World Cup winning Germany captain, Phillip Lahm, announced his retirement from international football on Friday, leaving behind a generation of German players who are more than capable of extending the legacy of the team he led in Brazil. As speculation surrounding his successor builds and articles lauding Germany’s fortunes over England’s pile up in the media, it becomes more and more apparent that the wrong comparison is being made.
If Steven Gerrard were to hang up his England armband tomorrow, he would be relinquishing control over a group of players that—at the very most—has potential. Indeed, this potential might be greater should Gerrard come good on such a decision, since the nation’s realism is perennially blurred by an insistence on holding onto what was labelled but never actually was a “Golden Generation.”
In reality, as suggested in some quarters, including by BBC Sport, England should to copy Germany’s path to success, but it will take many more significant alterations than a change of captaincy to mend the tears in the fabric of English football. By and large, though, it would be wise to stop measuring England’s position in relation to that of the world champions. Frankly, England are nowhere near.
More intelligently selected neighbours with which to contrast the English performance would be the French. This is because both teams arrived in Brazil with an alleged lack of expectation and a handful of young players touted to light up the competition.
The French genuinely believed that this World Cup would be something of a transitional tournament, as Didier Deschamps admitted at the end of last season. Speaking to RMC in April (h/t Goal.com), Deschamps said that “there are six or seven teams out there that head into the competition to win it, but France are not among those teams.”
Meanwhile, England players, staff and fans all came together in a showing of uncharacteristic pragmatism in the months leading up to the World Cup. Typically, as the tournament grew closer, it became apparent that there was a heavy coating of pretence to this apparent lack of expectation. Indeed, Roy Hodgson told the Guardian’s Daniel Taylor and Dominic Fifield just a week before the first game against Italy that “anyone who thinks we can’t win has to be barking up the wrong tree.”
England were knocked out just eight days into the competition—their earliest exit in history—and finished as fifth lowest goalscorers, netting just two. France, on the other hand, were unlucky in defeat to Germany in the last eight and finished as fifth highest goalscorers.
A player-by-player comparison of the two teams would suggest considerable similarities between them before the World Cup. France now look forward to hosting Euro 2016 with pride and belief, while England once again lick their wounds and try to grasp at any positives they can find.
It’s fair to say England had a tougher group than France, of course, but there is no denying that the French players displayed a fearlessness to which only a few wearing the Three Lions on their chests could lay claim.
Raheem Sterling was one such England player to give his country reason to anticipate a bright future; his direct approach was a breath of fresh air for England fans so accustomed to seeing meek, cautious performances from players who ordinarily terrorize defenders at club level. Aside from Sterling and a few others, such as Daniel Sturridge and Ross Barkley, there was little to write home about.
France, on the contrary, enjoyed a strong relationship between their youngest stars and their most experienced. Raphael Varane and Mamadou Sakho made a positive impression in their first World Cups at the heart of the French defence, supported by veteran full-backs Patrice Evra and Mathieu Debuchy.
Antoine Griezmann’s performances were equally encouraging; as the Real Sociedad winger played a key role in launching the devastating attacks that saw France bag 10 goals. To replace Franck Ribery so seamlessly was quite a statement of intent from Griezmann, who will undoubtedly play a big part in France’s Euro 2016 campaign.
Anonymous English Leaders
Particularly absent were England’s most talismanic figures—the leaders who were charged with uniting this team laden with youthful promise. Aforementioned captain Steven Gerrard’s performances were immensely dispiriting, as he merited an average of 6.2, according to WhoScored.com. Gerrard was largely anonymous against both Italy and Uruguay and was dropped in favour of a more experimental midfield for the Costa Rica game.
By contrast, Yohan Cabaye drove the French midfield forward and held the line in front of a young back four. His distribution of the ball to Mathieu Valbuena and Griezmann to launch powerful counter-attacks was impressive. Put simply, Cabaye was the midfield leader France needed, earning an average rating of 7.2, via WhoScored.
So much has been said of Wayne Rooney’s perennial underachievement for England and until this World Cup, Karim Benzema held a similar reputation in France. The Real Madrid striker found some superb form in Brazil, though, notching three goals and two assists. Benzema played with supreme confidence, supported by tricky wingers and athletic central midfielders, Cabaye and Blaise Matuidi.
Rooney was substandard once again, his assist for Sturridge against Italy and scrappy goal to equalize against Uruguay not nearly enough to overshadow yet another unacceptable showing for his country. At the age of 28 and with 95 caps to his name, Rooney is no longer the dangerous prospect tipped to frighten opposition defences. This period ought to be the prime of his career, when he is conducting the team and leading the new crop of players in attitude and performance. More often than not, he goes missing.
Perhaps the truth is that comparisons of any nature and with any nation are entirely worthless. England’s unique situation—with a thriving Premier League teeming with foreign talent, an intense media pressure and a group of players seemingly incapable of cohesion when it matters—is without remedy until some of those elements change.
It’s not a problem with the quality of player that England is producing but rather an issue of togetherness. Players of all nations feel the same pressure before a World Cup—it is the most important sporting event on Earth. The inherent issue is that while other players grow under the world’s spotlight, England’s tend to shrivel when they put on the shirt.
What is required is leadership and a shared direction, one that Germany have discovered and maintained for years, while France appear to be establishing a durable unit that ought to serve them well in two years' time. England are a team of individuals, which is not helped by a tendency to expect too much of one or two players who aren’t capable of carrying the side on their own. It’s time for Gerrard to go and perhaps even Rooney, too. That way, the young players left behind can at least start to formulate something of a team.
Sad though it may be to admit, the club football season can’t start soon enough from an England perspective. All of these new, foreign players arriving in the Premier League will no doubt provide great viewing…until Euro 2016.