The Run of Play is a blog about
the wonder and terror of soccer.

We left the window open during a match in October 2007 and a strange wind blew into the room.

Now we walk the forgotten byways of football with a lonely tread, searching for the beautiful, the bewildering, the haunting, and the absurd.

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England 2 – 3 Croatia, or, The Best Worst Day of Young Paul Robinson’s Life

I don’t believe for a second that England deserved the penalty—the tug of the shirt from Šimunić that brought Jermain Defoe so easily to ground was barely a flick, less than a gust of wind could do, certainly less than what passes without notice in nearly every football match—which means that as I saw it, this was a 3-1 game that could have been 4-1 or worse. In every way it was a harsher loss for England than the scoreline will indicate. They were abysmal, in the first half especially, and lost their place in Euro 2008 besides. It was a brutal match, and the best consolation that English players and fans can take from it is that as awful as their team looked, as naked in defense, as muddled in attack, they never grew resigned to the outcome. They played till the end like they thought they would manage to save it. They lacked organization tonight, not resolve. At times they seemed more confused by their own formation than Croatia was, but—oddly for a group of supposedly pampered superstars who are too soft to capitalize on their talent—they kept throwing themselves forward with a healthy desperate faith that the miracle would come. It was almost Scottish of them.

I thought before the match that the Wembley atmosphere and Croatia’s lack of motivation would ensure the win for England. I couldn’t have been more wrong. I don’t know whether the England supporters were beaten down by the rain or simply despondent about their team, but for much of the match they were drowned out by the otherworldly cheering of the few thousand Croatia fans. (They were never louder, in fact, than when they booed the team off at halftime.) As for Croatia, they played with both fluidity and sharpness, seemed shamelessly intent on winning, and executed almost to perfection a game plan that was flawlessly designed. I was impressed with Slaven Bilić’s coaching from beginning to end. His decision to play Olić up front rather than (as I had predicted) Petrić on the left payed double dividends: Olić continually alarmed the England defense in the first half, not only scoring the second goal but also forcing Scott Carson into the only decent saves he made all night. And Petrić came on as a fresh substitute just in time to score the third goal and put the seal on the match.

McClaren’s tactical gambits, by contrast, didn’t work quite so successfully. If he doesn’t resign tonight, I think he should be fired tomorrow, and I want to be very clear about the reason why. It isn’t that he tinkered with the tactics or that he out-thought himself; everything he tried, from the five-man midfield to the replacement of Robinson with Carson, was endorsed by countless experts (and a few non-experts, some of it) and based on reasonable assumptions. Not everything he tried seemed obviously like the right decision, but everything he tried was defensible. No, he deserves to be fired because each time he tinkered with his tactics, going back to the disastrous experiment with a 3-5-2 formation in Zagreb last October (another match where a draw would have sent England through)—every time he changed the players’ roles in any way, the result was disarray on the pitch and visible confusion within the team. Throughout the first half today, no one in a white shirt, with the sole exception of Crouch, seemed to understand what his role was or to know what he was supposed to do. That seems unambiguously to be a sign of poor coaching. If you can’t make the players understand the plan, then it doesn’t matter how good the plan is. We hear constantly that “England players like to play in the 4-4-2,” but Chelsea do sometimes alter their tactics without their English players running fecklessly into the advertising hoardings.

Tonight, watching from beneath the largest umbrella in human history, McClaren at least saw Beckham and Crouch play well together: that was another faint consolation for England. A fit Beckham can still contribute to this team, clearly more than can the disappointing Shaun Wright-Phillips, who seemed to enjoy about 40% of the possession singlehandedly in the first half, yet whose only important touch came when he forfeited a one-on-one opportunity in the eleventh minute and flung up a soft dead rabbit of a shot directly into the Croatia keeper’s arms. He holds the ball well, but sometimes seems to be holding it for the other team. That aside, the other point of hope for England is that they were desperately reduced by injury in this match, and with Beckham fit, Rooney and Owen healthy, and Terry, Cole, and Ferdinand back in defense, they might have forced a different outcome tonight. It’s no excuse for McClaren—even second-tier players can understand their roles, and his didn’t—but it’s something.

But this was a brutal match, brutal from the weather, brutal from the stress, brutal from the greasy slipperiness of the pitch. It was fascinating to watch, but felt like watching punishment, a feeling that I’m sure will be shared by every English football fan today. It’s hard to imagine Euro 2008 without England in it, and as much as I admire this Croatia team, the thought of not being able to see Rooney and Gerrard on a major stage next summer is deflating. I wouldn’t be shocked to see Croatia reach the quarterfinals, though it’s obviously early to speculate. For the rest of it, well, 2010 is less than three years away.

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England 2 – 3 Croatia, or, The Best Worst Day of Young Paul Robinson’s Life

by Brian Phillips · November 21, 2007

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