Monday, March 18, 2013

Group 2 was terrible: two outsiders – Finland and Luxembourg, but the other two were Italy and England. An iron clash of 'mighty' teams, lamented from the day of the draw, for one was not to reach the finals. Italy reached the bottom about 1975 and after that was slowly improving. England – well, England was considered more unlucky than really declining. Such was the clout of tradition, that both teams were seen still as great powers and criticized only after a spectacular failure, when criticism was too late and entirely meaningless. But the clash of a rising team and one at best stuck was capable of hiding realities, but not to avoid them. Italy won 2-0 in Rome; England won with exactly the same result in London. It was the last match for England, but Italy had one more to play. All depended on the games with the outsiders and here the limitations of England really showed: they won with great difficulty the home match against Finland 2-1! Traditionally low scoring Italy had no such problems and at the end outscored England by 3 goals. In November 1977 it was over for England: they had a total of 10 points. Italy had 8 points, but still a home match with Luxembourg to play and better goal-difference. The strength of Luxembourg can be easily illustrated: Finland destroyed them 7-1. Italy needed a victory by a single goal – they scored 3 on December 3, 1977 and finished first. As for England, Don Revie was replaced by Ron Greenwood after the failure, but nothing really changed. Here is a just a glimpse of evidence:
One of the English formations from 1977. Standing, from left: Phil Neal (Liverpool), Emlyn Hughes (Liverpool), Dave Watson (Manchester City), Trevor Cherry (Leeds United), Ray Wilkins (Chelsea), Ray Clemence (Liverpool).

Front: Stuart Pearson (Manchester United), Brian Talbot (Ipswich Town), Kevin Keegan (Hamburger SV), Mike Channon (Manchester City), Brian Greenhoff (Manchester United).

Plenty of talent and experience, but... having Keegan, Hughes, Clemence, and failing? The first thing to notice is the absence of libero and/or creative and imaginative playmaker. Long term problem – Keegan cannot be utilized fully, just like Rooney today. Channon, a rather typical winger, at the end lapsed into typical crosses delivered right in front of the net, except there was no typical English centre forward. For European defenses it was familiar and easy to neutralize, thanks to inevitable predictability of Channon, not to mention that Keegan tended to play on the right side of the field as well. Watson was similar to Schwarzenbeck, more adventurous than the German, and therefore a risk – Hughes was no Beckenbauer. Ray Wilkins, a far better option than Trevor Brooking – at least in my view – was not really a great playmaker: he and Brooking, compared to European midfielders, looked like Roth and Durnberger of Bayern. Great runners, dependable, predictable – supportive players really, not conductors. The Germans mentioned were never called to the national team – the English were thought essential. Rotation was tried for a remedy – Trevor Cherry was the best example: in and out the national team for most of the decade, neither better, nor worse than those who replaced him or he replaced. And short lived players, whose virtues were young age (Talbot), momentary good form (Pearson), and unorthodox by English standards (Greenhoff). They came and went, leaving no memories, in mechanical succession of identical players, manufactured on the same production line. Like English industry, English football was permanently ill, outdated, no longer really competitive, and entirely unable to change. The English problems can be summed in five words – Dalglish and Jordan were Scots. Unfortunately, England always failed – and fails – 'honourably': the boys did their best, can't blame them for not trying. After all, did really England fail? The finished second only because of unlucky goal-difference. No wonder the model of the team above remained – only to fail again, without really failing.

Italy was quite a different story: their low point came in 1975. By 1977 Enzo Bearzot was sole coach of the team (he kind of shared the position with Fulvio Bernardini until then, technically an assistant coach) and had the good luck of steadily rising Juventus. The early experiments were abandoned, for they were mostly repetitions of old approach with second-best players. The new Italy was mostly based on Juventus, blending experienced veterans with young blood. Bearzot was not for nothing the coach of Italian Under-23 national team for years.
This is squad from June 1978, but a good example of Bearzot's Italy: the core came from Juventus (Zoff, Causio, Tardelli, Bettega, Gentile), Facchetti, on his way out of the team, but still called occasionally, current stars Graziani and Zaccarelli, and one experimental youngster – Roberto Mozzini (24, Torino). He did not last – played a total of 6 matches in 1976-77 – like others tried and discarded. But Bearzot had Antognoni, skilful, young, imaginative dynamo of a playmaker. Bearzot placed him firmly in the team and found his mover and shaker. The team was still primarily defensive, but in a new way – the way of Juventus: instead of leaving the ball to the opposition, waiting an opportunity for a counter-attack, the new Italy pressured the opposition for the ball and generally wanted to possess it and control the flow of the game. Bettega was peaking, and provided with sharp passes by Antognoni, he was very dangerous. Italy was not yet shaped into perfection, but certainly was getting stronger and stronger, and also was fun to watch, something rarely associated with Italian football. Calculating and scheming was very much present, of course, but no longer the primary weapon. Italy qualified for the finals with difficulty, but looked better team than England.