Ambition

Reluctant Robshaw

Reluctant Robshaw

On Sunday afternoon England rugby captain Chris Robshaw ascended the Twickenham steps to collect the Triple Crown for the first time since 2003 (something else happened that year for England rugby but it escapes me now…). Robshaw’s inherently coy demeanor was apparent as he waded through dozens of fans on the ascent to collect the trophy. It was indicative of everything that is positive about the English rugby team at this moment in time. He was visibly embarrassed that he alone was making the climb. England’s, in the end, comfortable victory over Wales was a team performance and his conduct as he accepted the back-pats and high-fives was truly representative of this. He was much more comfortable when back amongst his teammates.

Take it back four days and about 10 miles north to Wembley stadium where the penultimate match before England’s trip to Rio was taking place. World Cup fever was in the air… for the opening 30 seconds. From thereon in the atmosphere, the day after Shrove Tuesday, was as flat as a pancake and the players did little or nothing to improve the situation. Fitting perhaps but not ideal given that the World Cup is just a few months away. There was little to no cohesion between the players. This lack of unity spread to the fans who became increasingly frustrated with England’s utter lack of ambition. Even after Sturridge’s winner, the crowd were forced to entertain themselves with a Mexican wave: always a damning indictment of the standard of play on the pitch.

Maybe last Wednesday’s performance was a good thing. Following Wembley defeats to Chile and Germany, expectations going into a major tournament are dwindling. The 1-0 defeat of Denmark did little to alter this understandable pessimism. This, to say the least, uninspiring performance versus the painfully average Danes should have raised an inkling of skepticism in even the most optimistic Three Lions fan. Yes, England won but there was almost no ambition in the display, other than from two Saints among the sinners.  

The form side in England are Liverpool. It appears Roy Hodgson has shaped his side around a core of Liverpool players, the club he recently managed. The difference between Brendan Rodgers’ Liverpool and Hodgson’s England (and Liverpool for that matter) lies in the emphasis on defending. Only Spain conceded fewer goals (3) than England (4) in European World Cup qualifying whereas only Spurs have conceded more goals (37) than Rodgers’ Liverpool (35) in the top 7. While England’s spine consists of players from the red half of Mersey (Johnson, Gerrard, Henderson, Sterling, Sturridge), the manner in which Hodgson is deploying them means they are restrained.  The freedom granted under Rodgers is removed when wearing the Three Lions . Hodgson’s cautious approach leads to a fear of attacking. It could be argued that Roy Hodgson is the reason for England’s lack of ambition.

However, it should be noted  that only Germany (36) and the Netherlands (34) scored more goals than England (31) in the European zone of qualification for the 2014 World Cup.

Another problem lies in the fact that Wayne Rooney is consistently shoehorned in to formations that do not suit him. Rooney is undoubtedly the most talented footballer we have but his positional indiscipline means that any formation is rendered obsolete when he is on the pitch. An in-form Wayne Rooney hovers in and around the box. An out of form Wayne Rooney, the player we saw at Wembley last Wednesday, hovers around the halfway line, leaving an otherwise rigid formation in tatters.

Daniel Sturridge, the in-form striker in England must be played in his best position: through the middle. His natural goal-scoring instincts are wasted when he is forced out wide to accommodate for golden-boy Rooney. The balance of the team was vastly improved when Rooney was taken off with half an hour to go. If England are to pick players on form, Hodgson must be brave and understand that Rooney has no divine right to the starting XI.

Apart from the continuation of Sturridge’s frankly ridiculous current goal-scoring rate, the impact of the two Southampton men Luke Shaw, who came on at halftime, and Adam Lallana who joined his club teammate in the 59th minute was arguably the only other positive to take from an otherwise depressing outing. They were by far the most threatening England players that evening. Raheem Sterling was awarded with the Man of the Match award but Lallana showed more skill and ambition in the relatively short time he had to impress in front of a disappointing attendance at Wembley.

