The least bad thing about elimination from a European Championship is that there is immediately a World Cup to look forward to. Teams who have fared poorly tend to pick a new manager and convince themselves that things can only get better once San Marino and Luxembourg come along; those who have done well immediately project forward two summers to the glory to come, especially when, as in this case, the venue for the finals is in their own continent.
The downside lies in knowing that once Brazil and Argentina take the stage, as the ludicrously drawn-out South American group virtually ensures they will, finishing as champions is rather harder. Hence one source of Sven Goran Eriksson's frustration this weekend: "At the [last] World Cup, I didn't know if we could win it, though I started to believe it was possible. Here all the players thought we could win, and I thought it."
The reasons why England did not come within 10 days of doing so need to be addressed, and it is clear from the interviews taking place at their headquarters at the end of last week that the necessary objectivity will not be found within the camp. Too many of those most closely involved were parroting "It's not an excuse, but..." before reeling off a list of them for losing two of the four matches played: France should have been beaten; the referee disallowed a perfectly good goal by Sol Campbell; there was one day less than Portugal had to prepare for the quarter-final; Wayne Rooney was injured; the penalty spot moved; and so on.
Not that England are unique in this respect. In a tournament between teams of such essentially similar ability as this one, margins are thin and the difference between triumph and disaster, the old impostors, is rarely more than the width of a goalpost. Ask Spain, eliminated because Russia missed a chance in the final seconds against Greece; ask Italy, who went home because Denmark's Thomas Sorensen flapped at a shot in the last minute against Sweden. Both coaches resigned on that basis, as did Germany's Rudi Völler, though he was realistic enough to acknowledge defic- iencies in his team.
Eriksson is sufficiently enthused by his squad's performances and potential to stay on, rather than returning to day-to-day club football. He has been reluctant, though, to admit to weaknesses in technique and in keeping possession of the ball, especially by passing it out from defence instead of resorting to something more basic. The key games here are Eriksson's three defeats in 23 competitive matches, against Brazil at the World Cup, then France and Portugal in the past fortnight: each time England have scored before half-time then come under heavy pressure, been unable to hold the lead, and been heavily outdone in terms of possession.
"People say, 'Why didn't you attack?' but to attack you have to have the ball," was as much as he would concede. "Take the Brazil game, it was the same. I like to defend high up the pitch. If you meet a team who are gambling a little bit, you have to defend. You are a little bit tired, you keep the ball less - we got two days' recovery, which was too short. But we always do possession of the ball, every time we have a practice session we work on that, and I think we're improving, doing better and better."
In terms of technique, "Portugal are technically maybe the best in Europe. We met a good team. But football is not only about keeping the ball. We could have beaten them, even if they had the ball more than we did [see graphic left].You want to play the ball forward, but to keep the team together, you want three, four or five passes and then play it forward to give the midfield time to come forward. If you just kick the ball up[field], the rest of the team is not there."
That is eminently good sense and must presumably have been preached to the team many times, but did not prevent them, once under pressure, failing to implement anything like it, whether it was Steven Gerrard trying to hit Michael Owen with one long diagonal pass or John Terry aiming to put the ball as far from England's goal as possible - only to see it immediately returned.
Eriksson is not one to criticise in public those who have fallen short, and on an occasion like this he would rather praise the collective effort, while finding special praise for Sol Campbell ("a rock, incredible") and his clubmate Ashley Cole ("an extremely good tournament"). Then there is the R-man, who has unwittingly created the first injury problem of the new season. His club yesterday said that he was unlikely to recover from his broken foot in time for the friendly international against Ukraine on 18 August that will precede the World Cup double-header away to Austria (4 September) and Poland (8 September).
Without wishing to pile any more of a burden on Wayne Rooney's young shoulders, the head coach was still prepared to pick him out as a key figure in England's fortunes over the next four years: "We knew about him before the tournament and he's done even better than anyone could have expected. Now he's a big name not only in England but Europe and the world. A big name today and in the future. It's very important now that his advisers, agents and family support him in the right way. In 2006 and 2008 he can be the star of the tournament. Normally if you're a good player at 18, then at 20, 22 and 24 you're even better. If he goes on like this, he'll be one of our jewels, not only because he scores goals but because of how he plays, linking between midfield and Michael [Owen]. It seemed lost to us when he went off."
In terms of other personnel, there will be few changes. Jermain Defoe, the unlucky 24th man in the squad, deserves the chance to establish himself as Owen's understudy, and it may be that Emile Heskey and Phil Neville as well as the third-choice goalkeeper, Ian Walker, are not around in a year or two. Looking no further ahead than August, however, Eriksson currently envisages naming virtually the same 23 players. Indeed, with only one Premiership weekend before the Ukraine game, there will be little time for other candidates such as Jonathan Woodgate, Defoe and Shaun Wright-Phillips to press the case for inclusion. Wright-Phillips is the most exciting of them, because he offers an option - pace - crucial to the modern game and seriously lacking in the current squad.
"We don't need a new generation of players, because this one is still young," Eriksson said. "Some new players, maybe, like Defoe. But they could play in 2006 for sure and 2008, most of them. There's enormous disappointment among the players. We talked about the future and I'm sure if you ask them they think they can win in Germany."
But first games first, which means Austria, Poland, Wales, Azerbaijan and Northern Ireland; and more keep-ball practice, please.
When England were drummed out of the last European Championship, Kevin Keegan's principal criticism was: "We didn't pass the ball well." What's the Swedish for plus ça change?Reuse content