Are pre-season tours really a problem? Liverpool went to Australia last summer and it didn't prevent them from having a good season. Plus, thoughts on LvG and keepers...
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Long Thoughts On England's Solution
I didn't get up early enough (or stay up late enough?) after the England match to hit your inbox in time for the first mailbox, but for whatever reason I feel compelled to voice my opinion.
This mail may come across as unduly negative (it's also shaping up to be a long one, so strap in), but I want to look at the game in the cold, slightly damp and miserable light of day. England opted for a far less negative outlook than in previous tournaments and made a decent fist of things, so I can understand the inclination towards optimism and viewing the match as a "glorious failure" - to steal a phrase from your good selves - but so much of what went wrong was so utterly, utterly predictable that I think this response gives the team a free pass on actually addressing some of the negatives. Looking at the post-match interviews, I don't see any indication that, behind closed doors, they will even think about the things that went wrong, which really worries me. Surely, they must be aware of them? Sometimes I wonder.
Let's be completely honest here: Italy held us at arm's length and had plenty in reserve. We didn't overly trouble them when we were searching for an equaliser and, if we had got one, they would have found a way to score a third. Yes, Rooney should have scored when he sent the keeper the wrong way and we had one counter attack just after Barkley came on, but aside from that we never moved them out of shape in the second half and this was our real failing, despite our much-vaunted pace.
I was struck watching the match how we completely failed to counteract Italy's packed midfield. Even at 1-1, they dropped immediately when we got the ball and gave us no way through the centre, inviting our narrow formation to come around them. Time and time again, we passed the ball around an arc at the back, out to one fullback and then across to the other, failing to find a gap to move forward and lacking the movement to pull them out of shape. The ball would then be dropped off to Gerrard, who would angle one of his lofted balls across the pitch. Great, but this is Playmobil switching of play. Fingerpainting while the opposition has an old master. The ball is in the air for so long that the opposition can all move across, and by the time it has been chested down, there is no space with which to work, so the ball just comes back inside. At that point, someone will try to force the issue and will ping a ball at 100mph at the feet of one of our strikers, who will fail to control or try a completely ill-judged flick, ceding possession.
Compare this to the Italians, whose transitions were impeccable and who were far more accomplished at both quickly bypassing our midfield and (on the occasions we did manage to get behind the ball) playing the patient game, looking to move us out of position and not trying to force things. Overall, I think it comes down to composure and lack of tactical intelligence. Only an English player, when faced with two narrow midfielders five yards in front of their defence, will repeatedly try to dribble through the gap and be surprised when they are crowded out and the defender easily strides away with the ball. Couple that with shooting repeatedly high and wide from 20 yards and you see that we have a sugar-rush team of Premiership all-stars. I struggle to see how a formation can cause us to be outnumbered in central midfield and yet simultaneously leave us unable to find an overlap or any real width, but that's exactly what a Permiership 4-2-3-1 is going to do when international opponents drop their line and pack the centre, especially when the wider players in the "3" have a tendency to move inside.
So, what do we do? We can't instill more discipline into Rooney; we can't really drop him. We can't stop Gerrard from spraying those passes about; and we can't really drop him, either. The conditions in Brazil mean that this is a World Cup where judicious transitions between attack and defence are key. It's about knowing when to press and when to drop, when to apply pressure to the jugular. Frankly, the lack of intelligence of English players is the worry here. We have to be aware of our weaknesses, even if we can't address them in this tournament.
My solution, which is only mentioned partially in jest, is to move to three at the back and play Gerrard there in the centre between Cahill and Jagielka. Drop the wasteful, tempo-killing Johnson for Barkley (I would prefer Wilshere here, but he looks truly, unbelievably godawful at the moment due to a lack of minutes) and play him and Henderson in front. Ask Welbeck to play on the right of midfield and Baines on the left. Sterling is in the hole behind Rooney and Sturridge. This formation has its drawbacks, not least in its unfamiliarity. However, it would provide more width, alleviating our pressure point down the left flank in the Italy game by giving both Baines and Rooney less defensive duties in lieu of asking more of Jagielka, Cahill and the CMs. Gerrard doesn't have the engine any more for central midfield in the Brazilian heat, but reads the game well enough to play at centre back with the support of Cahill and Jagielka, and has a role to play as a metronomic passer of the ball out of defence, covering the distributional deficiencies of his CB partners. Welbeck is disciplined enough to play on the right, while Barkley and Henderson have enough between them to patrol the centre, with Barkley in particular able to provide a link to the attacking trio. At that point, we would have to play our game and accept that the opposition fullbacks will see a lot of the ball, relying on the wealth of attacking talent in the team to get in behind them.
