What would Euro 2008 have been like with England in it? It is not a question many have troubled themselves with amid the fraternal atmosphere of the Fan Zones, free of the usual 50,000 Englishmen claiming every bar or café as an adjunct of Rotherham or Stevenage by hitching a St George flag outside. Watching David Villa or Andrei Arshavin, few have been moved to say, "Yes, he's good, but let's see him up against Glen Johnson first."
Their absence was a cause for sadness for those of us who care about English football but it did save us from some things. It saved us from the team being holed up in the obligatory schloss in a sleepy Austrian town which, despite decades of peace, would have been subjected to the usual zero-tolerance attitude. Armed guards to prevent any grave breaches of the camp's security, like unauthorised persons glimpsing Brian Barwick eating boiled eggs and soldiers for his breakfast. And then the Wags, doubtless wreaking merry hell in some Swiss city where they are accustomed to calling time at the bar before, rather than after, dawn breaks.
Yes, England take a lot to any tournament they qualify for. An entourage that would make a heavyweight boxer whistle in disbelief, a whole lot of misplaced optimism and men with guns to stop people watching training. What they have not brought with them – be it at the last World Cup final, or in the failed qualifying campaign in Euro 2008 – is a system of playing football that works and which will be adhered to no matter what personnel may become available.
What did the winning team at Euro 2008 have? A successful system. Spain played 4-4-1-1, and they played it whether Villa was fit or not. The Netherlands settled upon 4-2-3-1, and they played that with or without Arjen Robben available. Of course, it meant that Robin Van Persie, a vastly talented and high-profile player, did not start a single game other than the match against Romania in which the result was immaterial for the Dutch. But, no matter, because Marco van Basten had a system and he was not going to alter it for the benefit of Van Persie or anyone else.
Germany played 4-2-3-1 too, with Michael Ballack asked to perform a different role to the one he plays for Chelsea. When it looked like he might miss the final, Joachim Löw did not start discussing whether he should play 4-4-2 with an extra striker (he had plenty spare). Ballack, he said, would be directly replaced, probably by Tim Borowski. Not a player of equal talent, not an exciting gamble, but better that than disrupt the equilibrium of the German system.
It is painful to recount but, even at the last World Cup, England used two fundamentally different systems, the second implemented, incredibly, only when they stumbled into the second round against Ecuador. Then, for no reason other than the fact that Sven Goran Eriksson had lost Michael Owen to injury, he switched from 4-4-2 to 4-5-1. The next game against Portugal he dropped Michael Carrick, having summoned him out of the blue. The message was that this was a manager potentially three games from a World Cup final who did not know his best players or his best system.
The sob story went on. Steve McClaren's 3-5-2 system against Croatia, a formation not played for a generation in an England team or any of the major Premier League sides, ended in a disastrous defeat from which he never really recovered. It would be preposterous to imagine Spain attempting the same at such a critical point. Luis Aragones adapted his system before Euro 2008 but once there he stuck with it and was rewarded. Spain had a team in which everyone knew their role. In contrast, England have accommodated individuals.
That is the crucial difference with Spain, Germany and the Netherlands – they do not bow to one figure or group of players. When Cesc Fabregas replaced Villa as a substitute against Russia in the semi-final he was not asked to play as he does for Arsenal: he was obliged to play in the role that Villa had just vacated. Fabregas is an important player, a man of status, but that does not entitle him to do as he pleases when it is a question of the team's shape and form.
So too when Robben came back to fitness for the Netherlands' second game against France. Van Basten did not shuffle his team to accommodate his star name. He did not quietly dispense with a lesser name such as Orlando Engelaar or Nigel De Jong in order that the man from Real Madrid could have his place in the team. Instead, Robben waited on the bench until the moment that his manager judged he would be useful.
Of course, we hope that it will be different with Fabio Capello who thus far has road-tested 4-5-1, 4-4-1-1 and 4-4-2 over the space of four games. It would be nice to think that, with a bit of fine-tuning against the Czech Republic next month, he knows what he will do come Andorra in September. Hopefully he will build a team in which all men are considered equal and the only loyalty is shown towards the way in which the manager wants the game to be played.
Xavi named best player in team of the tournament
The Spain midfielder Xavi was named the best player at Euro 2008 yesterday by a nine-strong panel of Uefa's technical experts. There was no place for Cristiano Ronaldo in the 23-man squad of the tournament, however. Uefa's technical director, Andy Roxburgh, explained: "This is entirely about the tournament and not about reputations or how well you started ... Those that go to semis and finals dominate things like this."
Squad of the tournament
Goalkeepers: Gianluigi Buffon (Italy), Iker Casillas (Spain), Edwin van der Sar (Netherlands). Defenders: Jose Bosingwa (Portugal), Philipp Lahm (Germany), Carlos Marchena (Spain), Pepe (Port), Carles Puyol (Sp), Yuri Zhirkov (Rus).
Midfielders: Hamit Altintop (Turkey), Luka Modric (Croatia), Marcos Senna, Xavi (Sp), Konstantin Zyryanov (Rus), Michael Ballack (Ger), Cesc Fabregas, Andres Iniesta (Sp), Lukas Podolski (Ger), Wesley Sneijder (Neth).
Forwards: Andrei Arshavin, Roman Pavlyuchenko (Rus), Fernando Torres, David Villa (Sp).
Sam Wallace's memories of Middle Europe
*A Partridge in Paris
As well as his job as a Euro 2008 pundit for French TV, Arsène Wenger has been working for the oil company Castrol as part of their corporate hospitality. It brought to mind that other famous Castrol endorsee, Alan Partridge, who famously wore a bomber jacket emblazoned with the company crest to the funeral of his bête noire Tony Hayers, commissioning editor of the BBC. Sadly, no Castrol bomber jacket for Wenger.
*Brazil rule Europe
My favourite player of the tournament was Spain's tireless Marcos Senna. Want to succeed in international football? Naturalise a Brazilian holding midfielder. Spain and Turkey (Mehmet Aurelio) have both done it. England just need to find the right man. What's Kleberson up to these days?
*Born a red
Ruben de la Red, of Real Madrid. Of all the Spaniards Rafael Benitez has signed, surely he's got to get this one.
The rubbish Euro 2008 song was performed by Shaggy (below) for whom any remaining credibility was swept away by him performing alongside two animated mascots. At Euro 2004, Portugal at least rustled up Nelly Furtado, a Canadian born to Portuguese parents. It is a sobering thought for musicians in Austria and Switzerland that none of them were judged to be better than Shaggy.
*Flag of inconvenience
Despite evidence to the contrary, Uefa still thinks that football fans want something more from a football match than football. Hence the banality of the pre-match "entertainment" at Euro 2008. One activity involved the crowd passing a large circular flag over their heads and round the stadium while being timed on the big screen. Before the Italy v France game it reached the hardcore Italian fans behind the goal who passed it to the front and chucked it on the ground. The perfect response.
My favourite line from John Motson's commentary career came after he was monstered by Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson. His feeble protest was: 'but Alex, they told me to ask the question.'