Published on June 26th, 2012 | by Isaac Leigh1
Euro 2012: Limits of English Discipline & Organisation Laid Bare
By the end of a gruelling, goalless extra-time period, England’s Euro 2012 quarter-final against Italy had been reduced to a particularly intense encounter of attack v defence. As Andrea Pirlo, Juventus’ majestic 33-year-old playmaker, continued to caress the ball with impudence for the Italians, England were reduced to the occasional interception followed by a wild hack towards unchallenged Italian defenders. As admirable as the discipline and organisation inculcated by Roy Hodgson might be, it is simply exposed as archaic when juxtaposed with the finesse and guile of sophisticated opponents; judging by last night, England have a long way to go to match Italy, let alone Spain or Germany.
Let us first acknowledge that a quarter-final exit on penalties is no disgrace for an England side shorn of star quality: indeed, Hodgson has embellished his reputation by working with such rapidity to restore pride in the England shirt, and to provide such clarity on the way he wanted the side to perform at the tournament. Additionally, John Terry’s performance last night justified Hodgson’s decision to pick the disgraced former captain for “football reasons”: the Chelsea centre-back was titanic in nullifying Mario Balotelli to the best of his ability. Similarly, Steven Gerrard and Scott Parker exuded industry and diligence in desperately trying to suppress Pirlo, while Ashley Cole turned in yet another belligerent display, despite an alarming lack of support from the hugely disappointing Ashley Young. Yet whilst Cesare Prandelli and his victorious Italians will respectfully nod towards their opponents’ defiance, they will rightly laud the triumph of skill over sweat.
It was saddening to see a glorious attacking influence like Gerrard reduced to desperate scampering about Pirlo’s heels. Watching Wayne Rooney, heralded as the ‘world-class’ talent to imbue the side with sparkle and creativity, run out of steam while Ignazio Abate hurtled irrepressibly down Italy’s right flank, was painful. Hodgson will rightly remind us that England did not lose a single game at Euro 2012; difficult match-ups with Sweden and Ukraine were eventually negotiated, while more technically gifted opponents such as France and Italy failed to prevail in open play. However, that the steadfast resilience of Terry et al was ultimately rendered fatuous by Italy’s utter dominance indicates that plotting the route to the top does not lie in passivity, but in taking care of the ball; monopolising possession and making it count.
The breathtaking audacity of Danny Welbeck’s winning goal against Sweden in the group stage nods to the presence of untapped improvisation in the English game. Theo Walcott’s cameo against the same opponents shows his propensity for changing games with his energy and pace. The likes of Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Kyle Walker and the much-missed Jack Wilshere are all intelligent footballers even at their tender age, and must be ushered in for the World Cup qualifying campaign ahead of Brazil 2014 . All of these players have the capability to terrorise and dominate opponents, revolutionising the defensive, passive principles brought in by Hodgson for the Euro 2012 tournament.
Of course, with a squad lacking depth and decimated by injury, Hodgson was right to mould his side in the way he did for the tournament in question: it is easier to organise a team defensively in the six weeks he was given rather than attempt to revolutionise the inherent principles of English football. However, the widespread satisfaction with reaching the quarter-finals is dangerously interlinked with an acceptance of actively deferring to the likes of Italy. The discipline and organisation of the England side at Euro 2012 must not become the automatic template for the Brazil World Cup 2014 qualifying campaign. It should be used as an opportunity to unleash and unite the potentially devastating attacking talents of Oxlade-Chamberlain, Sturridge, Welbeck, Wilshere and Walcott.
Another danger is that the excellence of Terry and Gerrard at Euro 2012 precipitates a continued reliance upon the “old guard” of English football. Watching Terry in particular hurl himself in front of Italian and French artistes negated any doubt of their passion and commitment to their country; the pinpoint deliveries and indomitable spirit of Gerrard spoke volumes of his leadership. However, both creaked during the regular season, and their reputations must not be allowed to impede the likes of Phil Jones and Wilshere. Much like Chelsea’s Champions League campaign, England’s necessary reliance upon ageing idols must not become a nostalgic pursuit of their fulfilment; the future must be ushered in as soon as possible.
For all England’s defiance, organisation and stoicism, it would be dangerous to allow this tournament to set the tone for the reign of Hodgson. While organisation and discipline are pivotal qualities at international level, they are rendered subservient when matched against the very best. Hodgson and the public must not lull themselves into a false sense of security in deference; pace, vibrancy and attacking football must be prioritised as England seek to shape yet another new future.