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Latest failure necessitates reform and self-examination by England


In England, the postmortem of the national team's World Cup campaign has started with nothing so neat as a Y-incision; the feeling seems to be that this is a carcass that deserves to be butchered. The nation's overly optimistic outlook ahead of the tournament -- and particularly ahead of Sunday's match against Germany -- has contributed a great deal to the stench of the aftermath, but some fairly grim digging needs to be done nonetheless.

For the 15 minutes of halftime in Sunday's contest, we English could gorge ourselves on the injustice of Frank Lampard's goal-that-never-was, railing against FIFA's refusal to embrace goal-line technology and the darn Germans. It was almost a relief when, in the second half, the team was so comprehensively undone by the pace and intelligence of Thomas Müller and Co. as to render the ungiven goal all but irrelevant. Those adamant that England's defeat hinges on that moment are deluding only themselves. England was beaten all over the pitch by a team that the BBC's hopelessly jingoistic team of pundits insisted, right up until kickoff, contained only one or two players Fabio Capello would take in a swap.

It is hard to come up with a word that better describes England's defensive performance than "shambolic" -- perhaps the addition of "utterly" is the only improvement necessary. Positionally, the back four looked suspect from the start, and only got worse. John Terry, former captain and recently failed coup leader, was pulled out of position by Mesut Özil as if led by a leash to leave Matthew Upson struggling alone against Miroslav Klose for Germany's first goal.

In the build-up to the second, both center halves were sucked out to their left flank by the ominous effervescence of Müller, leaving Glen Johnson to come in from the right to "close down" (read: waft a foot at) Klose. Johnson looked for 90 minutes like a competition winner granted a place for the day, unable to anticipate what real international footballers might do to get around him. The only difference for Germany's second-half goals was that England left goalkeeper David James even more exposed, chasing an equalizer as if there were only two minutes left on the clock rather than 20. England's decision-making on set pieces could hardly have been less sensible had James himself opted to jog up to the opposition area, and it was duly ripped apart on the counterattack.

It's not simply catastrophic coincidence that these players all had a bad game; the relationships between them were nonexistent, and the fact that they kept two clean sheets in the group comes down primarily to the fact that England did little else in those games. Here, when it showed attacking intent, Germany's front four voraciously probed the vast spaces that opened up. It shouldn't have come as a surprise that the wandering Özil was such a threat, but Gareth Barry, there as reinforcement, simply followed him around the pitch looking pained instead of steering him down blind alleys in which his defensive colleagues might lurk.

The English use the phrase "more haste, less speed" to point out -- generally to overly excited children -- that the faster you try to do something, the more likely you are to make a mistake and end up taking longer. To think how the team could have done with Capello having picked that up in his English lessons: On the ball -- and England got to halftime having had 56 percent of possession -- Capello's men attempted everything in a rush, hoping that their brains and ball control could keep up with their racing hearts. Their distribution ranged from the telegraphed and unimaginative to woefully overambitious to plain wasteful. Germany's third and fourth goals began with the breakdown of English moves as the likes of Lampard and Steven Gerrard attempted to hit the ball hard through the German defense rather than come up with ways to circumvent it. It was disappointingly familiar from the group stage.

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In short, while England may have had the ball, it was Germany that played the soccer. Joachim Löw and his team have created a passing side and even with only counterattacking opportunities, it flowed forward like a springing stream, sweeping the men in red helplessly along with the current. England's players needed time on the ball to come up with their next move; the Germans already knew what was coming two passes ahead. The intelligence of Germany's play was inversely proportional to that of England.

Of course, it helped that the Germans had a man over in midfield, playing a 4-2-3-1 formation against Capello's obstinately stuck-to 4-4-2. Sami Khedira and Bastian Schweinsteiger, the two nominally defensive midfielders, were repeatedly invited forward by the ease with which they could. There was a huge gap for Müller to exploit on the wing because Gerrard moved in-field from England's left the instant the game kicked off, relinquishing the areas out wide. Capello took four wingers to South Africa -- James Milner, Aaron Lennon, Shaun Wright-Phillips and Joe Cole -- but used only Milner with real intent, a player who spent the past season playing in the center of Aston Villa's midfield.

It's easy to forget that England even had a front line to dissect, scoring three goals in four games and only flickering momentarily into life for a brief spell against Slovenia. Wayne Rooney has now played at two World Cups without scoring a goal, but his virtual absence in South Africa is more worrying that the statistics. His contribution in four games could be scrawled on a Post-It note with room for a shopping list. Once again, Capello's reluctance to utilize his other options suggests that nobody in the England setup had given much thought to a Plan B.

So what have we got? Individual mistakes ... check. Lack of cohesion ... check. A World Cup campaign marked by the disappearance of the "big players" ... check. A system that appeared to have been arrived at independently of personnel available ... check. A huge question mark over English soccer as we know it .. check. That might sound a bit nihilistic in reaction to a pounding from a very good Germany team, but this list bears the thumbed corners and coffee rings of too many of England's major tournament campaigns over recent (and some not-so-recent) years.

Albert Einstein's definition of insanity was: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. England has clung to the hope that combining the same faces in updated kits might eventually see it prosper, while Germany has taken quite the opposite approach. One of the most visible differences between the two teams Sunday was that the young Germans played as if they had a point to prove. Several English players behaved as if their superiority was unquestionable regardless of performance -- even after the match, Lampard disputed that Germany had been "4-1 better than us." He's right, but only because they could have been 6-1 or 7-1 better.

Germany is in South Africa with a team that will be preserved for 2014 and augmented by young players granted ample opportunity to find their feet in the Bundesliga and within the national setup in the meantime. By contrast, England's mythical golden generation will have disappeared, leaving in its stead barely a handful of players with significant international and domestic experience; little more than a third of the top-flight's players are English, and Englishmen make unpopular exports, too. At the past two European Under-21 championships, England has reached the semifinals (2007) and the final (2009), but from those squads only Joe Hart and Milner made it into the squad for South Africa. Six of Germany's 23 were U-21s this time last year.

In 1953, England, the game's inventor still convinced of its global dominance, was robbed of such delusions in a 6-3 defeat to Hungary that triggered major changes to the way soccer was run here. It's no coincidence that England's only World Cup-winning side was born from the ashes, but the organizational rot has been accelerating since. The Football Association has become a governing body uncertain of its own mandate, hawking its authority to the Premier League in 1992 and failing even to acknowledge, far less confront, the institutional disarray it perpetuates at the heart of English soccer. As was the case 60 years ago, it struggles to countenance the possibility that there may be better ways to be learned from elsewhere.

For England to have a viable shot at this kind of tournament in the future, it needs to abandon any hope of making its mark in 2014, and probably 2018, and embark on major changes to the way national soccer operates -- an Etch-a-Sketch approach to revisions, perhaps, but a necessary one.