To end on a note of optimism: I really feel that there is a very good team in there somewhere; it just frustrates me to see all of the pieces and no appetite to face up to the real issues with the way we play, leading to exactly the same failings we've all seen a hundred times before. We actually have the nucleus of a side that could make a real impression on the tournament here. I saw enough last night to think we'll get through this group, but that's why, for me, it's going to hurt even more this time when we go out to the first good side we face (ok... that sounded more upbeat in my head).
Sterling Wasn't Great
Just a small observation about the hype around Raheem Sterling's performance against Italy.
For all his driving runs (with, it must be said, hugely variable final products), he was playing in the number 10 role. This is the crucial role that links midfield and attack, ensures that your defence and midfield aren't overloaded and provides the creativity going forward. One of the essential aspects of this role is not giving away easy possession. England averaged over 90% pass completion. Sterling averaged 74%.
He may well be a precociously talented individual, but in this particular game, he was a failure, not the man of match as most media outlets will have us believe. A really quite limited Italy were gifted possession so many times, that it meant Pirlo was given an easy platform from which to run the game. It meant that Henderson and Gerrard were never able advance far enough for us to exert any real pressure. I for one would like to Sterling play against Uruguay, but please not in the number 10 role.
Pray For The OX
It's at times like these that we need to resort to the more Pagan approach that our wise ancestors took: Our country is at battle against 31 others and we are in a do-or-die situation. We need to Pray for the Ox.
Firstly, Sturridge was immense. Much more our man of the match than Sterling. (Who did play well also). Secondly, we lost our shape as soon as Henderson left the pitch. No disrespect to Wilshere, but I don't think he has a place in this team at the moment. And thirdly, and perhaps most importantly, we didn't have a player that was able to penetrate their defence with conviction. Barkley did provide a threat when he came on, but it might just prove one tournament too early for him. That being said, he does still play a role in this squad.
But what is really required, is the pace, penetration and finish that Oxlade-Chamberlain can provide. If fit, he needs to start on Thursday... Replacing either Welbeck or Rooney.
I would be inclined to have him replace Rooney, leaving us the option to bring on Barkley and / or Rooney in the second half if required (or if cruising to victory).
For these reasons alone we need Oxlade-Chamberlain fit, so grab your prayer mats and go pagan.
David Aina, Croydon
So the World Cup has had a chance to bed in so here's my top ten things about the pundits -
1. Neil Lennon is literally pink.
2. Rio Ferdinand smells a lot of things.
3. Phil Neville sounds like a mix between a robot on his vinegar strokes and Stewie Griffin talking to Brian about his novel
4. That's not smog over Rio, that's the doom and gloom that hovers over Alan Shearer.
5. Thierry Henry is still the suavest mother on planet Earth.
6. Thierry Henry does not like Alan Shearer.
7. Is it just me do have the BBC have a bet to see who can get the dirtiest phrase into their commentary? From "he's asked the player to open his legs" to "he's trying to reach around and grab the ball", I can't take them seriously.
8. Is Jonathan Pierce drunk? Is Martin Keown his chaperone?
9. Ian Wright calls Glenn Hoddle "gaffer". Ian Wright is a 50 year old man.
10. ITV... seriously, sort yourselves out. From Adrian Chiles seemingly trying to get Patrick Viera to punch him to the inane ramblings of Andy Townsend. It's got to the stage where I dread anything significant happening in an ITV match because we then have to listen to Townsend and Tyldesley try to work out what has happened for five minutes, give us their valuable insight which is to say what we've all seen and then pass on any mistakes they've made to the referee.
SC (I didn't mention Savage), Belfast
Just Leave Rooney Alone
This Rooney thing is hilarious. The BBC spent pretty much their whole post-match analysis blaming him for losing - though if the only other thing you have on your mind is "set-pieces are so, so important", I guess you have to blame something - and today you guys called him "a faded relic" and snided on about how he didn't protect his full-back or whatever (not a wide midfielder, lads, doesn't know how to do it, not his fault).
Look, I understand what you're all going through. He was meant to be the best player in the world and it hasn't turned out that way. I'm Irish, and even I feel sad about it sometimes - I still remember Dunphy and Giles talking about how he was going to be as good as Pele, which was terrifying, frankly, because it meant England would have the actual best player in the world, not just whoever you were happening to hype that season.
But it didn't turn out that way. He didn't have the body for it, something went wrong in his head at some point, and Ferguson probably played him out of position too much. Rooney made you all hope. He made you imagine a better footballing world, and then he didn't live up to your dreams. So now you're hurting and you want to drop him during the World Cup, and make him hurt as well. I get it. I do. But, lads, it's time to let it go. He isn't going to carry you into the promised land, but he's still your best player by a mile.
