Post-mortems of England’s campaign have begun aplenty as the Three Lions head home with tails firmly between their legs.
A chastening experience it has been, with defeats to Italy and Uruguay swiftly dumping England out of the competition. Costa Rica await tonight in a dead-rubber fixture, with one team advancing and another boarding a flight soon after – quite the situation most envisaged, but few predicted the Central Americans would be escaping from the ‘Group of Death’.
It leaves England fans searching for another quick fix in hope of becoming competitive at Euro 2016 or the next World Cup, to be held in Russia four years from now.
Common theories are being strewn about once again after the latest disaster – too many foreign players in the Premier League, grassroots football being in a state of despair – but football’s governors must be cautious and resist bowing to public or media pressure. There is no quick fix or instantaneous solution, but signs of progression have been prevalent, albeit much too brief across the last two fixtures.
This tournament was a complete antithesis to South Africa, not just as a spectacle but for England as well. Fabio Capello’s safety-first selections and dull tactical play made for unpleasant viewing, scraping past limited opposition before crashing at the hands of a well-drilled German outfit.
Had England been drawn with the same group as 2010 (USA, Algeria and Slovenia) there is little doubt they would have qualified more easily, given their more positive mind-set compared to four years ago. Maybe defeats against Italy and Uruguay are just an indication of our standing within the world game right now; we’re good, but not that good. If you believe FIFA's irrational world rankings, both countries are better than England (7th and 9th, compared to our 10th) and so our immediate elimination, at least theoretically, should come as no surprise.
Calls for Roy Hodgson to be sacked for underperforming will come thick and fast from some quarters, though the FA are historically hesitant in sacking managers after major tournaments. Not being culpable to knee-jerk decisions is a trait to relish; “patience is a virtue” to quote a common phrase. Once Hodgson instilled a forward-thinking, attacking strategy, England looked intermittently dangerous against Italy.
According to a recent study, 32.36% of minutes played in the PL are by Englishmen. Of that percentage an even smaller number are under-23, but managers and chairman can ill-afford to field inept players because of their age. Opportunities are there if you are talented enough, there is just not enough burgeoning talent appearing through our academies.
Luke Shaw is 18-years-old but featured in 35 Premier League games for Southampton last season. Ross Barkley (20, 34 apps) and Raheem Sterling (19, 33 apps) both featured heavily in successful seasons for their respective sides, while Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Jack Wilshere suffered injury-hit campaigns. For as long as these players are given game time at international and club level, they will only improve.
Negatives will understandably remain from this campaign. Both England’s tactical acumen needs revising and some players rightfully have question marks over their continued selections.
Full-backs are a problem. Glen Johnson once again proved proficient in attack but not defence, while Leighton Baines was left relatively exposed by a lack of natural wingers. A look at right-back stocks reveals a bare cupboard; at least Baines has Shaw snapping at his heels, though he has shown consistency over many years at Premier League level to warrant an extended international spot.
Leadership remains an issue. Steven Gerrard, who has judgements of his own to make regarding his international future, appeared to be devoid of inspiration during both defeats. You could not be forgiven for thinking there was a John Terry-shaped hole in the defence either.
Hodgson must also learn valuable lessons from a tactical standpoint. Not starting with natural wide players will, by matter of course, neglect some defensive stability. Maybe he went too far attack-minded, leaving his back four exposed against world class opposition like Luis Suarez.
But it’s hardly the despairing situation of four years ago, which left a large majority of England fans with no hope whatsoever. This time around there is a direction and a rationale, with cases for a complete upheaval both misdirected and unwarranted.
This time, we have hope for improvement.
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