• Euro 2012

Penalty pain highlights same old England flaws

Alex Dimond June 25, 2012

The method of execution was cruel, but the punishment itself could not really be argued with.

England, or at least the team fans watched for 120 laborious minutes in Kiev on Sunday evening, certainly did not warrant a place in the semi-finals of the European Championship - not on the basis of a game where Italy bested the Three Lions in every area bar last-ditch interventions.

Yet, once the game went to penalties, victory - however undeserved - was there to be claimed; it is after all a lottery that holds no regard for what has come before. The Italians would certainly (and rightfully) have felt aggrieved had they lost out following a match they dominated, but ultimately they would have had only their own profligacy to blame.

Instead, as they have done so many times before in such situations, it was England who crumbled.

Andrea Pirlo - the superior player (in more ways than one) throughout the 120 minutes - fittingly changed the course of the contest with a chipped penalty designed to psyche out the England players. It appeared to work, as first Ashley Young and then Ashley Cole failed to convert as the Three Lions, once again, slipped out at the quarter-final stage.

"I saw that the goalkeeper [Joe Hart] was really fired up and I thought about doing that," Pirlo said of his homage to Antonin Panenka. "It was easier to shoot that way and it put a bit of pressure on the goalkeeper [and the rest of the team]."

"If I had to choose a lasting image from the game I'd say Pirlo's penalty," team-mate Daniele de Rossi concurred.

Much was made about how England were practising penalties in the build-up to the game (although, in the immediate aftermath of Sunday's exit, some newspapers insisted they had still not practised enough), but were they even practising the right things?

After all, the practical element of kicking the ball at the goal from 12 yards is not the hard part for professional players - a few extra hours of practice after 20+ years of experience is not going to make much difference.

The hard part of a high profile penalty shootout is not the kicking of the ball, but rather staying cool under the pressure of kicking the ball. Was anything done to address this?

Did any of players, at any point, speak to a psychologist about techniques or tricks to maintain their composure in that concentrated, daunting moment where everything rests on your shoulders?

The way Ashley Young, usually a technically-correct and proficient set piece taker, did just about everything wrong in the build-up to his own wildly-hit attempt suggests they did not.

"You can't reproduce the tired legs, pressure and nervous tension," Hodgson offered by way of explanation. "It has become an obsession for us in English football."

You can't reproduce such conditions but you can attempt to prepare for them, however. And Young - who minutes earlier had snubbed a chance to curl a right-footed shot at goal from 25 yards, just about his favourite 'move' in the game - appeared to be singularly unprepared for what he was experiencing.

Hodgson made other errors but, once playing for penalties became the aim, this was the biggest. A braver coach would perhaps have withdrawn the abject Wayne Rooney for Jermain Defoe or Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain as a final throw of the dice, rather than the zero-sum substitution of Jordan Henderson for Scott Parker.

But Hodgson had already show commendable aggression by bringing on both Andy Carroll and Theo Walcott after less than an hour - yes, the move did not pay off, but at least it was proactive and showed a little intent.

The same could not be said of all the players. Rooney, once again, was well off the pace - while Steven Gerrard could not get going after being far and away the most impactful player during the group stages. That put a lot of pressure on the defence but at least those players responded admirably - John Terry and Joleon Lescott making countless remarkable last-gasp tackles and blocks, even if they did let Mario Balotelli wander in behind them with alarming ease and regularity.

That, though, should not be a surprise. This is not a vintage England side - although, in the same way past sides have been ridiculously overhyped, it is perhaps not quite as bad as some have attempted to make out.

If anything, going out on penalties as they did is perhaps fitting. Just as England's players cannot identify why they are so bad from 12 yards, seemingly we also cannot work out what our footballing identity really is.

Just as two years ago the clamour was to start playing like victorious Spain, so far the immediate reaction has been to find our own Pirlo. That, apparently, will solve everything.

"Pirlo was awesome but we have a player of a similar age and equally as good. Unfortunately he wasn't there - [Paul] Scholes," Michael Owen opined.

"It was the absence of Jack Wilshere which was felt most keenly. He can be our Pirlo," Harry Redknapp offered.

Pirlo was certainly the difference on the pitch because, with his spot-kick symbolic of his performance in open play, he did something no other player could or would. Redknapp and Owen might hope that is because England simply did not possess a player like Pirlo on the night - but it might just be that English football has not and is not an environment that produces such peerless conductors.

After all, on Sunday and throughout the tournament, England played much more like Czech Republic and Greece than Spain, Italy or - perhaps the most engaging of the lot - Germany. Defensive diligence was the order of the day, structure and passion to make up for a lack of flair. Certain players aside - Barnes, Gascoigne, Rooney - it has ever been thus.

Can a country's way of playing be changed overnight? Spain and Germany have evolved markedly in recent years, but that was a result of a highly-publicised overhaul of the way they developed young players. It took time, and it took careful planning.

In short, it will not be an immediate overhaul. Roy Hodgson will still have to work with what he has - perhaps with the welcome addition of Wilshere, Kyle Walker and others - as he builds towards the World Cup in two years' time.

The big details will take many years, so it is the little details he will have to focus meticulously on - the same little details England have seemingly overlooked for tournament after tournament in recent years.

Those lists of failings over the years have started with many things, but almost always ending with a penalty shootout.

Specific problems with penalties, a continued crisis of footballing identity. A quarter-final exit was no disgrace for this England side - but it nevertheless produced more questions than answers.

© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.
Alex Dimond Close
Alex Dimond is an assistant editor of ESPN.co.uk