England v Spain: A Hollowed-Out Feeling

Those round shortbread biscuits with a hole in the middle always frustrated me when I was a boy. I just couldn’t see the point. Where was the missing bit? Sitting in a huge pile of other missing bits, in some Scottish factory? I’m aware of the same kind of feeling now in the aftermath of last night’s game.

But it wasn’t all bad. England were let down more by the idiots on one of the worst 6-0-6s in living memory than by the players. When a middle-aged man without an ounce of talent in his extensive body comes on half tight to declare that the team “lacked passion”, the thing to do is to pretend to yourself that you haven’t heard it before. That way, you can reject it as a fresh example of stupidity, not as the latest presenting of an ancient curse.

After all, England have a new goalkeeper. Ben Foster began his career against a top European side and acquitted himself admirably. And as I expected, Barton showed that he can become a real comic turn for England, filling his shirt as if he were a fan winning a fantasy prize, running on for ten minutes full of “passion” and “pride” and proving it with every frustrated barge and kick. Well done!

Whenever I hear the phrase “class is permanant”, I find myself reflecting on English society more than I do football, but Woodgate and Dyer really are welcome returnees. I just like to watch Dyer run with the ball, and I like the way he demonstrates that “confidence” is more than just match practice. Shaun Wright-Phillips’ first big international attack of nerves happened before his move to Chelsea – in another international friendly like this one, against Holland, where he missed two excellent early chances and then vanished into himself.

It frustrates me that more isn’t done for Shaun. No one seems to want to go into it with him. What’s actually happening when a player loses that thing called “confidence”? And what can be done about it? English football treats “confidence” like an infectious disease, as something you get if you hang around in the right quarters long enough. If you haven’t got it, then all you can do is wait until circumstances allow you to regain it.

Of course, if SWP loses confidence, then – according to last night’s commentators – he needs match practice, and, at the same time, it’s cruel to leave him on so long because it will damage his already fragile confidence. Oh, and psychology has no place in football. Let’s not forget that.

Of course, England were booed off. That, too, has the twin air of farce and fashion about it. It’ll happen every time England don’t win well, now. Like last night. An England side massacred by injuries (count them: John Terry, Ashley Cole, Joe Cole, Owen Hargreaves, Michael Owen, Dean Ashton, Wayne Rooney) loses narrowly (in stats terms, the game was very close, with England actually winning rather more corners: that is, of course, a betrayal of the weakness of stats. The real story was Spain’s failure to take advantage of all their possession) to a Spain team at full strength. The booing’s ignorant – what you saw last night are reserves and debutantes, and some of them did well. And it’s fashionable. Weren’t those the two accusations levelled at Beckham? Perhaps he’s more like the “traditional passionate England fan” than that fan might like to think.

Acknowledge also that it’s taking time to get used to 4-3-3. I’d like to hear more from Steve McClaren about why, exactly, that is plan B, but I can accept that there is one. It just isn’t fair for Sven to have been attacked only months ago for not possessing that second option, but now to lambast his successor for abandoning 4-4-2. Reflect on how far away all of this is from the kind of intelligence shown by the players on the pitch here:

We’ve had thirty years and more to catch up with that, and we just haven’t done it. So, we need to do what we can, and with what we have. 4-3-3 with the Cole brothers, Ashley and Joe, on the left, and Owen-Rooney up front with Lennon, might look substantially better.

I said a hollowed-out feeling. I felt it every time someone lumped the ball up to Crouch. Peter Crouch might be tall, but his strength is not his skill in the air. Nor does it lie in holding the ball up for… the players who fail to arrive in time to help out. Crouch is not a line-leader: he is best used as Sven used him with Owen, to disrupt defences in order to clear space for the real goalscorer. I don’t mind describing the way he was played last night as bad management, and I don’t mind calling it self-destructive. It’s both, of course.

The hollowed-out feeling comes too when I reflect on Paul Scholes. England lack an intelligent, game-reading midfielder. The tabloid campaigns against McClaren (as opposed to mine here, of course!) would be better spent in an effort to persuade Scholes out of international retirement. If McClaren could do that – and we know he’s made extreme efforts already – he could play him in central midfield alongside Gerrard, with Lampard on the bench in case Gerrard is injured. We already know how such a formation would pan out. Sven tried it. Remember?

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