England just not good enough

Down and out... a dejected Steven Gerrard wonders what went wrong for England at Wembley.-AP

England’s defeat to Croatia at Wembley must serve as a wake-up call, just as Hungary’s 6-3 win at the same venue did in 1953, writes Paul Doyle.

Before the match against Croatia, England’s players repeated one phrase like a mantra: “The table doesn’t lie”. They’ve been proved right. The brutal truth of their 3-2 defeat is this: England aren’t one of the best 16 teams in Europe, let alone a world football power.

Blame it on the manager if you want, or a decadent society that means the country’s current crop of players are more a bling generation than a golden one. Or perhaps it would be better to blame it on a blind fear and loathing of foreigners, the malaise that moved English fans to boo the Croatian national anthem before the game and the BBC’s increasingly confused commentator, John Motson, to gibber: “The Croatians will be pleased with that reception because their national anthem was badly treated in Macedonia on Saturday.”

Yes, maybe that’s it. England refuse to be taught. Could that be why their headless footballers were ushered away from Europe’s showpiece tournament like the ignorant drunks who lurch down the nation’s streets every night? As lavishly-vaunted big men such as Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard stumbled around and swung the occasional haymaker, their more clever opponents swaggered and jabbed at will, delivering three fatal punches with surgical precision.

Croatia were more comfortable on the ball, and made more intelligent use of it, just as their coach had devised a more coherent shape than the muddle masterminded by Steve McClaren. In short, they’re better footballers than the English, which is probably what we should have expected given that they’ve come closer to winning the World Cup than England have at any time in the last 40 years.

On a night when the stakes were as high as they’ve ever been, England produced a display that, save for a brief spell in the second half, was as low as they’ve ever offered. But hey, at least they showed passion, eh? That was the main gripe levelled at Sven-Goran Eriksson, the only foreigner ever to be entrusted with England’s reins: that he didn’t jump around stupidly on the sideline.

True, his England team were characterised by caution, but who can blame him for not putting his trust in the traditional high-tempo English style? That style is exhilarating to watch, and quite devastating when executed with accuracy, but the problem is playing at breakneck speed leaves very little room for error — a problem exacerbated by the poverty of English players’ basic skills (Wayne Rooney and Joe Cole stand out as exceptions). Alas, for them to play at a pace more in keeping with their ability, and to rely on set-pieces and David Beckham’s crosses, makes them deathly boring to watch, as we saw at the last World Cup.

McClaren goofed, but the defeat was not just his fault. It would be tempting to depict Scott Carson as the new Peter Bonetti, except that Paul Robinson is no Gordon Banks. And neither is David James. So no matter who McClaren stuck between the sticks, a farcical blunder like the one that led to Niko Kranjcar’s opener on seven minutes would always have been possible (and before anyone mentions Robert Green, let’s remember that on his last appearance for England he injured himself taking a kick-out). If anyone could have prevented Carson’s howler, it was not McClaren but Micah Richards, who stood and admired Kranjcar as he lined up his shot. Surely closing down opponents isn’t a trick too far?

From then on, England chased and harried and ran around like giddy children, as the cerebral Croats trusted in their talent. When Eduardo da Silva received the ball in the final third, the whole English defence, seemingly unable to imagine him attempting anything other than a shot, converged on him. Gareth Barry hadn’t bothered to chase back Ivica Olic, who cantered through the centre to collect Eduardo’s through-ball and round Carson for a simple second.

The rest of the first-half was a Croatian party, their 7,000 fans cheering jubilantly as Slaven Bilic’s team toyed with England, transfixing them with triangular passing and sure touches. England had started with an attacking quintet of Peter Crouch and four offensive-minded midfielders, and that armoury was bolstered by Barry who frequently abandoned his holding role to render them even more amorphous. McClaren was right to remove him at half-time.

Amid the English mess, there were at least two constants: Crouch as a central tower, and the Croatians’ refusal to even challenge him in the air — a gutless resignation that Russia were also guilty of in September. Early in the game, he nodded down a fine Wright-Phillips ball, but Lampard arrived too late to profit, and three minutes later he was again on hand, not to fire Joe Cole’s shot into the net as a more mobile forward would have, but, at least, to prod it sideways to Wright-Phillips, who from a less inviting angle rifled a shot straight at the ’keeper.

Croatia’s Robert Kovac (left) celebrates with team-mate Niko Kovac after their 3-2 victory against England in a Group E Euro 2008 qualifying game.-AP

Given more time and space in the 65th minute, Crouch chested down Beckham’s expert cross and finished emphatically to make it 2-2, following Lampard’s earlier penalty that brought it back to 2-1.

Crouch’s goal would have been enough but then England sat back, again, and deservedly paid the price.

After Croatia regained the lead, McClaren resorted to his old Middlesbrough “tactic” of wild, all-guns-blazing attacking, throwing on Darren Bent for Joe Cole, who’d been but a shadow amid the English shambles. That was forgivable. What isn’t forgivable is that English football has stagnated, allowing so many other countries to overtake it in terms of basic skills and intelligence.

The Croatian demonstration at Wembley must serve as a wake-up call, just as Hungary’s 6-3 win at the same venue in 1953 did in the past, for a while. It’s time to bring in another foreigner. In fact, it’s time to bring in lots of them: not just to coach the national team, but to share their knowledge at every level of the game in this country.

© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2007