Although still being very raw in the minds of many England fans, I feel now is a good time to look over where it went wrong for England against Italy in last night’s Quarter Finals of the Euro 2012 competition.
Firstly lets begin by stating that England did very well to last as long as they did in the competition, and performed admirably against France, Sweden and the Ukraine. They played well to contain Italy for a full 120 minutes, something not many teams could have done – Spain failed to prevent Italy scoring during 90 minutes, and their defence is considered one of the best. So we can be proud that defensively we were great, albeit rather fortunate on many many occasions against Italy.
That brings me onto my first point – luck. We were very lucky against Italy, with De Rossi uncharacteristically snatching a golden opportunity to put the Italians ahead. I think really the tone was set from the first few minutes where he also struck a stupendous shot from 30 yards plus which rattled the inside of the post and bounced out, with Joe Hart well beaten. Balotelli too had chances but he was well marshalled throughout the game by the likes of John Terry and Joleon Lescott. I think this was the game in which our luck finally ran out.
The second factor which for once I feel didn’t help England as much as it could was at around the hour mark, when clearly Hodgson had to do something to change things around, bringing on Andy Carroll for Danny Wellbeck and Theo Walcott for James Milner. Now I agree that hindsight is a wonderful thing, and this could have been another brilliant substitution by Roy, but I feel that Walcott wasn’t a great addition. We were really struggling to keep the ball, and Milner had been working his socks off tracking back and helping out. Maybe Roy thought Walcott would be a good outlet – someone we could look for and he could go off on a darting run and alleviate the pressure and buy our players some breathing space. This wasn’t the case however, and Walcott simply spent his time on the pitch wandering up and down the far touchline. On the other hand, Carroll held the ball up well and won many flick ons. But I feel that Wellbeck was winning many aerial battles already, but this wasn’t the problem – it was keeping the ball afterwards which is where we were struggling. Perhaps a braver switch would have been to bring on Carroll for Rooney, which brings me on to my next point…
To me, Rooney’s two performances for England were very, very average. I think he really failed to settle back within the England team, I was hoping his goal against the Ukraine would help him to calm down and perform to the level he’s clearly capable of, but I think he looked very out of sorts. I don’t feel that the media hype helped him at all – so much was made of his return to the side that its only natural for him to falter under some of this pressure. Perhaps he should’ve been ushered back into things a little quieter, maybe brought on as a sub vs Ukraine if we were struggling, and then take things from there. I’m not sure if its right that the likes of Andy Carroll, who’d had a great tournament, had to sit out and a so-called superstar was brought back in. I doubt it unsettled the team as they all know he’s such a talent, but I’m not sure if maybe Hodgson relied upon him too heavily. Again, hindsight is a wonderful thing and maybe I’m over analyzing this one, but it seemed no-one else got much of a look-in up front. Or maybe Hodgson stuck with him all along because he knows he takes a great penalty, and that seemed to be the likely course that the match was going, who knows. What I do know though is that its not healthy to build a team around just one player, and I think this could have been the case with Wayne.
My next reason as to why England failed so much to contain Italy is probably the most obvious – the time and space that was afforded to arguably one of the greatest Italian midfielders ever, Andreas Pirlo. I really can’t fathom why he was given so much time on the ball. He’s the one who pulls all the strings, spots a pass, keeps things moving, dictates the play, he’s such a supremely gifted technical footballer and yet England seemed to back off him and just invite the pressure. They played so deep and didn’t push forward at all, I think they were set on penalties from the word go and I don’t think this is the way to play football. I know Greece did alright by it, and if you don’t have the technical ability then sometimes you have to play this way, but I don’t understand it. In the first few minutes England attacked and Glen Johnson just seemed to walk his way into the box through several Italians before finding himself on the end of a cross from Milner. It just seemed so easy, and that was one of our only attacks. I just think if England had been braver and pushed men forward into the attack then we could’ve taken the lead. And then its fine to sit back and play the way we did – I just fail to see how this is a viable tactic when its nil-nil.
Finally when it comes to penalties I can’t fault the players that attempted to take one, I feel this is such a brave decision and no-one deserves to be criticised for missing – unless of course they try something daft and it doesn’t come off. I think the England fans that criticise Ashley Young or Ashley Cole are stupid, for these are two very brave footballers. However, if I was a striker or a midfielder perhaps, and was confident in my ability to take a penalty, then I’d really be questioning myself for as to why I didn’t step-up to take a penalty last night. I mean, and this isn’t a knock on Ashley Cole, but he’s not got great technique when it comes to striking a ball. When did he last score for Chelsea or England? I think theres a reason why he doesn’t score many, and although he managed one in the European Cup Final I wouldn’t have had him as my 3rd or 4th choice penalty taker. I’d be looking at my striker, my midfielders, anyone with a half-decent technique. Hodgson said after the game that he’d witnessed Young and Cole blasting in penalties all day and was confident in both of them, so maybe I’m being over-critical here again. You can never recreate the pressure that the players are under when they take penalty kicks, and maybe nerves played a big part, but I still feel there are other players within the team who have the ability to take a spot-kick and whom should’ve stepped forward sooner.
So where now for England? Personally I’ve really enjoyed watching the team perform, I still think they performed far above the level that was expected of them and to have so many people confident of a win against Italy speakes volumes about their faith in the players. I think in England theres a real problem with the coaching of our youngsters. Players aren’t trained to be comfortable on the ball, and this is why we fail on the big stage. All the best teams – Spain, Germany, Italy, they’re all raised with a culture that promotes all players being comfortable with the ball at their feet. I don’t think enough English footballers are able to demand the ball regardless of their position on the pitch, and to be brave enough to deal with the ball when under pressure. Until the coaching of our players improves, we’ll still be struggling at the highest level. Its embarrasing how poorly we perform nationally when the Premier League is considered to be the best league in the world.