Euro 2012 highlighted the need for England to revolutionise the way it develops players. Fortunately, says Stuart Rayner, if the national mindset changes everything else is in place.
THE recriminations, the excuses and the hunt for scapegoats are under way. England have again failed to punch their weight at an international football tournament.
Bad players, tired players, injured players, not enough players – all have been cited, as they are every second summer.
One undeniable truth, though, leapt out from England’s Euro 2012 campaign.
They cannot keep the ball.
Only the Republic of Ireland – comfortably the poorest team at a fantastic tournament – were worse at it.
You cannot prosper internationally without that most basic skill.
That is why England are a quarter-final team and no more.
Roy Hodgson’s men had just 43% possession in the competition. Only against Sweden – themselves criminally wasteful – did they see more of the ball.
Long before the final whistle in Kiev, there were plenty of white-shirted players dead on their feet.
Scott Parker looked like he had run about four marathons back-to-back, rekindling memories of his exhausted collapse to the turf during a Newcastle United v Arsenal game.
He had not looked that tired for nearly a fortnight.
Steven Gerrard was treated for cramp 50 minutes before the eventual end of Sunday’s quarter-final.
Italy looked relatively fresh and not because the ageing Azzurri are that much fitter.
The intensity of a Premier League season did not help and England’s was the only squad entirely drawn from the same league.
A winter break is long overdue, but its absence was not the main reason those with Three Lions on their chest were gasping for breath.
Football is far more tiring without the ball than with it. Teams that keep possession control the pace. Those who do not need players like Parker and Gerrard constantly fighting fires.
When Spain (or Germany, or the Netherlands, or France) have possession, they rest from the high-tempo pressing they employ without it.
Cultured players manoeuvre the ball trying to drag a player out of position.
Only when they do will they flick the switch, up the pace and pounce.
With 64% of possession, Italy had many such rests on Sunday.
The Premier League is the world’s richest, and England’s population dwarves Holland and Portugal’s, yet there was an air of resignation about their prospects before, during and after Euro 2012.
Hodgson got the most he could from his players, but they were just not good enough. He can take some blame.
He could have picked players better at keeping the ball, but only one or two.
If Wallsend-born Michael Carrick will only represent his country on his own terms (and Paul Scholes not at all) perhaps it was right to leave him at home.
Having Jack Wilshere, Tom Cleverley and Jack Rodwell fully fit would have helped.
But a country of so many footballers ought to produce one or two more capable of one of the game’s most basic tasks. Gerrard was rightly lauded for his performances, epitomising the passion England expects from the man wearing the armband.
However, he seemed determined to trade only in Hollywood passes, thinking because he was England’s captain he had to be David Beckham.
Against Ukraine most came off and he was brilliant. Against Sweden a couple did, but many did not.
He neglected the short pass Beckham played. Most of those Xavi and Andrés Iniesta deliver are of the short variety. They can hit the defence-splitting, raking ball too, but largely concentrate on nudging the football and the opposition around.
Every aspiring English footballer should be made to watch videos of Xavi and Iniesta – not the games they play in, just them – in the great rethink of our game.
When Germany (like England) failed to reach the Euro 2000 knockout stages, they radically overhauled their youth development system. If you want to know how they got on, watch Sunday’s final.
Fortunately, England already have the tools for their own revolution.
St George’s Park opens this autumn and, having seen it being built first-hand in March, it is clear former Sunderland chairman Sir Bob Murray has provided all the facilities needed to not only produce high-calibre players (even without a friendly climate), but the coaches to nurture them.
England must get the latter right first. It will be a long process, but well worth the effort.
Having chosen Hodgson – a genuine coach and football thinker – over short-termist manager Harry Redknapp, England have someone to oversee the process.
Hodgson may not have played the beautiful game – far from it – at Euro 2012 but as well as being pragmatic enough to know he had to squeeze the best he could from a limited squad at six weeks’ notice he should also be intelligent enough to realise over the longer term a different course is needed.
England’s director of football development Trevor Brooking is an evangelist who renounces false prophets like Charles Hughes and Howard Wilkinson.
Hopefully, the day will come when he no longer resembles the lone figures shouting down megaphones to themselves at Newcastle’s Charles Grey monument.
Brooking can forget any help from a Premier League far too self-obsessed to care about the national team.
Without them, England will continue to under-perform on world football’s biggest stages, but there is enough in place to ensure they do better. The work must start as soon as possible.