Sunday, 22 June 2014

Gerrard's Sad Face (first 12)

Fine Margins, that's all; England genuflects & Roy gets Woyed by the papers but... Be at least close to the facts...

1) a couple of individual errors really cost us and seems to demean England's defence but there's been a million defensive errors throughout the tournament; it's what's made it so exciting.

2) this is nowhere near as dispiriting an exit as that debacle in the group stages last year... We were abject until the German game (and by then we were merely mediocre to bad).

3) the formation tweak to accommodate sad Rooney didn't work and Roy knew it wouldn't; Scholes was right, Roy's chief error was in not feeling he could drop Rooney. No balls. He might still be our most talented player but it was obvious that he didn't fit with this group of players (a bit like Nasri and France, I suspect); he should have been left out, come on as impact sub. Roy knew it but couldn't know it.

4) a similar scenario with Gerrard; he should have been subbed in both games. He wasn't playing well and should be allowed to. It happens; it doesn't mean the end of the world to substitute the captain. It's not as symbolic as it seems.

5) the real tragedy is that there are no spectacular teams in is World Cup. This is like the Championship; every team more or less less can beat every team. And teams win, not collections of players.

6) Substitutions win too; we have been terrible at substitutions since 1986. We should practice substitutions for Euro 2016.

7) This is an exemplar of globalisation; no country has enough players of the right age and the right ability. They all look shocked to find that out.

8) Italy and Uruguay are both very ordinary. Uruguay has Suarez (and possibly Cavani) who is extraordinary. We don't have anyone extraordinary but we still had more better than average players than most of the teams. This doesn't seem to do us any good. Can't see many Uruguayans or Italians being first choice for England and yet...

9) Where did Baines go?

10) Germany looked good for a while but Portugal look terrible. Ronaldo seems to finally bow to Messi, who shows that a very average team can be elevated. To be fair, he's been fairly terrible too... Dribbling into dead ends timelessly... But... Yes

11) Oh and there's no one quite like Riquelme.

12) You must feel for Barkley and Lallana; getting a game when England are already full of madness, when the blood is already boiling, when their unusual bursts of energy are a sufferance rather than a way of crushing an opponent. That isn't the way to play them; they should have been given a formation around them. As should Stirling. As should Matthew Le Tissier.

Saturday, 14 June 2014

a perfect 10?

If Raheem Sterling is starting in the No. 10 role for England tonight – behind Sturridge in the middle of the attacking three – then that is a startlingly bold move coming from Roy Hodgson. It's one I would never have predicted given his immediate attempt on starting the job to impose the workmanlike, safety-first 4-4-2 that he'd played throughout his career.

Hodgson has already seen Sterling audition for the role in the Premier League with Liverpool – the credit for imagining Sterling as a 10 in the first place has to go to Brendan Rodgers. In pure footballing terms, it makes obvious sense: Sterling is skilful, fast, incredibly hard to dispossess (especially given his size), tactically and positionally intelligent, and while not purely two-footed when the ball comes into him defenders have to stop for a fraction of a second because he's capable of spinning off them either left or right. He's also amazingly cold-blooded for his age: just think of that goal against Man City, putting his foot on the ball and waiting for Kompany and Hart to slide out of his way.

But I was still surprised when I first saw Sterling at the tip of Liverpool's midfield diamond, because he's the kind of player that 99% of the time in British football gets put wide early on in their career and stays there: fast, tricky, good finisher. And black.

Maybe there isn't latent stereotyping at work in football, maybe creative black players are trusted as central playmaker all the time. Maybe I'm missing someone and Sterling isn't the first black No 10 to play for England? (NB John Barnes was shunted left or up front).

I hope he plays as he does for Liverpool – at least reminds Pirlo that he's thirty-five. Sterling will be in a different system to Liverpool against Italy, with two (not three) midfielders behind him, and one (not two) strikers moving ahead of him, creating space and options. But however he plays there is something quietly seismic here: Wayne Rooney pushed left so Sterling can debut in this role in England's first World Cup group game. Rooney's been lined up for this role in behind Sturridge for months. No-one in the press will miss that. Will they notice the other ground he's breaking? Hopefully, and maybe the coaching profession will too.

