Dunkirk

Towards the end of the gloriously good Oscar-winning film, Alex and the other survivors are seen getting off Mr Dawson’s boat and there is an old man handing out blankets. He keeps muttering, ‘well done lads, well done lads’. As Alex approaches to pick his blanket he notices that the man doesn’t even look up to acknowledge him. ‘well done lads’,the old man repeats as Alex picks his blanket. ‘All we did was survive’ Alex retorts to which  the old man replies ‘That’s enough.’ Alex later complains about how the British people are so ashamed of the survivors they cannot even look them in the eye. However later on we see the man stretch his hand and hold another soldier’s face as if to signify that the old man is indeed blind.  Whichever way the players want to look at this semi-final exit, blind or not, fan or rival, one thing that remains is the fact that there is no shame brought whatsoever to the millions who watched them from Russia as well as afar.

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They might be known as the three lions but after seeing the progress Southgate has had on the team, he did not just give them belief,  he took lions and clipped wings on them daring them to fly and boy did they fly! The wax may have melted off the wings but they flew nonetheless and I genuinely can’t remember handling a tournament defeat this well. It is one thing playing with expectations weighing on your shoulders but have you tried playing without any expectations? A bunch of kids let off in the playground with only one instruction; express yourself. What is not up for debate is that Gareth has taken a significant weight off the England jersey and the generation to come surely have a free punt at this.

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However there was also something very English about this exit. It seems the narrative continues in that when England comes up against  half a decent team they either struggle (Colombia) or crumble altogether (Belgium and Croatia). This is still something that Southgate needs to work on immediately, as there is the small matter of the this place playoff this weekend.

With all the furore it might be lost on us as to how good Croatia actually was. They matched their class of ’98 by getting to the semis and went one better by getting to their first ever final. To refer to my point about ‘heavy shirts’, Modric and Co have been carrying ghosts for over a decade. They might not have shown it but the penalty shootout against Turkey haunted the players including Modric and Rakitic who took and missed spotkicks that day. With a relatively light burden on their shoulders now, there is no guessing which Croatia side will turn up on Sunday.

Their street-smart nature also disarmed England quite effectively. When push came to shove, Croatia pressed the right buttons while England scrambled to read from the manual. In extra time, if Croatia was a brand new intercooler engine simply whooshing past, England was a 20 year engine spluttering and spewing smoke trying to get to the next gas station. Understandably England did not have someone who could take the game by the horns and control the midfield. England should not feel bad about this as not only did England not have a Luka Modric, the rest of the world does not have Luka Modric. Peerless, genius and a lovely man to watch altogether. No matter who you were supporting yesterday it was weird not to clap whenever this gorgeous conductor sprayed passes with the outside of the boot or simply took the sting out of the game with dummies and cute little passes. Player of the Tournament for me.

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How liberating it must feel to vanquish ghosts of penalties past. Both England and Croatia have emerged with greater mental strength after the paths trodden to get to the semi-finals. How satisfying it must be for the man whose penalty miss cost England in the Euro ’96 to be the first England manager in 20 years to win a penalty shootout. There was nothing lucky about the penalties England slotted in. In the buildup to the tournament, Southgate reiterated the fact that England had been practicing penalties and it was tempting to wonder whether these were just the ramblings of a deluded man seeking to bolster his squad’s confidence. However you look at the technique the players used and Trippier in particular and one gets the sense that they have been doing this for a while. This is such a gigantic mental victory that will be appreciated for years to come.

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The Beckham Bury!!

However the rebuilding now begins. Southgate need not slack off in his quest for impeccability. Kyle Walker has been decent but at centre back? Probably not his best position though the manager’s decision to play him as part of a back three has hardly been the biggest mistake in the world. This also looks like its Young’s last tournament thus a replacement should be groomed from early on. He should also seek to get a defensive midfielder who will be calm in his passing under pressure, not the Henderson type who just punted long aimless balls upfront hoping Kane gets a nibble.

The English U17 and U20 are the reigning world champions, the U19s are Euro winners, the U21 are Euro semi-finalists and the senior team are the world-cup semi finalists. It doesn’t take a genius to see that there is something special brewing in English football and with Southgate at the helm it’s quite obvious that we are in safe hands. Southgate has done the impossible job of turning fans and media alike from being self-deprecating creatures to a bunch of people who were willing to get behind the team and most importantly the manager. The players know what it feels to feel the love of a country and the various appreciation from their social media handles prove that.

