By Ewan Roberts at Wembley Stadium
“It is only a shirt,” read the Nike slogans for the new England kit plastered over every available wall space in and around Wembley. “It cannot grab last minute winners...it cannot kick start the brass band...it cannot take control of the midfield.” Neither, as England so hopelessly proved on Wednesday night, can the players who don them.
Roy Hodgson's side were flat and completely bereft of invention against Ireland. The midfield offered no penetration, the blistering pace of the wide-men was matched only by their slowness of mind, and the strikeforce was virtually non-existent.
How different the story was five days ago. Then, the Wembley crowd had been delighted and entertained by a thrilling, end-to-end encounter between Borussia Dortmund and Bayern Munich. The contrast between the all-German Champions League final, with its frenetic pace, crisp passing and intelligent interplay, and England's pedestrian performance against Ireland was stark and disheartening.
It seems a lifetime ago that England picked apart die Mannschaft in Munich, a Michael Owen hat-trick helping Sven-Goran Eriksson's side to a 5-1 victory. A year before that, the Germans had limped out of Euro 2000 in the group stages, scoring just once and only collecting a single point courtesy of a 1-1 draw against Romania.
Pride dented, German football began overhauling the academy system, re-thinking the way young players were nurtured and developed. England, too, had crashed out of Euro 2000 in the group stages, but continued to stagnate rather than address the problems.
Even in the Olympic Stadium back in 2001, despite scoring five times, England had just 39 per cent of the ball. Against Ireland on Wednesday, at home, they managed only marginally better with 49%.
So obsessed with chest-beating, so enamoured with belting out 'God Save the Queen' with spittle-soaking gusto, so preoccupied by visions of Terry Butcher’s bandaged head, England have allowed the notion of passion – which was so obviously lacking against the Boys in Green – to predominate basic technique.
England's wingers, Theo Walcott and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, showed exhilarating speed but not one iota of intelligence or final-third cunning. Frank Lampard, despite scoring, offered little vision or ingenuity in the middle of the pitch and, along with Michael Carrick, was outmanoeuvred and out-thought by James McCarthy as England struggled to manufacture anything resembling a fluid passing rhythm.
Across the team as a whole there was too much willingness to play the ball long. England's back-line were easily pressured on the ball, the centre-backs never linked play, and possession was continually conceded to the opposition. England's desire, need even, to play so directly was like painful, exhaustive football luddism.
The question now facing England is not why the nation that invented football (as we now know it) are so backward in their approach to the game, but what is being done about it. The answer appears to be not a lot.
Hodgson persists with remnants of England's (not-so) golden generation, overloading his squad with old pros, while using a formation, 4-4-2, that is outdated and usually easily overwhelmed by three central midfielders – it took only two, McCarthy and Glenn Whelan, to stifle England on Wednesday.
“I think Borussia Dortmund play 4-4-2 the same way we play 4-4-2,” remarked the 65-year-old after the match, which was greeted with collective eyebrow-raising. Where Jurgen Klopp's side pressed aggressively, England stood off. Where Dortmund interchanged short passes with speed, precision and intent, England lumped the ball forward for Jermain Defoe to chase.
Everything about Hodgson's England suggests nothing has changed with regard to how the players are tasked with viewing football. The philosophy engrained is one of solidity, two fixed banks of four, rather than fluid possession football.
He prioritises the stifling of the opposition, rather than invention and creativity from his own side, which makes England woefully inept in matches where they are the favourite, where the opposition sit back. England's style is more akin to that of a plucky underdog (like many of the minnows Hodgson has managed over the previous decade).
Further to that, there is a staggering lack of faith being shown in England's younger, emerging talents - only one player, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain (whose lack of game time for Arsenal makes his inclusion feel like yet more vacuous window dressing) is under the age of 20 in the most recent squad. The veterans, Lampard, Wayne Rooney et al, continue to underwhelm on the international stage, yet there's a baffling notion that they will eventually come good. They won't.
While England's squad for the post-season friendlies has an average age of 26.7 and 628 combined caps, Germany's experimental selection for ties against Ecuador and the United States is almost two years younger on average and 146 caps less experienced. Even at the summit of world football, Germany is preparing for the future; England, meanwhile, continues to look to the past.
The continued involvement of Stuart Pearce in the Under-21 side does little to shake the feeling that England's desire to reform is more words than action. Psycho's coaching philosophy is so acutely aligned to his playing style - ballsy, hard-working, tenacious - that there is little room for an identity to develop that extends beyond being able to run further and faster than anyone else.
The same old-school, passion-first principles that have hampered England for 47 years remain the bedrock of this “new” England era. Hodgson and Pearce's sides are criminally indistinguishable from those that have come before, and failed so miserably in the past.
English football need only look at Saturday's Champions League final, featuring seven probable starters for the German national team, to see the necessity and rewards of restructuring the youth system. But, like Germany, it must be a model that does not merely work in principle, but appeals to the very DNA of the country.
The German team has oodles of technique, but is still bursting with the drive, desire and physicality that is so beholden to England – the two are not mutually exclusive. But while German football is thundering towards the future, England is loitering around the Dark Ages with even their patented spirit and passion escaping them. The Three Lions have lost their roar, and Hodgson seems increasingly unsuited to getting it back.
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