New Labours

Well, Mark got there first but there's going to be lots written about the Spain vs Netherlands match. It may all come to nothing (it won't) but it certainly felt like an end of an era, even if it's quite hard to settle on exactly what the era was. Tiki-taka ended sometime around Guardiola moving on from Barcelona but the end was coming even before then, when the Italians played Spain in their first match at the Euros. The 4 - 0 in the final was a false number nine for Spain, and more of a freak result than people understood at the time. In the earlier game Italy simply refused Spain's a priori superiority & found no logical incoherence; turns out that that little pass & move game was not beyond everyone else, was dully simple, was just a tactic after all. The spell broken, Italy retained less possession but did so with a swagger.

A few people must have taken notice. Italy weren't all that formidable going forward and so, ultimately, didn't have the firepower required to endure but it was obvious in the 1 - 1 draw that teams with a decent level of proficiency at simple triangles plus some lethal and quick strikers could, in theory, take Spain apart.

Here then, in the experimental cauldron of Brazil, was a time to test the theory.

The Netherlands had van Persie and, especially, Robben, who looks more and more like Phil Mitchell on methedrine but seems quicker than ever; Spain seemed to go backwards in time as he swept past them, you could swear Ramos was hallucinating Franco as he got sucked into that Robben vortex. The Netherlands seemed to win by virtue of winning almost all the, as my Dad would say, "Billy Basic" running races on the pitch. They wanted it more, they had more to give. Spain are skilful but they never saw it coming, especially because I don't think even the Dutch remembered what part they had to play until van Persie's surely symbolic salmon leap to head the equaliser. A good time to score?

In fact, the well played long ball had already featured throughout the Mexico vs Cameroon game, when Mexico simply negated the power of the Cameroon midfield by spraying it diagonally above their heads to smaller, faster wingers. This isn't Allardyce-like physicality creeping into the World Cup; it's a variation of the Bob Paisely anthem: "Its not about the long ball or the short ball, its about the right ball." A simple, self-evident mantra, seemingly rendered obsolete by the Spanish at their prime and now seemingly back with a vengeance via an exemplary Dutch annihilation. What was especially significant is that you felt that more than a few commentators, entranced by the Spanish method, had already written off their 3 - 0 defeat by Brazil as a kind of (inevitable) glitch in the system, a moment of chaos before the return to robotic stability.

But this game was different. This defeat was more like the defeat of New Labour, when eyes suddenly opened and saw the real behind the language and (importantly) felt shame and embarrassment at never having seen it before. When the Left shook Labour as it has become (Miliband surely cannot survive holding The Sun) and heard just a death rattle of capitalism, they understood that the battle was always lost, that the dawn was always false, that this wasn't anything like it seemed to be. New Labour passwords like "Education education education" used simple truths against us, like spells, like short passes, to make us think we were seeing something new and dangerous and left-leaning and familial and homely i.e. something impossible. We knew we couldn't be seeing these things but, for a while, we lived in that dream, failing to notice the monsters of capital being wrapped in layers of targets (even that seems a homely word) and bureaucratic filth. This was National Socialism with all the necessary fetishes that went along with it and, thankfully, less of the outright racism.

Spain wilting like that, under skilfully worked but fairly simplistic Dutch intensity, felt like a rupture in football and it wasn't just the Dutch that ripped Spain apart - all of the first few games have been fought in a kind of anti-Spain tirade of direct, fast, attacking football. It was like everyone was trying to send Spain a message: we no longer believe. Caution has been winded, precision is there in parts (in shots, headers, well-played passes and well-timed runs) but it is no longer an exemplar; teams seem to have finally shrugged and thought that wars can be fought on all kinds of fronts. Even Australia's much abused get-it-on-cahill's-head approach almost worked for the them. I'll bet Zizek's rearranging the words "Spain", "tiki-taka", "The Big Other" as I write...

That 1 - 5* is so significant because maybe everyone is waking up at the same time...

*Of course, I can remember a seemingly significant 1 - 5 at the start of the 21st Century that sadly came to nothing but this just isn't the time...

'The Manner of the Defeat'

Anyone who has read my previous posts here can easily imagine my response to the Dutch demolition of Spain last night. As the TV commentary team kept repeating, more important than the fact of defeat was the manner of the defeat.  I think they meant the quantity of goals - but equally significant was their quality. The buccaneering directness of the Dutch style made for an exhilarating contrast with tiki-taka. If this really is the end of an era, what a way for it to go.

