You didn’t really believe it was going to happen, did you? Following yet another tournament exit at the very first stage of the knock-outs, this England team achieved its standard, more historically accurate aim of a somewhat awkward glorious exit. Backs to the wall, fighting to the last man, it appeared and indeed sounded an all too familiar English tale.
There is of course something to be said for the stubborn, almost futile, resistance in the face of overwhelming odds. It appeals to our sense of boyish adventure. We British like to look back on the likes of Dunkirk, Rorkes Drift or Captain Scott’s ill-fated journey to the South Pole with a nostalgic eye that all too often has been diverted away from the very reasons why such a last ditch, final stand was necessary in the first instance. Often it is because we have been found wanting immediately beforehand.
Take Rorkes Drift for example, glorified in the film Zulu. The garrison of 150 men defending their base against a sustained attack by up to 4,000 Zulu Warriors. Yet the preceding battle, the Battle of Isandlwana, a crushing defeat leaving 1300 dead, the worst in the British Army history against a technological inferior force, was quickly glossed over by the establishment back in Britain by the sterling defence of Rorkes Drift, a battle that earned its defenders an unprecedented eleven Victoria Crosses. The public had barely the time to digest the news of Isandlwana before the glory of Rorkes Drift broke and made heroes out of the British Army once more. Perceived glorious failure or near failure comes a close second to overall success in the public conscious.
Taking an admittedly gifted, but in no way vintage Italian team, all the way to penalties has been portrayed as something to be proud of. Roy Hodgson commented, “There were some heroic performances not only tonight but also in the previous three games…maybe it’s just fated at the moment that we don’t win on penalties.” It is true that the England team did work exceptionally hard to try and keep the Italians at bay but were more often than not left chasing shadows brought about by the colossal error by the manager in choosing to play with two strikers and leave the midfield two of Gerrard and Parker at the mercy of a narrow diamond of an Italian midfield consisting of four typically central midfielders including the imperious Andrea Pirlo who rarely must have enjoyed the freedom he was given to roam and dictate the game from a deep-lying position. By the end of the first-half, the pattern of the game was set and England’s manager was found wanting.
England’s great hope, Wayne Rooney, was a peripheral figure, detached from the play and carrying a look as though he knew that once more his contribution to a major tournament was proving to be negligible. He proved unwilling to close down Pirlo or perhaps, even more damningly for Hodgson, looked as though he did not possess the fitness to carry out this task. His forward partners, first Danny Welbeck who toiled for an hour to find space to provide an outlet, was withdrawn and replaced by Andy Carroll which only served to confirm that England were prepared to concede possession of the football to Italy and revert to a route-one way of playing. Carroll persevered, a sad lonely figure in the Italian half, but his colleagues were by now entrenched in their own half, no longer believing they had it within them to counter-punch the constant Italian jab.
The statistics are damning. Italy completed 815 passes to England’s 320. The most frequent passing combination was between the goalkeeper Joe Hart and Andy Carroll. Italy had twenty shots on target during the game – more than England managed over four tournament fixtures. England had an average of 39% possession during the tournament – their lowest in any tournament since 1980. Two particularly telling stats show that England blocked more shots on goal than that of any other side during the tournament and seventeen more than their closest rival Italy and they also made the most tackles in the tournament with Steven Gerrard making the most with 18.
These are typically English stats. They tell us that what the team lacked in technique, they attempted to make up for by sheer bloody hard work. These are also typically Roy Hodgson stats. Roy Hodgson teams work hard, they are defensively organized and they come to the table with a plan. However, Roy Hodgson teams usually do not win anything. In an age whereby Spain had shown themselves to be perhaps the greatest international side in history primarily by cherishing control of the ball, England have gone in the opposite direction by appointing a manager who’s philosophy is to allow the opposing team to have control and work a game-plan around spoiling them. Occasionally, it can bear fruit if the opposition has on off-day but typically this approach only get’s you so far especially in a tournament whereby you rely upon a small group of players to rally themselves every three or four days again and again to chase and to harry and to frustrate the opposition.
None more so had to work exceptionally hard than Gerrard and Parker. These are two players on the wrong side of thirty who ran themselves into the ground to protect their defence despite being outnumbered in the midfield area. This was the fourth time they were asked to do this in thirteen days and it proved too much even for them. Gerrard collapsing with cramp around the seventy minute mark while Parker was finally substituted, too exhausted to continue.
