World Cup Diary

Having thought the matter over, England did not lose their first two games in the football World Cup because a single player made the difference: Pirlo for Italy and Suarez for Uruguay. It is true that in England’s last game, Suarez, bête-noire genius of the English Premier League, scored both of Uruguay’s goals; and since England only scored one, by the foot of Rooney, who was out of sorts but still the best we’ve got, then there is a logic that says Suarez made the difference. But if he had not scored and England had won the game by Rooney’s single goal, we would have to argue that the difference between the two teams was one man: Rooney. This is a nonsensical vicious circle.

No, the reason England lost the game and are out of the tournament – the Azzurri miracle was not forthcoming; they lost to Costa Rica 0-1 – is a whole lot simpler. They just aren’t quite good enough to get beyond the group stages of the World Cup.

Sure, the English are good enough to win their qualification group, though only just, and they can beat teams like Moldova and San Marino quite convincingly. But Moldova and San Marino, no offence, are hardly powerhouses of the game. Plucky, well-dressed, sure – but not very good at football. Sad as this is to say, and we could perhaps debate how sad it really is, England, when it comes to football, just aren’t that great. They’re OK, but not great; they’re better than they were two years ago, but still not that great.

Well done the English footballers.

For a while now I’ve been under the firm impression that no one reads what I write on these pages. But that has all changed over these last few days, and I have come to realise that someone very much reads what I write. And that someone is from the Football Association; it could even be Woy Hodgson himself (he’s the manager).

Anyway. I now know that he (or someone pretty close to him) reads my stuff, because I made some rather sage comments regarding the Euro-qualifiers played in September, and, lo and behold, the team completely changed its game.

I wrote that it was ‘quite depressing watching England play football.’ I suggested England should be doing better with its ‘big squadrons.’ I even pulled out some pretty impressive statistics to show that England has a pool of players 17.18% bigger than Ukraine, but that they are not 17.18% better at playing football than Ukraine. I also suggested picking players with skill as opposed to an ability to just run fast.

And the way the English went about their game in the last round of Euro-qualifiers was infinitely better. They beat Montenegro 4-1 and Poland 2-0, and are now on their way to the Brazil World Cup next year as winners of their group. Splendid!

Of course, we always should have won the group. Montenegro is a minute country; it doesn’t even have a million people, while we have a lot more than that. Poland is somewhat bigger, but still only has a little under 40 million people to chose from – plus, of course, however many are living in East Anglia and London; but I’m not sure they’re that committed to playing football, so we can discount them. The point is England is a bigger country, not just demographically but footballographically, too.

But what was most pleasing was the way the team went about their game. Too often the players (out of fear, lethargy, instruction or lack of skill, I don’t know) have sat back and waited for the opposition to score. But this time they went after the game. They tried to play football; they tried to pass the ball; they tried to score goals. It seemed their philosophy had changed radically from simply not wanting to lose to actually wanting to win.

To be fair, one gets the impression Roy Hodgson has been trying to take them in a new direction for a while now. But, whatever is happening, this new approach produces goals. If the opposition scores three, well, we score four. Simple. Not only is this a better strategy for winning, but it makes for better entertainment. Everyone wins, and the supporters start enjoying themselves again.

My final piece of advice? Keep playing Carrick. He’s a locksmith. He can release other players like no one else. Oh, and keep playing Baines, too. He’s also pretty good.

England, Ukraine, football and French insight

It really is quite depressing watching England play football. I think Napoleon said, ‘God is always on the side of the big battalions,’ but Oxford Reference says it was Comte de Bussy-Rabutin (1618–93) who in fact said, ‘God is usually on the side of the big squadrons against the small.’ If this is true, and I know the saying must be taken with a pinch of salt because (a) it comes from a Frenchman, and (b) it is a saying, and therefore noteworthy more for its phrasing than veracity, but if it’s true, then why doesn’t it apply to England and football?

Tonight the boys in white – though they were actually wearing red tops, white shorts and red socks – played Ukraine, and were pretty average. I know they lost a few of their stella players (adjective used recklessly, I know) to injury, such as Rooney and um… and um… Joe Cole, is he still playing? But even so, what with being told the Premiership is the best in the world, you might think we could at least do a bit better than a nil-nil draw.

A quick scientific-cum-demographic analysis tells us that Ukraine has 45 million people and England has 53 million, which is a ratio of 1:1.18, or, if decimal fractions are not your thing, think of it as England having a pool of players 17.18% larger than Ukraine from which to pick their world beaters. If de Bussy-Rabutin was talking the truth and not just trying to look smart with his aphorisms, England would have at the very least had most of the possession tonight.

But they did not. Ukraine had most of the ball – at least that’s what it looked like to me – and although their striking-efforts were as non-cutting as England’s (not your fault, Lambert), England looked as unlikely to net it as a second-division team against the Premiership big guns in the FA Cup. And I suppose that’s what the game looked like: a rather boring match between two lower-league teams at a stage of the season when it doesn’t really matter what the result is.

Hang on. Now I think about it, 45 million is actually rather a lot of people, and perhaps my use of statistics is not quite Oxbridge School of Mathematics. Perhaps it would have been better to test the applicability of the de Bussy-Rabutin theory to football when England played Moldova last Friday. Their population is 3.6 million and they lost 4-nil, which would suggest England’s big squadrons got what they were due.

Though I suppose my point is not that England should win against ‘smaller’ football countries, even with a number of players out with injuries (do all teams not suffer from this?). Rather, it’s that I just wish they would play better football. Not better as in ‘doing a job,’ or ‘closing the game out,’ or ‘getting the away point,’ or whatever other cliche we can think of to explain away average play, but better as in better: keeping the ball, passing the ball, making the ball do the work and not the legs, and not getting all excited when we do have the ball and running just as fast we can up the wing because it’s all so exciting and, hey, dribbling the ball around a defender is much more effective than passing it around him, right.

Maybe I’m being picky? Maybe it’s harder than it looks and well-organised teams are difficult to break down no matter their population? Maybe it’s the same old conceit of assuming England should naturally be better than they are because it’s England and we invented the game? Or maybe not. Oxford Reference has a second entry on the topic of bigger being better. It says that Voltaire (1694–1778), another Frenchman, modified the saying somewhat to: ‘God is on the side not of the heavy battalions but of the best shots.’

Quite. Now, if we can just work on getting the ball up the pitch to get a shot on goal, we might just have a chance.