Monday 17 June 2019

The one area where England failed - and it filters down to Ireland

Croatia’s Luka Modric called the shots in midfield as Jordan Henderson was as close to a ball-playing midfielder that England could find Photo: Fred Lee/Getty Images
Croatia’s Luka Modric called the shots in midfield as Jordan Henderson was as close to a ball-playing midfielder that England could find Photo: Fred Lee/Getty Images
Daniel McDonnell

Daniel McDonnell

As the dust settles on the World Cup, we can say rest in peace to one line of thinking. England's progress to the final four means this is the first competition in recent memory that has not been accompanied by discussions about the need for a Premier League winter break.

That theory for Three Lions failure was always a dubious one, especially when big tournaments were being claimed by countries whose players were employed at England's highest level. Fatigue was a textbook entry from the big book of excuses.

We have since learned that the golden generation were just sick of being around each other. And if they were tired, well, that's a consequence of chasing around after the team that has the ball. The perennial problem.

They have corrected issues of spirit now, but that wasn't enough to bring them across the line in Russia. England may be the home of some of the world's best footballers, but the natives have yet to master the style that really delivers at this level.

In the aftermath of every major tournament there is a search for an explanation for the winners' success.

France's second World Cup victory is described as another success for a big country with the financial power to develop talent, a follow on from Spain and Germany triumphs of 2010 and 2014.


Granted, Spain and Germany still have the same resources and performed brutally this time around, so the guaranteed success theory is somewhat flawed when a team like Croatia can outperform them.

There is an obvious logic behind it, though, as the countries with developed football structures and a substantial population are always going to loiter at the business end of the competition.

With the money circulating around the upper echelons of English football, the 1966 World Cup winners really should be competing with the elite at each tournament and success at underage level would suggest they are creeping closer.

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There remains a missing piece of the puzzle, and it filters down from England to their neighbours, including Ireland.

It wasn't a football song that laid the foundations for their downfall, much as Croatia did appear to find strength from the desire to silence dismissive pundits and shut down the 'Football's Coming Home' bandwagon.

What England was missing was a proper on-the-field conductor who could keep them in tune.

Croatia were able to draw upon supreme midfield talents that stepped up when it mattered most.

Granted, they might have lost penalty shootouts to either Denmark or Russia to render that theory somewhat obsolete, but from half-time against England to half-time on Sunday, Luka Modric and Ivan Rakitic (below) - with the help of Serie A pair Ivan Perisic and Marcelo Brozovic - pulled the strings and ran the show.

The midfielder helped end England’s hopes in Wednesday’s semi-final (Owen Humphreys/PA)

Belgium also managed to stay in control for lengthy spells against the French before the machine eventually broke them down and then effectively saw the game out.

In the two half-hearted matches against Belgium, it was still obvious that England didn't have the nous to open them up.

France showed that teams can prevail without the ball, but the caveat is that extraordinary levels of pace and power aligned with a sturdy defensive organisation are required to make that work.

England were direct rather than defensive, but lacked a world-class talent such as Kylian Mbappe or a spine made up of top quality players such as Paul Pogba and N'Golo Kante - forget his final meltdown for a minute - and a well matched centre-half pair in Raphael Varane and Samuel Umtiti.

Varane is superior to John Stones. Gareth Southgate does not have a midfielder in his ranks who could have replicated Pogba's contribution to the decisive third goal on Sunday, the stunning 60-yard volleyed pass that was followed by a sprint to the area to curl home the decisive strike.

On the eve of the Croatia game, the England boss hailed Jordan Henderson's range of passing but he was replaced in extra-time as Modric and Rakitic called the shots in the middle of the pitch.

It can be harsh to pick on Henderson when he is effectively the best they've got. Ruben Loftus-Cheek has potential, but they didn't exactly leave a ball-playing footballer with the ability to dictate tempo at home. Jack Wilshere and Jonjo Shelvey were the only omissions of note in that area.

Granted, France actually called on former-Stoke City man Steven Nzonzi to dig them out of a hole in the final, but he gave the platform for Pogba to go and play.

France played within themselves at times, but they did have a strategy; they were the best counter attacking side in the tournament and had the athleticism to make it work.

Croatia and Belgium were the most effective when it came to maintaining possession. England fell somewhere between the two; convinced they were better at both aspects of the game than was actually the case.

This is relevant to Ireland, given that our football culture is intertwined with England's.

We are accustomed to a gameplan built around other teams having the ball, but lack the players with the pace and quality to break out and hurt sides on the counter.

Irish teams struggle to keep control of the ball for long periods, so they also fall between the two stools. They get found out and they end up inviting pressure and depending on brave defending.

Against Croatia, Denmark looked like a one-dimensional unimaginative outfit. But against Ireland, Christian Eriksen was capable of running the show. There's a food chain when it comes to personnel that can really influence games.

Wales actually played better football than England on their way to the semis-finals of Euro 2016 but they did have Gareth Bale and a much-maligned pair - Joe Allen and Aaron Ramsey - who are actually quite suited to the rhythms of the international sphere.

Smaller nations need to be more imaginative and construct plans that can bring them further into tournaments. Sweden are probably the best example of that in Russia, but they were overawed by an English side that had better individuals and sharper application.

That could only bring them so far, however, as they moved another notch up the ladder.

Old school English and Irish grit can still bring teams to a tournament but, without a sprinkle of midfield stardust, it isn't good enough to keep them there.

Irish Independent

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