June 30, 2014 by Hamilton Fan
As I watched England crash out of the World Cup in such lifeless fashion after picking up just one point from their three group games, I’ve found the reaction to their performance painstakingly short-sighted.
If you know me, it would be easy to throw the ‘anti-England’ tag at myself as I embark upon what is a negative critique of the national set-up, but please bear with me. I am more than willing to admit that I have been very outspoken on the matter of the national side for the past few years, and my feelings on The Football Association and Roy Hodgson are well-documented. I am a self-proclaimed ‘footballing snob’: a man who loves possession based football and dreams of slick, quick attacking play. I do not believe I have unrealistic expectations – far from it. England have talent and I wholeheartedly believe that our national team are better, and can play better, than what we have seen of late, but we are most definitely a long way off from winning anything. What they lack is a style; a way of playing that fits the modern game. That is what I, and I am sure most others, want to see. It might not happen over night, but it is achievable. Therefore this article is not an attempt at satisfying my own sense of footballing snobbery, nor is there an agenda behind it. This comes from a guy thoroughly annoyed at the state of the English game – from top to bottom – and this is merely a reflection of what I have seen over the past few years, and more recently, the past three weeks, in the most objective manner I can muster.
Expectations, for once, were low heading into the World Cup. England’s group, on paper, appeared a tricky task for a side who had looked particularly ordinary throughout an uninspiring qualifying campaign. Italy had Pirlo, Uruguay had Suarez, Costa Rica surprised us all, and well, England were England, in a group that, in hindsight, saw its overall quality severely played up pre-tournament.
A wave of positivity hit these shores after England’s first game against the Italian’s, one that saw the Three Lions lose 2-1 thanks to a second half Mario Balotelli header. Hodgson’s men showcased some attacking flair, both in movement and style, that had been near enough non-existent throughout his reign prior to the World Cup. Rooney’s positioning aside, Raheem Sterling showed in a central position, one he occupied for his club on several occasions in the second half of last season, just why he is one of the best young talents in world football – a positive move by the England manager. However, as The Times’ Tony Barrett rightly stated on Twitter in the wake of England’s departure, that performance has been severely over-hyped to a level of ‘mythical proportions’. It is not that there were not positives – there was – but turning a blind-eye, as it appears so many have, to the obvious tactical deficiencies that were on display that night has been somewhat mind-boggling. Pirlo, by far the Italian’s most influential player, was given the space, too easily and far too often, to strut his stuff. England’s defensive line-up was particularly deep (a consistent problem seen throughout Hodgson’s tenure), allowing the four-time world champions far too much space, unopposed, in dangerous areas. For much of the first half Italy dominated possession with England happy to sit back, despite their defensive deficiencies. It was only after Italy had regained the lead in the second half, when they were happy to sit back, that England really controlled the play, but it was too little, too late. Costa Rica showed England how it was done less than a week later, taking the game to the Italian’s and cutting out the space for their 35-year-old playmaker to thrive and getting their just just rewards from that.
The Uruguay game, in total contrast, reeked of negativity. A nervous looking England team went up against a workman like South American side. Suarez, one of the world’s best and revved up by Hodgson’s ridiculously ill-timed provocative pre-match comments, scored the goals. However England only had themselves to blame for what was a mediocre performance from a side who looked shot of most, if not all, of the attacking flair they showed in their previous outing. Sterling, the Three Lions’ best attacking player against Italy in a central position, was put back out wide in favour of Rooney to return to a more favoured role. The Liverpool man’s impact was severely hampered, with seemingly little plan in place to get in him into the game, whilst Rooney was non-existent for the first forty five minutes. The Costa Rica game, which ended up being nothing more than a matter of pride for the boys in white, offered little inspiration, with Roy’s boys heading home without a fight.
