One dictionary definition of the phrase ‘reality check’ reads ‘an occasion that causes you to consider the facts about a situation and not your opinions, ideas, or beliefs’. So why is England’s defeat to Spain being widely described as a ‘reality check’? Who are the idiots who expected anything other than Spain to dominate the ball, England’s inferior players to look inferior, England to defend valiantly but ultimately unsuccessfully and, frankly, Spain to win 2-0.
There is not a sane man or woman alive who has predicted this England side will win the European Championship next year on the back of an impressive qualifying campaign. Nobody within the England camp has been bragging about ten straight victories and suggesting that means anything other than England can be competitive in France. There is surely no genuine England fan who will approach that tournament with greater reserves of expectation than hope.
For reasons (some sensible, some nonsensical) that will be infinitely discussed elsewhere – an influx of foreigners in the English game, a vacuum of English coaches, the lack of support for junior football, a flawed Academy system, pure genetics – England’s players are simply not as good as those from some other countries. They are better than most but less good than others. It’s almost like England’s FIFA ranking of ninth is an accurate representation of their standing in world football.
England are Crystal Palace or West Ham, capable of bloodying the noses of better football sides with a combination of organisation, hard work, pace and luck, but more often than not they will be outpassed or outfinessed by superior opposition. And yet the media would have you believe that England are Manchester United and should be able to go toe to toe with any team in the world. So when Spain – or Barcelona or Bayern Munich – have 64% possession, arms are thrown in the air and the inquest begins. Nobody wants to hear ‘they’re just a bit better than us’.
The BBC website’s chief football writer Phil McNulty – whose solution is generally ‘more Everton players’ – wrote that England played like FA Cup minnows in Spain. Apparently England were ‘hanging on and hoping for the best’ against a Spain side who did not have a single shot on target in their first hour of admittedly impressive possession.
Witness the opprobrium attracted by Manchester United for the same kind of possession/shots on target ratio. We are a nation that despises the un-English sterile possession in the Premier League but stands and applauds when we face the same tactics in Europe, crying ‘why can’t we play like that?’
The answer is simple – Manchester United can dominate West Brom because they are better than West Brom, but will be dominated by Barcelona because they in turn are better than Manchester United. Now change some of those words to ‘England’, ‘Estonia’ and ‘Spain’ and cease to be surprised when better footballers play better football. The wonderful thing about this sport is that the better footballers do not always win, and there lies the hope.
At half-time of England’s clash with Spain, I was not disheartened by watching Michael Carrick look dizzy and lost against some of the finest midfielders in Europe; we have been watching that happen for too long in the Champions League to be surprised or distressed by the sight. I was not astonished that Fabian Delph was wasteful in possession or that Adam Lallana looked like he was so far out of his depth that he could no longer see the lighthouse.
No, I was one of the few people pointing out that England had come much closer to actually scoring, with a combination of poor decision-making and luck costing them an opener. One swift counter-attack saw Harry Kane miss Ryan Bertrand’s excellent cross by a whisker, another saw Kane erroneously choose to take a second touch when he should have swung his boot and another saw Ross Barkley making the decision to shoot from distance when he had other, better options.
Such is the lot of being Palace or West Ham; you have to take your half-chances because eventually, a moment of brilliance or a momentary lapse of concentration will allow the dominant team a glimpse of goal that more gifted footballers will take.
The ‘footballing lesson’ everybody seems to want England to take from these defeats should not be that they must somehow learn to play like Spain in a few short months but that they must make a better job of playing like England. It will help when some injured players return but, in reality, even a full-strength England side will never dominate the best in the world. What we must do instead is scare them with pace, with tenacity and with dynamism. Just as the very best in the Premier League are frightened by Palace and West Ham.
Spain boss Vicente Del Bosque described England as “very strong and very threatening every time they crossed over the line into our half of the pitch”. We really must learn to take that as a compliment rather than wanting to ape something we can never become.