Agincourt and England 2010

Paul Carpenter (Carpsio) takes the “passion and commitment” line of England criticism in an interesting direction with an informed comparison of Agincourt to that 4-1 defeat to Germany:

In all these cases (Agincourt, Waterloo, Dunkirk, The Battle of Britain, Rorke’s Drift), we are assured that it was English ‘spirit’ that was critical to our victory against the odds (or more commonly British, but that’s splitting hairs). All battles are framed thus in the national mind: outnumbered and outgunned by foreign forces and perfidy, our innate spunk and refusal to concede defeat see us through.

It’s a good place to start. Most of the popular reaction to England’s 2006 and 2010 World Cups has been to deride the team for spineslessness and lack of courage. The spunk and refusal to concede defeat that are, we must assume, typical of the fans, were not, we are told, seen in the behaviour of the “overpaid privileged primadonnnas” – and you can put your own choice of words between those inverted commas.

We see this unspoken story in our sports. Recall us to Beckham’s game against Greece in 2002 or “Botham’s Ashes” in 1981. In the iconography of the game, Terry Butcher’s heroics against Sweden in 1989 gave us the defining image of English sport: a man covered in blood yet unyielding in his defiance, a performance which single handedly gave us the result we needed (i.e. a draw with the footballing giants of Sweden when viewed more prosaically).

Yes, and some of us will be able to remember the 1980 Winter Olympics and a programme on the BBC called “Come on Cousins” in which this principle was extended to figure skating…

Typically, we have learned entirely the wrong set of lessons from these games. These events were exceptions – not rules.  The Beckham who charged around the pitch, tackling anything that moved might have stirred the blood – but ultimately delivered nothing. It was Beckham the dead-ball specialist who ultimately won the game by doing something he’d practised until it was a personal art form. There is no greater lesson to be taken from Beckham’s game against Greece other than clichés about “heroism”.

It’s worth noting at this point that Beckham himself used to be seen as the epitome of the weak-willed unEnglish pampered ego who, along with Sven, was keeping all of those English lions from making the nation proud. This, despite having kept going through being burnt in effigy, having abusive chants about his wife recited by English crowds, being dropped by McClaren and Capello..

The popular reaction to the World Cup in general, and the Germany match in particular, has been to accuse the team of spineless cowardice and letting the country down, of not trying, of not showing passion. Carpenter disagrees, provides a succinct alternative analysis, and caps it off quite brilliantly:

So we end up at Bloemfontaine, where Gerrard’s desire to win the game himself by himself through English virtues like willpower and passion and grit meant that he consistently drifted from his position on the left in the game plan that Capello had set for him. Terry likewise pushed ever higher up the pitch, trying to will the team to victory while Johnson uselessly attempted to conjure blood and thunder via clumsy challenges (no doubt “letting the Germans know he was there”).

Sadly, the Germans even knew that this would happen. Coach Joachim Löw:

“We knew that Gerrard and Lampard always support the forwards and that the midfield would be open, there would be spaces. Our objective was to use Miroslav Klose to draw out John Terry, to force him to come out of the defence. We knew that the fullbacks would be very much to the side and this would create the spaces between the English defenders that would help us penetrate their defence”

Far from being our killer app, those English virtues of ‘commitment’ and ‘desire’ are our achilles heel.

Read the rest.

I watched the entire Germany game again this afternoon, and once again failed to recognize any of the popular criticisms that have been levelled at the team. I agree with George Szirtes’ analysis – this was a game in which Upson, Terry and Barry played unusually poorly. That’s true. I also find myself amongst that tiny number of people who see the disallowing of Lampard’s goal as a turning point: England troubled Germany deeply at times, and although Germany were the better side, it wasn’t 4-1 better, or even 4-2.

What did for England was the speed of attack Germany’s youngsters could provide. Muller and Ozil were just faster than the men assigned to stop them, and Klose not far behind on the day. That use of speed is worth reflecting on: both McClaren and Capello felt that speed out wide was the future for England – as it has proved to be for Germany.

Some fans felt so too, in 2006, although that had more to do with a reflexive desire to punish Beckham for not being a shouting neckless skinhead than anything else. It’s precisely the failure of England’s fast young wide players that has marked both the Englands of McClaren and Capello.