With regards to Shaw, I personally find it astonishing that in the days following his marvelous display, Ashley Cole was still being touted as the out-and-out favourite to travel to Rio as Leighton Baines’ deputy. I do not wish to belittle Cole’s outstanding career achievements but if this England team is looking to the future Luke Shaw must travel. He will get far more from the experience than the Chelsea-man. I would even  argue that Kieran Gibbs should be higher in the pecking order than Cole.

England need to be looking to the future. England fans must accept that England will not win this forthcoming World Cup but use it as a means to developing the young talent that is obviously there in abundance. Accepting this does not indicate a lack of ambition. It means we can play without fear. When Adam Lallana pulled off a Cruyff turn in the second half against Denmark it did more to arouse the crowd than everything else that night apart from the goal (and possibly the Mexican wave). Fans appreciate moments of ambition such as this.

This is where I bring it back to the rugby on Sunday.

Ben Morgan and Mike Brown fight for possession

Ben Morgan and Mike Brown fight for possession.

This snapshot, taken from the second half epitomises the attitude of the England rugby team at present. Ben Morgan and Mike Brown, pictured, were both outstanding on the day and have been for the entire Six Nations tournament. At this point in the match England were almost out of sight, leading 26-18 with just over 20 minutes remaining yet they are both fighting for a touch of the ball. This is true ambition, considering the calibre of player they were up against. The Welsh team was littered with recent Lions players whereas England’s starting XV had one in Owen Farrell: a player who was largely Johnny Sexton’s understudy in Australia. Reputations were swept aside last week at Twickenham.

When England lost 26-24 to France in their opening match of this Six Nations, there was disappointment, obviously, but also overwhelming praise for the spirit and ambition that England showed in defeat.

One look at England’s rugby team and it screams ball-carriers, players who are not afraid to ‘have a go’. When the most destructive ball-carrier Billy Vunipola was forced to pull out of the Wales fixture with an injury, Ben Morgan stepped up at the back of the scrum and could arguably have been awarded Man of the Match. The accolade was given to Courtney Lawes but it could have gone to any number of players on the day.

Players craved the ball. This is the difference between our football and rugby teams on the pitch at present.

Minus perhaps Lallana and Shaw in the second-half, none of the players at Wembley wanted the ball. Who is to blame for this? The players themselves? The manager? The fans? The media?

In the build-up to the England v Denmark match it emerged that an online petition to banish Tom Cleverley from the England World Cup squad had gained 15,000 signatures. As I write, it has reached 18,815. Who can blame England players for being scared of the ball with this kind of public hatred on the horizon after a few questionable performances. Tom Cleverley may not be the next Paul Gascoigne but is he really deserving of this kind of treatment?

Footballers consistently beat rugby players to the back-pages (and often the front-pages) of national newspapers . They are scrutinised and scrutinised and scrutinised. When the likes of Wayne Rooney are being paid £300,000 a week for kicking a ball, maybe they are deserving of intense scrutiny. Ridiculous wages are public knowledge. It does go some way to understanding why football players are more susceptible to public opinion than their oval ball-shaped counterparts. Performances are weighed against price-tags.

The Aviva Premiership salary cap ensures that our rugby clubs keep a lid on spending to avoid stumbling into a situation akin to the Barclays Premier League where players and agents become more powerful than clubs. Greed has taken over and the only true beneficiaries are football agents and the tabloid media. Footballers are unwittingly thrust into the limelight which creates stories for red tops and turnover for talentless agents. In the age of social media, as soon as somebody important decides Tom Cleverley isn’t good enough for England, the whole of England decides that Tom Cleverley isn’t good enough for England. People must recognise that footballers are real-life people who succumb to pressure like anybody else. Perhaps then England footballers can enjoy playing and England fans can enjoy watching them again.

Until then I will continue pinning my hopes on the England rugby team where selfishness and greed does not rule. We currently have a rugby team that likes to play rugby and I respect that.

In other news, here’s my match report for Weston-super-Mare FC v. Whitehawk FC from the weekend: http://www.footballexclusives.co.uk/apps/blog/show/41886470

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