Czech Mate for Englands Young Lions
By Tom Gaunt
With two minutes remaining in it seemed like England Under-21′s had exactly replicated the senior teams much derided World Cup campaign of 2010, a 1-1 draw against the best team in the group followed by an appalling 0-0 bore-draw with the group minnows and finally a scrappy win against a plucky side lacking in true quality, typical England. However this was not to be as Jan Chramosta and Tomas Pekhart put England to the sword in the frantic final minutes of an otherwise underwhelming match.
For the purpose of this article I will assume that the England players are quality players physically if not technically, with most having plied their trade at some point in the premiership, and the more experienced members having played a full season for their respective clubs. Whether or not the players are World beaters is a discussion for another day Instead I will be looking at what went wrong in Denmark if anything could have been done differently, with of course that priceless tool hindsight.
Some would say that against Spain England did a good job, after all they drew with a team rated number 1 in the world, however the result does not tell the whole story. Spain dominated possession and played the ball around the static England players, the contrast in style, technique and ability was striking. What was more disappointing was the apparent strategy. I will give Pearce the benefit of the doubt, as I am sure he instructed his players to pass the ball, however pass they did not. Long ball after long ball was pumped forward from defence in hope that they would get a break. In the end they did, Wellbeck scoring what looked like an offside goal. In fairness the Spain goal was handball, so England did deserve the break.
From the outset it appeared Pearce had set his team up to stifle Spain playing Michael Mancienne in a holding midfield role and deploying Tom Cleverley out wide, all this did was add to the lack of spark and creativity and also asked Cleverley to play out of position something he clearly did not relish. Positivity is not a word you associate with England teams but there had been much anticipation associated with this group of youngsters that many had hoped to see them really go for it. It was only when changes were made in the second half, Scott Sinclair and Henry Lansbury entered the fray, that England looked like penetrating the Spanish side or even that they wanted to play football. In my opinion the last minute goal gave Pearce vindication, that he had got his tactics right and that good defending with a never say die attitude would see his team through the toughest of battles, how wrong he was.
There was much speculation as to whether Pearce would ring the changes for the next game against Ukraine a game that was a must win after the Czech Republic had already posted 3 points. He did not. Michael Mancienne, who played very poorly kept his place and it was Tom Cleverly who made way, but not for a winger of creative spark, but for Jack Rodwell. England had, if anything, gone more defensive. Sturridge adopted a position wide right, but drifting in behind the lone striker Wellbeck. How Mancienne was still in the team only Pearce will know, the centre back who missed most of last season is also England captain, and it appears Pearce just didn’t have the heart to drop him.
From the start it felt like England v Algeria all over again. Passes were misplaced and whenever the defence had the ball the midfield seemed to be running away, no one was screaming for the ball, desperate to affect the play. When England play there always seems to be 20 yards or so between players meaning each pass has to not only be very accurate but it take that much longer to shift play and it also becomes predictable, 5 seconds before the pass is made you know exactly where it is going. In contrast almost every other national team play short passes between in the midfield, some are not as good at it but at least the effort to play is there. For some reason this eludes England. While some teams play with joy and caress the football England look like a team that hate the ball and do not want it anywhere with them, if they could win the game by having to touch the ball as few times as possible then that would be great.
After an hour of hot-potato football Pearce made the changes the game was screaming out for, bringing on Sinclair and Lansbury, whilst they added some thrust and threat going forward the game could not be fully dragged from the mire and the game ended goalless. Even as the game lazily meandered to a close there didn’t seem any great desire from England to win the game, a win would mean all that was needed against the Czech’s was a draw, but England’s first instinct is always caution. The England team would do well to adopt the motto “He Who Dares, Wins”, as this is precisely where they fail. Whether it is the restrictive tactics, the English mentality, the huge media pressure or the expectations of their country, there is something stopping these players daring to be great.
The final match and Pearce tell the media he has a selection headache. Unfortunately not due to all the outstanding performances but more, I would hazard a guess, due to his overwhelming instinct to be unadventurous or creative. The irony is that the back four were the best performers, dealing admirably with everything thrown at them, yet Pearce insisted on over protecting them in sacrifice of ball players.
