Monday 22 January 2018

Forget chimps, chumps and scapegoats – England just aren't good enough

A dejected Wayne Rooney leaves the pitch after England's defeat against Uruguay. Photo: Mike Egerton/PA Wire
A dejected Wayne Rooney leaves the pitch after England's defeat against Uruguay. Photo: Mike Egerton/PA Wire
Vincent Hogan

Vincent Hogan

There comes a point in every English World Cup experience where grief gets over-run by outrage and the search begins for scapegoats.

In Brazil, all the old sins are being committed again. Covered by a sensationalist media and supported by unrealistic fans, the national team – weary after a long season – becomes a kind of gruesome entertainment as normally resolute players suddenly struggle with the concentration issues of deer being led into a snakepit.

The most obvious thing about England in Sao Paulo on Thursday night was the fear in their play.

This wasn't meant to happen, given the almost triumphal focus placed on Dr Steve Peters' involvement with the squad. Peters is the psychiatrist credited with transforming Britain's Olympic cyclists as well as snooker player Ronnie O'Sullivan and – most recently – Steven Gerrard and his colleagues at Liverpool.

The key to his work is teaching sports people to avoid sabotaging events through their emotions.

He has written a book, 'The Chimp Paradox', in which he likens that irrational, emotional side of a human personality to a chimp. His talent is, apparently, to teach people how to control that chimp and – thus – pare performance down to an entirely logical process.

Now it should be said that losing doesn't automatically reflect mental weakness, but England did look a team coursed by all the traditional worries against Uruguay.


True, lost in the relentless churn of recrimination was the fact that Diego Godin should have been sent off in the first half and that, had a Wayne Rooney header been six inches lower, the outcome might easily have been reversed.

But you couldn't help wonder if England might have neglected some small detail in their preparation for Luis Suarez.

The focus on psychology in an England camp appears to have become all-consuming in response to the nation's famously impoverished history in penalty shoot-outs. In '98, Glenn Hoddle memorably even introduced a faith healer to help the confidence of his players.

Eileen Drewery liked to begin an individual consultation by placing her hands on a player's head. When she did this with Ray Parlour, he is said to have responded: "Short, back and sides, Eileen, if you please!"

Professional footballers can be a difficult audience.

But the truth is that England, generally, have been evicted from big tournaments by nothing more complex than the rotten luck of coming up against better teams.

Since the late Bobby Robson took them to the semi-finals at Italia 90 (where, remember, 'The Sun' greeted their opening 1-1 draw against Ireland in Cagliari with the headline 'Send Them Home'), they failed to qualify for the World Cup of '94 and Euro finals of '08.

In the nine major tournaments they did reach, England failed to escape their group in two, lost last-16 games to Argentina ('98) and Germany ('10), quarter-finals to Brazil ('02), Portugal ('04), Portugal again ('06) and Italy ('12) and, of course, a Euro semi-final as hosts to Germany in '96.

Consider the identities of those executioners. They scarcely fit the profile of street muggers, do they?

This time Italy and Uruguay, both above England in the FIFA rankings incidentally, have bloodied their noses in Brazil.

Why? Because both probably just had that little bit more in the locker and because no end of psychiatry can give a centre-back the hair-trigger reflexes to curb a superstar like Suarez.

You can start every day of your life with a devotional reading from 'The Chimp Paradox', but it won't make you quicker. It won't arm you with a better touch.

There is a suspicion too that, in trying to be bold, Roy Hodgson succeeded only in becoming tactically incoherent.

His history in the game is of an innately cautious man. He was manager of Inter Milan in '95 when the club signed the flamboyantly attack-minded Brazilian, Roberto Carlos.

Hodgson, reputedly, forbade Carlos from crossing the halfway line and, one year later, he was sold to Real Madrid at a substantial loss.

More recently, Hodgson's time at Liverpool was franked by a conservatism and blandness of expression that, swiftly, made the job seem too big for him.

When asked about reported Manchester United interest in Fernando Torres, he incensed Anfield supporters with his assertion that "big clubs" would always be interested in a special talent.

Hodgson is a palpably decent man who just seems to lack the savvy, maybe the cynicism even, to thrive in a cut-throat world.

He was lauded for his team selection against Italy and England did, undoubtedly, produce some encouraging football in Manaus. Yet, the formation lacked tactical clarity, so much so that Andrea Pirlo – the Italian's marquee player – scarcely encountered an English tackler in 90 minutes.

Gerrard thrived at Liverpool this season by playing directly in front of his back four. Ahead of him, Brendan Rodgers' preferred selection was an inter-changeable three equipped with the energy to go box-to-box all day.

Once Raheem Sterling, Jordan Henderson and Philipe Coutinho came to understand the tactical requirements of Rodgers' 'diamond', Liverpool could create the optical illusion of never leaving space between the lines.

Hodgson picked five Liverpool players against both Italy and Uruguay, but they were operating within a garbled interpretation of the Rodgers blueprint.

Gerrard has never been a conventional central midfielder, equipped to anchor the position in a two-man structure. Yet, against Italy, he was asked to do that in a team squeezing the likes of Wayne Rooney and Danny Welbeck into wide roles they were ill-suited to. Against Uruguay, Rooney was restored to the No 10 position but, tactically, Welbeck again looked hopelessly confused.

Rodgers got the system to work for Liverpool because he had the time. I was at Anfield the day they drew 2-2 with Aston Villa in January and Gerrard's first-half display suggested he'd been given his instructions in Latin.

It took weeks and weeks of coaching to get the system and Hodgson never had the luxury of such time.

Yet, England responds to defeat as if civilisation teeters on the brink again. They will probably sign off by beating Costa Rica in Belo Horizonte on Tuesday, then come home to another small eternity spent cursing the infirmities of that inner chimp.

When the truth may be so much plainer.

Irish Independent

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