It’s no so much that the English nation likes a scapegoat – although quite clearly it does – but that there’s fundamental requirement to ignore the deep seated problems in the national game. In the 46 years since England won it’s only international tournament blame has been apportioned liberally after repeated, and frequently embarrassing tournament defeats. This is a cycle long-established, lasting roughly two years; wash, rinse, repeat. Euro 2012 has offered a fall-out so typically English that it ranks right up there with the finest national traditions. Like failing to pass the ball with any sense of authority, or repeatedly using the word ‘bulldog’ before bowing out to a technically superior opponent.
England’s national reaction is, of course, one that ignores every fundamental technical, tactical and mental failure inherent in the English game. How could it not, lest the authorities that govern these matters actually resolve to fix the inherent problems in coaching and culture that have contributed to repeated failure.
Indeed, the vitriol dished out to Manchester United pair Wayne Rooney and Ashley Young after England’s latest failure is no great surprise; there was always a certain sense of inevitability that the media, and by extension the public, would seek out individuals and ignore the root cause. Little surprise that two players from England’s most successful club should fall victim to the mob either.
While United’s striker Danny Welbeck emerged from the tournament with some credit, and Phil Jones is immune having spent three wasted weeks on the bench, it is Rooney and Young that have been singled out after penalty shoot-out defeat to Italy on Sunday night. Young for a series of lacklustre performances, and Rooney for being, well, Rooney.
Neither player’s performances genuinely stands out amid a tournament replete with English mediocrity, but, then, scapegoats rarely do. David Beckham, Paul Ince, and Rooney himself, each understands from personal experience the depth of national hate that is so often be meted out to the men in Red.
Young’s disappointing tournament was surprising in that the former Aston Villa winger had performed so well for the international team over the past year. Six goals in the player’s previous 10 internationals proffered a player in form, mature and ready to make a genuine mark on an international tournament. Yet, in four games at Euro 2012 Young was unable to deliver the goals, assists, or vibrant performances that had previously flowed so freely.
The criticism is in part supported by Young’s stats over the tournament, but then none of a poor English cohort will be proud of their attacking achievements. The United winger completed 76 of 92 passes over the tournament, at 82 per cent accuracy. Young made four shots, although none was on target, created two chances, and provided no assists.
There is mitigation, though. After all, at no stage was Young genuinely deployed in the attacking role he is accustomed to at United, nor with the freedom afforded under former England coach Fabio Capello, even in the opening match against France when the United man was nominally deployed ‘in the hole’.
Restricted by a system that placed emphasis on defensive shape over possession and attacking fluidity, too often Young found himself running from deep into increasingly lonely dark alleys. That less than 40 per cent of Young’s infrequent touches at the tournament came in the attacking third tells its own story. The 26-year-old was by no means culpable alone for failure in a highly dysfunctional English midfield.
Yet, for the all criticism Young has earned, egged on by sabre-rattling BBC pundit Mark Lawrenson, it is Rooney who has garnered most headlines following Sunday’s loss. After all, the hype built pre-tournament by manager Roy Hodgson had reached it’s most fervent pitch by the time of Rooney’s introduction for England’s match against Ukraine last week. The nation expected Rooney to deliver the Pelé-esque performances promised by the team’s manager.
After scoring against Ukraine, Rooney was unable to influence England’s match against Italy – a fixture in which the Azzurri enjoyed more than 65 per cent possession; 75 per cent in extra time. It was, of course, always unrealistic to expect Rooney, without a game in more than five weeks, to drag England up from the gutter of defensive entrenchment. But, then, realism and English expectations have rarely been natural bedfellows.
Some, though, were very quick to lay the blame on England’s leading striker, including former manager Fabio Capello who claimed, with no hint of irony, that Rooney only performs for United.
“After seeing the latest (England) game, I think Rooney only understands Scottish,” Capello said.
“He only plays well in Manchester where Sir Alex Ferguson speaks Scottish. Look, when I spoke they did understand me. But every now and again, when I tried to explain tactics, things didn’t work out. You know what? Maybe it’s because Rooney doesn’t speak English. He doesn’t understand English.”
While Capello’s words smack of bitterness – the Italian having fallen on his sword in defence of John Terry – even the now incumbant Hodgson threw Rooney to the wolves, offering up a headline-writers dream in the process.
“I think we put a lot of expectations on Wayne,” Hodgson admitted post defeat to Italy.
“When he missed the first two games, we were all believing that what we needed to do was to get to the third game and Wayne Rooney will win us the championships. That maybe was too much to ask of him. Wayne certainly tried very hard, but he didn’t have his best game. I think he would admit that.”
In truth England’s failure is a collective; of tactical rigidity, technical limitations, and obsessive focus on ‘spirit’, ‘fight’ and ‘work rate’. Across four matches England enjoyed just 40 per cent possession, according to UEFA’s official statistics. Only Ireland and Greece claimed less. Other stats nerds, including OPTA, have the figure even lower. No wonder, when England’s players found a team-mate with just 67 per cent of passes made – the 13th lowest in the tournament.
By contrast, there is little surprise that England places top of the ‘tackles made’ table, but achieved the fourth lowest shots on target per game out of the 16 teams at the tournament. This was an England side which sought only to not lose, anything else being a bonus. It was a system built for defensive “heroes” at the expense of attacking talent.
“We were being too conservative,” observed now former England defender Rio Ferdinand.
“It sends a message to the opponents that you are more interested in defending and playing on the counterattack than making them scared of you. The only time we really kept the ball properly was when Danny Welbeck dropped short to collect it and linked the play. But, usually, he was having to stay up and wasn’t allowed to drop too much because we had set out a certain way with a 4-4-2 which didn’t offer a great deal of flexibility.
“It’s OK saying we were very good defensively and hard to beat but if you set out to be defensive then that’s your first priority. It makes it very hard for the attacking players in the team. The most damming statistic of them all was that one which showed our best passing combination was between Joe Hart and Andy Carroll.”
Not that the critics will concur. It was, after all, Young’s fault. Or maybe Rooney’s. Or maybe a bit of both. But what’s defeat if you have that bulldog spirit? The spirit of yet another English failure.