The inquest into England’s Brazilian failings has been swift and extremely lenient. The FA have backed their man and the mainstream media point to low expectations pre-tournament and the use of ‘the kids’ as ways of papering over the extremely wide gaps that surround the national set-up. It would be wrong to put all the blame on Roy Hodgson – there are problems that lay way beyond his reach – but tactically the former Liverpool manager has shown himself once again to be out of his depth, failing to implement a plan to stop Italy and Uruguay’s main threats, whilst failing to get the best out of his own players, only having to look to the likes of Gerrard, Henderson, Baines, and after the first match, Sterling – who have all had excellent seasons for their club sides – as prime examples of this.
The FA knew what they were getting when they appointed the 66-year-old. A conservative manager by nature, Hodgson’s cautious mindset has shone through throughout his tenure. Some will point to the Italy game as an example of his supposed new positivity, but the fact remains England sat off Italy for large chunks of the contest. One of England’s biggest floors is their deep backline and its heavily restricted midfield two – something that had a major impact on the influence and protection of both Gerrard and Henderson during the tournament – something often overlooked whilst the vultures ripped to bits the captain’s England legacy post-Uruguay. One person I spoke to declared that no other manager would have picked the offensively minded players he did, as if it is some sort of managerial masterstroke to pick what are clearly the country’s best attacking players. It is startling that some seem to think that because a manager picks certain players, the ones everyone wants to see, that it will all turn out well if they are given the chance. Attack is England’s best form of defense at present, yet they are under the guidance of a man scared of taking off the shackles, or at least permanently. As they say, a tiger never changes its stripes.
The lack of viable options is the reason some have given for the FA’s decision to stick with Hodgson. An insistence, from the media’s perspective at least, that the man to replace him must be English, strikes me as not only narrow-minded, but simply absurd. The talent pool is low, very low, and any manager of English origin ready to take on the top job seems a long way off. Given the national set-ups current state and its desperate need of a reboot, the FA need a man with a clear footballing identity – a way of playing that will get the best out of its current crop of players, along with its future generation of stars – and nationality should not come into that. Gary Neville seems to be in the FA’s future plans as a potential replacement, and although his lack of experience, along with being involved throughout Hodgson’s mediocre reign is a concern, as a guy who has talked the talked so much, it would be interested to hear what he had to say on the matter. Looking further afield, it is a shame that someone like Jurgen Klinsmann, the USA manager who holds an impressive track record of attacking, fluent football and well-organised sides (his USA team being a prime example of this latter point), would most likely not be considered out of fear of a public backlash, for obvious, but out-dated, petty reasonings.
It is the FA who should really take the biggest chunk of the blame for the national set-ups failings, however. A governing body who appear to have no coherent plan as to where English football needs to go. There has been talk of a good game – improved facilities, more coaches needed, etc – but what we still have is a body not only awarding mediocrity, but full of contradictions, with Hodgson and the recently appointed U20’s manager Aidy ‘hoof ball’ Boothroyd being two prime examples of this. English football is in need of a makeover. Spain, Germany and even Belgium are examples of how it can be done, but it is not merely a matter of copying these other nations, but learning from them. It is a matter of updating and re-styling England’s outdated philosophy. A modern style that incorporates this nations strengths – pace, strength and athleticism – with an appreciation for an increasingly tactical (and technical) game is what is wanted and needed. Blood, sweat and tears will not win a World Cup on its own. Brendan Rodger’s Liverpool side, with its British core, have shown that it is not necessarily a lack of technical ability that is holding this country back, something the Northern Irishman has stated on several occasions. England have good players – technically sound with abilities that can scare teams – but it is about nurturing that talent and getting the best out of it. Unfortunately with this country’s current set-up, that does not appear likely.
England do not have a particularly well balanced squad available to them, but they sure do have some talent, with players who can perform better than they are showing. Barkley, Sterling, Shaw, Stones and the like offer hope, but without the proper guidance – a set-up allowing to get the best of these offensively minded players – England will, I fear, hobble along in a state of mediocrity. Look at the bigger picture, think big and long-term. If building something special means taking a few risks and taking a couple of hits, like an early exit at a tournament for example, then so be it, as long as you can see it all going somewhere. This country needs a modern footballing identity. The wake up call should have come long ago, if not at least after Capello’s departure, but if it does not come after finishing bottom of your World Cup group, then god help us all…