England’s performance in the previous three games is perhaps somewhat misleading by the tally of points gleamed by their efforts. Seven points out of a possible nine is nothing to be sniffed at. However, a stirring last twenty minutes against Sweden apart, the team were on the perpetual back-foot against all three of their opponents. The French team, lauded before the tournament for their unbeaten run, were exposed first by the Swedish and then by the Spanish as still being very much a work in progress with a soft underbelly. England’s tepid display against them appears worse than at first thought bearing in mind how the French faired following. The Swedish, desperate for the three points after disappointing in their opening fixture against the Ukraine, were edged out by a moment of individual brilliance by Welbeck. Their urgency in having to win the game ultimately played straight into England and Theo Walcott’s counter attacking hands. They might yet feel hard done by after dominating the first three quarters of the game against the English. The Ukrainians were willing triers who dominated possession and displayed far more the attacking intent but were ultimately left wanting by a lack of quality in the final third and an assistant referee who somehow conspired to miss the ball crossing the English line right before his very eyes.
The general feeling amongst the public following their standard exit from a competition was that Roy Hodgson’s England had reached their potential during this tournament. This does not take into account that England’s starting eleven against the Italians had eight players whom had experienced winning the Premier League. They also had four starters with Champions League winner’s medals in their collections. The combined medal haul between the squad bore comparison to all of the other squads in the tournament sans Spain. These were undeniably good players who were poorly utilized once again by an England manager perhaps reaching his own potential by finding him himself in the knock-out phase.
That Roy Hodgson did not walk into his Wembley headquarters until May 1st appears to this writer to be the only redeeming quality of this campaign. It is true that a defensive shape and team spirit was fostered at a quick rate but these are typically reliable qualities of many an England team. Since the penalty shoot-out failure against the West Germans in Turin 1990, England has experienced elimination from major tournament via penalties on five more occasions. Each time we have walked away blaming anything other than ourselves. Admittedly, bad luck played a part in 1996 but in 1998, 2004 and 2006 we found pantomime villains to blame our misfortune upon. ‘The England team, they kept going despite the odds’ has become an accepted sound byte for overall failure.
Some have simplified it even more to explain that the English players simply lack the technique required to compete on this stage. There is undoubtedly some truth to this if we were to compare a large sample of English players against their counterparts in the Spanish or Italian leagues but when narrowed down to a squad of 23 this does not ring nearly as true. The truth is that English players have been competing very successfully in Europe against these same set of players in the other leagues from around the continent. Since 2005, England has had three teams win the Champions League whilst being losing finalists on 4 different occasions. If anything, this has been a golden age for English football. Are we to assume that International football is beyond essentially the same set of players?
England has produced some magnificent footballers over the years. What the national team has lacked, especially since 1990, is the right coach at the right time. Time and again, the decision makers have picked the wrong man. Sometimes they have picked the right one but at the wrong moment in their career. Few will remember Fabio Capello fondly but his record is the outstanding one across the six managers since 1994 showing a 66.7% win percentage across 42 games. The national team’s pitiful performance in the 2010 World Cup as well as the coach’s aloofness to the press has likely served to gloss over such an impressive record. Perhaps the more impressive record still is Sven-Goran Eriksson’s record of winning 59.7% of 67 games with just 10 losses to show. Both Capello and Eriksson were replaced by English coaches and their bloated salaries derided. On both occasions, the general public as well as large swathes of the press demanded an English manager replace them. On both occasions the FA announced that their successors would be English before an appointment had even been made. On both occasions there had hardly been an improvement made on their predecessors although, admittedly, it is early days in regard to Roy Hodgson.
Where does this leave the national side going forward? Assuming nothing catastrophic occurs during a relatively routine qualification group then we will most likely see a very similar group of players and the same standard of tactics in Brazil in two years time. This writer fears that we will waste another two years before it is realized that the right coach with a modern progressive philosophy had been required and two years of potential progress will have been wasted. England will likely not be embarrassed in Brazil 2014 under Roy Hodgson and will more than likely get the dignified, perhaps even glorious exit that her peoples seem relaxed enough with. Like the British Army after Rorkes Drift, we may enjoy a victory against the odds that will blind many to our overall shortcomings. In the meanwhile we will run the risk of leaving the rest of the international world busy with laying the foundations to the success that will continue to elude us.