England v Algeria: Not Fear, But F*** Off

Four years ago, the press wanted an English manager who understood English players and the English culture. They got one. It didn’t work.  Then they wanted the players’ backsides (so arrogant! so wealthy! so.. what that bloke just said!) given a kicking. A disciplinarian – all Capello will now be remembered as – was duly imported, at great expense.

It seemed to “work” for a while. And the sadistic wing of English football journalism thrilled to tales of enforced mealtimes, restricted conjugality and millionaires scrambling for the approval of “Mr Capello.” All that’s forgotten now.

Truth to tell, the press were already tiring of Capello, and the tide had turned against him before the match against the USA. Such was the atmosphere amongst the splendid gentlemen of our broadsheets and redtops that only a series of Croatia-like results could have kept them at bay. I think this difficult start to the World Cup, combined with British reporters’ bleating, churlish desire for more “access” to the manager (and they called unto Lot, and said unto him, Where are the men which came in to thee this night? bring them out unto us, that we may know them) has most likely ended his tenure.

I have no sympathy with press turnabouts, nor with “fans” who complain about the money they’ve spent to go to South Africa. The latter at least still have the money to spend – they are English, not Icelandic, Greek or Irish or Spanish – and they are, after all, still on holiday. But there is something happening here, with England, and if I’m right, it’s something we’ve not seen with the international team for a decade. I think the players are on psychological strike.

There are three separate but interlinked components to this.

The first is the very discipline and distance that brought England to South Africa in such good style. For Capello, the players-as-pawns strategy is a given. It’s what he’s always done. The principal advantage to the players is its simplicity: as a player,you are to focus on getting your game right, you are responsible for that, and, by and large, your shirt depends on it. During qualifying, English players always had something to play for: it was quite clear what they had to achieve. But I suspect that, unlike the manager, the players saw all this work and discipline as something with a natural end-point. The prize on offer to them was qualification and a recovery of pride after the McClaren debacle, then, that achieved, a place in the squad. And, with a place in the squad achieved, the proper work could begin. The real business of the World Cup would get underway with a squad secure in the knowledge that they had won their coach’s esteem and trust.

It didn’t work that way. The squad arrived in South Africa to find nothing had changed between themselves and their coach. In a sense, the prize wasn’t the World Cup, not at first: what they wanted was the trust of Fabio Capello. But it wasn’t granted them, nor will it be, that trust: the players understand this at an intuitive level. Despite qualifying so well, what they felt was meant to be punishment for the sins of the McClaren era grinds on, with no sign of an end.

The second is best summed up as “Robert Green.” My heart sank when I heard that he’d been dropped. Dropped, indeed, after a week of what amounted to psychological torture from the management team, made worse by gruesome press coverage. Reflect on the patient years Green has spent, never complaining, in working his way up to the no. 1 spot, reflect on the moral courage with which he faced up to what happened last week, reflect on the betrayal of one of the genuinely good guys of an England squad not overloaded with them. (Do all top managers have a goalkeeping blind spot? Alex Ferguson and Arsene Wenger do, and so it would seem does Capello). I suspect that, to the England squad, Green isn’t a pawn or a keeper needing to prove himself all over again at this climax of his career, but a mate and a colleague, and one who is being ripped apart in public to no purpose, abandoned and humiliated. It could be them next. After Green, what safety and solidarity can there be for this England squad?

The third point relates to the press. When it comes to the hacks, Capello is not Mourinho, or Ferguson, or Wenger, or Clough: he does not seem to see the need to shield his players from the worst of the criticism. The sudden, press-driven intimacy of a World Cup, with every player the subject of remorseless speculation and destabilising criticism, changes the nature of what Capello calls “the group.” It’s no longer something you fight to get into: it’s where you are, inescapably, wagons circled. The dropped – Green, Milner – can’t escape back to their clubs. The underperforming – Rooney – find themselves trapped in the searchlights, ripped by offensive fire. This morning, had Mourinho taken the job, the Special One would be in the most almightly contrived battle with FIFA or the FA, and those searchlights, that fire, would be his and his alone. I say this with reluctance, but I think Capello is using the players as human shields for himself, and David James’ interview, in which England’s fair-minded, intelligent and articulate veteran could scarcely keep the note of contempt out of his voice, shows the result.

All of a sudden, England’s an unhappy camp, and last night’s body language said it as loudly as did the performance. As had some of the comments made by players in the run-up: Terry and Gerrard have lapsed back into McClaren-era declarations that the team can play better than this, into promises that the team know what they have to do, into flat predictions that the next game will put it all right. That tells me that something has fractured: that the trust and belief are gone.

