By David de Winter – Sports Editor
Calamitous. Shambloic. A disgraceful result that will impact on generations to come. Far too much play on the right wing and not enough on the left. But, enough about my thoughts on the EU referendum. England’s footballers rather predictably missed the opportunity to give the public something to cheer about after the most tumultuous political week in my lifetime, by bowing out of Euro 2016 with a pathetic 2-1 defeat to Iceland on Monday.
Before the tournament I prattled on about how England would probably get out of their group and then go out to the first half-decent team they faced in the knockout stages. Little did I know that team was Iceland. They had a revolutionary idea that England were totally lacking:…wait for it…a gameplan! Yes that’s right, Iceland’s management had actually done some research and come up with a gameplan to beat the opposition. Clever them. A shame England didn’t do something similar; instead they passed the ball ponderously, usually to an Icelandic player, with a total dearth of urgency and dynamism.
Another revolutionary concept Iceland came up with was tactics. They had this radical idea to play a simple formation that played to their strengths. Bloody smart these Icelandic chaps. Off the ball they worked tirelessly, setting-up with two banks of four (old school 4-4-2) and not allowing England any space in behind their defenders or in between the defence and attack. Going forward they were limited, but in Kolbeinn Sigthorsson they had a robust centre-forward who gave Chris Smalling and Gary Cahill a torrid time, and they were also well-drilled at set-pieces.
What a surprise it was when Iceland scored from a long-throw and proceeded to complete the fightback when Sigthorsson scored after a flowing move that left England’s defence leaden-footed. It was almost as if England hadn’t bothered to study Iceland’s group matches.
Had England lost due to a dodgy decision or exited the tournament unluckily, maybe I would have been more upset. As it was, they were simply totally outplayed. Despite hogging possession, Iceland (apart from Rooney’s penalty) had the four best chances of the match, scoring with two of them. Had England conceded a third they would have had no cause for complaint.
However, the blame can’t all be laid at Roy Hodgson and his management’s door. The players must take some responsibility. The whole England XI looked aimless, devoid of any inspiration. This is the knockout stages of a major tournament! Surely this is the reason most of them became a professional footballer – to represent their country at a major finals? To witness the players totally freeze and be outplayed by the equivalent of a League One team (no offence Iceland) was mystifying, almost embarrassing. It was like watching my home team, the mighty Woking FC, on a bad day. In days gone by, someone like Steven Gerrard would have taken the game by the scruff of the neck – where was that leadership in Nice? Rooney tried but was unfortunately hindered by a sudden inability to pass to a teammate.
England suffer from the incapability to think under pressure. It is a skill that is almost impossible to teach – when a crucial moment comes in a match, a player has the coolness to a) make the correct decision and b) execute that decision. It’s something that a team like Germany seem to do all the time, every time. England’s players on Monday almost seemed as if they didn’t trust their ability, like there was something holding them back – i.e they couldn’t think under pressure.
There is a lot more emphasis in modern times about the mental side of football. It was much publicised that, during the ultimately fruitless Premier League campaign of 2013/14, Liverpool enlisted the help of the sports psychologist Steve Peters who went on to work with the England team at the World Cup in Brazil and who also counts maverick snooker genius Ronnie O’Sullivan as his clients. So could it be that England simply lack the mental fortitude required to be a successful football team?
That is not to say that on a technical level, England aren’t inferior – that much is obvious. However, as Iceland showed, a team can become more than just the sum of its parts. England, on the other hand, have all these so-called talented individuals but, put them together, they play like strangers. How can that be? Once Iceland took the lead midway through the first half they never looked like scoring, even though there was more than three quarters of the match to play. It betrays a lack of composure in our footballers that will take more than just a change of manager to solve.