“We’ve been waiting for years for England to play like Spain. Now they actually are!”
That was the gag doing the rounds on social media after England’s 2-1 defeat to Uruguay in Sao Paulo. The Three Lions are on the brink of a group stage exit after losing both of their opening World Cup games and the inquest into the team’s performance has already begun, with the search for the men to blame afoot.
But now is not the time for scapegoats. There is a collective responsibility that needs to be shared amongst the players, staff and the manager in any national set up, and in the main, it’s been shirked by England throughout this tournament. Subsequently, the Three Lions are almost certainly set to come up short once again.
In the aftermath of their latest defeat, the sound bites from the players echoed what we heard after the Italy game. They were insistent the team played well, they’d deserved something from the matches and were a little unlucky. After all, against Uruguay they had hit the bar and the referee probably should have sent off Diego Godin for an obvious second yellow card.
But it’s easy to fall back on tired excuses and bemoan misfortune, and it’s been all too regular in England’s marred major tournament past.
In truth, this England team were gripped by the unshakeable apprehension that has hindered their predecessors. They were hopelessly profligate in front of goal, anonymous in midfield and defensively statuesque against Luis Suarez; a player who was wheelchair-bound but a month ago.
Having been drawn in a tough group and picked an inexperienced squad, the English narrative ahead of this tournament was essentially “expect the worst, hope for the best”. But optimism crept upwards as the showpiece moved into view, fueled by strong finishes to the season from players like Daniel Sturridge, Steven Gerrard, Ross Barkley and Raheem Sterling; flourishing in set-ups centered on attacking vibrancy and tactical fluidity.
In hindsight, that was probably the worst thing that could have happened for Hodgson. All of a sudden, England were expected to go to the World Cup and play with an offensive onus, a mantra not typically associated with or preferred by the England boss.
So it was no surprise that in their two games, England looked like a team in limbo. They were striving to fulfil a wider thirst for enterprising football as well as the cohesive preferences of their manager. In the end, they didn’t really do either.
The young players in the squad will undoubtedly take a lot from this experience and whilst the post mortems of England failures in the past have called for a complete overhaul, it’s clear that with the talent coming through, a total facelift is not needed this time.
That doesn’t mean a few tweaks are not required, though. Granted, it’s difficult to place such a heavy burden on so many playing in their first World Cup, but these youngsters have performed in big games for their clubs throughout last season and in some cases, seasons before. They’ve shown that in the right set-up, they’re ready to make an impression at the top level. But when it’s come down to the crunch in South America, they’ve toiled, been played out of position or simply ignored.
It’s wonderful having bright young talents coming through and the experience they’ve gained in Brazil will be invaluable in their development as footballers. But just having these players doesn’t necessarily mean they’ll perform for England or that they’ll fit seamlessly into an international team as they have done with their clubs.
Now this England set-up must do their utmost provide an environment in which these young players can be of greater assistance to the national, just as managers like Brendan Rodgers, Roberto Martinez and Mauricio Pochettino have done for them at club level.
The best of this exciting crop have blossomed in technical and tactically flexible set-ups, with players beside them who are similarly drilled and comfortable in possession. It was plain to see that when Uruguay put the press on, the Three Lions were indecisive and ponderous when tasked with making quick decisions on the ball. It’s a facet of their play that needs to improve enormously moving forward.
And this brings us back to Hodgson. Is he the man to instil the principles that will bring the best out of these prodigious youngsters on the international stage? Can he continue the nurturing process that has been put in process by Rodgers with Sterling and Sturridge, and by Martinez with Barkley and John Stones? The England boss deserves enormous credit for giving these players a chance, but now he must aid in accentuating their abilities and moving them forward.
England could still qualify from their group; it’s not completely unfeasible to claim Italy could win their two games and the Three Lions will beat Costa Rica. But it does look admittedly unlikely for those stars to align and for England to progress.
It means that this group of players and the England supporters are set for a long summer of familiarly tortuous reflection. The glimpses that this team can move England forward will soften the blow though, as will the indisputable potential to go on to bigger and better things. But it certainly isn’t going to happen by accident.