England’s exit from UEFA Euro 2012 at the quarter-final stage has been met with a curious mix of disappointment, despair and resignation, leaving national team supporters at something of a crossroads. It should be clear to everybody by now that English football, if it continues along its current trajectory, is incapable of producing a national team that will reach the last four of major tournaments regularly. Worse still, the progress made by other nations presents a far more concerning prospect: by standing still, England could easily go backwards.
It’s hard to be too critical of the players or the manager after losing on penalties to Italy. There was a gulf in class, that much was clear before kick-off. England were not good on the night, but they met their expectation for the tournament as a whole and were eventually beaten narrowly by a much better team. Italy are better, were better and will continue to be better until English football finds an identity whose sole objective is not to bend over and lube up for global television money.
England started brightly enough, save for Daniele de Rossi’s unorthodox volley that clattered against Joe Hart’s post. Andrea Pirlo and Riccardo Montolivo were kept relatively quiet and England showed plenty of intent going forward, regardless of the worrying shortage of quality when they did so. But apart from a decent 20 minutes in the early exchanges it was a difficult night for England. They did nothing of note in Italy’s half for the rest of the 90 minutes, reserving their most inventive move for stoppage time.
Extra time was no different and after 120 minutes it was quite remarkable that Italy hadn’t scored. But this wasn’t the making of Roy Hodgson’s defensive system, and it was no coming of age. The truth is that the strategy, faced with its hardest test to date, failed. England achieved their second clean sheet of Euro 2012 by luck rather than judgement, and Italy’s inability to finish off simple chances will be of great concern to Cesare Prandelli ahead of Italy’s semi-final against Germany, who won’t allow Italy anything like the possession they enjoyed against England.
The defending can be characterised as desperate or heroic depending on your outlook, but it wasn’t particularly good. The ability to block endless shots and make perfectly timed goal-saving tackles is an indicator of hard work and recovery skills, but for me it really isn’t the mark of an accomplished defender. John Terry was England’s best player against Italy in spite of this, while Joleon Lescott and Glen Johnson made big contributions at the back. In the face of relentless pressure England held firm; it was reducing that pressure that proved tricky.
The penalty shoot-out was a mere exercise in the inevitable. It started positively, with two brilliant spot kicks from Mario Balotelli and Gerrard getting the teams off to a flyer. England then took the advantage thanks to Riccardo Montolivo’s miss, but Pirlo was intent on playing the shoot-out like a clarinet. His Panenka penalty wasn’t just proof of the mastery of technique, but a hint at the psychological effect of such ballsiness. Ashley Young hit the crossbar and Ashley Cole’s week effort was easily saved by Gigi Buffon, allowing Alessandro Diamanti to finish England off.
The difference in quality between the two sides was summed up by England’s inability to deal with Pirlo without sacrificing a man – in my opinion, England were a full player short of being able to have a man everywhere that one was needed. In the first half Pirlo was quiet by comparison with the second half and extra time, with James Milner tucking in to pick up either Pirlo or Claudio Marchisio when required, with some support from one dropping striker or the other.
With Milner more central and Johnson helping his centre backs deal with a lively Balotelli and Antonio Cassano, Palermo’s Federico Balzaretti had the run of Italy’s left flank. He was not an especially potent threat but the fact that Italy always had an out-ball helped them keep possession with ease and ultimately exhausted England, in turn freeing up Pirlo to shape the second half exactly as he pleased.
England are a long distance short of the best five or six teams in Europe. On their day they can stifle them and nick a win, but by and large there’s a huge difference between England fighting tooth and nail to get to the quarter-finals and the calm, assured manner in which the better sides work their way through each game and through the tournament. Possession isn’t the most important factor in football, but when its absence is combined with poor usage and a total lack of invention, the big games are only ever going to go one way.
Having said all that it’s worth pointing out that England’s approach to this tournament was essentially nothing other than pragmatic, and fairly predictable given England’s recent successes with a defensive style and the circus of Fabio Capello’s resignation and Hodgson’s late appointment. It was only ever going to get us so far, and in fairness it did just that – Hodgson achieved much in the circumstances. The future is more important and Hodgson’s and the Football Association’s next moves will be the clues as to which way England will go.
The Guardian‘s Barney Ronay argues that the low expectations coupled with England’s hard work have gone some way to restoring the supporters’ faith in the national team:
“There will be many regrets at what might have been after the resilient, disciplined and very occasionally exuberant victories against Sweden and Ukraine. But then, this has turned out to be an unexpectedly heartening tournament for England fans generally, fortified in advance by the widespread rock-bottom expectations of a team stitched together in record time and depleted of key players by the usual roster of twangs and sprains and twists.”
In The Telegraph, Duncan White echoes that sentiment. For England, this tournament wasn’t about winning silverware but about making the first step towards rebuilding the team’s domestic reputation:
“All that was needed was for Hodgson to show that the players believed in him, that he could begin to restore the hunger and humility that they had lost. In that [Hodgson] has exceeded expectations.”
White’s colleague Henry Winter saved special praise for Pirlo, the new scourge of England:
“Italy deserved to progress to a Euro 2012 semi-final with Germany in Warsaw on Thursday. Some of Pirlo’s passing was sumptuous; he guided the ball around England’s half as if using satnav. He cherished the ball’s company whereas England, following a deceptively promising start, continued to surrender it cheaply.”
Whatever the ins and outs, England are out of Euro 2012 and the players are heading home. No scandal, no disgrace, no disaster – just a reality check that we desperately need to be acknowledged and acted upon.