It’s as if only by downing tools as a team, without actually sacrificing the game altogether, could the England squad communicate the depth of their unhappiness to the manager. That’s how I read Rooney’s parting comments:

“Nice to see your own fans booing you. If that’s what loyal support is … for fuck’s sake.”

There’s been no loyal support, not since arriving, not from the fans, from whom it is no longer expected, and not from the manager. Rooney’s come in for criticism for this, but he’s absolutely right. The time for punishment for the past has been over since the squad was announced. Yet it’s gone on regardless, and fan narcissism doesn’t help.

Cast your minds back to the qualification games for the 2000 European Championships. Glenn Hoddle had made an excellent start as England manager. A side built around Adams, Ince and Shearer had come home early from the World Cup, but on the back of the best all-round set of performances since 1970.  The young Manchester United midfield were bedding in, Michael Owen had arrived, and the future looked bright. But, a couple of lacklustre games into Euro 200o qualifying, Hoddle rowed with Alan Shearer, saying “Tell me why you are producing performances like this.”

Shearer replied: “Have you ever thought the problem might be you?”

It’s not pressure. It’s not nerves. It’s not fear. It’s a message to Capello, and it reads f*** off.


All of the above is speculative to a large degree, and were England to go in at half-time 2-0 up over Slovakia, my guess is that a great deal will be forgiven and forgotten. What I mean is: we’ll know by then.

28 Replies to “England v Algeria: Not Fear, But F*** Off”

  1. I agree completely. The body language was extremly telling last night. Especially Rooney and Gerrard. (Gerrard reminded me of the head-down Shearer of the dark days then….)

    There was also a moment when Capello and Gerrard were talking at the touchline and the looks on their faces were of mutual incomprehension. One of my fellow viewers and England supporters commented ‘Do you think they even understand each other?’ Clearly they used to during the qualifying stages but as you say, it’s all gone wrong.

  2. Fascinating. But with one surreal moment: “were England to go in at half-time 2-0 up over Slovakia,…”.

  3. @Tom – good to hear you on 5Live recently.
    @Karen – heaven help us if the language barrier is coming up now
    @dearieme – I know your tongue is in your cheek, but sadly I too would now find that outcome unlikely to that sort of degree.

  4. On reflection: up to a point, Lord Hamilton. The rubbish purveyed by Lampard and Gerrard needs no particular explanation – individually, they never (L) or rarely (G) play up to their club standards for England, and together in central midfield have routinely been a disappointment. (Central midfield was where G seemed to play, however much he was notionally on the left.) Yesterday was worse only in degree, not in kind. The stinker by Aston Villa Reserves and by Lennon was a disappointment, and the Dear God He’s No Better Than Me by wazza was, I’ll grant you, a rather horrible revelation – but then I have suspected for a couple of weeks that he’s been unwell.
    On the other hand, your point that much the same mob did far better in the qualifiers is a strong one, so maybe the position is that a squad that really is not very strong has just given up the ghost – and your explanation for that seems shrewd to me.

    But what is to be done? One thing I’ve learned in life is that almost everyone in an executive position likes to avoid making personnel decisions that are truly his own. He’d rather think, as might be “Well Ancelotti thinks well of Lampard, and Lampard plays well in the setting Ancelotti provides, so I must select Lampard”. Whereas he ought to think “Lampard has been given ample opportunity to make a case for his inclusion in the England team and he hasn’t made that case so I am dropping him, and to hell with Ancelotti’s view.” And if Capello isn’t the man for that, find someone who is. Kenny Dalglish is available, apparently.

  5. @Matthew No! You’re right. I’ve been mixing them up since the draw was made. Sorry!

  6. @dearieme I’ve been thinking about the “what is to be done” question all day – without result. Your idea of picking an England team according to personality and character rather than club-apparent ability (perhaps = Revie’s wishing that he had instead built “a right bastard” of a team) is just about the last unexplored option on the table. Well, there is one other, which is not serious but which might address the central English problem (it’s not about winning – it’s about just playing with freedom – no one thinks they are the best in the world) and that’s sending them out good for a few beers.

  7. Well said. As an untrained spectator, I recognise a lot of what I read here as fitting everything I’ve seen and heard on TV and during the games. Having seen nothing to suggest the contrary, I have to agree with your conclusions.

  8. That’s why I was a bit disappointed that they didn’t take Parker. A chap who can show so much spirit for West Ham would surely have brought something to this shower.

