there was reason for cautious hope; now there remains only despair. The first Dutch goal, scored by Arjen Robben, came about because of a basic failure of structure. England was supposed to be in a 4-2-3-1, and yet the Bayern Munich winger was somehow given a clearly run at the back four. Similarly for the second goal, Leighton Baines was hideously out of position as the ball was slipped behind him for Dirk Kuyt to cross for Klaas-Jan Huntelaar. And then for the third, Baines again was caught out, allowing Robben onto his left foot to curl in the winner.
So England goes to the Euros not only with Wayne Rooney suspended for two games, but also in general disarray. Great spirit can be forged in adversity, but that is the only hope that remains. Through self-inflicted wounds, England can write off another summer.