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All in all Russia has brought more joy than pain. The players can hold their heads up high and drink in the accolades because they deserve each and every one of them. After the game, Southgate noted “In international football you give everything for your country and play in a way that you hope connects with the fans.” You sir, have certainly done so.

We shall defend our island, whatever the cost may be. We shall fight on the beaches. We shall fight on the landing grounds. We shall fight in the fields and in the streets. We shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender. and even if this Island or a large part of it were subjugated and starving, then our Empire beyond the seas, armed and guarded by the British Fleet, would carry on the struggle, until, in God’s good time, the New World, with all its power and might, steps forth to the rescue and the liberation of the old. – Sir Winston Churchill after the Dunkirk evacuation.

Also, the video of thousands of England fans singing 70 minutes after the final whistle waiting for Southgate to finish his media duties so that they can serenade him makes me shiver!! Truly truly, not all super heroes wear capes, others wear waistcoats.

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Southgate you’re the one 

 

 

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Indifferent

The most weird aspect of all this is that my previous blog was talking about the same thing that I intended to explore; Wayne Rooney. So I have to deviate slightly. After a 13 year association with Manchester United, Wayne Rooney bids goodbye and returns to his boyhood club. Social media has been awash with a lot of tributes thanking the player for his immense contribution but there was one word that formed a lump in my throat every time I read it. LEGEND. Does Rooney really deserve the legend tag?

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This question will obviously shock some people. How dare you question the captain! After all he has done for the club? The over 60,000 fans who graced his 2016 testimonial would certainly have my head on a stick.  He is the record goalscorer for club and country which is mighty impressive considering the club record stood for 43 years. He is sixth in the all time list of club appearances. He has now won every trophy that he was eligible to play for but it is always the 5 PL medals that stand out.

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He forged one of the most lethal counter attacking forces with Tevez and Ronaldo and in his prime was generally unstoppable. He has only failed to reach the 15 goal mark in two seasons illustrating his goal-scoring prowess. He has played all over the pitch except primarily as a central defender demonstrating his selflessness. Playing deep against Barcelona so Ronaldo would have the licence to roam free has always been the go to case for many fans. However there was one incident that would have escaped my eye had it not been for RedDevilArmada when Rooney let Pogba and Martial take the penalties against Fenerbahce because the players needed to boost their confidence and never gave any thought about the goal scoring record he was chasing then.

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So why the hesitation on my part? I do not believe Rooney lived up to the hype following his sensational career start. There are feelings that he took longer than he should have to break the record and was generally on the decline. I am however aware that my sentiments may be blinded by the fact that I am a Three Lions fan and he has never really delivered on the international stage so I will shelve that debate.

In  2010, Rooney issues a transfer request to the United  hierarchy and asks to leave. He questioned the ambition of the club and the direction the club was taking. United had just sold Ronaldo so perhaps this was understandable. He claimed that he was keen on winning trophies and wanted a challenge. At the time he was flirting with Man City, a club that was in its 34th Season without silverware and were doing a bit of ‘kamikaze-spending’ as SAF put it. He had talked to City behind United’s back. 48 hours later, the Glazers tabled a 100,000 pounds a week contract and Rooney signed.  See the connection here? Quite funny that it took 100gs for Rooney to decide United was after all ambitious.

Three years later the greatest manager in the world said his goodbyes and as a parting shot notified everyone that Rooney had once again asked to leave the club. The general feel was that he didn’t take too kindly to losing his striking role to RVP. Mourinho at Chelsea made no secret that he wanted the English international at Stamford Bridge and United did knock back bids from the London Team. Rooney never came out to discourage these reports or to simply assure everyone that he wanted to stay. He was playing the high school girl who’s waiting to go home with the boy who wins the fight. (Un) Fortunately Moyes was desperate enough to offer him a ridiculous contract which included the armband and it was only after this (seeing the zeroes on his paycheck) that Rooney finally came out to state he was always going to stay. United again saved face by not allowing their star player to join a rival and stated that the new era would be ‘built around Rooney’. End result was a long contract that made things awkward within a season and a bloke probably earning what he did not deserve.

