The players didn't fail us - it was our system and philosophy that let us down
ANALYSIS:THE GENERAL reaction to Ireland and then England’s demise at the European Championships has been fairly similar – neither nation was good enough by half, be it technically or individually.
I think this stance is wrong.
Let’s start by looking at Scott Parker and Steven Gerrard; the cramped up, exhausted England midfield pairing from the other night’s defeat to Italy. Put them against any three-man midfield in the tournament and they were always going to struggle.
Any two chasing possession against three men will expend way more energy. Just look at the drained look on Parker’s face as he was hauled off or Gerrard cramping up on 71 minutes.
Around the same time the first beads of sweat dripped off Andrea Pirlo’s forehead. Glenn Whelan and the frustrated Keith Andrews had similar problems during their Pirlo passing tutorial.
The Italian playmaker is 33 but this obvious weakness was never tested because Italy constantly had the option of an extra body against both Ireland and England. Pirlo barely moves but the two midfielders in front of him had Gerrard and Parker on their toes.
The English backroom really should have made their boys sit through the Italy v Irish game. It was there for all to see. Yet no lesson was learned. We’re back to the 4-4-2 debate again. This problem will not go away.
There was an English plan. It was for Danny Welbeck and Wayne Rooney to alternate dropping off and putting pressure on the Italian puppetmaster. It was important for either Welbeck or Rooney to tackle from the wrong side of Pirlo. You don’t want them goal-side of him as the Italians can react to that. It worked a few times with Pirlo losing the ball and Italy immediately looking fragile.
A striker, by his very nature, is a free spirit so to ask Welbeck or Rooney to do a man-marker’s job throughout was a tactical flaw. Eventually they stopped doing the job. Same thing happened with Ireland’s front two. There were countless moments when the English, and Irish, strikers were five yards off Pirlo, sucking in oxygen as the Juve number 21 picked out his umpteenth pass deep in opposition territory.
England, or Ireland, could even have played with Parker, or Whelan, in front of two midfielders, with a simple brief to stop Pirlo. Stand on him for 90 minutes, or until Cesare Prandelli was forced to change. Then you react and frustrate them some more. Get stuck into them but do it cleverly. It would have become 10 versus 10 and made a massive difference.
I actually felt Ireland had more of a go against Italy than England. The extra man in midfield means a player must be sacrificed elsewhere. Neither Giovanni Trapattoni nor Roy Hodgson were prepared to do this. The better teams in this tournament have embraced this approach, giving up the attacking option out wide by going through the middle in numbers.
The Premiership is the best league in the world. Looking at the individuals that made up the England starting XI, I cannot see how Italy’s XI could be considered technically superior. Man for man, I believe England were the better side. But they didn’t go man for man. There was no individual pressure put on. Hodgson is a 4-4-2 advocate, always has been. He decided this was the simplest approach to get the players to buy into his management in the time frame available.
Prandelli, in contrast, went about winning the tournament by alternating from 3-5-2 against Spain and Croatia, changing mid-game to a 4-3-3, which he stuck with, but an even narrower version, against us. It was a different system for every game to counter the opposition.
They were clearly practising for weeks in training, constantly changing systems and personnel with a steely focus on beating every team they face (although I think Germany will prove too strong for everyone).
It is simple arithmetic, movement, awareness and industry. Three against two in the middle will always mean the two men are chasing shadows. Also, when you do get the ball, your options are few, if any.
The problem is the English/ Irish mentality, and the public reaction at attempts to change. I’ve experienced crowds at Lansdowne Road and English grounds growing frustrated with the ball being passed about. They want it sent up to our big striker without any creativity until we are around opponents’ 18-yard box.
The Spanish, Portuguese, Italians and Germans all seek to control the ball, and patiently work it upfield. That’s why the Premier League is considered the most exciting league in the world. Because it is so fast and furious.
When England sent on Andy Carroll, and it went directly up to him, the Italians struggled. Suddenly there was a hint of midfielders not tracking their runners. The only problem was so much energy had already been spent.
Now, it is time to think about the next World Cup in Brazil, with its climate and humidity, as well as the established passing approach of the major nations.
England and Ireland cannot simply switch philosophy in the next few weeks, but their current systems must change.
I would love to hear about a new on-field strategy for Irish football going for forward. Most importantly, it has to be the same style of play from the bottom up. Our representative teenagers must play the same all the way through the ranks so promotion into the senior squad is seamless.
At Coventry City, where I coach, we have a coaching methodology that starts at under-10 right up to the first team squad. This is nothing new at the best clubs all over the world.
Will Trapattoni seek to do this? Does he care about what happens to Ireland at underage or even at senior in two years’ time? Will he start going to club games in England that have Irish players on view? We’ve loads of ex-Irish internationals out there coaching – Kenny Cunningham, Gary Breen, Curtis Fleming, Graham Kavanagh, Alan McLoughlin and, of course, Chris Hughton.
Why not get one or two of them around the national team? Our first job should be to ensure no team, no matter how technically gifted, should be allowed waltz through our midfield lines during the next qualification campaign.
Even the Germans, potentially arriving as European champions in October, must not be permitted to do what others have done to us and to England. We’ve suffered enough under the current manager’s stubbornness.