England: Maybe it's not the ref's fault after all

As England’s exit from the European Championship at the hands of hosts Portugal became an all too depressing reality, one man took virtually all the blame.

Swiss referee Urs Meier, whose decision to disallow Sol Campbell’s goal late in normal time denied England a place in the semi-finals, has been roundly condemned as the man who “robbed” or “cheated” the Three Lions out of victory.
While it’s understandable to blame a referee for a decision as controversial as that, it doesn’t address the big question that should be asked: did England get their tactics right? The answer to that question has to be a resounding "no".

A constant feature of England under Sven-Goran Eriksson has been their tendency to sit on a lead rather than looking to finish the rival teams off.

The games against France and Portugal were not one-offs.

At the World Cup two years ago, England took the lead against both Sweden and Brazil, and failed to hold on to them.

Even in such crucial and memorable victories as those over Argentina and Turkey, Eriksson’s men soaked up a lot more pressure than perhaps they needed to.

The teams that have succeeded in this tournament are the teams that have been prepared to play attractive, positive football.

The reason Italy didn’t qualify for the quarter-finals was not because of some Scandinavian conspiracy.

They didn’t qualify because they played negative football against both Sweden and Denmark and didn’t beat them when they had the chance.

England, alas, paid the same penalty.

Giovanni Trapattoni paid for Italy’s failure with his job. So too did Germany’s Rudi Voeller and Spain’s Inaki Saez.

So should Sven-Goran Eriksson now be clearing his desk at Soho Square? Not necessarily.

Let’s not forget he has done a lot of good for the national side. Would anyone really want to swap the present situation for where we were when Kevin Keegan resigned? Somehow, I doubt it.

But, to stop the fans from turning increasingly against him, Sven has to adopt a more aggressive style of play.

England is currently blessed with a crop of outstanding attacking players. So let’s use them more to put pressure on the opposition, not as second and third lines of defence. If there’s one thing we’ve learnt from this tournament, it’s that we cannot soak up endless pressure.

At the same time, however, he’s also got to show he’s not afraid of taking big decisions.

Look at Portugal’s Luiz Felipe Scolari. He risked national derision by taking off Luis Figo against England but his replacement, Helder Postiga, got the equaliser.

It doesn’t matter who the player is or what he’s done in the past. If he’s not performing on the pitch, and there is someone else who can do the job better, then the other guy has to play.

Likewise, if the captain is not inspiring his team, then it’s time to hand the armband to someone else. Maybe then, England can actually start to take the opportunities that have been so agonisingly missed in Japan and Portugal.