What unraveled was that Rooney was past his prime and his move to a midfield role was simply delaying the inevitable by hoodwinking us with those off-pressure cross-field passes. He lost his pace, the ice in his veins in front of goal (or any part of the pitch really) and most importantly his touch. So in my opinion Wayne Rooney was simply a journeyman who simply did not know when to leave.

Jake Lane of FutbolPulse recently stated that stats make someone a great but not a legend. Rooney for me falls in the former. A good player but not a United legend. The hallmark of a legend is someone with a genuine affection for the club and the desire to give your ass and place the club above all else. Rooney never did this and I for one feel he never cared about the club.

So good luck to a loyal *sic* servant of the Manchester United and I sincerely hope your next club is forgiving. The numbers label you a legend, I’ll take a pass.

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You can have him now (getty images)

 

 

 

 

What Next? 

​Gareth Southgate has finally taken charge of games as the permanent manager this week and it was a good week for the three lions. An encouraging display against Germany in Dortmund followed by a good win against Lithuania at Wembley yester night. We can see some aspects of Southgate’s imprint on the team but one thing we are noticing is that there is progress. So what should Southgate sort out before the next round of international matches?


1. A definite style of play.

Southgate has tinkered with the team quite a lot since his appointment but his favoured formation has always been 4-2-3-1 where the front three sort of tuck in and give more space for the fullbacks to fly forward. However after the Slovenia game in October, we felt it proving to be a problem with England as the movement wasn’t that swift and the game was for most parts, dull.

Against Germany, he lined up with a 3-4-3 formation and it was excellent to say the least.  It has to be said that England did not deserve to lose. Michael Keane has to be singled out for his performance that night. For you to make your full international debut against the world champions and come out without any blame surely can’t go unnoticed. It will be interesting to watch him in the next few games.

On Sunday Southgate marshalled a 4-2-3-1 formation and there were a few jitters about the formation but to some extent it worked. It’s nice to note that the players are actually flexible to handle the tactical switch. Going forward it will be interesting to see what Southgate sticks to. He wasn’t very outgoing in his post-match press conference by claiming England is at an advantage in that they can shift their formation so it will keep teams guessing.

I would rather the 4-2-3-1 formation as it actually encourages a lot of build-up from the midfield where the bulk of England’s talent lies. It will prove to be a difficult formation to resort to if the opposition actually come out as it means the fullbacks have to go back and the wide players need to track their markers which is probably not their strongest asset.

2. Player Call-ups

There were definitely eyebrows raised when Theo Walcott wasn’t selected for this round of international matches despite being the second highest scoring Englishman. Southgate claimed that Theo had been given his chance the last time and he was unable to replicate his club form. He also added that he had more options in Barkley and Rashford and was looking to try something new. Wayne was also left out though why this was a shock to people I don’t know. Southgate got a lot of stick for selecting Livermore but look around and notice anyone who watched the game against Germany has changed their stance about Livermore. The boy was efficient with his passing and tackling. 

Not Mr Nice Guy after all eh? He is a man keen to stamp his personality on the team and the train carrying joyriders seems to be slowing down to a halt. However it will be important for some consistency so as to ensure that partnerships and chemistry are built. He’s got to have a definite spine in the team on which to build the rest of the team. The team will be built around Harry Kane because his outrageous goal return so far demands that. Alli has also started curving his own niche as the first choice number ten and it hard to see him being dropped for anyone else. 


However the rest of the squad needs to follow suit.

3. The Rooney situation.

The one thing that has refused to go away for Southgate. I feel it’s unfair that Southgate has to deal with Rooney at every press release yet Mourinho rarely has to deal with the same. Deep down we all know there’s no way Wayne is usurping any person selected to play number 10. Alli and Lallana have excellent movement and Rooney’s lack of pace is definitely something that’s in stark contrast to the rest of the number 10 contenders. A call-up should be as a result of form and not status. He’s captain and record goal scorer but how does that affect England for the 90 minutesif he lasts that long that he is on a pitch?

Southgate however still insists that Rooney has a future role in his team and still regards him as his permanent captain. Whether he is simply delaying the inevitable or is simply according him the necessary respect remains to be seen.

