As England’s run through the Euro ended in a painfully familiar fashion, all hope of an improbable run concluded bluntly on penalties.
After the match, manager Roy Hodgson focused on the positive aspects of England’s four matches. He remained proud of the spirit and resiliency his defense showed in every match while almost under constant duress from their opponents.
Yet, there is no escaping the bitter truth that despite all the talent England put out on the field, they were the inferior team against Italy. Despite a few sporadic opportunities, England was outplayed by an Italian team who will rue their poor finishing. Just like in their prior matches, England was extremely lucky to have survived the onslaught of possession and attempts Italy maintained.
Moving forward, there is room for optimism for the Three Lions considering the state they were in the weeks leading up to the Euro. Despite Hodgson’s short amount of time, the players responded well to simplistic tactics where everyone was on the same page. Unlike prior tournaments where England lacked chemistry and understanding, this summer’s squad battled their way to being a couple of penalty kicks short of the semifinals.
However, what was concerning was despite the match against Sweden, England offered little up front in terms of creating chances and scoring goals. Players like Ashley Young, Wayne Rooney and especially Andy Carroll looked unsure of what to do up front and often resorted to taking matters into their own hands by charging at defenders alone. Unlike Italy who was able to systematically break down England’s dogged defense, England simply were too basic as they depended on their forwards and wingers who were too wasteful with the ball.
Hodgson even admitted that he was disappointed with Rooney’s performance considering how much responsibility was put on his shoulders alone to win matches. “When he missed the first two games we were all believing that what we need to do now is get to the third game and Wayne Rooney will win us the championships. That maybe was too much to ask of him. He certainly tried very hard but he didn’t have his best game and I think he would admit that.”
While Rooney would probably admit that he didn’t play as well as he desired, the irritating fact is that poor form on his part is an issue that has been previously raised. Time and time again, England has hoped that Rooney would finally break out of his shell and become just as good as we’ve all seen him be at Old Trafford.
In my mind, Rooney will never improve and become an elite playmaker as long as he’s surrounded by the same players. He has rarely performed well with the ball service he has received from primarily Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard in the central midfield. Rooney has often struggled with receiving any chances provided for him by a midfield that’s too inept and pinned back to get the ball on a consistent basis. It’s illogical that Rooney and the rest of England’s forwards are going to dramatically improve with counters when most of the team is standing back and one or two players are driving forward against groups of defenders.
Seriously, thinking Rooney is going to magically become world class with England’s midfield is like believing that beating a dead horse enough times is going to make it come back to life.
Yet, what’s very scary is Hodgson’s assured belief that he must continue to play with the usual faces. He has already talked about how he wants to continue to use Gerrard, Lampard, Gareth Barry, Scott Parker, Ashley Cole and John Terry because he wants to have the right blend of ages like Germany has. “Everyone has seen how well Germany have kicked on since 2006. They have brought in younger players and the older ones are still performing to a good level. We have to take heart from that.”
Well, while Hodgson can “take heart from that”, a quick look at the German team shows that besides Miroslav Klose and back-up keeper Tim Wiese, everyone else is younger than 30 which shows that their great number of budding superstars is coupled with elite players who are in the prime of their careers. The same can’t be said for England’s Old Guard as they are clearly in the twilight stages of their careers and are clearly nowhere near as good as they were years ago.
Therefore, what Hodgson must realize is that if England is going to have any shot in Brazil, there needs to be immediate change. Not only does that mean that the days of Gerrard and Lampard must cease, but England need to put aside the notion that their national team isn’t good enough to maintain possession.
Yet, whether England can ever move forward depends on whether Hodgson and his staff can put aside a national inferiority complex about how well the team can play. This notion that England should just accept their limitations was maintained by comments made by former England striker Michael Owen when he stated, “Easy for people to say ‘until we keep possession better we will never win anything’. We are not as good as others at doing that. We played to our strengths but are just not quite good enough. We were hoping to ‘do a Chelsea’”.
This idea that England must “do a Chelsea” in order to win needs to be eradicated as there is no reason why the Three Lions must play like Greece or the Czech Republic because they clearly have more talented players than those smaller nations. What is truly befuddling is why England have to settle on just surviving matches through last ditch defending and desperate counter attacks in order to win when so many of these players participate in the Premier League which is widely considered one of if not the best league in the world.
As we all prepare for Brazil, England look very promising with every part of their lineup besides the central midfield. Starting from the back, Joe Hart was superb in goal as he was constantly called on to make one key save after another in every match. The defense also looks very strong as by the time England travels to South America, England could have a back line that consists of promising fullbacks Kyle Walker and Micah Richards, and possible center-backs like Chris Smalling, Joleon Lescott, Phil Jones, and Gary Cahill.
Up front, the wingers should consist of Ashley Young on the left, who will continue to hit his peak form with Manchester United, and on the right should be the swift Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain with Theo Walcott off the bench. While Wayne Rooney who will be 28 come 2014 should still be included, Danny Welbeck should be his partner after he was quite impressive this Euro (91% pass completion which is level with Mezut Ozil and Andres Iniesta). Daniel Sturridge is another option worth watching as his finishing and ball control is excellent.
That then leaves the all-important central midfield which is of course vital to any team’s chances. England need to have midfielders who can keep the ball in order to give the defense a respite and to give the forwards proper ball service by building well-developed, calculated chances. The two young talents England should develop from this time forth are Arsenal’s Jack Wilshere and Manchester United’s Tom Cleverley.
Once Wilshere is fully recovered from his ankle injury, the 20 year old should be immediately reinstalled into England’s starting XI as he is a versatile box-to-box midfielder who can act as both an attacker and a holder of the ball. In Arsenal’s possession-oriented system, Wilshere has already taken great strides forward in his play which would greatly improve England’s ability to maintain possession and create chances.
Like Wilshere, Cleverley’s early progress was also stunted due to a foot injury due to a harsh tackle by Bolton’s Kevin Davies. This was a major shame as it derailed what could have been a phenomenal debut season as he played fantastically well as a central attacking midfielder. He linked up seamlessly with his Manchester United teammates as he showed that he could make incisive passes to break down opposing defenses. He also showed steadfast determination in getting back on defense which demonstrates his versatility and commitment which would greatly benefit England.
Of course both Wilshere and Cleverley need time to develop further in their young careers. Yet, they both have enough promise to transform England from being rigid and conservative into an attacking force that plays together as a team. Hodgson would need to incorporate a more aggressive and clinical style with the chances created. It would also greatly assist players like the maligned Rooney who could finally stay up front and be set up with glorious opportunities rather than having to run back in midfield or in defense.
Overall, there were a lot of positives England could take away from their form in Poland and the Ukraine. Yet, all of that will mean absolutely nothing if they don’t continue to improve by bringing in fresh faces to rejuvenate the squad and improve the quality of play.