England made to look chronically sluggish by sharper Germans
Monday 28 June 2010
In the final analysis, the difference between the teams in Bloemfontein yesterday was the quality of a linesman's eyesight, and Germany's superior speed, of legs as much as minds.
Had Frank Lampard's "goal" been given, the momentum England would have gained from two strikes in quick succession might well have proved decisive. An inexperienced German team looked rattled and the mental advantage would have been England's.
But the Uruguayan official got it wrong, so the physical attributes grew in significance. Against Germany's younger, fresher legs England too often looked sluggish, pedestrian even. Even when the age gap was irrelevant – Miroslav Klose, 32, being older than John Terry and Matthew Upson – Germany were still quicker.
England are chronically short of pace for a top-level international team. Of the starting line-up, only Ashley Cole, Glen Johnson and Jermain Defoe could be described as quick, while the heart of the team – the central defenders and central midfield – could either be described as slow by international standards or, in Lampard's case, showing the effects of several years of non-stop football.
All four goals were a consequence of poor defending, but Germany's greater speed and mobility was a significant factor in each. For the first, Terry misjudged the flight of the ball and Upson did not give himself enough depth to cover. Klose went past him with embarrassing ease. David James rescued England when he saved from Mesut Ozil after Lampard was bypassed by a one-two in midfield but he was helpless for the second when Germany seemed to have more players on the field, such was their greater mobility. England's back-pedalling team were outstripped when Germany broke away for the third and Ozil left Gareth Barry standing for the fourth. What a blessing in disguise Michael Ballack's injury has been for Germany. He has been a very good international footballer, close to great, but these days he would have slowed Germany down. In many ways, this match was a reverse of England's storming of Munich in 2001 – much of the game was even but a younger sharper team picked off an older one. As then, the scoreline was flattering, though there is no doubt the better team won.
The worry is that it is not as if Fabio Capello had a plethora of other options. True, he left Theo Walcott out of the squad and Shaun Wright-Phillips out of the team, but both are flawed in possession and besides, the problem was not a lack of pace in attack. Rio Ferdinand and Owen Hargreaves would have added speed in the vital areas but their injury problems make it difficult to ink in a key role for either. Maybe Ledley King should have played, but his match sharpness was in doubt. The other reserves in these areas, Jamie Carragher, Michael Dawson and Michael Carrick, have no great pace. Who else is there? Micah Richards is quick, but his positioning is poor and he has regressed in the last two years with doubts emerging ovber his attitude.
If England were as comfortable in possession as Spain, this would be less of a problem, but continually giving the ball away in dangerous areas leaves them exposed to pace. And in modern football, the edge of the opposition box is a dangerous area after a set-piece. Given these problems, England should have taken precautions. If Lampard is going to shoot at every free-kick, England should not be sending eight men into the box.
It was not all bad. Rooney, playing in a more advanced position than previously, and Defoe linked well at times. Milner was a threat on the right, albeit one England did not make enough of. Like the Dutch wide men he started on the sideline but a lack of service meant he was tempted to come inside. With Gerrard already coming in, England were too narrow. Gerrard looked bright for a spell, but the problems caused by his left-flank role – the space it leaves the opposition, and the limiting of his own influence – remain to be solved. Playing him behind Rooney is not the panacea some claim. It works at Liverpool because the pace of Fernando Torres scares defences, forcing them deep and giving Gerrard space to operate in. But Rooney does not have Torres' pace.
The spirit England showed after conceding the second goal was also impressive and it deserved the reward of Lampard's goal'. It was inevitable that, at some stage in these finals, an embarrassing incident like that would occur and Sepp Blatter will deservedly be castigated for his Luddite resistance to technology.
England should not, however, allow that to obscure the very real weaknesses they have shown in this World Cup. As well as a shortage of pace there is a lack of technique, a lack of mental strength, a lack of tactical acumen.
Exacerbating all this is the draining nature of our season, a mass of high-intensity games without a winter break which leaves our players exhausted and carrying injuries at summer tournaments. Bolo Zenden, the former Dutch international who played in several leagues and is here for South African television, said this week, "Barcelona play 60-70 games, but only in England do you feel tired every time you come off the pitch."
The worrying thing is this was, with some minor quibbles, the best 23, and best XI, England have. It will be a long wait for the under-17s, who are regarded as the best generation in many a long year, to mature, and all the time the minor' nations, the Paraguays and Ghanas, are catching up, making it even harder to win a major tournament.
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