Croatia 2-1 England review – part three

Dear readers,

No one wants to play in it, the third round play-off. Battle of the losers. Battle of the nearly finalists. I might sound bitter, but I don’t care about third place. I know the players will say otherwise, both for England and Belgium, very much in-line with FIFA, but they won’t want to be playing this. Waiting around three or four days with the reminder that you must play one more game but never be a champion, when they really want to be going on holiday. The Premier League season begins less than a month away and the players need rest. This game is plain cruel.

Talking of cruel, I must now

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Croatia 2-1 England review – part two

Dear readers,

One rarely wants to stick the knife in so soon after another has fallen to the floor. Neither does one want to seem pedantically over-critical when a group of young players did all they could and did so well to get where they did. But I’m going to do that anyway. Maybe not pedantically, yet if we remain in a mist of eurphoria and paint the players as heroes after coming away empty-handed apart from happy memories, nothing shall be learned.

However, I also believe it’s good to start with the positives, as there have been a few.

Positives

Mentality – The team is more professional and less egotistical than years gone by. In recent squads, there were many individuals who believed in their own hype, making it very hard for coaches to mold them into a functioning team. Rio Ferdinand recently admitted the Manchester United lads would sit apart from the Chelsea players, fearing at club level the opposition might use something against them. Gareth Southgate seems to have got rid of that, as well as the irritating WAG culture, and worked on gelling the team and improving the psychology of the players, as well as basic manners i.e. no mobile phones at dinner time.

Positivity – Ties into mentality, but there have lots of positivity coming from the England camp, lots players smiling, not moaning about being bored and enjoying the moment. When I’d hear of boredom at a major tournament in the past it would make me want to scream with frustration. Many of us would swap our legs and arms to be a participant at the World Cup, but the moaning reminded you of how pampered their lives are. In this World Cup, we heard of harmony, family and togetherness; something I am sure Southgate and his coaches focused on. I wonder how many faith healers they had? This calm and harmony was played out a lot on the pitch as well. There were moments of discomfort, of course, but on many occasion the team remained calm and weathered the storm. Mind you, this is the minimal you would expect from a “wannabe champion“, but it’s rarely the case with England. Look what happened against Iceland two years ago. Now, there are no excuses or anger; players owned up to mistakes, accepting referees decisions, dusting ourselves off and getting on with it. There’s also no blaming winter breaks or the amount of foreigners in the Premier League. We have a pool of players who look hungry but lost to a better team. We now have a marker of where we are and where we want to be. In next tournament, we need to ditch the “team of youths” tag for a “team of winners” mentality. The only way to do that is by beating teams, and by that I mean beating the best. That remains to be seen.

In terms of their new found fame after this World Cup though, it will be interesting to see how many players keep their feet on the ground and which lose their heads. We know how the British press likes to build people up, then knock them down when they falter. The team seem pretty mature, but fame can do strange things to people with disastrous outcomes. Remember Paul Gascoigne?

Preparation – Taking the tournament game by game. Well, up until the last game, when the players, media and fans underestimated Croatia and got too excited looking at the final. Of course, the players are only human and they know the rewards of what lies ahead if they beat a certain team. Yet there seems to be more focus on the here and now, being positive and working on things that beat the opposition, rather than disrespecting or under- or over-estimating a team. This, I have read in books about Brazilian, German and Italian football, is what former champions have done. It’s basic and should have been learned years ago. We have read in the past when England have lost in penalties that the players hadn’t practiced in the previous days, with pundits and coaches using the excuse of “It’s a lottery”. Yes it’s hard to recreate the pressures of the scene of the long walk up to the penalty spot, and yes there is an element of luck in which way the goalkeeper dives for the ball, but England were using these reasons as not to practice. Southgate, no. Maybe through his own experience, he had the players practice a lot, with a clear plan of his penalty takers and researching where opposing players place penalties, giving England the tools to success over Colombia. Again, basic, but these were things not being done before. The players seem nicer and more grounded, unlike Wayne Rooney who berated fans after they booed the team off the pitch after England played very uninspiringly in a 0-0 draw with Algeria in the group stages of the 2010 World Cup (a game which I will always remember for a pigeon feeling comfortable enough to sit on the crossbar of the goal England were shooting at), despite many fans paying their right arm to be there. This England team seem more grateful for their support now.

