Well this has gone a little too far now hasn’t it. As if being lampooned by it’s own papers wasn’t enough – The Sun’s ‘Bwing on the Euwos’ headline after Roy Hodgson was appointed England manager indicated how serious Britain’s most popular newspaper was taking the Three Lions’s charge for glory at Euro 2012– now those with barely a passing interest in the game have condemned England to a week (and that’s all it will be) of misery.
The front cover of Time magazine portrays a mournful Wayne Rooney at the 2010 World Cup in South Africa, staring at the ground at the ashes of another failed international tournament campaign.
‘The Tragedy of English football’ screams the heavy print stamped across Rooney’s chest. Inside, the author speaks of England’s "national delusion of footballing superiority” and accuse England's supporters of never being ‘willing to admit the trophy isn't within their reach.’ They say that international glory, not just at this summer’s competition, but for the foreseeable future is out of England’s grasp.
Confidence in the English national football side is at an all time low. Contrary to what Time may believe, the Three Lions have never gone into an international tournament with such a whimper, with so little expected of them. Few believe Hodgson’s men can make it past the quarter finals, let alone make it all the way to the final in Kiev.
Somehow, they go into the tournament in worse shape than when they were manager-less. Over a month has passed since Hodgson took up the mantle of chief guillotine tester from Fabio Capello and already he has felt what it is like to have 65 million cocked rifles aimed at his chest.
In his very first press conference he was quizzed about his time in South Africa and his decision as a professional footballer to enter the apartheid-torn country. When it came to actually making a football decision in naming his 23-man squad for the Euros he was waterboarded by the nation’s media over his omission of Rio Ferdinand to the point that he lost his cool and snapped back.
Since then injury has ravaged his squad (even his fit players are struggling), two warm up victories have exposed their limitations and issues surrounding the omission of Ferdinand, Michael Carrick and Micah Richards simply won’t go away.
England land at their Polish base for Euro 2012 today and tomorrow Hodgson will once again face the media. A shove in Gary Cahill’s back not only means a broken jaw for the Chelsea man but another barrage of questions about the ‘football reasons’ that meant Ferdinand was omitted in the first place.
More worrying for English supporters is the manner of victory in Hodgson’s two games in charge. Few could blame the former Fulham man for his pragmatic approach with a major tournament coming so close to his appointment but for a man selected, in part at least, because of his long-term stewardship of St George’s Park and development of the game it is disheartening to see so little invention and creativity; what he can do to change that beyond Euro 2012 seems limited.
1-0 wins over Norway and Belgium in England’s two warm up fixtures for Euro 2012 have done little to inspire the country’s supporters. Shorn some of their finest creative players, namely Jack Wilshere and Frank Lampard for both games and Wayne Rooney against Norway, England’s shallow pool of reserves left Hodgson lapping from a puddle rather than gulping from a pool, and that clearly manifested itself in the limited performance of his side in both games.
Conservatism will be the name of the game this summer for England, and in that respect they are on a hiding to nothing – the fact England’s last five wins have all come through stoic defending and a sole pinched goal indicates that this is not a Hodgson problem, but a deeper rooted problem with England as a team.
It is perhaps an indictment of England’s current standing that not only is Michael Carrick’s absence from the squad being so desperately clung to but that so many of Liverpool’s under-performers have been included for the trip to Poland and Ukraine.
Gareth Southgate, the FA’s head of elite development no less, revealed the depressing reality that surrounds this England team.
“I imagine the team will be built around being solid, difficult to beat in the first game for sure because I don’t think we are in a situation where at the moment as a country we can go out there and outplay too many teams,” he said.
“We rarely out-possess other countries, so we’ve got to think logically about how we set up and the best way to get results.”
So England travel to Eastern Europe burdened by their losses, unsure of their own ability as a unit, distracted by selection issues and with a negative midset – all of which is exacerbated by the presence of at least three teams (Germany, Spain and the Netherlands) at the peak of their powers and all heading seamlessly in the right direction.
Even group opponents France can boast a team filled to the brim with attacking talent, two years on from their 2010 implosion which marked Les Blues’ lowest ebb.
Talk of replicating the feats of Greece and Denmark in years gone by is reckless – even if England pull off the unthinkable it will not herald a new era of success, but represent a random series of events that led to the unlikeliest of wins; simply put, it would change nothing and only mask the flaws that blight the English game.
Equally Chelsea’s success against all odds in the Champions League final shouldn’t be held up as a blueprint for events at the Euros, although it represents the most likely plan for progress in the tournament – England have a rare opportunity to experiment and try a different approach without fear of repercussion so they may as well use it. Step forward Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain.
If England are, as they are so often accused of, arrogant, then surely they have a desire to not only win but win in the grandest manner possible - by playing attractive football and offering something a bit more forward thinking than defending deep and hoping for the odd strike on the counter. But that is something to be developed in years rather than weeks to come.
In truth it is difficult to remember a time when an England manager went into a tournament with so little expected of him and coming so soon after Hodgson’s appointment, there is little to be gleaned from what happens over the next few weeks.
Changes made to the way youth football is set up in England to encourage more technically-minded players were only given the green light this month by the FA, while overdue plans to build a national centre of excellence like the ones owned by England's rivals for years were only acted upon in the last couple of years - English football is undergoing a huge overhaul and the affects won't be felt for at least a decade, so what success this summer can offer aside from bragging rights is hard to tell.
The old clichés will still be used as England’s opening fixture against France draws ever closer, talk will turn to team spirit, passion and unity – all useful qualities amply on display against Spain last November but utterly useless for progression without the presence of something else a bit more tangible.
And whether Hodgson is the man to add a little more substance to England’s game and ensure progression away from a side under fire from all angles will take a little longer than the month afforded to him so far, and certainly more than a tournament thrust upon him in the early days of a reign that has yet to take form.
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