Friday, 20 June 2014

No time for scapegoats

The scapegoat must be found!

That is the mantra for England at football tournaments. In the same way that Cato the Elder used to finish his speeches with 'Carthage must be destroyed' regardless of what he was speaking about, England fans - regardless of the manner of exit - begin looking for someone to blame. As with the original scapegoat, it doesn't really matter if they were to blame but, rather, they just need to be able to be blamed.

Look at the discussions on social media, listen in the pub tonight as sorrows are sunk: the story is people blaming someone. Manchester United fans point their finger at Gerrard, Henderson and Johnson. Liverpool fans point at Rooney. Other fans point at other players or at the manager. The whole nation is accusing someone of doing something wrong and costing us the World Cup. An angry nation jabbing each other in the chest and saying 'no, it was Jagielka's fucking fault you mug'. I'd like to say we were better than this but the evidence suggests we aren't.

The simple problem is that we cannot accept that we weren't good enough
 or acknowledge that an opponent has done something extraordinary. We can't even admit that we just came up against a better team on the night. There is no shame in not being good enough but trying your best. There is no shame in being bettered by someone.

There is, though, something in the English psyche that stops us computing this information. It may be some lingering superiority complex. It may be that we believe the hype of the Premier League. Whatever it is, over the years England have fielded very fine football teams but generally those teams have not been fine enough. As good as they have been someone, somewhere has been better. This is what football is all about - our teams are rarely the best. It is why, in those fleeting moments when they are, it is so sweet.

Given this approach to the game, it is natural that we blame one of our own rather than acknowledge the geniuses who beat us. It wasn't Seamen's fault in 2002 nor was it Beckham's fault for jumping out of a tackle. We just came up against a Brazil team with Ronaldinho in it. Yes, players made errors but football games are littered with errors - geniuses exploit them.

But, no!, it cannot be down to the talent of others. It must be down to an error we made. If only we hadn't made an error (show me a game where a team makes no errors, by the way) we'd have won. If it isn't some catastrophic error by one of our own (who will be in the pillory stocks until the next time) then it must be a referee who cheated us. If it isn't that then it isn't the genius on the other team but rather the cheat - Maradona, Simeone, Ronaldo, Neuer et al.

Rather than acknowledge we did our best but that best wasn't good enough our blame must be focused and personified. It is easier to blame Bekcham, or the referee, or some dastardly foreigner than it is to question ourselves. We aren't asking 'why can't any of our players make a pass like Cavani did to Suarez?', 'why can't we produce a player like Pirlo?', 'Why, when we do produce a player like Pirlo, do we monster them?', 'would an English striker have scored that chance Suarez plundered to win the game?'; 'why do our players look like they shrink when they get into an England shirt?' or 'does the way we talk about the team hinder them?'. Those are difficult questions and ones that aren't easily answered. They are the sorts of questions that one answers alone late at night with a large whisky. It is far easier to say - 'enough of that thinking, it was Gerrard's fucking fault'.

And, boy, can we find a scapegoat. Pearce, Waddle, Taylor, Southgate, Beckham, Neville (P), Beckham again, Gerrard, Vassell, Rooney, Ronaldo, Capello, Young, Cole and, well, take your pick from last night. In 2014, as Costa Rica have knocked us out before facing us, it is going to be Jagielka, Gerrard, Rooney or Hodgson. Take your pick. It matters not who it is, it merely matters that there is one.

Sadly, a
few weeks ago, England fans - for once - were generally accepting of their fate. This team was not as fine a vintage as the 1998 squad or the 2006 squad. There was a crop of young players - Sterling, Barkely, Oxlade-Chamberlain, Wilshere - who might just be the core of the next fine England team but, perhaps, not quite experienced enough as a group yet. 
The defence - usually a strong point of English football - was comparatively weak. Remember the days when King, Woodgate and Carragher couldn't get past Campbell, Ferdinand and Terry? 

There was an acknowledgement that the only player who could reasonably be considered world-class was Wayne Rooney (Gerrard was once but in his advancing years isn't quite what he was). Even with Rooney the jury on that accolade is still out - as fine as he has been in qualification for England and as fine as he has been for Manchester United at the highest level he has never really shown it for England bar a few brief moments in 2004. Rooney's greatest sin is that he isn't as good as we hyped him to be (extended thoughts here

There was even an acknowledgement that we had draw a group of death - Italy centred around the imperious Pirlo and Uruguay, with the geniuses of Cavani and Suarez. Costa Rica were largely unknown by the footballing populous here in Belait but regardless many thought it was possible that England would fail to get out of the group given the strength of Uruguay and Italy. It looked, for once, as if we had grown up. 

