"I'm a bigger tool!" "No I'm a bigger tool!"
It's become the snuff film you're most familiar with at this point. Not that you're familiar with a lot of snuff films, but whatever. You know the script backwards and forwards by now. England come up against an opponent of true quality, spar with them for a brief time, drop deeper and deeper until they're almost in their supporters' laps, show their two main qualities (good and bad) to the hilt -- an unquestionable heart and a complete lack of technical skill -- until they hold out to go out on penalties. Wembley 96, St. Ettiene 98, Japan 2002 (though that wasn't on penalties at least), Lisbon 2004, Gelsenkirchen 2006, you can add Kiev 2012 to it now.
I've seen all of those performances, and this one was as bad as any of them, at least after the 20th minute. Whereas in other games they eventually crashed out in, England just opted for long balls that didn't work. Here, they couldn't complete passes of less than five yards. And Italian defender that came within a zip code of an England player with the ball was a cause for panic and concession of possession. The list of players who were terrible is a long one: Rooney, Welbeck, Milner, Young, and while Terry and Lescott were heroic in their last ditch defending, it was usually them who got themselves in that position in the first place. But mostly that front, "attacking" foursome, whose first touch was matched by the beer league I play in.
But it's not like we feel anything about this any more, the tale is too familiar. England have yet to get a decent tourney out of Rooney since Portugal. They finally got one out of Gerrard, but that was wasted in him mostly being superlative in positioning and defending. And England lack quality. This isn't a secret, and they didn't try to tell us any different this time.
The other main complaint was how much space Andrea Pirlo was given all match. Usually, this is death, and really should have been for England. But in order to really corral Pirlo, a team needs to play with three central midfielders. And England don't have three central midfielders worthy of this level. Can you imagine the howling if Jordan Henderson had started or Milner was shifted into the middle? And why would Rooney as a lone striker worked? Would Roy have had the guts to sit Rooney in that formation? Unlikely. So they got pulled apart by Pirlo because they lacked the flexibility to do something about it.
What stings about this exit a little more, I guess for those who are stung, is it does not portend to better things in the future. Roy Hodgson is not the man to overhaul the entire system and fix England's technical problem. The FA didn't have the vision to find that guy, if he's even around. So you can look forward to more of this in Brazil (if they can actually host, and the more and more I read about it that's not sure thing). Pirlo's brilliance at 33 this tournament might give hope to Gerrard squeezing out just one more summer tournament. But Pirlo plays in the less taxing Serie A while Gerrard is carrying Liverpool through the bruising EPL. Welbeck didn't show any consistent flash to make you think he'll suddenly become a real weapon. Ashely Young is probably in his peak now. How'd that look? Has Rooney peaked? One can only hope Jack Wilshere can justify somehow ending up in a commercial with Aguero and Messi one day.
But that doesn't mean it is hopeless. The FA have overhauled their youth system and how kids grow up playing the game, with an emphasis on technical skill. It's way too late, and it's what Sven wanted to do but they just had to have a new Wembley that really isn't necessary at all. In a few years when that produces players who can treat the ball as something other than a hand grenade, England could have real dreams.
But until then, we'll keep rewinding the familiar film, knowing exactly how it ends.