New identity – I’m a wee bit sceptical about this point, something that has been bellowed at us over and over again from the FA’s press team. England’s DNA, etc. I do think, however, Southgate has adopted a new style that England can work with and is more pleasing to the eye, based on high-tempo possession football, something similar to Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City or Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool. We will need a plan B if games aren’t going to plan though, as witnessed against Croatia. Tactical flexibility and being quick to change a faltering system is crucial at this level. Back to the new identity, we saw signs of it in the group stage in Euro 2016. Roy Hodgson, despite being a scapegoat after the Iceland loss, had us playing possession football and dominating teams (apart from against Iceland), while using quite a few of the same players that played at this World Cup. It just lacked the clinical edge, especially against Russia and Slovakia. Southgate has adopted this game-plan, changing the formation to a back three and two high-placed wing-backs, and playing one fast-paced full-back amongst those three centre-backs, being Kyle Walker; a move that raised a few eyebrows at the time but seems to have worked out well. The team play out from defence more effectively and the team strung many good moves together which won many plaudits, including fromthe man who apparently possesses the hand of God, Diego Maradona. They apply pressure when without the ball and attack with speed. They need to be more clinical, especially Raheem Sterling and Jesse Lingard, as well as provide more service to Harry Kane. England also improved their set pieces, looking dangerous at every corner and free-kick near the box, with a great number of goals coming that way. We have a springboard to something.

Smarter – We know how to draw free-kicks and penalties from teams. In years gone by, we were too honest and naive. Now we have learnt the tricks of the trade to go down easily under challenges, helping to win free-kicks in dangerous areas. There were moments where England players were wrestled to the ground and we received nothing, especially against Tunisia. There were other times when we invited the opposition to make a challenge and hit the ground, especially against Panama and Colombia. Both teams looked nervous when England came forward and would use violence to stop Kane and co. It’s just England took advantage, something thtu I’ll. These little advantages count. It’s been the case for years in Southern Europe and South America. England are just catching up. It’s not flopping like Neymar. It’s being smart. It’s not fair play; but fair play wins you monetary prizes, being smart gets you far in tournament football tournaments

New players – Southgate set a good example by selecting players who have played well regularly for their clubs, rather than remaining a little too loyal to players who have been injured or had bad form and walk straight into the squad. Joe Hart, Jack Wilshire and Adam Lallana are three examples. Most the players earn their place rather than get it through privilege, adding competition and quality throughout the ranks. I personally would of still taken Jack Wilshire instead of Fabian Delph due to his excellent range of passing and being a motor in the team, which include could have done with against Croatia. Then again, I’m not the England manager, nor have I coached them to a World Cup semi-final, let alone coached an actual game. What do I know? Gareth Southgate has been in England set up for some time. He knows the young players coming through, as well as lean on the players that were injured, such as Chamberlain.

The World Cup has made heroes out of a few England players, especially Jordan Pickford, Harry Maguire and Kieran Trippier. Kyle Walker, Jordan Henderson, Raheem Sterling and Jesse Lingard played good in parts, while Harry Kane started well, should end up Golden Boot winner, despite fading towards the end.

There we go. A lot of positives. The next post, the negatives…or more so, things to work on.


Croatia 2-1 England review – Part one

Dear readers,

So, England’s 2018 World Cup journey has come to an end. Been quite a ride, hasn’t it, for all generations of English fans. After years of failure and disappointment, players not putting in their all, scandals, hype, negativity, being trounched by the big guns and getting humiliated by the so-called minnows, getting knocked out in the first round of tournaments and the rest of it. Have England been a laughing stock? I’m sure those with anti-English sentiments have enjoyed our discomfort in recent years, and then again as England was tactically and technically outplayed by Croatia last night as they were knocked out in the semi-final of the 2018 World Cup in Moscow. But even they must have been somewhat impressed by Gareth Southgate’s gelling of young hungry, talented men. The high tiempo game has won a few admirers along the way, playing with enthusiasm, character and positivity. I’ve had many Hondurans congratulating me as England progressed, as well as a Colombian colleague. And it hasn’t gone amiss that England’s youth teams have been winning their respective levels, too.

