Why do Premier League stars keep looking disjointed in English shirts?
It wasn't good, but it was good enough. England scrapped and ground its way to a 0-0 draw against a strangely subdued Ukraine to clamber over the toughest remaining obstacle between it and qualification for the World Cup, but it's debatable how much credit it can draw from a stodgy performance. In a sense, this was typical England, technically substandard but sufficiently determined to drag itself through. In terms of spirit and defensive resolve -- if not necessarily defensive shape -- there was much to commend; in terms of ball retention and chance creation virtually nothing.
It's trite, though, simply to suggest that English players are less technically adept than foreign opponents. There may be a measure of truth to it -- even as international styles are eroded by globalization and the increasing flow of players, coaches and ideas across international borders it remains the case that the English game prioritizes fury over finesse -- but it remains a mystery how players who look perfectly competent playing for their club sides in the Premier League stumble so badly when they play for England.
The idea that international football is a higher standard of the game than top club football is laughable, so what can it be? Do foreign players in club sides somehow cover for technical deficiencies? Can it be that Theo Walcott looks a decent player for Arsenal because Santi Cazorla and Olivier Giroud give him more time on the ball, pass to him in better areas and make better runs than is the case with England? Perhaps it is: again and again in Kiev, Walcott gathered the ball for a counter, surged forwards and then lost possession. Was that his wastefulness or a lack of movement for him, or some combination of the two? Whatever the reason, the extraordinary statistic is that England completed only one forward pass in the final third and not a single one inside the box.
Fabio Capello used to speak of the "weight" of the England shirt, suggesting that the pressure of expectation and the expectation of failure made good players underperform for their country, and maybe there is something in that. What is certainly true is that there is no simple answer: over four decades of failure will not be resolved by a single glib explanation.
Perhaps even to raise the question of historic failure is part of the problem. The hugely successful British cycling coach Dave Brailsford has always insisted that progress in sport comes from the little details not from any great sweep. Certainly with international football, there is a great danger in reading too much into a single performance. At club level a side can grind out a draw and all that will be remembered a fortnight and four games later is that it picked up a point; for a national side, the comparative infrequency of games means each result is mulled over and analyzed far more. The positive is that England needed a draw in difficult circumstances to ensure qualification remains in its own hands, and it achieved that.
Certainly Roy Hodgson seemed cheery enough at the final whistle, smiling and congratulating his players as they left the field. "We did very well, especially in the first half when we had clear control of the game," he said, pointing out how difficult it had been in the atmosphere and with all the withdrawals through injury. "With 60-odd thousand here it was a big test for the players. We've lost seven players from the original squad so a lot of players came into the squad who aren't used to being there or this level of pleasure. We gained the result without riding our luck. We were very good defensively and if we'd shown a little more composure in the final third we might have even got the goal we needed. It was for them to be adventurous not us. We had to make sure we controlled them."
And he's right: England did, by and large, control Ukraine. There were a couple of moments in a surprising open first quarter-hour in which Joe Hart looked skittish, and he was extremely fortunate not to concede a penalty for a foul on Roman Zozulya, but that and a deflected second-half free-kick aside England rarely looked like conceding. That in itself is a major comfort given how open England looked in the friendly against Scotland last month, and last season when it conceded sloppily to both Montenegro and Poland.
Perhaps not coincidentally, this was the fifth game in a row in which Gary Cahill and Phil Jagielka played together in central defense. Consistency of selection is a huge issue: after all, how can intermovement and the mutual understanding that promotes fluency develop if the same players never get the chance of train and play together? Those seven withdrawals Hodgson spoke about are not a short term stroke of bad luck: they're symptomatic of a far wider issue. Only players know whether they withdraw more readily from international games than club matches, but it's fair to say that international football is rarely the priority.