Sam Wallace: England must always park the bus against top sides


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The Independent Online

It was Xabi Alonso who said it first on Saturday evening, although undoubtedly on the 15-hour flight to Costa Rica that the Spanish team were due to take it would be repeated a few more times too. "I wouldn't be surprised," Alonso said, "if England played the same way against us if we meet them at the Euros."

Later he was ushered out through the players' exit at Wembley where, like every one of his team-mates who had preceded him, he was confronted with the side of the England team coach positioned immediately outside the open door. Then, as they had during the 90 minutes on the Wembley pitch, Spain's players found that England had parked the bus in their way.

It was not just Alonso who was in the mood to condescend; Cesc Fabregas was the same – not surprising, given that at Arsenal he would get upset if the likes of Blackburn Rovers turned up at the Emirates and had the temerity to keep it tight and simple. Overall, you could understand the frustration. Spain had enjoyed 70.6 per cent of the possession and they had lost to a goal from a set piece.

Yet, from England's point of view, sending the world champions on their way, defeated and grumbling about the home team's obduracy, was not a bad outcome. Better than shipping four goals and being subjected to a patronising pat on the head.

So why not play the same way more often? Why not accept that England, currently ranked seventh in the world, are no more than a top 10 team in international football? And that given their record in tournament football over the last 45 years, it might be time to change their approach to playing the big sides. What is wrong with using a strategy of containment, attacking on the counter? What is wrong with being a version of Greece at Euro 2004?

Not every tournament game would require England to be as cautious as they were against Spain on Saturday evening. In group stage matches, against the likes of Slovenia and Egypt, England would be obliged to be a little more expansive. Against teams like Spain, Germany and the Netherlands, however, they could park the bus and make a virtue of counter-attacks and set pieces.

To suggest it is to invite the fury of a nation. Yet there is very little in the England team's mostly indifferent history that says our national team should play a certain way. Sorry to break the bad news but the rest of the world do not regard us as defenders of the attacking, expansive brand of football.

Where it exists, that belief is solely in the minds of the English. The school of thought that says we bloody well invented the game so it behoves us to go out there and try to play every time as if it's 1867 and the Football Association has organised an exhibition match in which to showcase our new sporting creation for Johnny Foreigner.

There was much about Saturday's game plan to which Fabio Capello's players seemed temperamentally suited. Compared with the disharmony of their trouncing by Germany in South Africa last year, this was an England team organised and focused on their job. Yes, they rode their luck at times but it was infinitely preferable to the massacre in Bloemfontein when the figurative back door was not so much left unlocked as creaking open in a gale.

England go into Euro 2012 against three teams in Spain, the Netherlands and Germany who are in the top three places in Fifa's world rankings. Between them the three lost one game in qualification – that was the Dutch, and they had already won their group by then. It is unreasonable to think that England, with a squad in a state of flux, can play any of these sides at what might loosely be described as "their own game".

In eight games against what could be deemed top-level international opposition (France, Germany, Spain, the Netherlands and Brazil) Capello has won twice. On Saturday and against Germany in Berlin in November 2008 when both sides were missing so many important players as to render it relatively meaningless. England have not beaten a recognised top football nation in a tournament knockout game since 1966.

For much of the time we have a reluctant admiration for teams that can stifle their opponents' qualities first and find a way to win. The Italy team that triumphed in the 2006 World Cup finals were by no means the most exciting team in that tournament but they emerged victorious. The Netherlands came close to beating Spain in the World Cup final last year by adopting an approach that could politely be described as pragmatic.

For so long England have been caught between trying to live up to the historical fallacy of their supposed greatness, and a self-loathing when they fall short. On Saturday the coincidence of the exclusion/unavailability of some of their most creative players – Wayne Rooney, Steven Gerrard and Jack Wilshere – and the fearsome reputation of the opposition gave Capello the confidence to try something else.

It was detectable in the stadium on Saturday that some people found it embarrassing England should approach Spain in the same manner as a League One team paired with a heavyweight on FA Cup third-round day. Alonso is right in that, if England face Spain next summer, then Capello's team will play the same way. Against the world champions and other such accomplished opponents, they would be unrealistic not to.