Historical clues to England's failure

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The Independent Football

The strengths that sustained England's European Championship campaign, and the weaknesses which undermined it, are as old as the sport itself. When the laws were first codified in the latter-middle part of the 19th century some clubs dissented at the decision to ban "hacking", as the practice of kicking opponents' legs was called. The English game was, even then, "a man's game" in which determination, courage and will-to-win were prized.

The art of passing, however, was not. Englishmen dribbled it, or kicked-and-chased. North of the border a passing game developed. Thus when the Football League was formed in 1888 the dominant figures were the Scottish "professors" whose passing game, imported at a price, underpinned the early successes of Preston North End, Aston Villa and Everton.

More than a century on little has changed. In the Estadio da Luz on Thursday night England's footballers showed that indomitable spirit, refusal to give up and sheer cussed resistance for which they are admired all over the world. They also, however, were totally outclassed by the Portuguese when it came to the more delicate aspects of the game: the ability to pass to a team-mate, to control the ball, to switch play with speed and panache.

Sol Campbell, Steven Gerrard, Frank Lampard, one could go on, all of them strained every sinew, fought for every ball, raised a gallop though dead on their feet and gasping for air, then, having finally won possession, promptly gave it away with a careless, over-optimistic or simply misdirected pass. The whole process then began again. It was magnificent, but it was insane. It was like watching an ageing nag go round Aintree.

With the ball never under control long enough for the pinned-back midfield to support the frontline England were unable to build attacks, only fend then off. Against any opposition this would be draining. For England to hold a team as wedded to the ball as Portugal, for two hours on a sultry night, just 70 hours after their previous game, was remarkable. But eventually even Portugal, notoriously poor finishers, could not be denied indefinitely.

England's gameplan seemed to snatch a goal, then defend for their life. As against the French it almost worked but this is no way to win a tournament. Sven Goran Eriksson denied this practice, dubbed "Smash and Grab" by one journalist to his amusement, was a deliberate tactic. "We try to keep the ball," he said. "We always practice that, but they kept the ball better than we did. We have to accept Brazil and Portugal will be better than us at keeping the ball, their mentality is to do that." Eriksson insisted England were as proficient as most other teams but even the Swiss controlled possession for long periods. One England manager after another has complained about the quality of the team's passing and Eriksson is no exception.

It is partly a cultural difference. English players from a young age are more interested in winning than playing. Thus every pass is made with a view to getting nearer the opposition goal. Continental teams are more prepared to simply move the ball around, waiting for the moment. There is a tale about Eric Cantona's early years at Old Trafford. He supervised a session in which the attack merely passed in front of the defence. After a while a team-mate complained that the attackers were back where they had started. "Ah," said Cantona noting gaps in the defensive cover, "but the defenders are not".

Solving this culture gap is beyond Eriksson's brief and capacity. It is a job for the coaches who remain under-paid and under-valued. They may also be teaching the wrong lessons. The coaching programme now places more emphasis on technique but still stresses a high-tempo game. The few who have attempted to import the Brazilian favela approach are largely outside the system.

It may be the Englishman, with his martial instincts, is unwilling to learn this way of playing. Certainly Premiership crowds grow impatient when their team does not charge forward. So far foreign players appear to have adapt to us rather than our game changing to accommodate them though the increasing interest among youngsters in tricks and technique offers hope of change.

In the meantime Eriksson must make do with what he has. The complaints about his selections are relatively minor: Alan Smith should have been chosen ahead of Emile Heskey and Jamie Carragher was something of a last resort. Ledley King should have kept his place after the France game and some of the substitutions were negative.

Though largely blessed when it came to injuries Eriksson was unlucky to lose Rio Ferdinand, suspended, and Jonathan Woodgate. He could afford one central defender who can barely pass but playing two was too great a handicap. They will be back in contention in the autumn along with Chris Kirkland, Glen Johnson, Wes Brown, Shaun Wright-Phillips, Danny Murphy, Smith and Jermain Defoe. Wright-Phillips would be an interesting addition because the Fab Four midfield lacks pace. Kieron Dyer offered this option but has yet to produce for England or confirm his best position.

Eriksson's first opportunity to experiment will be in August when Ukraine visit Newcastle but he will then be into a World Cup qualifying campaign against Austria, Poland, Wales, Northern Ireland and Azerbaijan. Despite Wales' improvement under Mark Hughes England ought to go progress, ideally after a winter break, to a World Cup they already believe they can win.

They will be contenders but Germany is hot in the summer, a World Cup lasts five weeks, and the South American ball-players will be present. Perhaps 2010, when South Africa will stage the World Cup amid the thunderstorms and moderate temperatures of a Southern hemisphere winter, is England's best chance. David Beckham will then be 35 but Wayne Rooney just 24.




Age 23, Caps 0.

Tall, athletic and long earmarked for an international call-up, which would trigger a winning bet for his father, but cruelly denied by injury whenever in line. Broken hand ruled him out of the European Championship finals, but expected to start to season as Liverpool's No 1.


JONATHAN WOODGATE (Newcastle United)

Age 24, Caps 5. Injury and his own stupidity have meant an international career which started under Kevin Keegan has never really started but Sven Goran Eriksson has understandable belief in this quick, classy, ball-playing centre-half and he would have been in Portugal but for an injury.



Age 22, Caps 0.

Step-son of Ian Wright and an exhuberant presence on the right for (at the moment) Manchester City. His pace and eye for goal could soon challenge David Beckham or, more probably, allow the captain to move inside. Called up in March but not yet capped.


JERMAINE DEFOE (Tottenham Hotspur)

Age 21, Caps 2.

Prolific goalscorer at every level who made impressive debut from the substitutes' bench in Sweden in March this year. On stand-by for Euro 2004 and sure to figure for England next season. Confident and quick but needs to develop better awareness of team-mates.