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?



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