Nostalgia. Italia ’90. For those who don’t remember or were born after, this is their tournament. More than quarter of a century ago. I don’t think it’s completely healthy for our competitive spirit being heroic about failed tournaments (you don’t see Germany or Brazil doing the same), but then as a nation we managed to turn Dunkirk into a success story. Yet in recent week the euphoria floating around, felt 8,000 miles away in Honduras, has been a massive relief from recent political and terrorism problems and military conflicts around the globe. Not just in the UK but across the world. The power of sports. And the beautiful irony is the tournament has been held in Russia, one of the most controversial countries in the current political sphere, which Putin is using as a propaganda tool to promote his country. There’s no “Nessun Dorma“, but there’s been plenty of drama on the pitch as the favourites fell one by one, which has given the world cup it’s very own romanticism based around shock.

I can’t say I caught on to the feeling of #ItsComingHome. I never felt it was, in terms of the Jules Rimet trophy, yet the relief its given the country has gone along way to restoring unity in a nation that has been divided since the Brexit vote two years ago. Maybe football did come home in its own way. Funnily enough I told a French friend this, and he replied by saying, “We too need it. Didn’t you see the French elections?” If France does win the World Cup on Sunday, I suppose Jules Rimet really is going home.

The #ItsComingHome slogan, as catchy as it is (as well as the song), is a great assumption that the English own football on some level. Unfortunately we don’t. We’re an improving nation, and it’s nice to believe and be positive, but we do get ahead of ourselves and seemingly patronise countries we feel superior to. Luka Modrić, maybe the world’s best midfielder right now, said as much in the post match interview, saying that they felt motivated by the English pundits and things written by English journalists, eager to prove us wrong. I’m guessing this will never change. It’s an unfortunate part of our culture, an empirical attitude that won’t die.

Saying that, I did start off a small superstition during the World Cup for myself by playing the Fat Les song Vindaloo before an England game. I then forgot to do it play it before the game against Belgium which we lost. Then I made sure I played it for the remaining games, but it seems Croatia jinxed it, if there was anything to it. I showed it to my wife, who was bemused. It’s a strange song. I think its yobbish and rude and arrogant, as well as hilarious and cheeky. I’m putting that song away for a couple of years at least.

What did I want from this tournament? England to play well. And I think I got that in most of the games we played. People are saying England has a bright future in football, but to do that we must look at the things we did wrong as well as right. And in the next piece I’ll be highlighting some of the things the whole England camp needs to improve if it wants to win anything soon.

…says the man who can barely do three keepy-uppies, let alone win anything on the Championship Manager video game. Here I am giving Gareth Southgate coaching tips.

Until the next post.


England v Croatia

Dear readers,

I didn’t think either team would make it to this stage. Both teams can walk away from the tournament proud of themselves. Yet neither team are quite ready for walking away just yet. In England’s case, this semi-final is the most important game in over quarter of a century. Can they beat Croatia? Of course they can! Can Croatia beat England? Yes. And that scares me, too.

Croatia’s midfield

Modric and Ractic. Two of the best midfield players in the world playing for arguably two of the best clubs in the world. They’re going up against England’s one man midfield (Alli and Lingard play as forwards for their respective clubs). Jordan Henderson has his work cut out. He’s had a great tournament but it’ll be interesting (and nerve-wracking) to see how he copes. It will also be interesting to see if Southgate changes the formation or tweaks his tactics a tad, or he sticks to his guns and attacks the way he has been. It’s going to be a key battle area.

Kane v Lovren

Harry Kane destroyed the Croat central defender Dejan Lovren earlier last season. For those not in the know, Kane plays for Tottenham Hotspur and Lovren plays for Liverpool. The game finished 4 -1 to Tottenham and Lovren was substituted around the 30 min mark as Kane had run loose on him.

Lovren has since improved somewhat since then, and reached the final of the Champions League with Liverpool, and Lovren played a great part in the cup run, although he is still seen as something of a weak link for Liverpool. An Englishman is begging Lovren falls apart again; Croatian supporters will be hoping he’s learned since then. It’s a different game, different teams, different competition. The past could mean everything or nothing when the stakes are so high and the line of success/failure is so fine. We’ll see.

Fatigue

It’s no surprise this has come up. Croatia have just come out of two games which have gone to extra time and penalties. This obviously tires a team, but it can also unite and motivate them. You saw how England felt from beating Colombia that very way: more together and focused. Most say this is “Advantage: England”. Again, we’ll see. I’m obviously hoping Croatia dead on their feet in the second half so England can run rampant on them.