But, of course, we hadn't. We were just pretending. In the first game, the blame was levelled against Rooney. Yes, he set up a goal but he did little else right and plenty wrong. He dragged a shot wide when he should have hit the target. He wasn't in the game. Here was our scapegoat! But then Johnson, Baines and Cahill had poor games too.

Many will ask - legitimately - why did he start on the left? But they forget he has played in a similar role for Manchester United successfully before. 
Many will ask - legitimately - why he didn't start centrally as that is where he works best?

Few who do ask such a question notice he played there last night and wasn't much better and, in fact, played there for much of the second half against Italy (at the expense of the fine Sterling). Few question the man who made the call to start Rooney on the left. Few question starting Sterling in a position he hadn't played for England before and asking him to do so in his first competitive start. Few are asking why Hodgson set the team up in the same way for two very different opponents? Few have noticed that the substitutes seem to have been made before the match rather than on what was happening on the pitch (particularly last night). Few have asked why Baines got a second run out after a shocking show against Italy. Few are asking why Hodgson played a two man midfield against Marchisio, Pirlo, Verratti, and de Rossi. Few are asking why, when playing a compact Uruguay side, we went out of our way - as the game went on - to make ourselves more narrow. Few questioned picking players who weren't in the squad (!) in warm up games. It seemed that Roy was experimenting too late. Experimentation is good - but the time to do it might not be against Italy in the World Cup.

That though is searching for a scapegoat in Hodgson. He made errors - hell, on reflection, he made rather a few (the biggest not taking Ashley Cole) - but ultimately his team played pretty well against Italy. Last night, the focus probably did turn on Hodgson because England didn't seem to have a coherence. It was like they were trying to replay the Italy game without noticing that Pirlo's magnificent beard was elsewhere. We always fight the last battle. That's the British way. The English way.

With Rooney scoring last night though, the focus for a scapegoat must be elsewhere. Never mind the two chances missed. His slate is clean.

The natural choice for the scapegoat seems to be Gerrard. He was, partly, at fault for the first goal - he gave the ball away which started the move. That neglects the errors of Johnson and Jagielka in that move. We focus on the errors but, as above, we do not ask 'why can so few of our players play a ball like Cavani did to Suarez?'. Much easier to blame the error than ask why the other side is better. That gets awkward, you see.

For the second goal Gerrard can't reasonably be blamed. Reason, though, won't come into it. He went for a aerial ball in midfield and it flew off his head - those things happen (like Rooney hitting the bar with his header - those things happen). Jagielka, though, was in no man's land. He should have been in line with Cahill because, as a centre back, you've got to assume your midfielders might miss a long ball. This is basic defending. The sort of thing that would get a schoolboy subbed off.

That isn't to say Gerrard had a good game - he didn't. It was his poorest showing in a World Cup game and a world away from 2010 when he and Ashley Cole were the only ones who turned up - but the rush to blame him and absolve others is as unhelpful as it always is and will not help going forward. Very little good comes from seeking out one player to blame - that was true after Italy with Rooney, it is still true tonight.

Something that has been unnoticed is that Rooney and Gerrard were the only two England players who realised that the way to win the game was to stretch the Uruguayans. Both tried to play balls to the wingers and to the full backs on the touchline and tried, where possible, to switch play.

Unfortunately though too often England players were fighting each other for the ball - Sturridge (who came alive after 60 minutes) dropping into the channel with Welbeck. Rooney and Sterling doing similar and, later, Rooney and Barkley. At points the commentators claimed how good it was to see Rooney or Sturridge back getting the ball in their own half. Just where we needed them. The substitutions just packed the channels more. Rather than test Uruguay we played into their hands

How often did we hear 'the ball stuck in his feet', 'they've run into the same space' or 'he's taken that off Gerrard's toes'?

This was a nadir for England. A few days before they were a tad unlucky against a strong Italian team. The performance against Italy was, despite the result, a rare English exhibition of technical ability. Against Uruguay that seemed to be ditched. There seemed to be no plan. It was individual performances that kept England in sniffing distance not vision from the bench. It seems odd given the performance against Italy had Hodgson's DNA running through it. Something was awry last night.

England may argue that they were a little unlucky. The draw was a tough one but that is why you go to a World Cup. They probably should have had a penalty against Italy. They probably should have played for most of the game against Uruguay against ten men. But, as Jock Stein said 'if you're good enough the referee doesn't matter'.

Quite. England weren't good enough. There were glimpses from Sturridge, Rooney, Sterling, and Barkley that suggest the future may be a little brighter. Even Henderson, Baines and Johnson had their moments in the second half of the Italy game. Others will think if only Oxlade Chamberlain and Walcott had been fit... but all teams suffer injuries. I'm not a fan of Hodgson, he did make errors, but there was only so far this team was ever going to go. Maybe another manager would have eked out a win against one of those teams but does anyone really think England would have got much further?