Even during the relatively even first half, there was something different about the match than the typical tiki-taka game. The tension without drama that has characterised most of the matches involving Spain in recent tournaments was entirely absent.  In tiki-taka, goals were excreted rarely and painfully, as if issuing from a constipated bowel. Spain sucked the life out of their opponents (and the game) like a large snake consuming its prey: the outcome was never in any doubt, but the actual killer moments were slow in coming. For the most part, Spain would win by one goal, often the only goal of the game. But last night, instead of being clogged in an endless midfield without a point, the game was open, unpredictable, moving quickly from goalmouth to goalmouth.

The presence of Diego Costa seemed to fatally destabilise the Spanish team. With Costa up front, the  temptation to pass quickly and directly appeared irresistible, undermining the infernal patience necessary for tiki-taka discipline. It has long seemed that tiki-taka Spain can only operate properly with an ineffective centre forward, as if the sacrifice of one player was the price paid for success. This can be the only reason for the otherwise inexplicable introduction of Torres, someone who looks like he's played with shackles on his legs for club and country for years now, when things started to wrong. But by then it was too late; the game had opened up, the goals had been scored, and Torres' only contribution was to fluff an easy chance.

As to the Dutch, they were the very antithesis of tiki-taka. This is a team based around getting the ball up to strikers very quickly. Van Persie's first goal typified this - reminding us, after the short-passing miserliness of tiki-taka, that there can be a beauty and an elegance to the long ball. Arjen Robben, meanwhile, is the very essence of directness. There is something about Robben that makes him hard to love, but last night he showed all the sleek remorselessness of the T-1000 in Terminator II. Robben played like a machine programmed to score - devoid of doubt, ruthless, unstoppable. For those of us who have endured rather than enjoyed Spain's domination, it was hard not to take a sadistic glee in seeing goal after goal going in. The deluge felt like payback for all those hours of football stripped of excitement and goals.

Wednesday, 27 June 2012

The Golden Years (Andrea Pirlo's One Man War Against Information Overload)

Even before he dished out a supremely understated lesson in how to deconstruct  a vaguely spirited yet laughably ill equipped England side last Sunday night, watching Andrea Pirlo – the concept as much as the man, the spectacle as much as the footballer – was already my personal highlight of Euro 2012 so far.

No one should need to qualify such a statement. This is a man, after all, whose almost foppish physical nonchalance is complemented by what seems like a cybernetically inclined ability to initiate attacks from his own half, the kind of player who imbues the fundamental simplicity of football as form with an aching beauty. Much has been made of England's bizarre inability to quickly close down and pressurize a thirty three year old deep lying playmaker who, despite the renowned majesty of his technique, has never been blessed with the most scintillating pace. Any pace at all, actually. We should have shut him down. We should have pressed higher up the pitch, packed the midfield, marked the potential recipients of those arcing, crystalline passes out of the game. Of course, any or all of these analyses are fundamentally wrongheaded, tacitly peddling, as they do, the flawed logic that Pirlo is a player who exists as a product of contemporaneity.

Lets get this straight: Pirlo looks as if he could rock up to a party in pastel slacks and loafers without socks and not look like a cunt. In my minds eye, he's the footballing equivalent of what those hypnagogic dullards are failing to capture, a manifestation of, simpler, intangible, scarier times in another world that never actually existed. His very presence amongst the dispiriting bipolarity of modern footballing avarice, from the sexless, defeatist realism of Laurent Blanc's cowardly tactical implosion against Spain to the World and European champions oddly dissociated robo-posession-paranoia, Pirlo is a sort of one man reclamation mission, like some dimension hopping spook charged by Calcio's equivalent of John Connor to travel back in time and battle against all the odds to stymie the inexorable rise of the machines.

