The set-piece came in. Steven Caulker jumped at it before Craig Dawson headed it in. It looked scrappy but in the midst of all that was laid bare the solemn identity of English football. Grit. Determination. Hunger. Desire.
The match would eventually be lost and indeed the goal would not stand. As England’s U-21’s kicked off their Euro 2013 campaign against Italy’s U-21’s, there was a clear divide in the manner in which both sides played their football. A contrast of styles.
Here was England; determined to win and they kept on going and going and going. And going. Italy on the other hand were different. Technically superior. Their passing and movement was much better. Just looking at Marco Verrati and one wondered how he always seemed to receive the ball in acres of space and rarely gave the ball away when he did play it. By the end of the game, the man nicknamed ‘vice-Pirlo’ had made 120 passes. The most any Englishman made was the 44 by Liverpool’s Jordan Henderson.
Yet, despite that glaring disparity in quality, England only lost 1-0. Their scrappy goal brought about so much confusion that nobody realised that it had been disallowed. The PA announcer declared it, the electronic scoreboard reflected it, but it did not show on the referee’s book. Only 90 seconds later did everybody realise that the goal had not stood (apparently for a foul by Caulker on Matteo Bianchetti in the build up).
And the contrast would not have been more than with Italy’s defining moment. Receiving a pass from Luca Marrone, Italian substitute Manolo Gabbiadini faked as if he was going right, then with a nonchalant turn flicked the ball to his left. Nathaniel Clyne had bought the dummy and was now in no man’s land. That display of technical brilliance had left Gabbiadini bearing down on goal with Clyne and Caulker inexpicably split. Clyne had no choice but to haul down the Bologna/Juventus striker.
And whether or not it was a penalty remains a debate that will never be answered. From the ensuing free kick however, Lorenzo Insigne curled it past Jack Butland who got his gloves to the ball but could not prevent its power from going in.
In the dying minutes, England had a chance to replicate the same outcome as a nervy Italy conceded two free kicks on the edge of the box. Henderson however failed to perform what Insigne had done on the other end. The skipper could not emulate that brilliant David Beckham moment against Greece in 2001.
It leaves one wondering whether England can cope at all with the technique of other teams. To be completely outpassed is a demoralizing thing. To see players so comfortable with the ball means England are far away from their potential.
But, all is not lost. England may have been beaten, but not comprehensively. They still had a chance to equalise and were never out of it. It points to that envied English character that even Xavi says he adores. That will to fight – to continue till the last. Also, the luck of the draw means that the other technically superior sides (Spain, Netherlands and Germany) are all in the same group. England may still get through to the semi-finals, but it is difficult to imagine how the Young Lions can cope with either of these teams.
It is not as if England lack the quality. Four years ago, they made it into the Final of this same tournament, and were also semi-finalists in 2007. However, those two instances show both the worst, and great of England.
Making it into the final with a team consisting of the likes of Theo Walcott and Jack Rodwell was not entirely a surprise. The result in the Final however was. They were defeated 4-0. Yet, with hind sight, it should not really have been a surprise. The main man of the show in that Final was Mesut Oezil. He dragged, pulled and slithered his way in and around the English defence. He was helped by the likes of Sami Khedira and Mats Hummels, with manuel Neuer in goal.
At the 2007 tournament on the other hand, defeat via penalties (again) was at the hands of eventual champions Holland. Yet, that was a blessing in disguise. Such was the punishing nature of the match (and the tournament) that England had the bulk of their players injured, or suspended for the next game. England had battled hard – the consequence was punishing to their personel.
“We realised it was no use winning the ball if you finished up on your backside. The top Europeans showed us how to break out of defence effectively. The pace of their movement was dictated by their first pass. We had to learn how to be patient like that and think about the next two or three moves when we had the ball.”
Bob Paisley, former Liverpool manager and the only man to have won the European Cup three times as a manager explaining why Liverpool changed tact to a more technical based game in the late 70’s.
It means that with such a brave hearts comes a degree of naivety. Yes, England’s fighting spirit is one to be adored, but the consequences are at times illogical. It does not matter how much you can sum up the courage, stiffen the sinews and churn the blood if in the end all that is achieved is a Pyrrhic victory.
So, England must learn, or adapt that fighting spirit of theirs. At the moment, that precarious balance can only be found in one man – Wayne Rooney. Yet, some of his teammates in his generation harbour that all encompassing composure. None more so that the hugely talented Jack Wilshere, who in 2011 shone alone in an Arsenal midfield that was battered at the Camp Nou. Yet in recent times, he has added (or been influenced) into an adrenalin filled type of game that now sees him charging into injuries rather than charging into victories.
With the showing of that U-21 side, it could be possible that the problem starts from way down in their infancy. England needs to change its approach. Success is not merely bravery, but also intelligence. Steven Gerrard may earn you victories, but it is Paul Scholes that will earn you podiums, trophies and gold medals. Bravery may be their greatest strength – it is also the source of their shortcomings.