Retaining the ball – England’s primary concern for South Africa

As the World Cup of 2006 edged nearer, England was being whipped into an optimistic hysteria. Our national side had cruised to successive friendly victories, 3-1 over Hungary and a 6-0 romp against Jamaica that saw the team, and their assortment of wives and girlfriends, flying over to Germany expectant. What on earth could go wrong?

One month later and England sought a scapegoat. Step forward Cristiano Ronaldo. An insouciant wink captured by BBC cameras told us he had got Wayne Rooney sent off. History was repeating itself. Failure was heroic – England’s exit accounted for by one moment of cheating. The premise that England may have simply been technically inferior was ignored.

A tradition of dashed expectations was fulfilled once again. Yet the wider football community still refused to scrutinise the real problems afflicting the England team. Throughout the 2006 tournament victories had been mundane – a Beckham free-kick all that separated England from Ecuador, two late goals saving the team against Trinidad & Tobago, and a solitary goal victory over Paraguay. They were won by individual moments of class, rather than sustained domination. And four years previously, a failure to retain the ball against a ten-man Brazil side saw the ruination of England’s 2002 World Cup hopes. Afterwards, most of the attention was focused on whether Ronaldinho actually meant to shoot from his free-kick.

Style may be subjective, and victory is paramount. Jose Mourinho’s Internazionale’s illustration of this is most vivid. In winning the Champions League this season, Inter had an average 43.6 percent of possession per game. Their goals came from exploiting mistakes and swift counter-attacks. Ledley King’s free header and Peter Crouch’s opportunism against Mexico were borne of similar means. Indeed, Monday’s victory over Mexico highlighted the problem that has long undermined English football. Time and again possession was squandered in midfield, with Michael Carrick arguably the main culprit. On the right, Theo Walcott’s erratic decision-making also relinquished possession. In spite of Peter Crouch’s goal, England’s attacking was often disjointed by his presence in attack. England spluttered and struggled for cohesion. Individual moments of genius, set pieces and defensive errors were relied on and punished.

What the win against Mexico (a team that has reached the last 16 of the World Cup of each tournament since 1994) has shown is that quality possession doesn’t guarantee victory. Inter beat Bayern Munich despite having only 41 percent of possession. They still seemed in control of the game, funnelling Bayern out wide and narrowing the pitch to deal with Arjen Robben’s threat.Despite Fabio Capello’s totalitarianism, England remain error strewn. Controlling the game must mean controlling the ball. Herein is the problem. Whilst Capello’s qualification record has earned the admiration of the Press and public alike, friendly defeats against Spain (2-0), Brazil (1-0) and even France (1-0) have exposed the same problems. Repeatedly, they have not been recognised. Instead came the same tired excuses about the intensity of games being affected by their “friendly” status, or injured or missing players rendering them meaningless.

The ease with which England qualified from a potentially difficult group has sent the plaudits Capello’s way. However, the Mexico friendly saw old problems re-emerge. Against better teams, England have conceded chances and inevitably goals. Exiting the tournament against Argentina in 1998, Brazil in 2002 and Portugal in 2006 saw England concede the majority of the ball. Failure to retain possession as they did against Mexico remains the biggest risk to England’s chances this summer.


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