For England to succeed at next year's World Cup, firstly they need to get there.
To do this England will ideally need to win their next three qualification matches: Moldova at home, Ukraine away and Montenegro at home. If these, eminently winnable games, are won then England will have 21 points in Group H with a game remaining.
Given that Montenegro and Ukraine could only then amass a maximum of 20 points, England’s final qualifier against Poland at home would in all likelihood become a dead rubber (unless Poland win all their games by big margins between now and then).
What’s there to worry about? After all, England have qualified for 13 of the 16 post-war World Cups (forget ’74, ’78 and ’94). Assuming that another dismal draw doesn’t demean the Wembley pitch, England will qualify relatively comfortably. For the sake of this article let us imagine that England have done exactly that.
England’s players are soaking up the Brazilian heat and sweating over the prospect of three massive group games against relative minnows.
Last time in South Africa, England just managed to qualify behind the USA and ahead of Algeria and Slovenia.
Laboured that effort was, the reality is that England have failed to get out of the first round group stage only twice – back in 1950 and 1958. Let us say that England win their group and then defeat their minnow-esque last-16 opponent as a matter of course.
England are in another quarter-final!
This is where the question-marks begin to proliferate about the authenticity of England’s major tournament hopes. The national side have reached eight World Cup quarter-finals (let’s forget the second group stage thing in ‘82), winning only two of them: in 1966 and 1990. Not a good looking record.
Now imagine that England have played poorly against world-class opponents in our imagined quarter-final, but somehow manage to avoid defeat inside 120 minutes. Sound familiar?
It’s time for kicks from the penalty spot!
England have partaken in seven penalty-shoot-outs (PSO) in major tournaments and lost all but one – a solitary success against Spain at Euro ’96. And that victory was only followed by another PSO defeat to Germany in following semi-final. Germany also beat England on penalties in another semi-final at Italy ’90. After that we have PSO defeat to Argentina at France ’98 (Last-16), PSO defeat to Portugal at Euro ’04 (QF), again to Portugal at Germany ’06 (QF), and most recently, a PSO defeat to Italy at Euro ’12 (QF).
What must England do to progress further than the quarter-finals?
Win a penalty-shoot-out!
How is it possible that England have won only one PSO out of seven? How is it that England’s two best chances for glory (Italy ’90 and Euro ’96) were foiled by PSO’s?
For a nation that values courage on the pitch, how is it that its penalty-takers regularly crumble under pressure? England’s players fight so hard as a team to avoid defeat and reach a PSO, but then throw it away through a lack of conviction as individuals.
If only English players were more proficient from 12-yards then I am sure we would have seen them in a major final by now.
Therefore, my advice to Roy Hodgson is this:
England are generally good at dispatching weaker opponents and avoiding defeat against the stronger ones. Turn players into penalty-taker-extraordinaires and the cups will follow.
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