England not up to speed for fast lane
Stuart Pearce's side fell at the last due to familiar technical shortcomings, writes Steve Tongue
Wednesday 01 July 2009
They are fast learners, these Germans. Outplayed by England's reserve team seven days earlier, Horst Hrubesch and his Under-21s regrouped, revamped with three tactical adjustments and came out to demolish Stuart Pearce's chosen ones 4-0. In doing so they became champions of Europe at all three age-groups, just a few years after acknowledging that their country's record at youth level was not good enough. Now Germany have won more international competitions in 12 months than England have done in 25 years. Compared to creating an economic miracle from the ruins of the Second World War, it must seem like kindergarten stuff.
In Mesut Ozil, who played deeper than before, Gonzalo Castro, who was switched into the centre, and Mats Hummels, brought in as a holding midfielder, they have three players of whom much more should be heard. England, meanwhile, must digest the lessons of a defeat as painful as that by the Netherlands on penalties in the semi-finals of the 2007 tournament and far more emphatic.
Yesterday, when it would have been useful to have heard the manager's thoughts on lessons learnt and the way forward, Pearce stuck to his wish the previous night to "keep my head down and my mouth shut" – the latter phrase possibly an admission that he had overstepped the mark with some wild outbursts on the touchline. In one brief television interview before leaving the team hotel, he repeated the themes of players being all the better for their experiences here; but of learning how to win games and tournaments being an important part of developing young talent.
So, in the regrettable absence too of Fabio Capello, it was left to Sir Trevor Brooking and Pearce's assistant Steve Wigley to do the talking. There was also an interjection or two from the Football Association's new chief executive Ian Watmore, who praised Pearce as "a man with a plan" for his organisational abilities, but declined to push him forward as a potential manager of either the 2012 Olympic team or the senior side if and when Capello walks away.
Wigley echoed his master's voice in pointing out that England had taken one step further than last time and lost only one of 15 competitive matches, while establishing a new record for an unbeaten run (28 games) during that period. He named Micah Richards and Joe Hart as players who had impressed him and went off-message only in wondering out loud whether having much the better of the drawn group match with Germany "gave us a little false sense of security".
Brooking, the FA's director of development, was too modest to claim justification for all his oft-repeated fears about lack of technique, footballing intelligence and depth of talent. "I think we are progressing, but I don't think we have the depth of talent coming through that we should have and that's why we keep fast-tracking and keep moving people up and down the age-groups," he said. "There are certain positions we need to develop. The creative 'Ozil' role is one we have to try to produce more. Kieran Gibbs coming through is good, but I think we do need full-backs who are better in the attacking half of the pitch. You have to have 10 really good technical outfield players."
Although Pearce, who now has a contract for two more years, has succeeded to some extent in persuading players to retain the ball, Brooking says they need to learn to move it faster as well: "Fabio [Capello] would tell you we play too slow. The better sides play it much quicker, asking 'can we hurt the opposition?' We have to get away from playing back and square for too long. We struggled in two afternoon games in the warmer climate, that's when you have got to keep the ball better."
While admitting that a number of players "feel they didn't do themselves justice", Brooking picked Gibbs, Jack Rodwell, Richards and James Milner as four who had. Milner is the only one of that quartet not eligible for the 2011 tournament, for which qualifying begins next season against Portugal, Greece, Macedonia and Lithuania. Third time lucky for Pearce's pups? There is more to it, alas, than luck.
Golden stars: Two youngsters at the top of the class...
A latecomer to the squad only a few months ago, Gibbs built on his Champions' League experience with Arsenal to impress both defensively and going forward in Sweden. Encouragingly mature and intelligent off the pitch, the left-back has already proved he could do an efficient job in midfield as well.
The only player to score against Germany in this tournament – with a header in the group game – Rodwell has long been noted by the FA hierarchy, who made him captain of the Under-16s and then an Under-21 player while still only 17. The Evertonian can sit and hold or forage further forward. A great prospect.
... and two in need of detention
Coming off the back of a poor run with Aston Villa, Agbonlahor needed to find some form. But after setting up the first goal of the finals, he made no mark except on opponents and was suspended for the final.
Appears to see himself as the new Rio Ferdinand, but needs some of the Manchester United man's defensive nous to go with an ability to bring the ball out of defence. One of four players suspended, in his case for a red card.
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