I’ve been complaining here for months that ex-players are inadequate in the role of summarizers. I had one exception: Jimmy Armfield, the former Blackpool player who captained England and managed Leeds United to the 1975 European Cup Final (an achievement he himself plays down and attributes solely to his players).
I listened to England’s friendly on Wednesday on Five Live, while driving back to London from Wales. In the build-up, summarizer Chris Waddle (Newcastle, Spurs, Marseilles, Wednesday, England etc. as if you need telling) –
– was asked about a number of England players and the prospects of the team generally. He had obviously prepared a couple of lines beforehand, which he repeated robotically. It all comes down to confidence, apparently. Again, and again. I braced myself for ninety minutes of the same.
Once the match was underway, though, he was superb. Intelligent, thinking, observing. At one point, he mentioned that Spain would pass to a man who had perhaps two yards of space around him – but England were reluctant to pass to anyone with less than five yards. Better, don’t you think, than merely saying that England weren’t passing the ball as well as Spain? Better than saying that they aren’t as comfortable on the ball as Spain?
Because we know those things already. But Waddle’s way of putting it actually makes you think a bit more about what’s going on – it makes you reflect on how much harder it will be for an England player to be in a position where a pass is on; how much harder for England to work the ball; how much more important each England pass becomes, therefore, because there’ll be fewer of them.
I’ve been watching the goal below again, and trying to think about it from an England perspective. So many of those dozens of passes don’t appear to do anything, or go anywhere: it’s possession for the sake of it. Serbia stand off the Argentines. But, looking again, it’s close work – receive the ball, know where your colleagues are, pass, get into a position to receive:
Steve McClaren knows that English players aren’t attuned to this at present. Our strengths lie elsewhere. We have excellent defenders. We have Rooney, when fit, to think our attacking. We have quick outside midfielders. And we have central midfielders blessed with powerful shooting capabilities. For the time being, until Owen and Ashton are fit, our out-and-out strikers are weak and comparatively inexperienced.
These strengths do point towards doing what McClaren has been talking about – using speed to beat defenders, and rely on good crossing and set pieces for goals. We just don’t have the clever central midfielders that France have enjoyed in the last ten years, and there isn’t anyone of that kind coming through at the moment.
Waddle was also first to notice – this within a few minutes of the kick-off, while England were still doing that Cup underdog early-doors thing – that the team was unbalanced, too narrow, and leaving the left side of midfield exposed.
It became obvious to everyone some time later when Villa began making hay on that left side.
The game has been analysed to death by now. But, given how hard I normally am about ex-players punditting on TV and radio, praise where praise is due.