Sunday night saw the termination of England’s participation in Euro 2012. Another major tournament has come and passed and England once again stumbled at the quarter-final stage. And once again they were eliminated on penalties. The general air of public acceptance at such an exit says much about the low expectation levels – a situation born by the FA’s decision to appoint a new coach, Roy Hodgson, only five weeks before the tournament’s first fixture. But an inspection of the pre-tournament FIFA rankings displayed England in a lofty sixth and only Spain, Germany and Holland – of the European countries – were perched above them.
What, then, went wrong? A simplification of the game of football produces the following chain of suppositions: to win a match (over 90 or 120 minutes)a team must score at least one goal, to score a goal a team must (generally) have an attempt at goal and to have an attempt at goal a team must be in possession of the football. It is to that final link that one turns in order to extrapolate England’s fundamental problem: keeping the ball. Hodgson, it seems, is a not a man to be too encumbered by statistics. But perhaps he needs to change. In the four matches that England played in Poland and Ukraine they held possession, on average, for 39% of the time that the ball was in play (Spain’s possession, in contrast, stood at 68% after the same stage).
Only Ireland (the tournament’s whipping-boys) and Greece (who hardly set the competition alight) had a lower proportion of possession. Andrea Pirlo, the Italian midfield player and England’s tormentor-in-chief, made more passes (115) in the quarter-final than Steven Gerrard, Scott Parker, Ashley Young and James Milner combined. From the same game a damning statistic quickly reared its ugly head. The pairing of Andy Carroll and Joe Hart completed more passes than any other combination of England players. The former was not introduced until the 60th minute and the latter, of course, is England’s goalkeeper. Essentially, bereft of idea, guile and craft, England became the longest of long ball teams, a tactic that, when compared to the fluidity of the Spanish approach or the vibrancy of the Germans, looks as archaic as an inside-left.
The paucity of England’s possession invited opposition teams to advance and the attempts to retrieve possession resulted in England’s players making more tackles (82) than any other team with Gerrard contributing 18. Another consequence saw England having to make more desperate blocks (29) – picture John Terry and Parker’s almost continual launching of their bodies into the path of oncoming shots – than any other team. In comparison, Spain have had to block only 5 shots and Portugal 8.
At the other end of the pitch, England averaged fewer shots on target per game (2.8) than all bar Greece, Ukraine and Ireland. Gerrard, rightly heralded as England’s supreme player over the four games , created six scoring chances. Mesut Ozil, Germany’s mercurial playmaker, created 18 chances in their four games. Despite that, England managed to find the back of the net on five occasions (but then so did Russia) a statistic that relies heavily on an excellent chance conversion ratio.
What is the way forward? Gerrard is 32 but has promised to play on as long as he continues to be selected. Terry and Ashley Cole are 31 and there should be no reason why they should not still be around come the 2014 World Cup in Brazil. Joe Hart and Wayne Rooney (although one hopes there are no pre-tournament trips to Las Vegas next time around) will be involved if fit.
Elsewhere, though, starting berths are up for grabs. Jack Wilshere needs to quickly re-establish himself at the heart of Arsenal’s midfield and much potential can be seen in players like Kyle Walker, Tom Cleverley, Phil Jones and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain. The technical deficiencies glaringly apparent in England’s players will not be improved in the short-term. The FA have recently enacted a root-and-branch overhaul of youth coaching and development with the introduction of smaller pitches, goals and team sizes for child participants.
The opening of St George’s Park National Football Centre in Burton-upon-Trent will equip those playing at the elite end of English football with all the facilities required. It may, though, be a decade or more before that revolution has any bearing on the output of the English national team. Patience and trust in the FA are required and, whilst it was once said that there were three kinds of lie: lies, damned lies and statistics, this time around, Roy, the statistics painted an alarming picture.