For this game Sinclair was finally started in place of Rose, Cleverly for some unknown reason was reinstated on the right, and Sturridge was deployed off the main striker again. It was somewhere in between a 4-4-2 and a 4-3-3 but to suggest it was fluid would be generous. The final change was Muamba coming in for Mancienne. These were positive changes, although Albrighton and Lansbury would have wondered what they needed to do to catch a break. I imagine that Pearce thought them too risky and that he wanted to keep it tight, ensuring they didn’t go a goal down, sensible Management and not a massive surprise.
What was a surprise was the way in which England played. It appeared that either Pearce had not learnt anything from the first two games, or that any subsequent strategic changes could not be clearly communicated to the team, either way it was simply more of the same. You could argue that they did everything right and were in prime position to qualify, and could even argue that until stoppage time of the third match everything was going to plan, but I think that even the most loyal supporters could not stretch the truth this far.
After 75 minutes of more tedious football, although some of it the best England had played, and barely a chance created England got the break-through. A delightful Sturridge cross was powerfully headed home by Wellbeck. It made me wonder what could have been if these two talented strikers had been given decent service instead of being asked to play with their backs to goal and win long balls, something that neither are particularly good at. England rejoiced, and looked good for qualification. We were all wrong! Pearce did know what he was doing, keep it tight and nick a goal, just like Jose Mourinho does.
Now this is where it got tricky for Pearce. It seemed he was ready to make an attacking substitution, bringing on Albrighton for the ineffectual Clerverley, before the goal was scored. He went ahead with the substitution regardless, and I support that, getting fresh legs on and no doubt instructing Albrighton “not to do anything silly”. The last 15 minutes were odd to say the least, and I am sure Pearce and his boys will replay them time and time again in their head. Suddenly England started to play, they bombed forward with new-found confidence, unfortunately the player’s technique and touch was occasionally letting them down and the Czech were getting the chance to break. With Albrighton intent on making his mark he played with little caution, and it seemed most of the team wanted to get in on the act, at last they were enjoying their football. However as the minutes ticked on and this vigour gave way to sloppiness it seemed inevitable that there would be ramifications. Was it Pearce’s intention to score a second, feeling the best form of defence is attack? A bold tactic considering how England had previously played in the tournament. Or was it a case of the players getting carried away with the euphoria of scoring and the freedom it seemed to bring. The truth is that they were naive and careless and paid the price. A goal from the Czechs in the 89th minute after some careless defending left England with 3 minutes of injury time to salvage something, and as England charged forward they were picked off with seconds remaining on the clock, 2-1 and not reflective of a game England, for the once, controlled.
Stuart Pearce is an England legend, and I have always liked the guy. He is respectful of referees and put up with Fabio Capello through a tumultuous World Cup campaign. However I would argue that he is not necessarily best suited to teach our players to play good football. Is he qualified to do so with the necessary experience? Is he a man who subscribes to the beautiful game and has a philosophy of pass and move football? Is he forward thinking enough to adapt to the modern game with its sophisticated training techniques? Or is he a hard-working and passionate Englishman who wears his heart on his sleeve and always gives 200%? I fear he is the latter and whilst we need this in the camp it cannot be our sole footballing philosophy.
I will sound like a cynic but I think this was a blessing in disguise. England need to examine what is happening to their International game at its core. There is already many initiatives in place to encourage our youngsters to play better football, and with much foreign influence in the game and in coaching schools and academies a new wave of football philosophy is gradually seeping into the English game at grass-roots level. But with all these things the masses need hard proof and England’s poor performances in the Under-21′s championship was all the proof they need. Had we qualified for the next round people would have suggested that they had done a good job and that it is results that matter, when the reality this is the attitude that has seen the standard of English football slump over the past decade.
England will always get results based on the physical fitness, strength and power but this will only take a team so far in tournament football and certainly will not entertain the fans.
Posted on June 20, 2011, in *Tom Gaunt, England and tagged Chris Smalling, Daniel Sturridge, Daniel Wellbeck, England, Fabrice Muamba, Henry Lansbury, Jack Rodwell, Jordan Henderson, Jose Mourinho, Marc Albrighton, Michael Mancienne, Phil Jones, Scott Sinclair, Soccer, Stuart Pearce, Tom Cleverley, Tom Gaunt, Under-21's. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a Comment.