Friday, June 18, 2010

England vs Algeria (Group Qualifier)

Oh dear.

What a terrible birthday present for Fabio Capello.

This was one of the worst England performances I've seen for several years.

In football, a team game with 11 players, it's not unusual or unexpected if one or two people under perform. It's normal in fact. But tonight, only the goal keeper David (Calamity) James emerged with any credit. It really was as if the remaining 10 players were all having an off day. A really off day.

The explanation has to be psychological. The England team started badly and just never recovered. As the game wore on, they seemed to lose all confidence in themselves and their team-mates. A sort of vicious circle developed whereby error led to heightened anxiety which led to more errors which led to more anxiety and so on and so on. We're all to blame for that in one sense - there's tremendous expectation put upon the team at every international tournament, and as the decades slip by since that rather lucky victory in 1966, the expectation and frustration grows.

Fortunately tonight, England were composed of gifted professional footballers with a sort of base level of competence and they were playing against a team which sensed their opponents were in trouble, but couldn't capitalise on that. The base level competence was just, just enough to ensure a draw rather than a deserved defeat. Against slightly more competent opposition, this game might have been a massacre.

Or would it?

One of the strangest things about group psychology is that a set back (the opposition scores!) just might have ignited a real anger in the England team that might have added much needed concentration and another yard or two of pace. It's one of the many paradoxes of football - a team tends to play at a level similar to it's opposition. I've been watching England for over 30 years now, and can't remember a bad performance against a very good team like Germany or Brazil. Likewise tonight, Algeria certainly didn't play like a team that had scored one goal (a penalty) in it's last five matches. As England captain Steven Gerrard reminded us, "for them it was their world cup final."

The reverse is much more obviously true - a goal, any kind of goal, no matter how lucky or undeserved would have lifted a huge weight of worry off the England team and allowed them to 'settle' as footballers say. Suddenly the movement becomes fluid, the passing accurate, and more chances are created.

A last straw to clutch - I remember vividly the terrible starts to the 1986 and 1990 world cup campaigns. Facing almost certain elimination, there had to be radical changes to formation and personnel. The changes proved highly effective, and England went on to a quarter final and semi-final and were unlucky, genuinely unlucky to loose those games. Wednesday afternoon will be a harrowing one.

Urgh! As one of the commentators asked tonight, why is it always so difficult watching England?


Sunday, June 13, 2010

England vs USA (Group qualifier)

A compelling game of football.

England played pretty well, creating numerous chances and half chances. Alas it was one of those nights when the chances weren't taken and the final ball from the wingers was often poor. It was hard to see how the USA could have come back from a two goal deficit.

The USA played extremely well, refusing to be rattled by a quality early goal, and defending bravely with occasional attacks that looked promising. Men of the match - Tim Howard (outstanding) and the American defenders - lost count of how many times they made well timed challenges and brave blocks. They also swarmed all over Rooney, effectively neutralising him for the entire match.

England drew because of one horrible and very uncharacteristic mistake by a decent goalkeeper and a decent man. Roll on Friday.


Wednesday, June 09, 2010

Day Off

Well, I *sort* of got the election right and since then thoughts have turned to the World Cup and upcoming grass court tennis season (blink and you've missed it).

Managed to score a ticket to Queens Club on Monday - a rather lovely old British institution - home of the LTA until recently and also Tim Henman's base.
It supposedly has the finest grass courts in the world, and to my inexpert eyes centre court looked wonderful just before the start of play at 12:30pm.

Day one of the tournament featured several plucky Brits battling against players a hundred or more places above them on the ATP computer rankings. No luck for Jamie Baker, James Ward or Alex Bogdanovic, but we did get to see an authentic star in the shape of Richard Gasquet, whose wonderful strokes and sublime backhand were a pleasure to see.

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