He's pure fantasy, is Pirlo. He is, essentially, unreal. This might be a generational thing on my part. I'm one of the last of our kind who will remember what life was like before all the digitalized hyperinfo, before the acute consumption anxieties fostered by large scale cultural dematerialization. You have no idea how obsessed with this actuality I am. I'm often crippled by it, rendered anhedonic for hours on end, pressing refresh with the same mixture of perverse relish and apocalyptic fear that grips the adherents of Opus Dei as they flagellate the absolute fuck out of themselves for the big man upstairs. At least those that come after us can bathe in the excusable ignorance of their arbitrary birth dates, while those who came before us were able to live out their wildest years with something approaching an organic sense of temporality. If you thought time flew then, imagine what happens to a persons sense of self when, having had just over a decade to adjust to the then prevalent speed at which culture is produced and disseminated, corporate communication technology smashes every one of those preconceptions to pieces amidst the onset of the cyber-steam age. And you end up so completely free, so utterly unburdened that you come out the other side incalculably panic-stricken, terrified that you will end your days without having been able to consume all this shit, all of which sounds incredible.

You will die.

You won't hear/read/see it all.

So, instead, you patch together curious fictions from the data rubble, junkyard excavations of inner space that eventually arrive at a kind of constantly fragmenting, transitory mode of radical culture, one that encompasses the actually pretty bloody Deluzian maximalism of, say, Rustie as much as it did the self publishing CD-R and cassette boom of the 2000's. Which is paradoxical, really. The hand crafted, individually numbered totems that spewed out of Vermont and Detroit, Glasgow and Newcastle and a million other outposts of that free folk/noise nexus thing were meant to be a bulwark against dematerialization. Most of these groups still despise the download culture. But the fact remains that the majority of their admirers, whether through laziness, economic hardship or opposition to the notion of intellectual property and subcultural product as artefact, did download their stuff. This dichotomy was hardwired into the very ethos of these groups though, folk like Sunburned Hand Of The Man or early Charalambides, to name but two ostensibly pretty divergent examples. In bypassing the traditional clidhes of the clapped out MOJO humping linearity of musical history and repositioning figures from the margins of mainstream culture (John Fahey and Albert Ayler and Harry Smith in particular) as transformative reference points, they had been prefiguring the collapse of conventional material temporality that the advent of web 2.0, like some gauche, steroid loaded nutjob took a blowtorch to. No one escapes this shit. Not really. We are attempting to map entirely unnanvigated virtual terrain and anyone who reckons they know what's really happening is a straight up fucking snake oil salesman. So we create our own fictions, we recalibrate our own backstories and try and grasp at something vaguely profound pre-sleep. 

 Sorry. This is meant to be about Andrea Pirlo. And it honestly still is. 

There he is right now, pootering around somewhere between the empirical psyches and collective unconsciousness of a the pre/post internet generation. Probably in a Ferrari Daytona. And I know how he fits into my particular fictionalized backstory, why watching him spray a football about still seems important to me. The first game that I can actually remember attending is now a veritable historic curiosity in itself. It was the tale end of the 1992/93 season and the first match in which me and Dad were ensconced in the Platt Lane “Family Stand” of Maine Road, as opposed to the womblike, piss encrusted and utterly threatening environs of The Kippax. Manchester City and Wimbledon played out a harrowingly functional, meaningless end of season 1-1 draw, with Rick Holden scuffing one in off his baws' for us at the death. This might have been the inaugural season of the Premier League, but English football for your average bottom to mid table top flight side was still fundamentally agricultural in its execution, a percentage game of risk minimization and based around a defiantly uncontinental predeliction for attrition that was a pretty accurate reflection of the rampant xenophobia that still riddled the old terraces. Maine Road itself was perhaps the most endearing, beautiful shithole that I have ever laid eyes on. A bizarre melange of several architectural failures, somehow pasted together by deluded chairman Peter Swales inbetween televised, proto-Brentian carcrashes, we were knee deep in a Moss Side, engulfed in the immediate aftermath of one of the worst periods of gang warfare Britain has ever seen, my overwhelming memories of my early years as a City supporter tend to manifest themselves nasally: horse shit, flat lager, soggy chips and piss (always piss). 