Pressure

I would probably say there is more pressure on England, but this is something of a golden era for Croatia and most likely Modric’s last world cup. To an extent, they have little to show for it. This pressure could motivate them to get to the final. It’s 20 years since they got to this stage, although for England it’s even longer. The Croats will be there in numbers; we wait to see how many England fans turn up. But for the English press, football traditions and expectations now, I feel the England have a greater weight on their shoulders, despite being young and having surpassed all expectations all ready.

This is a once in a lifetime opportunity. The final of the World Cup for the winner. France, I feel, is superior in terms of power and talent compared to either of these teams for the actual final, although strange things happen in this funny old game, and both England and Croatia won’t mind being the “Leicester City of international football.”

I don’t expect it to have much of an impact, but Croatia are the more favored team by the neutral supporter. Maybe it’s because of politcians haven’t coated us in glory in recent years, or Croatia is less of a superpower on football or political stage. Britain is seen as an economic power in both; Croatia less so, but I hear it has lovely beaches.

Prediction

I’ve turned strangely superstitious during this World Cup (something in the Latin American air has made me this way) and I’m afraid to curse England in some way. So, I’m keeping my prediction to myself, thank you very much, and I just hope England win.

Test for Englishmen (and English women)

I saw this meme and it made me giggle. A test for all English reading this blog. Make your comments below.


Night Breezes

Dear readers,

It’s free verse. No clear structure. Not much rhyme. Just a calm poem on a calm night with calm breezes after a hot day.

Night Breezes

The eerie whooze;

Brushes a blanket over your soft anxieties,

Sliding calm breezes through the mosquito netting,

Stroking your skull to drifting dreamlandscapes.

Like words from a parent from long ago,

Whispering myths to unwind a little you to slumber,

Though now your imagination ponders where the night breezes come from, and where they plan to go,

And you wish to flow with them; the destination you don’t care.

The ghosts and ghouls don’t care to scare you;

They’re souls are at peace tonight,

And the only presence you feel are pressures swirling in the air.

No barks nor chatter nor music;

The world is hypnotized by the winds,

You don’t feel lonely under black clouds.

Just the coolness and calmness of night breezes, deflating your pressures.

No one’s here to judge you, there’s no reason for you to act or pretend,

You can be passive to fleeting thoughts as the winds bring you to the day’s end.


A dog’s (Vicente’s) life

Dear readers,

A short blog post. I came home hungry tonight. I decided to treat myself to burgers. Whatever I have, Vicente usually pinches a quarter of it, so tonight I gave him a burger all to himself.

As dull as it is, here’s the story of his meal.

“Fat bastard. Give me one.”

“Seriously…there is no reason to carve that s–t up.”

“Put it on the ground and watch somethin’ special…”

“Seriously…if you want to keep your hand, get the camera out my face an’ f–k off.”

“Ahh. Like the bitch next door – easy!”

“Gimme another, gimme another, gimme another…”

“Boring. Bye.”


England in the semi final

Dear readers,

It’s reaching “squeaky bum” time for England. And guess what, it’s not the third game of the first round, where we usually sit sweating on a point or three. This is the semi-final; dizzy heights, heights England haven’t reached since the glorious Italia’ 90, largely regarded the most romantic World Cup ever in England, as we actually did well. Nostalgic memories come rushing back of the funny arm dance amongst the fans and a new found love for the coach. Bobby Robson has a few similarities with Gareth Southgate; both being humble men, creating a good nucleus in the team, tactically astute and resilient after being very much criticised by the press. In Harry Kane we have a striker who we know can pull us out of trouble if needed just like Gary Lineker, and Harry Maguire possesses a similar bulldog spirit to Terry Butcher. Is it the summer of love? We wait to see. Saying that, in Honduras it isn’t strictly summer, but the sun has been out most days so it certainly feels like it, but whereas Brits are watching the games in the mid-afternoon or evening, I’m catching them at 8am or lunch time. I must admit, part of me wishes I were back at home for this. Few Hondurans are following England in this world cup, but those who are, thank you so much.