Stephen O'S, MUFC
...Now I can understand that Rooney is not a particularly likeable person, he pays to sleep with grannies, he earns a lot of money and has regressed as a player in some aspects. As a Man Utd fan, I've watched him over the years from scoring the spectacular to becoming a bit of a jack of all positions without doing a whole lot. I still think he contributes, by the by, I just think it's less spectacular now and more workmanlike. I don't think he should be on such a large contract but then, I don't think any footballer does; however, I understand football is subject to market pressures just like any other industry.
But for Rooney to be subject to such hate and to be continually made the scapegoat for England's failures is beyond me. I feel like I'm taking crazy pills. Has NO ONE noticed how Gerrard was again anonymous in an England shirt? Is the excuse this time that he can't play with Henderson? Or is it just Lampard's fault because he's still in the squad? Steven Gerrard has escaped any criticism in an England shirt for his entire international career, but as the captain, he anonymous performances deserve more criticism than Rooney (who still managed to contribute an assist for the only goal we scored).
Now I think Raheem Stirling played well, but he also huffed and puffed against a brick house. This is symptomatic of the English problem. Huffing and puffing does not constitute a great game. The wolf couldn't blow down the brick house. England needs to value end product more than the huffing and puffing, even if that means that end product at the expense of huffing and puffing (think Berbatov at Man Utd). That means prizing footballing intelligence, the ability to cut out defenders with a clever pass or knowing the position to be in, over the ability to 'get stuck in' or 'pace/strength/good tackling'.
...Can everyone please stop spoiling the World Cup with their petty, partisan comments below every story about our national team - particularly when it comes to the ever-divisive Wayne Rooney. Cards on the table - I'm a Liverpool fan. But while I dislike Rooney when he wears the red of Man Utd, I wish him nothing but the best for England. Yes, I feel vaguely let down by the fact he hasn't played well for England in a major tournament since 2004, and like most others I howled with frustration at his dragged shot, shanked corner and tackle on Barkley. However, I also jumped for joy at his excellent cross for our goal - and I'm not too blinded by club loyalties to realise that few other players on the pitch were capable of that delivery with their weaker foot.
Against Italy, he was ok. He wasn't "A Disgrace" (TM most Liverpool, City and Arsenal fans) and he wasn't "miles better than Gerrard, who WAS playing in his best position and was still sh*t" (TM most Man Utd fans & Chelsea). He was ok. He actually had one of the 6 out of 10 games that we all claim he never produces, but actually does with increasing frequency. On that basis he deserves neither to be benched/exiled/shot, or to be the first name on the teamsheet, with the entire XI built around him. He just deserves another game against Uruguay to see if he can turn that 6 into a 7 or 8.
So - in summary - if everyone could stop being d*cks on the basis of which club they support and just back the England team and players, that would be just super.
Pete (ok, I might have shouted something pretty obscene after THAT corner) Singapore
Unimpressed By Argentina
A wonderful World Cup brought back down to earth by Argentina. Thanks for reminding us all that soccer can be miserable and defensive and boring. How you can play like that with that much talent is beyond comprehension.
Why Don't They Warm To Messi?
Has there ever been a country more ungrateful than Argentina?
Few countries around the world will ever be able to say that one of their countrymen is the best player on the planet but in the last 30 years the Argentinians have had two and for some reason rather than be grateful for these two talents they choose to compare them with one another.
As far as I can see the reason Argentinians don't warm to Messi is that he isn't a cheat like Maradona that somehow being a cheat or a tortured genius makes you more interesting.
Don't get me wrong I think Maradona is probably the most talented player ever to grace the game, but somehow we're supposed to think he's better than Messi because he behaves like a tool.
It's worth remembering that both men played for Barcelona and Messi was the only one that was actually successful there. He seems humble, keep his nose clean doesn't act like an arrogant knob and hasn't got a face you want to repeatedly punch as with the second best player on the planet Ronaldo.
I really want this to be Messi's world cup, where we all marvel at the brilliance of this player and where he proves all the doubters, including his countrymen wrong.
I'd like the same for Wayne Rooney but that's not going to happen is it?
Graham Simons, Gooner, Norf London
Was Wayne Rooney trying to steal Iago 'The Corner' Aspas' title? Fight, fight, fight...
Here All Week
Newcastle should buy that Honduras number 13, simply for the chance of a Costly error and a Krul deflection leading to a goal.
Alex Stokoe, Newcastle upon Tyne