This was the footballing culture that I had been born into. Everything was falling apart, rackety as fuck. Nothing had been painted for time. Remember that shit about temporality and cassettes and that, that stuff I was banging on about before? Well this is a bit like that. Its hard to explain to anyone born after 1990 quite how intertwined football and class still were – or at least felt – back then. As football supporters, we were still licking our wounds from the last round of top-down class war executed by the state against the post-industrial regions, of which football had formed an integral battleground. English football could barely be described as an industry when Hillsborough struck. Sure, some clubs made money, some made rather a lot of money, but 96 people might have had a chance of coming home that day if football supporter wasn't just another euphemism for how much economic leverage a person had, for whether or not they were to be herded like disposable cattle into plainly unsafe environments and (un)policed to their deaths. We sure as fuck werent “consumers” then. No one went to any great lengths to ensure that our “match day experience” was enhanced. In this light, its perhaps easier to understand why the majority of less glamorous English clubs retreated into the stultifying comfort of the long ball game, the big fat anti-corporate fuck you kick-and-rush reflex still practiced today – albeit with genuine sports science and gluttonous pro-zone analysis - with admirable gumption by the likes of Tony Pulis and Sam Allardyce. 

(Sorry. This is definitely about Andrea Pirlo. I promise) 

Into this sporting equivalent of national class based self harm blazed Channel 4's Gazzetta Football Italia in 1992, followed two years later by the first truly post-Fordist World Cup: USA 94. The latter, often derided by the purists, was the first World Cup that I can remember with any vividness. The outrageously bright transatlantic satellite feeds forever rendering the genius of Georghi Hagi and Hristo Stoichkov, the Cracked Actor era Maradonna gurn and the pathalogically pugnacious tight-spot squirm of Romario into scintillating memory bank keepers. But above all I remember Franco Baresi and Roberto Baggio. The all consuming totality of the twin tragedy at the heart of the Azzuri's penalty kicks capitulation to the most functional Brazil side in living memory remains a blight on my youth. Even at such a tender age, and possibly because of my upbringing as a fourth generation football supporter, I was, and remain, obsessed by the concept of masculinity. I'm unhealthily attracted to artistic depictions of men whose presuppositions and hopes are collapsing all around them, from Bigwig in Watership Down to the new Bill Orcutt record. Just one of those things I guess. Baresi's insanely heroic performance in the final and his complete emotional implosion as the ultimate prize gradually slipped away from the finest defender of his generation probably sealed the deal on this lifelong obsession. 

Keith Morris of Black Flag and the Circle Jerks once described his first encounter with punk rock as “like a fucking comet hitting the planet... I had never heard or seen anything like it”, which neatly sums up the insanely exotic allure of one game and one highlights package a week streamed straight into our living rooms from a country that could then quite comfortably claim to have the best league in the world. In 1993 Gazzetta Football Italia seemed like sci-fi. Having been served up the turgid dunderheadedness of a Fitzroy Simpson, Mike Quigley and Andy Dibble for the previous years of my existence, this was an otherworldly addition to my usual Sunday evening itinerary. There was something different about the Italian game, something so much more profound and expressive than what our season ticket treated us to on a weekly basis. At least thats how it seemed back then. Everything feels monumental when you're 8 years old. Even the minor teams, the Padova's, Reggiana's and Chievo's of this world, seemed to have a playmaker. Someone who could make time for himself on the ball. Someone who didn't shirk under pressure. Someone who slowed the game down. Someone patient.

Someone exactly like Andrea Pirlo, then. The possibility of witnessing the birth of a future mythology in real time is one of the few elements of unpredictability in modern football that international tournaments serve to enhance. My aforementioned preoccupations with the inherent tragedy of conventional masculinities often leads me to pay especially close attention to those players who know this might be their last tournament, their final chance to etch a legend. I make no apologies for this romantic filleting. Zidane's magnificently original chest-butt represents the apex of this tradition, for the true legend in the making must be prepared to do things on their own terms, to never sell out or play the game by someone else’s rules. Like Zidane was then, Pirlo is currently possessed of an inescapable air of pathos, a sense that every pass might be his last. The modern day obsession for absurd slo-mo hi definition reaction shots of players has only heightened his existential appeal, the total freedom he attains with every calculated ball into his front men, each beguiling slip down the line to his supporting fullbacks representing a man fundamentally out of sync with modernity. And therein lies his real heroism. I don't buy into the argument that Vicente Del Bosque's all conquering Spanish side have become particularly boring to watch (that fault lies in the adventurousness or otherwise of the opposition they face), but it appears self evident that they are a by-product of information overload, obsessive hoarders of possession like so many MP3's on an external hard drive, terrified to give the ball away, to let go, they are the ultimate multitaskers, resting as they work, working when they rest.

