So what did we learn?
Is that even the right question?
I can’t imagine being an England fan is a whole lot of fun. I must concede that as an impressionable 15 year old it was easy to be swept up in the promise and expectation of Euro 96. Not only was there a fantastic motivational pop hit released, but there was Stuart ‘Psycho’ Pearce’s penalty redemption and clearly disturbed celebration too. This was the finest marketing campaign I can remember to ‘Support England’, and I was close.
At this point my life could have gone two ways; I could have accepted this wolf-in-sheep’s clothing offer to be part of a team on a meteoric rise, or I could have let the dust settle nicely before making a more informed and less emotionally based decision. I chose the latter but the decision was ultimately not mine, but more influenced by Paul Gascoigne’s reach, or lack of it.
So when England fans sit down to have their Wednesday evening ruined are they doing so for an education? That is a matter of personal preference, so I’ll simply tell you what I learned.
They say if you can’t be good, be lucky and Ben Foster certainly was. Only the tips of 3 of his fingers saved him from joining Rob Green, Scott Carson and Paul Robinson in what is becoming an increasingly less exclusive club. But then, stopping the ball with 3 fingers is the very reason he is there.
I learnt that France are good and Sami Nasri is brilliant.
It looks like England finally have that ‘classic no. 9’ in Andy Carroll which, apparently, the fans have been crying out for. I don’t mean to court controversy but I don’t get the Andy Carroll thing. He seems good enough for Newcastle, but an international?! I’m not paid to spot talent and that is probably just as well because I obviously can’t (apologies to Mr. Nasri).
I would posit that fans aren’t really crying out for a ‘classic no.9’ at all, but rather crave the rediscovering of a national identity, which a ‘big no. 9’ embodies. Carroll is certainly not the answer to England’s problems, but he is young and he is big, and that appears to be enough in this barren period to spark excitement.
But then, the term ‘big man’ is misleading. I think the continental idea of a ‘big man’ is different to the British one. You could sometimes be forgiven for thinking that a British ‘classic no. 9’ is judged on his ability to ‘put himself about’, ‘be a handful’ or simply to commit a few ‘sensible’ fouls. Headed goals also stimulate salivation, especially when the challenging defender falls in a crumpled heap afterwards. We love that.
It could well be argued that the ‘big man’ has proved more of a problem for England in recent years than a solution. Far from being a weapon of mass destruction on poor little continental defenders, it has acted as more of a ‘plan B’, and I think that is fair enough. Spain for example, for all their attacking riches called on ‘the big man’ to rescue a win against Scotland recently, but a different type of big man. You’ll remember that that goal had nothing really to do with size, but movement, finishing and a delicious cross.
You’ll be relieved to hear that Andy Carroll is not the cause of England’s poor performance against France. It was their inability to be patient and hold onto the ball, and this is not a new phenomena for England. The problem with starting with someone so effective in the air is that it fosters a sense of laziness in the rest of the team from the first minute, a low percentage get out clause. Karim Benzima is a big man, but not once was the ball played to his head, France passed their way out. No, Carroll’s presence affected the rest of the team’s attitude on too many occasions, and that was accurately reflected in the score line.
Strong, powerful centre forwards are a fantastic asset to possess, and Carroll is certainly that. But the team around him, certainly at international level need to learn to play through him and not at him.