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Second Touch

My brother’s favorite description of a technically poor soccer player is that “his second touch is a tackle.” I might add, “and he’s probably English.”

There was a moment at the very start of the second half of today’s trouncing by Germany where the flaws of the very essence of English soccer were so clearly evidenced as to be borderline hilarious (if you DVR’d it—and why would you?—go to 45.45 and watch for a minute). 

Here’s what happened: Schweinsteiger attempts a stupid over-the-shoulder pass, square at the half-way line, and Steven Gerrard picks it off, pings it to Rooney, who checks and smartly gives it to Gareth Barry to start what we hope will be a cogent counter-attack. Barry, who despite his Welsh name is the very embodiment of limited English footballing technique, has Ashley Cole gamely waiting for the pass wide left—the correct ball and England can make something of Schweinsteiger's poor decision. The momentum is forward—it is still 2-1, and there are glimmers of English resolve following the laughable non-award of Lampard’s late, first-half goal—and a correctly-weighted ball to Cole by Barry would set him off another 20 yards towards the German penalty box, the wind at his back, no one to stop him. But Barry did what he and so many other English players in this World Cup (not to mention back home all season long and for decades) did and do—he passed the ball with no crispness, and crucially five yards behind Cole, causing England’s right back to have to check; the momentum is gone. Let’s be clear—it wasn’t a difficult pass to make; there have been a thousand and one such passes made all tournament, by South Koreans and Northerners, by the French and Ivorians and New Zealanders and I think I even saw a referee make one such pass late on in the Holland-Cameroon game (there was nothing to play for so they let him have his second in the sun). Cole is immediately closed down by a German defender, of course; he has to retreat back to Barry, who I’m sure thinks he did nothing wrong. Barry plays the ball back even further to Upson, who acting out his very name (I think he hears it called from the bench and thinks this is all that’s required of a ‘world-class’ player) hits it ‘up, son,’ all the way through and long to the German keeper.

Move over, game over, tournament over—forget the bad linesman and all that. We are not technically good enough to get beyond this last sixteen, or maybe the quarters with great luck. When you watch Germany or Brazil or Spain or, for god sake, Japan or South Korea or Slovenia or Algeria (or, often, the USA), you see technique, technique, technique. When a pass is made, it’s the correct weight and it sticks—when a typical English player passes, there’s always something more to do. It bounces high, and needs further study; it’s behind, or too far ahead, meaning there is another round of work to be done. And I would argue that that’s where the myth of the all-action, passionate, fast English game comes from—not, I’d say, from passion or real action or skill, but from always having to do extra, seat-of-the-pants stuff to keep a move going. Yes, English players are always running around madly, making huge tackling efforts, but that’s because they didn’t control the ball in the first place. It’s ‘exciting’ that way.

No it’s not. It's crap. The game has moved on, so so far from that. This kind of amateur soccer might have worked in 1966, but now? Not in a million years if we continue to eschew technique. Only a few English players realize this. Despite his terrible World Cup (what was wrong with him?), Rooney is a technically gifted player who could easily handle the Spanish or Italian leagues. (Please god, no.) But after him, who else is there?  Not Stevie Gerrard, who was utterly found out as a dreadful, ill-equipped player in this tournament; not Gareth Barry, who, as I continually screamed at the TV today, is keeping me out the England team, so bad is he. Not anyone with the name Heskey or Crouch or Terry or Johnson, not any of them. Lampard? Almost, and I felt almost bad for him today, not because of the ill-luck of the crossbar incidents numbers one and two, but because he's almost world-class.

Which brings me to the key second half moment: edge of the box, 2-1, Lampard free-kick into the wall, lucky rebound to Barry, and what does Barry do, given that there’s no one behind him to cover? (And why, at only 2-1, is there no one defending?) Barry again displays terrible technique: At 66.01, he tries to control the ball; at 66.02, his second touch is a (missed) tackle. At 66.03, the Germans break; at 66.16 England go 3-1 down, and out of the World Cup. In fifteen seconds everything that’s wrong about the way we generally play is exposed. 

Let’s be very clear: This was our ‘golden generation,’ and no one wanted to admit that technically they were as limited as the silver, bronze, and leaden generations before them. For every Wayne Rooney we create a Gareth Barry and think he’s pretty good; for every Glen Hoddle we would rather see Steven Gerrard in an England shirt; Gazza and Wazza were lightning strikes—we suffer from overcast, Carlton Palmer-like weather. It’s a climate thing; and you can’t do anything about that, unless you move to southern Spain, or Germany, or, god-help-us, Sao Paolo. But even then we’d find the food too fussy, and the people too jocular, and the football? Well, we just wouldn’t understand it, a place where the second touch is not a tackle but a dipping volley, heading for the top corner.