First off, before I start defending England in their loss to Germany today. I did pick Germany to win and I do think the Germans were the better team. But while the media dip their pens in the blood from the stab wounds they’ve already inflicted on most of the squad’s backs to write yet another caustic game review posing as a post mortem, I’d like to say that England were most definitely screwed over in this game. It’s also true though that if they hadn’t been screwed over by external forces, they would probably have found a way to mess it up all by themselves. That said, if video replays are not in place by the next World Cup, FIFA are officially ostriches.
Watch the highlights first to get a sense for what I’m about to say. Click here.
First of all, the reason why the Germans are to be feared is rooted in how their first two goals were scored.
If I’d entered a pool to pick top goal scorer, Miroslav Klose would have been right up there in my top three picks. He is a World Cup legend now if he wasn’t before. A goal kick. Against two English centre backs who have spent a life time dealing with balls in the air. I have no idea what John Terry was thinking of getting caught so far under the ball for an uncontested header but he played that about as wrong as a centre back can. While it’s not an excuse, Matthew Upson has obviously assumed this is Terry’s bread and butter and he will easily and certainly win the header and pump it back into the German half. Klose, as every good striker should do, thinks the opposite to Upson and assumes the worst will happen for the defender and gets a jump on Upson in the event it clears Terry. Upson is a big boy though and he tries to wrangle Klose enough to put him off his shot without fouling. While he looks like the one responsible for the goal I’d place him third in the circle of blame behind Terry and keeper David James.
What has happened to the physical keeper? I don’t mean the Schumachers of the world or clowns like this (seriously, he’s going to pull the ‘look totally shocked when you get a red’ routine…after that?) but a keeper who in the words of Nuke LaLoosh in Bull Durham “announces his presence with authority”. James has to come early and hard for that ball and accept there may be an awful collision. He actually retreats from the penalty spot to his six before coming forward again to challenge Klose. Too late. Klose’s 100% commitment to the ball means he gets the toe past James. James can clearly see Upson doing his bit and impeding Klose. If he takes just one more step forward he takes that ball, possibly without any contact. Klose ends up getting that touch from about 11 yards out. Pretty much where James started from before backtracking. Some will say he backed up because he may have been chipped but that’s what Upson did so well on. By impeding Klose it was clear he was not going to get to the ball early enough to lob James.
It was direct and it was a bold statement that said, “I don’t care who your centre backs are and if they outnumber us. We have Klose and he can score from these situations.”
Now if that’s all you have, you’re pretty much Wimbledon FC in the 80’s, the Norwegian national team in the 90’s or the Canadian women’s national team in the past ten years. It’s predictable and predictability is something that can be defended against effectively.
But that’s not all the Germans had. The second goal, a devastating counterpoint to the methodology of the first goal, showed that this German team can play its way through you with Spanish like passing and movement.
No back four wants to have to deal with brutish directness and intricate passing and movement in their defensive third. It makes for a long, hard day at the office.
Naturally, at this point, England’s comeback was started by a centreback. Matthew rose and hung in the air just long enough to direct one of the very few decent crosses England managed in the game. I say naturally because with England only having two goals to show for their three first round games and only one of those from a striker (Defoe against Slovenia) it’s hardly surprising that England would need scoring from other quarters.
Once they were at 2-1 England started looking like the belonged in the game. The decision to not allow Lampard’s clear goal was a massive, massive turning point. It can’t be understated.
In the second half, England looked strong early with Lampard hitting the bar again and having considerable pressure. Part of that pressure involved taking risks with Upson and Terry and committing them both forward for set pieces and keeping them up if England retained possession off of those set pieces. Naturally that leaves you exposed at the back and when the Germans broke 3v3 in the 67th minute and only had to deal with Glen Johnson*, Ashley Cole and Lampard (!) it didn’t take long for Shweinsteiger to cut across Johnson and turn Lampard into Frank Lamppost. He didn’t cut off the pass to Mueller and he doesn’t do anything to delay Schweinsteiger or make him look at a second option. He stands still and then tries, too late, to block the shot.
You may ask well where was Garreth Barry? The holding mid? Well his effectiveness was shown on the fourth goal that followed three minutes later. With Johnson and both centre backs pushed up into the box looking for a cross, a crafty flighted ball from a clearance forces Barry into a footrace with Ozil and the result was nothing short of embarrassing. Ozil makes up the five yards Barry has on him to get first touch on the ball and he’s gone. Barry makes a half hearted attempt to trip him but is too late for that even. Cole tries to come all the way over but by the time he does Ozil has threaded a perfectly timed ball across to the racing Mueller who has managed to stay ahead of Upson in a sprint up the field and slot over a sprawling James.
So after castigating England (as I’ve somewhat pre-emptively accused the media of doing) why do they deserve defending as I said at the outset. Pretty simple. If the officials hadn’t messed up the Lampard goal, the game goes into the half at 2-2 with England on the upswing and not having to come out in the second with a totally compromised shape that sees the likes of Terry and Upson committed upfield too far and too often. Capello knows that both those guys can notch with their heads and Mertesacker can’t cover both of them on top of worrying about Rooney (not that he deserved such concerns based on round robin play). Pushing both centre backs up that early in a game, especially against a team with the pace and grace of Germany, is akin to pulling your goalie in hockey…with three minutes left. It’s a desperation tactic that was forced on them by the denied goal and the knowledge they couldn’t wait for the strikers to get the job done.
If it’s me, at the half, I take Barry off, put Aaron Lennon or Joe Cole on with very stern and specific instructions to get crosses in the box. Then, if that’s not working after 15 minutes, Milner comes off and Crouch goes on as a third striker to wreak havoc in the box once the crosses come in. England’s not used to 4-3-3 but you’re down a goal and 4-4-2 has got you nowhere so far. You can’t afford a slow, relatively useless holding mid in Barry and by putting on an aerial threat in Crouch you don’t need to throw both centre backs up to compensate in that area. Maybe both on set pieces with instructions that one high tail it back the first sign of it being cleared. That doesn’t leave you as exposed to the sitcom that passed for defending when Germany broke quickly for both their goals. As a coach, I’d rather be down one goal with 15 minutes to play than two with 25 left and have the option to gradually lever players forward as time winds down.
England got what they deserved in the end. They underperformed and the players that needed to inspire were insipid. The Germans are back to being the darlings of the ball with that performance. So while the denied goal forced England to play risky football, the result was most likely going to go to the Germans anyways. It would just have been more interesting to see how it would’ve all played out had it reached 2-2 as it should have.
*Glen Johnson should be the antidote to this notion that attacking outside backs are now the most important component of the game. The belief that outside backs can continually get forward with incisive runs around wide mids and sling crosses in and then get back and defend well 1v1 and as part of a back four has become a victim of ‘irrational exuberance’ and Glen Johnson is a poster boy for the downside of this belief. He is a very poor defender. He’s really a wide midfielder who somehow got drafted into someone’s back four and was branded one of these very rare box to box, pacey outside backs a la Danny Alves and Maicon (even Alves to me is a suspect defender but when you play for Barcelona and have possession 75% of the game, you don’t really have to worry about defending much). He’s not. He couldn’t get across quick enough on Podolski’s goal (the second, which granted was asking a lot given the massive hole left by Upson and Terry in the middle of the field for Mueller to skate through) and he was a big part of the blame on the third goal as well.