  9. hmmm, interesting as always. But surely the theory that England players are sending a message to Capello thru their deliberate inadequacy is belied by the fact we’ve all seem them play exactly like this countless times before? For instance most of the games in Germany 2006 under the ‘over-indulgent’ Erikson, and Euro 2008 qualifiers under the ‘unrespected’ Mclaren. So who exactly are these guys going to show up for?

    I think its much more likely that England are not only just not very good, but more especially entirely one-dimensional. Surely a team must be ‘not very good’ when it is praying for Gareth Barry to be fit, and must be one-dimensional when they say themselves that they are counting on Wayne Rooney to turn it on (but can’t actually get the ball to him).

  10. @Chris – Agreed that we’ve seen them play like this before (and I don’t agree with some commentators that this is the worst England have played, either!). I remember the early rounds of 1990 in particular. OTOH, it has to be said, to be fair, that there is another way England have played, and recently – especially the two performances against Croatia, and the qualifying rounds in particular. One could argue that the Algeria game represented some kind of reversion to the mean – but you’d have to establish that the concept of reversion to the mean works in football – some people argue that football is too random for a team’s quality to be establishable enough to know what a “core” or “basic” performance would be. I wouldn’t go that far, but I’d argue that the mean performance is better than the Algeria one. Again, some observers think that Algeria-type performances come from character – the players are lazy, feckless, spoilt etc: but the literature, diaries etc. from inside the game (Eamon D., The Glory Game, etc.) don’t back that up because they show a footballers’ world far removed from the one the fans imagine, one dominated by fear and paranoia and bad management. Capello thought that England played with fear, and he wasn’t alone: when performances improved during qualifying, he expressed himself happy that the players were finding confidence and spirit on the pitch.

    I agree that England aren’t as good as Spain or Argentina, but the performance comparison here isn’t necessarily with them – what about e.g. Chile or Uruguay, teams who play only one way but didn’t lose heart when mistakes and their own limitations emerged? There was a rumour coming out of the England camp last night that my guess about Robert Green was on the money, that his dropping had raised the penalty for error to an excruciating level and that the team froze. Seems more likely to me than just this being a quality issue, as bad teams can trouble good ones if the safety and security is there. That’s the underdog advantage – bad teams have nothing to lose against good ones, but England, in this group, aren’t ever underdogs, and have to live up to a different billing, something which presents quite different psychological challenges. That’s why I wanted a group of death for England, and draws which pitted them against the genuine best early: playing as underdogs, as the Argentina game in 2002 showed, can bring the best out of the side some days.

  11. I agree that England have played, this year as in 2006 with debilitating fear. Perhaps Cappello’s dropping of Green didn’t help there, but on the other hand some American player’s commented on the tension and visible fear in the England line up before the first game.

    What I don’t understand is quite where it comes from. I don’t believe its the weight of expectation/the media etc. Many other teams play under as much pressure as we do and are perhaps jittery for a couple of games but they play the game they are supposed to play within whatever limitations they have and try to get thru it and hit some form. They don’t resort to booting the ball around with witless inaccuracy, failing to control the ball when passed to feet, losing possession direct from a throw-in and hitting the first defender on corner kicks time after time.

    Perhaps our fearfulness and brittleness on the pitch comes from being both complacent and lacking in confidence at the same time if that’s possible. We are always an unexpected nil-nil draw away from assisted suicide and yet at the same time an easy win against poor opposition away from the Peter Crouch robot dance.

    While a tougher group might have alleviated the fear factor, isn’t it also the case that we have recently been knocked out by ‘the first good side’ we have played in the knockout phase? In two cases Portugal, who were not particularly good on either occasion.

    Whatever the reasons, it seems to me that the strangling fearfulness and our visible lack of ability in many areas are enough to explain both results to date. I don’t think it requires a revolt against Capello.

  12. This – “We are always an unexpected nil-nil draw away from assisted suicide and yet at the same time an easy win against poor opposition away from the Peter Crouch robot dance” is too good for a comments column. Great line, really sums it up well.

    My feelings about Portugal – mixed, really: I felt that the Portuguese got away with murder on both occasions (I’m one of the freaks who thought Rooney’s red card unjustified). Ricardo (right?) the Portuguese keeper stands out in my mind as a man of limited ability who turned the 2004 game through sheer attitude, fearlessness etc. – taking a penalty before saving one! and the example of men like him is what makes me think that it isn’t just lack of ability. Ricardo was what John Terry is supposed to be – although Terry himself has, IMHO, actually lived up to his billing at last, and good for him.