4. Jermain Defoe.

This was definitely a shock call-up. Southgate really took a gamble by placing his trust on the Sunderland forward. He referred to him as a natural and someone who knows his way around goal so there was nothing to teach. Thankfully his plan did not go awry and he was rewarded with a goal early on with Defoe admitting the manager had backed him to score that day. Hats off to Defoe for displaying the professionalism that he’s always possessed. However the hype about his continued presence should be contained.

His last involvement was in 2013 and one might argue his sudden exile from the national team was too sudden. However we need to come to terms with the fact that he is 34 years old. By the time the World Cup will be coming around, he will be a few months shy of his 36th birthday.

Going back to the issue of formation, both the 3-4-3 and 4-2-3-1 demand a lot of movement across the front three and front four respectively. It’s the only way players e.g. Lallana and Vardy will have a chance at goal. The full impact of the front three was felt in the Germany game where Vardy, Alli and Lallana kept switching all half long and Alli should have done better in trying to beat Ter Stegen and Lallana hit the post. Defoe thrived in the 4-2-3-1 situation but in the event the manager wants something else, he will stick out like a sore thumb.

Not to take away his positives. He is the 22nd player to reach 20 goals for England so surely that has to count for something. He is what you want to be in the box. His poaching instincts are a beauty and he must be applauded for his impeccable positioning but I simply believe England has more to offer than to rely on the 34 year old.


Southgate alluded to this by admitting that they should have moved the ball quickly and the runs in behind the defence were not enough, something that definitely changed once Rashford and Vardy came on. 

5. His Back Four

Much has always been made about England’s back four and for good measure it must be said. The pairings have just not been good enough and have been susceptible for individual mistakes or just looked alien. Cahill against Germany was susceptible for Podolski’s goal. Take nothing away from the finish but I think Cahill should have done better than just stand there and be used as a wall and Hart saw it too late. There was simply no way of keeping that out still.

I don’t want to rush it but Michael Keane was phenomenal over the course of the two games. It’s not a system he is used to but he took it like a duck to water. He was also excellent next to Stones yesterday and they hardly put a foot wrong all game long. Cahill is 31 while Keane and Stones are in their mid-20s. It might be seen as too early to decide on this but I think they would make a good base for the national team. Both are comfortable on the ball which will go a long way in implementing Southgate’s all-passing team. Walker is definitely first and second choice RB, probably even third! His movement up and down the right side is a joy to watch and it is simply an honour watching such an athlete doing his job. Keeping him fit is definitely of importance. The LB position is still of worry. Danny Rose is definitely first choice but his deputies need to pull up their socks. Bertrand did a good job this past week. Shaw needs to take the little chance he gets to justify his position if at all he is called upon next.

13 out of 15 points at the halfway stage is not a bad return. The job is far from done as England must learn to replicate its qualification form to the major events that they go otherwise they will simply be regarded as minnow participants. For now, England is far from good enough, but under Southgate, fans have a reason to smile.   

Rapunzel

If there was another word I could use to describe the England national team, it would definitely be Rapunzel. Except instead of letting their hair down, they just let everybody down: their fans to be exact. Fourth on the book markers list to likely win the tournament, having the youngest squad in the Euros and a largely inexperienced but adventurous side, England once again fail to win their first match in a tournament at the ninth time of asking. On a night when The Three Lions could have used this game as a springboard for the upcoming Derby, they in fact took us back to square one.
Hodgson is the oldest coach in France right now and his poor decision making just served to remind us exactly how old he is. As if his decision to put Kane on set piece duty was not enough despite Kane being one of the biggest aerial threats, his decision to withdraw Rooney was even more peculiar.
Wayne Rooney is undoubtedly England’s most experienced outfield player in France and with a new role as a midfielder, The man with the armband took up this new role quite well. He had two chances, two shots on target and completed 100% of his take ons. He dictated play marvelously from deep spraying passes out wide to perfection to spur Walker and Rose further forward. Moreover he always got back to help in defence. You take off this kind of man and sub him for an adventurous midfielder who lacks the discipline to maintain the team’s shape but is a joy to watch going forward. More often than not he ends up losing the ball.

