A penalties defeat for a British football team in the quarter-finals of an international tournament. Usually, this happens only once every two years – in 2012 it has happened twice in two months.
But the stories of the two tournaments couldn’t be more different. At Euro 2012 England took us on their usual rollercoaster of inconsistency and controversy, before being outplayed in another gutsy defeat to a superior nation. In the Olympics, Britain’s men’s football team have – despite achieving the same outcome – been a credit to the country. While other athletes have deservedly dominated the headlines during the Games, Stuart Pearce’s Team GB has been quietly transforming British football.
The 1-0 win against Uruguay will rank as the high point of this tournament for GB. Without ever playing scintillating football, GB mastered the art of keeping the ball in a game in which they dominated one of the gold medal favourites for 90 minutes. Sceptics will point out that Uruguay have not been at their best – and in fact also lost to Senegal. But that would be to overlook the fact GB were fielding a team of strangers, having played just three games together at that point.
The midfield of Aaron Ramsey, Joe Allen and Tom Cleverley were at the heart of the success. Pearce didn’t start the tournament with the trio as his first choice, but once they clicked they were controlled in possession – a novelty for a British football side – and incisive going forward. We won’t see them playing together again, of course – Allen and Ramsey will be partnered in the Welsh midfield for years to come, but they will miss Cleverley at the spearhead of their triangle.
England will have to work hard to replicate GB’s qualities. Arsenal’s Jack Wilshere is a straightforward replacement for clubmate Ramsey, but it’s less clear which Englishman could play the deep-lying role Allen fulfilled so expertly during the Games. Michael Carrick is the obvious choice right now. Gareth Barry is past his best, and while Scott Parker is praised for his workrate and courage, he doesn’t have the technical ability to play the possession football England should be aiming for. If Jordan Henderson was the answer, then Brendan Rogers wouldn’t be trying so hard to bring Allen himself to Liverpool.
Stuart Pearce deserves a huge amount of credit for Team GB’s performances over its five games, and not just for shaping the midfield. The defence has also looked increasingly solid – an on-form Luis Suarez was shut out in the Uruguay game, while it was only a rare blooper from keeper Jack Butland that allowed South Korea to score in the quarter-final. And Pearce made the difficult but necessary decision to drop his captain Ryan Giggs ahead of the Uruguay match, and leave him out again against Korea.
The biggest weakness has been up front, where Daniel Sturridge has under-performed – there was a certain inevitability to his penalty miss, which gave Korea their place in the semi-finals. It is true his goal gave GB its win over Uruguay, but he didn’t provide a consistent threat during that game or against Korea. Sturridge knows how to find space and his finishing is excellent. But he is no target man, and he isn’t the type to drop deep in order to create opportunities for others – for both of those reasons, playing as the lone central striker of a front three does not suit him at all.
More than anything else, it was fatigue that let Team GB down against Korea and cost them a shot at a medal. A fifth high-intensity game in just over a fortnight was too much for a group of players still in pre-season mode. This might always be the case, if Britain chooses to continue entering teams for Olympic football competition – the European championships will invariably get in the way, too. But this competition has been an undeniable success for British football, and we should keep doing it.