England’s victory last night has provoked a very predictable tapestry of reactions. For some, coming from behind to beat Sweden was a triumph of Three-Lionsism, of ‘grit’, ‘perseverance’ and ‘steel’. For others, the win was achieved thanks to Roy Hodgson’s team being marginally less mediocre than the Swedes; moreover, this account holds, England have fallen back on dinosaur tactics – hit it at the big man, etc – which will be exposed by the subtleties of the Spanish or Croatian midfielders likely to be encountered in the first knock-out round.
Neither of these analyses ring particularly true. The last English performance with any ‘grit’ of note at the finals of an international tournament was, to my recollection, the 1-0 defeat of Argentina in Sapporo ten years ago: Stevie G, John Terry and Wayne Rooney are all remarkably good at wearing the mask of indominability, and have found this attribute in themselves regularly at club level, but have rarely imposed their famed determination when the national team have found themselves in the soup. When they fall behind, there’s a fine line between panic and resolve, and England tend to fall on the wrong side of it. Last night, though, their response to Sweden’s second goal was admirably unflapped, and was helped along by Hodgson’s decision to remove James Milner – one of those English players who does a great job of looking incredibly involved while contributing the square root of nothing – for the supposedly fairweather Theo Walcott. Walcott’s equaliser and assist for Danny Welbeck’s beautifully-improvised winner both represented a calm, almost casual attitude to adversity which, if it can be maintained, may well come to be one of the most likeable aspects of the new-look team.
The contrasting narrative – that luck and hoofball won England the game – is similarly flawed. I don’t think I’ve been so impressed by an English performance since the 4-1 victory in Zagreb late in 2008, and it was the combination of physical presence and artisanal intelligence that made this the case. There was nothing aimless about the aerial balls to the excellent Andy Carroll last night, while if Xavi or Andrea Pirlo had played the cross Steven Gerrard did for Carroll’s opener there would be widespread lamenting at the inability of English football to produce accurate mid-range passes. In turn, the Geordie – who reminds me, oddly, of Christian Vieri at times – and Welbeck are both smart players who know how to use their respective forms of awkwardness (while not particularly robust, the Manchester United stiker’s long limbs and flexibility make him an extremely frustrating player to tackle) to infuriate defenders into making mistakes. A team of any philosophy playing properly to its strengths (even the Wimbledon side of the late eighties) are a real joy to watch, and the notion that reasonably direct football with good link play from proper forwards is less pleasurable for the spectator than false-nined tiki-taka or Brazilian/ Nikian Joga Bonito is at best a canard.
England, as the clip up top suggests, were The Fall last night, making an implicit case for recognising that everyday folk knowledge is full of its own instances of flair while simultaneously dismissing the romanticisation of those styles we supposedly ‘can’t do’ as a bit Hampstead. As my brother once put it, watching a Stoke winger bursting into space on the end of a flick-on is a far better experience – as far as sheer excitement goes – than watching Wenger’s Arsenal when they’re off-colour and over-technical. Roy Hodgson might not be Pep Guardiola, but he certainly has the intelligence to recognise that throwing the baby out with the tactical bathwater is probably the worst thing an England manager could do at this moment in time.
Posted by Joe Kennedy