Injury has had much to do with it. Aaron Lennon spent most of 2010 “coming back from..” one worrying setback after another. Walcott, the younger of the two, didn’t play a full match until December, but was nonetheless a surprising omission from the World Cup 23.

Both Lennon and Walcott are very young men with developing still to do. Lennon’s 23, and Walcott 21. I want to be fair to them. For comparison, Germany’s Mueller is 20, and Ozil 21. Neither of these men is as yet a club player of the stature of Lennon or Walcott, and it might yet prove that their 2010 will be a version of Michael Owen’s 1998: a footballing demonstration of a kind that we would never really see in the same way again. It wasn’t that Owen who scored the bulk of his 40 international goals.

At least the Lennon and Walcott stories aren’t about lack of first team opportunities. Both have had exactly the careers you’d have wanted for them – barring the injuries, of course.

But if England’s fast players really are key – and the success of Mueller and Ozil suggest as much – then what Lennon and Walcott serve to underline is that there really was something about the real Golden Generation – the United kids plus Owen, Fowler, Campbell and the Cole brothers – that set them apart from the usual products of the English system. The excitement about that group was not completely delusional, and neither was the desire to find them proper European management.

Lennon’s injury struggles this year make it unfair, as I’ve said, to set him up against his predecessor on England’s right.  Lennon at his best is fast – really fast – a Finney on skates. A player who can get you on your feet in a second. So is Walcott.

But just look at David Beckham, aged 23..

9 Replies to “Agincourt and England 2010”

  1. “That use of speed is worth reflecting on”: it’s the USE that’s worth reflecting on. If you field an (on form) Lennon or Walcott, you’ve got to have other players who will release him. Arsenal aren’t especially good at it. Spain weren’t especially good at releasing their speed man when they brought him on. Germany did a better job. It could have been 8-2, that England-Germany game.

    Anyway, if Rooney doesn’t find his form again, and Walcott still hasn’t learnt to cross, England could always consider trying Walcott down the middle with JCole to release him. But then they’d really need a good free-kick taker to exploit all the opportunities they’d get from fouls on Walcott, or to deter fouls on Walcott. Bring back Becks, eh?

  2. Hello James,
    I’ve just popped across from George’s place. There are obviously a lot of serious and deep issues going on here so I’ll come back as and when time permits. I’m looking forward to doing so and perhaps joining some of the debates. By the way my favourite poem was written by a man named James Hamilton Sorley. Just thought I’d drop that one in for starters. It’s about running in the rain.
    Cheers etc.,

  3. James-

    In addition to agreeing with you that the wide play was a bit disappointing for England and that the Lampard goal really was important (England looked good for a draw up to that point), I also feel there is a public attachment to the “United kids” generation – Sven in 2006 and now Capello in 2010 seem to ride the old horses rather than blood the young talent. What’s shocked me the most over the last decade has been the lack of turnover of the England roster – Germany did field Podolski, Klose, and Lahm, but the young and fresh faces showed both young talent and coaches willing to take risks.

    I wonder what we will see at Euro 2012……

  4. Cheers, Gwilym, and welcome.
    Elliott, I remember Capello commenting on this – his feeling being that the team are/were older than would be ideal, but that the youngsters coming up behind just weren’t of the same quality. With the England U17s allegedly of a higher calibre, it remains to be seen who can plug the gap between this kind of Golden Generation remnant and the U17s when they become ready, assuming that they ever do. And risks, yes, I agree – neither Sven nor Capello are known for it, and Germany’s paid off in spectacular fashion.

  5. James, I’d query your claim that neither Muller nor Ozil “is as yet a club player of the stature of Lennon or Walcott”. Muller is a first-team regular with the biggest team in Germany and has just won the Bundesliga, the German Cup and reached the final of the Champions League, while Ozil was one of the best players in Germany last season and is reportedly being tracked by Chelsea and Real Madrid.

    Other than that, this is a typically fine piece. England’s obsession with ‘balls’ and ‘passion’ is as bewildering as it is self-defeating.

  6. “England’s obsession with ‘balls’ and ‘passion’ is as bewildering ….”: really? They’re hardly going to rely on skill and tactical intelligence, are they, with that shower?

  7. I’ll be interested to see what Hodgson does with Gerrard. And, if he uses him, Carragher; could he squeeze a season as a defensive midfielder out of him if Mascherano departs?

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