England have surpassed all expectations. They have been on the easier side of the draw and beating teams we expected them to, but they have been doing things which recent previous England teams would have failed, such as beating Tunisia in the last minute, taking full advantage of a weak team (Panama), beating a team on penalities and overcoming adversity and provocation, and beating a bogey team (Sweden) quite convincingly. Here we have a team who play for each other, have belief and want to win. We also, it seems, have a quality goalkeeper at long, long last, who quite simply saved the day against Sweden. Would David James, Joe Hart, Robert Green et al been able to make those saves? No sé. I’ll be honest, I haven’t been following Jordan Pickford’s career. I know he learned his skills in the English lower leagues from going out on loan from Sunderland, and I know he had an excellent first season at Everton last season. Apart from that, he was a virtual unknown before the tournament and seen as a risk, but he’s a nice surprise. His delivery of the ball is something special too, and I wonder if Pep Guardiola et al would consider him. I also like the way he berates his defenders. Last but not least, he looks like the little boy in the series This Is England. There you go, the little kid who joined a gang of nationalist skinheads is now the national goalkeeper. How people turn their lives around.

Other honorable mentions have to go to Trippier and Young, who work the wings so professionally and productively (Young’s passing in the first half against Sweden was a bit loose, however). Stones, Maguire and Walker have seemed mostly strong and organised throughout the tournament so far. I admit that I haven’t always been Stones’s biggest fan and I questioned the wisdom of playing Walker in central defence when for me he’s been one of England’s best right fall back’s in recent years, but he’s added speed to that area. And Maguire. What more can I say. Immense. Like John Terry without the baggage.

There’s also Jordan Henderson, who we saw playing a major role in Liverpool’s run to the Champions League final, who’s movement and passing has improved a ten-fold in recent years. His ability to control the opposition and move the game forward, putting constant pressure on their midfield and offence, forcing them into mistakes; he’s more than the regular anchorman. His movement and vision made Sweden look a breeze yesterday. For me, he deserves more plaudits than he gets. Remember, in many of these games, he’s been England’s only recognised midfielder; Jese Lingard and Dele Alli play as forwards at club level. He’s filling gaps they leave. Tell me, would Steven Gerrard or Frank Lampard have done that at their prime for England? I doubt it. And I put that down to Gareth Southgate, who has glued this team together with charm when not long ago people were really doubting him. Kudos to him.

It’s been emotional. We’ve experienced years of disappointment, which has seen England implode spectacularly with squads packed with talent (thinking of the 2006 World Cup), the scandals, the reliance on one player (Beckham and Rooney come to mind), the hype, the egos, the arrogance, the wags, the nerves, the weak mentality, the injuries, the red cards, the desperation, the stabs in the dark by employing foreign coaches who were deemed saviours to English football but knew little about the English mindset nor the culture. And all along we had the players and coaches sitting under our very noses. The number of times I’ve taken to my blog to vent my rage at a crumbling football team and another failure, and it feels refreshing to write positively. This isn’t a team that wants revenge or is belligerent. It’s a team that just wants to win, no matter the opposition.

For many years there has been a loss of connection between the fans and the players. Arrogant players and the disjointed performances do not represent what the English want or are about. We want to see good football with positivity. For the last couple of years, from afar, I’ve witnessed a divided nation politically, thanks to Brexit; a mess caused by the arrogant political elite which is still leading the country down a lane of insecurity. Yet seeing the people celebrating again, being happy, willing on the team on; it’s very emotional and a great stress release. Okay, storming IKEA and jumping on ambulances is a little too far. But the elation and release is terrific to see. Our politicians have shown they can’t solve their disputes over Brexit for the good of the people, but the team and fans battle on; it’s a wonderful distraction for something worrying lurking in the backs of everyone’s minds. It’s not going to solve questions over the country’s finances, Scotland or Northern Ireland, but the team are playing well and we’re happy. No doubt there will be calls to replace Theresa May with Gareth Southgate. No. Wait. Add him to the throne. Shift over Queen Lizzie 2; we’re bringing on your sub.

For Hondurans, I suppose you had a similar feeling when La H qualified for the 2010 World Cup during the political crisis in 2009; that wonderful chaotic feeling that people still tell me of almost a decade later.

We haven’t won anything yet. Nor have we beaten a top, top team. No doubt France and Belgium possess more talented squads. And we face the hardest test against Croatia. England believe, not arrogantly, that it can make the final. Yet it feels like the team is still taking strides. It’s a dawn, maybe a false one, but one where we have witnessed our youth teams win international championships and it will soon be time to ween them into the senior team. A lot of work is being made by the Football Association to introduce new quality talent, but this must be recognised by the Premier League. The transfer window has opened and the top clubs are automatically looking at talent from abroad rather than having the patience to promote from within. Only Tottenham and a little from Liverpool have been focusing on England’s talent. I hope the FA’s work doesn’t end up just as that: sweet FA.

As for Croatia. We’ll see ….