World Cup: Forget England, follow France

BELO HORIZONTE - The tears get tiring. The despairing comments grow tedious. The hearts on sleeve references verge on the nauseous.

The Three Lions have a Masters in melodrama; they are graduates of the school of lame excuses.

Roy Hodgson's men limped to their worst World Cup Finals performance since 1954 - and one that threatens to get a whole lot worse against the confident, uncompromising Costa Ricans - and there is a desperate emphasis on the "positives".

Don't think about consecutive defeats, the four soft goals conceded, the miserly two scored in the on-going Brazilian goal-fest.

Ignore the brittle backline, the lackadaisical midfield and the inconsistent attack. Focus on those positives.

Raheem Sterling ran about a bit against the Italians. Wayne Rooney tapped home from two metres. The average age of the squad has dropped a fraction. No one got sent off. Try and stay with the positives.

Being at the World Cup has offered a chance to view the Three Lions beyond the prism of patriotic prejudice and the polished English Premier League product.

South Americans see England as quaint; a source of benign amusement. They watch as Roy Hodgson and his players grasp for those elusive positives like someone trying to find a keyhole in the darkness.

And then they watch France and immediately forget about England.

Hodgson has undoubtedly improved the abject squad who surrendered so negatively, so meekly at Euro 2012 - how could he not - but this is cause for a gentle shrug of the shoulders rather than generous applause.

If England were maddening mediocre two years ago, the French were openly mutinous in 2010. They reached rock bottom and kept on drilling. Archaeologists couldn't lift Les Bleus into the light.

But Didier Deschamps somehow has.

As a player, he didn't fumble around for positives, he found them. He made them.

Talent was only the beginning of the great midfielder's game. Industry mattered more. The end result was always the end result.

He was more interested in the final score, rather than heat maps and dribbling stats.

His win-at-all-costs mentality has followed him into the dugout.

Deschamps doesn't believe that moving colour magnets around on a white board equals success. Formations are less important than their execution. Application is everything.

The contrast between France's 5-2 destruction of Switzerland yesterday morning (Singapore time) and England's ponderous trotting against Uruguay a day earlier was alarming.

While the Three Lions plodded, Les Bleus plundered.

England might claim an unfair difference in personnel pedigree, but the respective line-ups would suggest otherwise.

At 34, Patrice Evra is considered by many to be over the hill and far away from the form that made him a rock of Old Trafford during their glory years.

On the other side, Mathieu Debuchy's mercurial outings at St James' Parks mirrored those of his teammates in the English Premier League

CHALLENGING

Moussa Sissoko often found himself on the Magpies bench, Mamadou Sakho occasionally left hearts in mouths at Anfield and Olivier Giroud briefly lost his way after another woman found her way into his hotel room.

Half the French side have war stories to share after challenging campaigns for their clubs.

The English, on the other hand, arrived in Brazil with the finest crop of talented youngsters in a generation, a goal-scoring machine, a defensive midfielder who salvaged his reputations at Liverpool and surpassed all expectations and a skipper enjoying one of the most professional seasons in his illustrious career.

And yet, England, as always, played within themselves. The French are playing out of their skins.

Whenever the Swiss lifted their heads above the parapet, they were swiftly cut down. France's counter-attacking was fast, relentless, unforgiving. They surged. They devoured space. They never stopped.

As Deschamps once did so efficiently in central midfield, the French maximised the talent at their disposal.

The Three Lions didn't. England don't really expect under Hodgson. Deschamps expects and demands victory.

In attempting to support his manager and teammates, the Three Lions goalkeeper Joe Hart contradicted himself and inadvertently stumbled upon a profound analysis.

"We've got bags of quality, bags of people coming through, great leaders and great experienced players in that dressing room but we've just come up short in two games," he said. "And you can't come up short in two games at the World Cup."

It's a common tale at the tournament. It's England's tale. They always come up short. There remains a distinct disconnect between individual talent and collective performance.

Once again, they find themselves all dressed up with nowhere to go; enterprising players undone by tactical naivety and a startling lack of movement.

So they focus instead on what Leighton Baines called the "progression", the improvement and those oft-mentioned positives. Deschamps focuses on winning.

Both France and England have touched the depths of despair in recent years.

But the respective camps have very different views on what constitutes real progress.

npsports@sph.com.sg


This article was first published on June 22 , 2014.
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