But Pirlo! Pirlo plays Slow Football. Reflective football. Finding time, appreciating space and the moments between actions. Coincidentally, the new LP by Trapist arrived on my door step just days before Italy's first game in the group stages. As its title suggests, The Golden Years shimmers throughout with a luminous sense of unravelling time and space. Its dedication to patience in an age of maximalism is the key entry point to its multiple modes of emotional interrogation – in parts it is truly, glisteningly beautiful. Tentative gestures, notes left hanging in the air pensively. Its magnificently sad in places, moments of up front noise and textured caterwauls are often immediately paired back to a regretful, almost embarrassed minor key supplication. It often retreats into near silence, a powerful expression of introspection in an age of hyperinformation.

I reckon Andrea would probably dig it.

Tuesday, 26 June 2012

Loss adjusters

It had not started well for Roy Hodgson as boss of All-England. First he wasn’t Harry Redknapp, then he had been persuaded not to take Rio Ferdinand, publicly out of concern that a fading ledge such as the Man U stopper shouldn’t be mere back-up. Personal and political intertwined in an ugly mess; it was a move that only empowered John Terry, as if that loathsome individual hadn’t wielded enough influence in terms of managerial sackings and deferral of his racism case already this season. That gave the Scum sufficient reason to run the expected tactless jokes about his lisp just weeks into his tenure.

Hodgson’s skills as a manager lie in the time he spends with the players, not just on the training pitch (though clearly he finds players to fit his preferred, fairly rigid tactics than the other way round), but in making them feel confident, wanted, willing to run through the proverbial brick wall. But he also had to pull off an arguably bigger trick, in placating the neurotic English fanbase who mixed good sense with idiot hope, high expectations and low expectations. Many with low expectations were really just masking their giddy anticipation so as not to appear irrational, while those who saw no reason not to expect a semi final at least were ready to default to gallows humour at the first embarrassment. Getting past the first round would be an achievement in times straitened by injury, lack of talent and the demise of the Golden Generation, but we were constantly told ‘why not, of course we can win it’ by all concerned. There was still a refusal to countenance England as a second-division nation despite the preparations indicating that performances would be somewhat compromised. There was still the sense of the Bulldog / Crusader mission taking it to the continentals with their maddening game of short accurate passing. What can’t be achieved by rolling up the sleeves and getting stuck in?

Yet in addressing the supporters, and getting the squad on side, he had won a certain amount of respect, as was evident in the way the senior players conducted themselves around him. Not many other England managers had seemed quite so aware and adept at this business of managing the gamut of expectations. Well done Roy.

And these parallel lines extended into our appraisal of the team. France had run us ragged for a while with their tight but largely impotent passing game, Sweden and their Zlatan had us worried, but with seven points we were first out of the group. Few would deny that progress had been made, yet real doubts persisted. You could argue that the 442, and a very deep 442 at that, stopped players like Gerrard from getting forward and influencing the play. Did the defence need that much support? Was the preference for Milner overcautious, were others (principally Ashley Young) getting more gametime than they deserved? Again, our conclusion was tempered, we had built a solid base from which to perform but seemed to be able to do little with the possession when we had it. Surely this would tell against the better teams.

Not bad enough to be beaten in normal time by Italy but never good enough to beat them, as Whispering Dave observed correctly. And indeed the drift into containment football, whether directed or not, from the second half onwards made for a largely drab affair for the neutral. Sure enough we deferred to type and bottled the penalty shootout despite edging ahead. Joe Hart’s antics were given short thrift by Pirlo’s Panenka (and indeed he didn’t get near all the others either), Young lashed an unthinking boot down the middle but onto the bar and Cole’s pen was much worse than his effort for Chelsea against Bayern, when it really mattered.

The damning statistics came thick and fast – 36% possession against Italy; Hart our most successful passer – Roy’s nous was no use here and we were left to the usual defeatist, dissembling clich├ęs about pride in the performance, lack of luck, saw enough to be encouraged for the future, etc. As did the usual prescriptions – get the kids passing from birth, stop the overly competitive junior Sunday league system, fewer foreigners in the game, etc. Action on all of which is being prepared in Optimism House, Cloudcuckooland as we speak.

