James Lawton: Maturity, unity, planning - Germany are so far ahead of England it hurts

A base in Krakow is like preparing in Margate to play in midsummer Madrid

James Lawton
Friday 15 June 2012 11:42
Germany's Joachim Löw reacts to his side's win over the Netherlands in which Mario Gomez scored twice
Germany's Joachim Löw reacts to his side's win over the Netherlands in which Mario Gomez scored twice

It is not encouraging that England, heroic, pragmatic, new inhabitants of the real football world – by all means take your pick – were too drained to train two days before tonight's pivotal group game against the Sweden they have never beaten in a competitive game.

There was, of course, also a little more of some old angst when on the same day Germany – the team whose international record has become an almost unbroken reproach to English failure – had rarely looked stronger or more willing to run an extra yard.

But then England's discomfort is hardly a gobsmacking surprise when you consider their ludicrous arrangements.

Their opening game against France on Monday night, a gutsy 1-1 draw in such oppressive heat that the mere lifting of a vodka and tonic might well have brought on a few more extra beads of sweat, required them to make a round trip of 1,644 miles.

Their opponents had a rather less arduous one that – both ways took scarcely half an hour.

This also gave the French the advantage of a week of acclimatisation in the often brutally extreme weather of eastern Ukraine, which in the last few days has been as much as 50F (29C) hotter than at England's base in the beautiful Polish city of Krakow.

This is like preparing in Margate for a game in midsummer Madrid.

Tonight's game here for England involves a mere two-way jaunt of 694 miles but then it is also true that the Swedes, having all their group games in Kiev, took the astonishingly wise decision to set up their camp not only in the same country as the venue for their games but, wonder of wonders, in the same city.

If the English logistics are weird at any level, they were given another perspective by the Germans as they quite imperiously put down the Netherlands on Wednesday night to maintain a perfect start to their attempt to win their seventh major title, having previously won three World Cups and three European titles.

Before the draw was made Germany secured first refusal on the finest training facility in eastern Europe and one of the best in the entire football universe, the Kirsha Centre, which has superb accommodation, nine training fields (eight of them natural grass), a network of physiotherapy and medical recovery rooms or, to put it another way, everything a first-class sports outfit would need if it had serious intentions of winning a great tournament.

Furthermore, it is not much more than a long stone's throw from the Donbass Arena where England have been drawn to play two of their group games and a possible quarter-final. Naturally, when you think about it, the French moved in tout de suite the moment they heard the centre, built by Rinat Akhmetov, the owner of Shakhtar Donetsk, who after acquiring most of the industrial wealth of Ukraine would now quite like to possess one of the world's great football clubs, was no longer required by the Germans.

So what, you might ask if you had just arrived from another planet, could England's location so far from the Euro front line possibly be about? It is of course about creating an agreeable ambience for £100,000-plus-a-week professional athletes who simply cannot stomach the idea of being imprisoned for more than a few days somewhere exclusively designed to create that zone of tunnelled concentration and high-level physical tuning which generally accompanies the highest achievement.

Fabio Capello tried it in South Africa two years ago and you might have thought he had borrowed the idea from the torturers of the Spanish Inquisition. Initial reports from Krakow were of course at first extremely favourable. The atmosphere was relaxed, they could mingle with the tourists and the fans.

It's a pity about the travel fatigue and the heat exhaustion, but you can't have everything if you decide the only way to operate is on your own terms. This, we have known for some time, has been the culture of English international football. Sven Goran Eriksson slipped into it cosily enough, permitting family enclaves and bouncy castles in the 2004 European Championship in Portugal and allowing a full-scale Wag operation in Baden Baden two years later during the World Cup.

When Capello took his players to the Alps and then dumped them in the middle of African tribal lands he was of course derided for not understanding the needs of his footballers, and the demands of the game, which must have been a little surprising for a man whose own playing career included four Serie A titles with Juventus and Milan and 32 appearances for Italy.

Now it seems that England's new manager, Roy Hodgson, has inherited some middle ground, no Wags, no right to summon the manager from his dinner table – the fate of Eriksson on one fraught occasion – but a training headquarters in the swim of city life and a more or less acknowledged right to squabble about whom you most like to play with – and whom you don't.

Meanwhile, the Germans continue to be as hard on themselves as any opponents. Before their perfect Euro start, their coach Joachim Löw spoke of the extraordinary intensity of his young team. "They were good in South Africa two years ago but they are so much better now – the young players have matured so well and the moment they appear with the squad you can see their intensity, their ambition. They are so much stronger and mature. In so many situations their strength and understanding has become automatic."

The idea of such unity might just seem like a fantasy to a Hodgson who spent so much of the build-up dodging questions about why he decided to leave Rio Ferdinand at home. One unsettling image of this week's training meltdown was of Ashley Cole, such a prodigious performer in Chelsea's late-season surge, angrily kicking away a water bottle. For England, happy camping is plainly not the easiest chore.

It is hard to the point of pain to contrast the picture Germany continue to present of a team utterly focused on the immediate challenge. In South Africa, they got through some of their spare time by accepting their adoption by the kids of a local township. Thomas Müller, an emerging star, spoke of new horizons, new experiences.

There is also the more familiar one of charting a route back to the top of the game. It is one, we can be nearly certain, that is not likely to involve a 4,000-mile commute to play three big games in the space of nine days.

Inevitable, of course, is the kind of controversy which challenges the unity of any team, and most recently involved captain Philipp Lahm's ruthless ambition to succeed his ageing predecessor Michael Ballack. There is also the taut rivalry between world-class strikers Mario Gomez and Miroslav Klose, but then we are talking here about the sharp edge of pure ambition.

Tonight England not only have to rally legs. The players have also to grasp quite how much ground has to be made up.

German efficiency

While Germany's coach Joachim Löw has an outstanding tournament record, his England counterparts have failed to impress in finals.

Joachim Löw (July 2006 - present)

Played 16; Won 12; Drawn 0; Lost 4; Win percentage 75

Steve McClaren (Aug 2006- Nov 2007)

Failed to qualify for the 2008 European Championship

Fabio Capello (Nov 2007 - Feb 2012)

Played 4; Won 1; Drawn 2; Lost 1; Win percentage 25

Roy Hodgson (May 2012 - present)

Played 1; Won 0; Drawn 1; Lost 0; Win percentage 0

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