With no Rooney, no Barry, no Cahill, and no Lampard, expectations have never been lower for the Three Lions. EASY was The S*n’s headline after the English were dropped in Group C with the States, Algeria, and Slovenia. Simon Kuper’s Soccernomics opens with a chapter on “Why England Lose,” in which himself and co-author Stefan Szymanski examine the ritual that England goes through before each major tournament. The first phase is pre-tournament and states that the English are certain they will take the crown. However, this year there could not be more uncertainty. When Saturday Comes’ sarcastic headline for its July edition is “England Confident” and below depicts Theo Walcott telling Phil Jones, “We’ll do better than Euro 2008.” Meanwhile, The Guardian’s Fiver could not be more pessimistic. England’s every move has been critiqued. Hodgson’s lads are expected to arrive home with no less than copies of I Am Zlatan, their managers hands glued to his face due to static electricity, and phone numbers of protestors representing Femen.
But do these low standards mean success for England?
It is quite possible that this team could shock the world. Starting with the group, England can gather 6 points. Sweden are dependent on everyone’s favorite pony-tailed playmaker, and Young’s goal against Norway saw England defeat Scandinavian opposition. The co-hosts pose little threat to England, as they failed to win their two warm up games, against European opposition, Turkey and Austria, who both failed to qualify for the tournament. Sweden also beat Andriy Shevchenko’s compatriots last August 1-0. There is that one problem though – France. The English have not defeated the French in over a decade, though long streaks have perished this season, as Chelsea finally got by Barcelona, Manchester City won their first league title in 44 years (strangely enough on their 44th shot of the QPR match), while the Dutch, who had won 10 on the trot in qualifying, fell to the Danes. Even Liverpool won a cup this year, and the only thing that could have topped that was if Arsenal triumphed.
England are the most underrated team in the tournament. This is Steven Gerrard’s last chance to win a trophy for his country, and he proved to be England’s best player in their warm-up fixtures, making tireless runs about the pitch, in addition to chasing down every ball that came through his zone. The fading “Golden Generation” includes Ashley Cole and John Terry, two men seemingly as desperate as Gerrard. Hodgson has introduced youth to the squad, and no it’s not Theo Walcott this time, but Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, who could provide the spark England need. At a time when Arsenal’s season was in peril, the youngster stepped in to encourage the Gunners against Manchester United. Though defeated on the night, the Ox’s play spurred new life into the North London club, which allowed them to outlast rivals Tottenham for a Champions League post. Danny Welbeck can play and so can Ashley Young. Stewart Downing has been tossed to the turf since his move to Anfield, as he rarely displayed the fear and skill he could instill in a defender duing his days at Middlesborough or Aston Villa, though the winger has gained confidence as of late. Just keep him away from penalties and he could prove extremely effective. Analysts also overlook the goalkeeper. City’s Joe Hart has been the most impressive net-miner over the past two years, which all stemmed from his ingenious performance on the opening day of the 2010-11 season, to save his side a scoreless draw against Tottenham.
Roy Hodgson’s selection is appropriate. Known most for his obsession with the letter ‘w,’ he has become an underdog figure himself, just as England are the underlions. His tactics worked miracles at Fulham and with the Baggies, who finished 10th last term. Hodgson’s ability to control big-egos has been called into question after his failure at Liverpool, though Roy does not have to deal with haughty players, as the team’s self-esteem has been diminished to that of the unemployed, online pioneer Rafa Benitez. In their two friendlies against Norway and Belgium, England’s organization was perfect, showing Roy’s success in infiltrating the squad with his doctrine in less than one month’s time. Many see the Three Lions’ most likely quarterfinal opponents as the defending winners, Spain. The World Cup holders already lost to England in the past 12 months, and it could happen again, as this side holds a better defensive shape than that of Capello’s. Defense proved the best offense against Barcelona in Chelsea’s performances against the Catalan, which have quite a few players in the Spanish XI. The ability of the back four to move as a cohesive unit is essential to England’s play this go around, though this rigid shape has more impressively been put into the works of the midfield, with Gerrard and Parker looking tough to best. The Spanish can be stifled by this cattenacio-like style along the route, and whenever the English meet Germany, the same applies, as the stubbornness displayed by Chelsea saw Munich run out of ideas in the Champions League Final. Another unthinkable event which took a decade, give or take, to achieve.
With so much against them, this may just be England’s time to shine.