If , as the saying goes, possession is nine tenths of the law, then England's performances so far have been criminal.
No less a sage than the Kaiser himself (Franz Beckenbauer) looked down imperiously from his ivory tower and decreed that England were a kick and rush team with outdated tactics. Of course, this was said in a fit of Teutonic triumphalism, following Germany's impressive victory over Australia and before the unholy trinity of wily Serbs, a Spanish referee on an apparent one man crusade to outlaw tackling and a wasteful Lukas Podolski derailed the German juggernaut .
But , while his comments were grossly exaggerated, there can be no doubt that the English performance against Algeria was as grey as David Beckham's expensively tailored suit. Their inability to retain possession for long periods in both of their opening games has cost them much in expended energy to regain the ball and, possibly, four points. At no time, save for the opening twenty minutes against the U.S.A. have they been in control of a game , indeed against Algeria some of their leading lights were struggling to control the ball!!! and as every saloon bar philosopher will tell you the teams that keep the ball , control games and ultimately their own destiny. This view is no less accurate for it being spouted by pub bores the length and breadth of the kingdom. However, English teams down through the years have seemingly been unable to grasp this basic fact. The game in the English league is played at a rate of knots far exceeding anything
played elsewhere( with the possible exception of my home country Scotland , last seen at a World Cup in1998 and yet to progress out of the group stages) This is not conducive to the kind of controlled , intelligent probing that is usually successful in international tournaments, even if this style of football does not always excite British fans and commentators alike.
Another key factor in a successful team is balance. The English seemed to lack this against Algeria, on the right flank they deployed Aaron Lennon, an out and out winger with plenty of pace, on the left was Steven Gerrard, a right footed central midfielder whose natural instinct is to come inside, shuffled out there because coach Fabio Capello refuses to accept what is becoming more and more apparent, that the Liverpool man and Frank Lampard cannot happily co habit in a midfield. When wide players continually come inside it makes the pitch smaller and easier to defend for the opposition and like the Swiss against Spain, Algeria were able to pack the midfield and contain , harry and frustrate the men in white. With Lennon on the right , the attacking right back Johnson had no avenue to make his marauding runs, a feature of much of England's best play in qualifying.Likewise on the left , Ashley Cole has hardly been
seen in an attacking sense in the tournament so far and as Brazil and others have shown , overlapping full backs can be a potent weapon in international football.
Ashley's namesake Joe Cole, has not been seen at all , but remains, in this observer's eyes, the most gifted technically of a "Golden Generation " that is losing it's lustre. He possesses the craft and vision to unlock well marshaled defences and release Rooney to take up scoring positions. Sadly like many a "number ten" in the past he seems to be distrusted by his coach, who appears to be unwilling to risk playing a maverick for the fear of leaving his team vulnerable to a swift counter attack.
But as the ancients advised, fortune favours the brave and many a cautious team has prematurely exited tournaments, cursing their lack of adventure and contemplating what might have been.
So where stands England and her pampered Premiership Princes this night ? There does not appear to be a Lionheart or a Prince Hal among them to stir them to greater endeavour, instead the men in white resemble Hamlet, the tortured , bewildered regent apparently on the brink of madness.
For all the blooming of the English game , watered by Gascoigne's tears in Turin in 1990 and fertilised by great dollops of money from Sky T.V. it is an inescapable fact that the majority of players in it are now foreign. There can be no more damning an indictment of a nation's footballers than the fact that their own clubs won't employ them. Add to this the fact that none of the players in the squad have experienced a football culture other than their own, and maybe there are answers to the vexed question of why their performances appear so one dimensional and predictable. The comfort zone of the English Premier League , where players are revered like rock stars and enjoy some of the
excesses that are concomitant with that profession, while collecting salaries that would not look out of place at a Wall Street investment bank, dissuades them from fully developing as players.While this column does not begrudge people being paid well, even if it allows them to live in the sort of luxury that would make the Sun King himself blush, the suspicion is that the English players get too much too easily and it has blunted their appetite for battle and their desire to push themselves that extra mile when required.
What of Fabio Capello ? his record as a club coach is impeccable and even his dismissal by Real Madrid can be worn as a badge of honour given that that club sacked Vincente Del Bosque even though he had delivered La Liga and the European Cup. But, as I alluded to in the tournament preview, there is one gaping hole in his C.V. He is untried in tournament football , unlike that other great "don" of the Italian coaching environment, Marcello Lippi , the victorious coach of the azzuri four years ago, Capello has a rigid, unshakable belief in 4-4-2 , this was not a hindrance during the honeymoon period of the qualifying stages, but he may have to recant.
Previously, when England have been struggling in the group stages they have had to change , to evolve. In Mexico in 1986 they found the Lineker - Beardsley partnership and progressed, in Italy in 1990 they discovered the joys of the 3-5-2
formation and reached the semi final.
Can Capello change? He may have to, for if Engand exit at the group stages this year the gentlemen of Her Majesty's press , will, like Brutus , come to bury Caesar, not to praise him.