People talk of the renaissance of the game post-Italia 90 but even in hard times it was always the number 1 popular sport, capable of uniting north and south, middle and working classes, in its thrall. Our game, which at the top end at least is held up as a profitable and functional exception as the finance capitalism around it founders, has never wanted for intensity, and it’s the investment in the blood-and-thunder pyramid right up to the Premier League that makes those stakeholders reluctant to see it changed.

The modern football fandom of season ticket holders and Sky Sports subscribers will not jettison their weekly downloadable package of thrills and spills, ludicrous decisions, predictable outrage and wind-ups for the benefit of the national team, even as they profess love for the ‘Three Lions’. Being honest, Baddiel and Skinner’s ‘30 (now 46) years of hurt’ palls in comparison with club heartaches, the allegiance to which you fight your corner – through right moves and wrong by your team’s players, managers and owners – week in week out. We have been mainlining the collective hallucination, the hype, sensation and supersundays, for too long now and would find the comedown and transition difficult. Let the other nations, many of whose best players come to our Best League in the World™ for these very reasons, focus on national glories. That might be what a bit of us wants, in our slightly insincere Lionhearts, but we don’t want it enough to reorient our game toward it. What would be welcome is a realism about England with no lingering self deception; Hodgson is a canny enough bloke to aid that process.

Friday, 22 June 2012

Hodgson's Choice

So far, the diminished expectations of England's chances have resulted in relatively little scrutiny of Roy Hodgson's selection choices. The consensus that the pool of players he has to drawn on is irredeemably mediocre has dulled the usual bitter acrimony surrounding who's been selected and who hasn't. The one controversial managerial decision so far - to leave Rio Ferdinand behind - was made, despite Hodgson's protestations to the contrary, for non-footballing reasons. 

In the light of this Hodgson's tactical choices for the second game against Sweden - playing Andy Carroll from the off and bringing on Walcott after we fell behind - have seen his stock rise enormously. Quite understandably, as these two players scored a goal each and set up the third. Walcott's appearance in particular was hugely impressive, adding pace, sharpness and unpredictability to England's attack. The question it raises though, is why have a player of his ability on the bench to start with? And, more importantly, why put him back there subsequently?

For surely Walcott merited a place in the starting line up against Ukraine? In the short space of time he was on the pitch against Sweden, he was by and away England's best player. In defending the odd decision not to use him though, one could immediately sense the mobilising forces of perverse British pragmatism. Walcott, we were told, is the ideal player to bring on if we're in trouble, or need an injection of pace late on in the game. Heaven forbid that a team would want to start with some pace or, indeed, set out not to get into trouble in the first place. 

There's a strange parsimonious logic to the idea of only using a player if you really need to. It suggests that it would be much better, more sporting perhaps, to win without using him. "He's a great player to have on the bench", people say, as if this represents some unarguable logic. But, like the equally bizarre idea that there is a "good time to concede a goal", this has always struck me as one of those ultimately meaningless phrases used by expert commentators to fill the void. What does it mean to be a good player but not actually play? Is the scoring of goals really only necessary in an emergency? Would the ideal team set up be to have ALL the best players on the bench?

So, James Milner started again against Ukraine having done virtually nothing to justify his place in doing so.  His work rate and uninspired finishing was inexplicably favoured over Walcott's explosive pace and inspired goal. At the same time, Rooney's return was never really in doubt. Even though it threw the shape and formation of the team that ultimately triumphed against Sweden completely out, Rooney's return was a given. He - England's supposedly best player - was obviously not too good to be left on the bench. 

The only other selection justification that Hodgson has been called on to make was Rio Ferdinand's omission. And again, his stated reasoning made little sense. Ferdinand was too good to be in the squad. Poor old Rio was too experienced to be there just to make up the numbers. Well, if he's that good why not play him? And if he's better and more experienced than people ahead of him in the squad what are they doing there? Clearly, in Ferdinand's case there are other, much murkier reasons for his omission. But it's interesting too that Hodgson's stated reason has been accepted, at least on a footballing level. 

So, finally, here we are back in the familiar territory of inexplicable tactical choices and mystifying team selection. England's progress to the last eight has granted us the right to quibble. It has opened up Hodgson to something more than benign pity at his hapless lot. He now has choices to make.