    Maybe it’s a case of enough ability to raise expectations to an uncomfortable level, but not enough to overcome the stress of that expectation – and, perhaps, something in the English psyche that no one yet has articulated..

    England aren’t the only country with this kind of pressure on them: the Scots have it worse, in a way. But there’s Brazil, who use football where other countries use war, and Italy. The Italians have a radically different football culture from our own, a different take on professionalism, one more often seen in UK private sector firms than on the sports field, and that helps them cope to some extent. The Brazilians have by far the best youth development programme and have done so for decades – pace the Dutch – and cope by being, basically, better prepared from an early age. Apparently England’s U-17 group are as good as any in the world, for real this time, so the next ten years could be interesting and test the “ability” side of the theory to destruction. Well, fingers crossed, anyway!!

  13. Great post and great comments. I wrote a post on my own site which touched on some of your points and I hope I can add to the debate here.

    It was obvious from the performance against Algeria that something is badly wrong within the squad, that the team was experiencing a mental freeze. In a situation such as this players will revert to relying on their base instincts, the things that were instilled in them at an early age. With English players that is usually direct, “get rid” football, which is why seeing the England team “booting the ball around with witless inaccuracy” is always the first sign that things are going wrong.

    To a certain extent players can overcome these tendencies with good training and coaching regimes, but under extreme pressure of the sort found at the world cup, these good habits will largely go out of the window.

    Other nations do not revert to shoddy anti-football simply because they have never been taught to do so. Whether or not this is a legacy of the Charles Hughes era, and I suspect it is, will only become clear over time.

  14. James,

    Firstly, a great post as always.

    Secondly, I remember you saying when the draw was made that England having a supposedly easy group was the worst thing that could have happened, and that the USA were not the team they were in 1994 and Algeria and Slovenia had to do one hell of a lot to qualify. I don’t think Slovenia will be a pushover by any stretch of the imagination, what I have noticed about a lot of these “lesser” teams is they seem to be defending pretty well, far better than they might have 4 or 8 years ago. The 5-0 drubbings don’t seem to be happening in this world cup, and I suspect a lot is to do with managers figuring out that four fit, strong, organised and disciplined men at the back can keep even the best sides out.

    I have my own theory about England: the players are just not half as good as we think they are, performances in the EPL and CL be damned. I noted that Germany were 10-1 to win the world cup at the start of the tournament; England were 15-2. Betting odds often reflect bets already laid rather than likelihood of winning, and I honestly think that England fans deluded enough to think they were in with a chance of winning had put on hundreds of thousands of bets, bringing the odds down. I think the expectations are just not realistic: how many more mediocre performances will it take for England fans to know what the rest of the world delight in pointing out, i.e. that England cannot produce the players necessary to win anything?

    England should go into a world cup content with getting as far as they can and forget about winning it, and hire a manager who has this as his remit. Anything more ambitious than this is doomed to failure.

  15. Good article – interesting read compared to the standard knee-jerk gutter (and broadsheet) press reports.
    In the corporate environment, a good manager makes a huge difference. It’s not about knowing the jobs of all your staff as you’ve done them yourself (eg. successful ex-players).
    It’s all about building a positive environment where everyone feels valued, protected and understands the context of their role – and this can only happen through the setting and re-enforcement of common goals and objectives. ie. everyone understands what is expected from them AND what they are working towards – and that they will be rewarded if their succeed.
    I believe the fact that Mourinho has proved such a successful manager is a sad indictment on the general standard of the football establishment. That’s not taking anything away from Mourinho, but I find it amazing that he’s so ‘unique’ in the world of football. The fact is he’s a good ‘manager’ and would be successful in any walk of life.
    Capello on the other hand demands respect for his own past achievements, but as your article points out is sadly lacking in some of the basics of team-building, communication and respect for your own team.

  16. Carping people say that the beanpole may score a lot of international goals, but not against the strongest sides. Today’s opponents are Slovenia.

  17. Graeme Souness has suggested that the sheer lack of physical energy from EPL players in the England team against Algeria, followed by an improved performance against Slovenia points to problems with the altitude at the second stadium. One would think that modern teams would not get acclimatisation wrong, but I guess it is possible…

  18. @Metatone: yes, I heard similar comments from the Spanish coach last week. According to him, the acclimatization training isn’t expected to click in, to become effective, until week 2 or 3 of the tournament, and he put Spain’s initial torpor down to altitude whilst expecting the problem to solve itself in time. I’ve no knowledge as to whether this is correct or just blinding us with science, but I thought it was interesting.

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