The other peculiar decision was to start Lallana as part of the front three. The lean framed man had the two best chances of the first half that he completely wasted. He didn’t do Roy a lot of favours by skewing those chances. Only bagged about four goals last season. Looking at the bench, almost every other attacker had more!! But with that kind of finishing, it’s no wonder Lallana is still looking for Goal number one in a three lions shirt. My first candidate to be chalked off for the Wales game.
The other sore thumb was Raheem Sterling’s performance. Having made a bright start to the game, he shockingly faded away from the contest. It was as if the game was a replay because everybody knew what would happen if Sterling got the ball. A Drop of the shoulder, instant speed and a straight run up to the byline, a little bit of twisting and turning before being out muscled, tackled but the bottom line is Raheem losing the ball. What follows is the groan around the stadium and the teenager looking down, ashamed of meeting the searing gaze of his teammates and the cycle continues. The one very clear chance was when England were on a counter. Raheem kept the ball well and dashes about 55 yards. Kyle Walker was making a mad dash screaming for the ball to be delivered into the box. It was a 4 V 3 situation. Sterling ended up losing the ball to the disgust of Walker. If looks could kill, Sterling’s body would have been landing at the Heathrow Airport right about now. Scenes of Roy holding up in frustration like every other England fan inside the Stade Vélodrome when he had the power to make the difference was quite amusing for me.

The brightest point of the game came from the man who plied his trade outside England prior to joining Tottenham; Eric Dier. A lot of my friends ranted on about how playing him as DM would be detrimental to the team despite a stellar season with Spurs. I clearly pointed out how Dier is not your average  Englishman. He is very strong in the air and reads the game with flawlessness and against Russia he showed up; unlike my friends for this 11 am class. Dier casually strolls into the record books for being the first Englishman to score a free kick in the 56 years that the Euros have been in existence. 89% passing accuracy, four clearances, three interceptions and a rocket for a goal, Dier was clearly England’s Knight in shining Jersey. I expect the same show against Wales where he will have Ramsey and Allen for company.

However one dicey area regards Harry Kane. Fresh off becoming the first English in 16 years to win the PL Golden Boot, many expected him to carry on this form to France especially since familiar faces in the shape of Dele Alli, Walker, Dier and Rose would be around him. To my disappointment, Harry just didn’t show up. He had three shots all of which were off target and the question has been floated around: should he start? My answer is definitely yes. To be fair the most clearest of chances didn’t even fall in his way. Lallana hogged them all. Wales also look quite the threat with their big men at the back and there’s no player better at holding up play than Kane. That way Alli and Rooney can get upfront just in case he Tees it up for them. He seemed a man under pressure against Russia. Perhaps he felt the need to prove why he was selected ahead of Vardy and why he’s the man for the job. He just needs to concentrate on bein himself and do what he does best. The goals will come. They always do for Kane.

Roy got his subs very wrong. They were so poor. First was taking off Rooney then also bringing in Milner at LW. Take nothing away from Milner’s industrious nature but I felt a pacy player would have been the right man for that wing. Stats show that Russia were at their highest level of attacking immediately after Milner’s introduction. No points for guessing when they scored.
Milner’s introduction meant England were simply going to sit back and soak in pressure. The aim is to hit on the counter…Something that won’t happen without speedsters. A big mishap on Roy’s part. You don’t back down. You simply don’t. After getting the first goal, you put it another attacker to make sure the opposition are pegged in their half and also stems their counters. You maintain the tempo and pressure until either they crack or you hear the final whistle. Hodgson is too Conservative for this group of players. Not that I am shifting blame on Milner but he did let Gorgi cross the ball for Berezutski to Bury it home.

The back four also let the team down. There was always the fear that England’s visibly young defence would be fragile and could easily switch off. And they didn’t prove the critics wrong. Where were the two centre halves when the tallest Russian player was being marked by the shortest England player? This just depicts carelessness that England still have. Smalling and Cahill should have definitely done better. Hart also had a better chance scoring than coming off his line for that ball.
What is agreed upon is that England should have won. Mistakes were made and against Wales this week, they have the opportunity to blow Group B wide again. Let’s hope Roy gets his tactics right and FFS use folders to store the papers where you write on formations and what have you.