This was a likeable England side whose best simply wasn't good enough. We shouldn't haul them through the press or over the coals. We should acknowledge that it is disappointing, thank those who retire for their service, and support those that will help us build for 2016. There is much to be excited about. We should acknowledge that the difference last night was that we haven't produced a striker like Suarez in generations. The scapegoating will only hurt us in the long run. We break our young men and then we wonder why they disappoint us next time.

We never bloody learn, mind. We are all reaching for our pitchforks.



dearieme said...

"There is, though, something in the English psyche that stops us computing this information." It's part of the unwritten constitution; on all matters to do with supporting football, all Englishmen will switch off any IQ they happen to have.

P.S. They played worse against Uruguay because
(i) They'd played a hard game in a jungle climate five days before
(ii) They were more anxious
(iii) Their opponents had two magnificent footballers rather than just one
(iv) Just because.

dearieme said...

There's one thing I don't understand about playing centre-back. I can see that not every player in that position can have a wonderful leap, or a turn of speed, or magnificent agility, or even a crunching tackle, but surely all of them should know that the first requirement of the job is to mark your man.

Eric C said...

Excellent analysis Rob. There is no doubt that players like Pitlo and Suarez are cut from a special rock in a secret quarry. The EFA should try to find the location of this quarry and develop players. The media love to build up players only to rejoice in knocking them down later. No wonder you find that players are unwilling to take that extra risk for fear of being ridiculed when it doesn't go quite right. Most of us would agree that Pele is the greatest of all time. He made a lot of mistakes, but we were prepared to accept that because we knew that the next one maybe would be genius. There is no doubt that the UK game lacks a true genius nowadays. There is no Beckham, Charlton, Baxter, etc. That is because we don't look after them when we occasionally discover one. We spend too much time looking for ways to fault them the late Jimmy Reid said when asked about Cecil Parkinson's love child said, "I don't care what he gets up to in bed, it's when he gets out if bed I start worrying'. Focus on the football side of their lives and nothing else. I'm not interested in the rest, even when I am reading it while eating a fish supper out of the paper.

Metatone said...

I know I left a comment about Gerrard ageing, but it wasn't meant to be a scapegoating, just an acknowledgement that in my view, a big part of the story of this World Cup for England is that it came at a bad time for us. Players like Gerrard are getting past their prime and the younger players like Sturridge are still developing and the youngest hopes (Sterling, Shaw) are very much still bright sparks who we hope can be raging fires in the future.

Sturridge is a great example - he's got all the talents you could want, but you can well imagine it's another year or two before he's got that clinical edge of the great strikers. (I think he's more likely to get there than Wellbeck.) After all, van Persie has played in a number of big international games, but he's never looked as calm before as he did against Spain.

To agree with dearieme, you could see in Italy's performance against Costa Rica that the Manaus game was very draining.

Anxiety - Hodgson has done some good things, but if we take a similar anxiety issue of the England Rugby team, he's some way earlier on the journey than Stuart Lancaster. In essence you'd probably be looking towards Rooney being the only old-guard player (and maybe not a regular?) before England can truly change their psychology. The danger of course is that football gets so much more media attention than rugby and maybe the young players will get infected too.

Ok, this comment is long enough, I'll ramble a bit more in another one.

Metatone said...

On injuries - Patrick Viera brought up the issue of the winter break. Now Suarez plays without a winter break too, so you can say it doesn't matter. And as you say, every team gets some injuries. But I think across the team the fatigue makes a difference. It affects the mental side most of all - decision making.

It's a classic disease across British sport, you see it in cricket and rugby too. It seems we're just not yet psychologically able to admit that workload across a season makes a difference. (We've had peaks in other sports where certain figures found particular solutions to our wearing out fast bowlers or back-row forwards, yet we seem to have fallen back in both sports.)

Finally, for now, talent. (Yes, I do plan to shut up for a while after this.)

It's hard to know if the new Southampton and new Liverpool (and all the thousands of lines written about Man City's development plan) mean that Sterling and Shaw are the leading edge of a conveyor belt of English players or another false dawn. But it has been like that for just about all my watching life. Years of lacking a left-sided midfielder, shoe-horning the wrong man out there...

For a football nation of our population and pyramid, we need to do better - and it has to start with getting some of the EPL money to the grassroots...

dearieme said...

I remain of the opinion that if Rooney is to be retained in the squad it should be as a centre-forward: as long as Sturridge is fit and in form, the reserve centre-forward.

The number 10 should be someone whose passing is capable of releasing, for example, Walcott: Sterling, perhaps, or Lalala. Probably not Barkley, who seems to be more a runner than a clever passer.

Mr Roy is going to have a busy four weeks when the season begins, trying to find new defenders and a new defensive midfielder or two. Perhaps he'll try out Jones vs Costa Rica.