England manager Roy Hodgson wasted no time in tasting a familiarly flavoured defeat after taking over from Fabio Capello earlier this year. After a small clutch of friendlies, Hodgson went straight in at the deep end at UEFA Euro 2012. His pragmatic approach and one almighty effort against Sweden took England through as the winners of Group H, and a good swig of luck combined with Italian profligacy allowed them to fight the Azzurri over 120 goalless minutes. Then, though, the inevitable: England lost in yet another penalty shoot-out.
The penalties against Italy told us more than most similar tussles over the years. It was won not just by technique, or nerve, but also by a killer blow. Andrea Pirlo’s sumptuous chipped penalty knocked the stuffing out of England’s already doomed quest, introducing an element of strategy – albeit instinctively conceived in the brain of one opponent – into the quarter-final tiebreaker.
Whether or not it is truly possible to strategically manage a shoot-out, this is a system wrongly referred to as a lottery. In truth it is anything but, and England have singularly failed to master it. Hodgson has been frequently quoted over Christmas as saying that it is not impossible for England to win FIFA World Cup 2014. He’s right, of course – if the best team always won their competitions then football would be as pointless as it would be boring.
But for inferior teams to upset the odds they require nous, tactical intelligence and luck. In the case of a World Cup, they will also most likely need to hold a better team and then dispatch them on penalties, and this is not a route open to an England team whose record from the spot is now too consistent over a meaningful sample size to be an accident.
Hodgson’s also been addressing the penalties issue this week and he might just have cracked it. Frequent penalty shoot-out losers often lament the system rather than the players who fall foul of its tricky nature. They argue in favour of alternatives, but each seems just as fraught as the last. In my view, the penalty shoot-out offers a better resolution to a deadlocked match than the ice hockey equivalent, the North American Soccer League’s classic breaker, or any of the sudden death overtime proposals that have been mooted over the years.
The solution, then, seems to be to tidy up England’s rough edges. Hodgson recognises that there is no way to adequately recreate the pressure of a shoot-out, and that taking spot kicks in training (and even that hasn’t always been done) doesn’t even come close. In theory England have players with the technique to take a perfectly serviceable spot kick, so the problem is elsewhere.
The England manager’s proposed solution is that friendlies that end in a draw should be settled – upon pre-agreement with the opposition – by a penalty shoot-out. It’s a sound enough approach; by putting his players in the spotlight in front of a packed stadium is as close as it’s possible to get to the real thing. In combination with plenty of practice, there’s little more that can be done in the short- to medium-term to improve England’s prospects.
Long term, of course, it’s more important to focus on the continued improvement of English technical ability – the origin of a truly confident penalty.
England need all the help we can get. The team has now taken part in eight penalty shoot-outs, losing seven. Three of those defeats came in World Cup action: against West Germany in 1990, Argentina in 1998 and Portugal in 2006. Three were European Championships losses against Germany in 2006, Portugal in 2004 and Italy this past summer. The only success was on home soil against Spain at UEFA Euro ’96, and the outstanding loss came in Morocco against Belgium in 1998.
It’s a quite disgraceful record of failure, and Hodgson’s belief that England can win a World Cup almost certainly relies upon it ending, among other factors. Hodgson might just have a plan that takes us a step closer.
(Photo credit: Nathan F via Flickr)
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