“England’s anxiety became more and more apparent as they found themselves prisoners within the penalty area and reduced to long-range shooting … For the man on the terrace last night when he got home to bed it must have seemed to him soporific and boring … It seemed to set the pattern of what we may expect in the days ahead in this modern game where the great thing it seems is not to lose.”
Plus ca change? For this despatch from The Times is not a sneak peek at tomorrow’s back pages, but Geoffrey Green’s analysis of England’s start to the 1966 World Cup – a drab goalless draw with Uruguay.
Unfortunately, after last Saturday’s insipid tie with the US was followed by new depths plunged tonight, against Algeria, two key changes can perhaps be identified indeed.
The first, that this World Cup – after a cautious and yawnsome opening week – has tentatively begun to show a little more excitement, teams opening up and attacking because they realise they must. England, on the other hand, knew they had to win, knew they had to score – and yet appeared entirely ignorant of how best to do so.
And the second, of course, is that – well – England aren’t going to go on and win this World Cup…
‘I’m just glad England aren’t peaking too early’, the ever-too-nice Gary Mabbutt on South African TV, but then, that’s just the kind of sunny guy he is.
To truly emerge from this disastrous start with any hope at all of ending triumphant would surely need some kind of creative strategy to emerge.
Alf Ramsey, after all, could point not only to England’s eventual glory in 1966 – but the fact that his starting line-ups in the first couple of group games were deliberately selected to obscure his ideal XI. Wingers such as Terry Paine and John Connelly were used in the uninspiring group clashes with Uruguay, Mexico and France – though Ramsey knew all along that when the knock-out games came, his better-co-ordinated combination of Nobby Stiles holding, behind a wingless midfield of Ball, Charlton and Peters, should make England more formidable opposition.
Fabio Capello, on the other hand, looks wedded to a structure that worked in qualifying yet only against relatively weak opposition – Croatia’s collapses twice now against England, following their under-achievement at Euro 2008 suggest their earlier rise might have owed more to McClaren than Bilic. And the supposed saviour in defensive midfield, Gareth Barry, might have returned against Algeria but with hardly enough of the rigour to prevent Algeria surging forward with alarming ease – nor with dynamic, creative enough talents in front of him to thrive.
Sadly there were nowhere near enough camera shots of Joe Cole on the bench, about the only player in the squad with the nimble and intelligent footwork and vision to unpick defences which refuse to be steamrollered by the runs, bulk or hype of Rooney, Gerrard or Lampard.
The one out-and-out winger with enough of both pace and penetration – albeit only seen so far in glimpses – found himself hauled off, just seconds after fashioning England’s closest, classiest chance: Aaron Lennon’s scooped cross which, like so many last Friday, unfortunately missed Rooney by, ooh, only an inch or two.
On technique, England look deficient – in approach, incoherent – and if motivation and pride are (spuriously) meant to cure all, then even here the ‘Three Lions’ have proved toothless.
After all, they hardly looked too fired up, by the criticism of the past six days – or the prospect of even more ahead. This display was even more depressing than that of last Friday.
And even of four years ago, the World Cup which England stank out as much as any other.
1966? 1990? It’s come to something when we’re threatening to look back on 2006 as better days...
PS: Wayne Rooney, "It's nice to see your own fans booing you."
Even nicer than to see your own players boring you...?