Roy Hodgson will fly home from this summer’s World Cup in a strange situation. Having guided England to their first group-stage elimination since 1950, the FA chairman Greg Dyke committed his full-backing to the 66 year old and announced he would be the man to continue his job until the 2016 European Championships.
The qualification process for that tournament begins in Switzerland in September with the aim of finishing in the top 2 of a group that also includes Slovenia, Estonia, Lithuania and San Marino. Even considering the debacle of Brazil, it should be a simple ask of Hodgson to guide England to France from that group and he should feel frustrated that it will be another 2 years before his team receive a genuine competitive test in the heat of tournament football.
Friendlies will once again be misleading. Over the past two years they have beaten Spain, Belgium and Brazil at Wembley while a trip to Rio de Janeiro saw a 2-2 draw with Neymar and co. in which England counter-attacked with a fearless flair and vibrancy that simply goes awry when the pressure is on.
Once again this summer England reinforced the view that in tournament football they are unable to compete with the world’s best, entering the stage on 14th June and exiting it just five days later. First it was Andrea Pirlo of Italy who passed England to death in Manaus, completing 103 out of 108 passes in the 30C degree heat of the jungle, more than his opposition’s midfield quartet made in total.
England finished the 2-1 defeat to Italy with a 91 pass completion rate, their highest ever recorded in a World Cup game. It marked another step towards adjusting to the modern game where cherishing the ball is key, lessons obviously being learned from recent tournaments in which England have stepped onto the global stage with major deficits in their ability to retain the ball.
Such an adaption has come too late however. Italy fed off that weakness in Kiev at Euro 2012 and in the Amazon the Azzurri recorded a passing accuracy of 93.2%, the highest in a World Cup game since 1966. For all of Danny Welbeck’s diligence on the right, Raheem Sterling’s bravery in the middle and the clever movement of Daniel Sturridge in attack, Italy stayed calm, assured that their superior nous and technical ability would eventually expose weaknesses.
England may have deserved a point from the game with Italy and it was a positive display to go towards dispelling a growing myth that they performed truly badly at these finals. Reminiscent maybe of an ambitious young boxer heading into a bout against an experienced champion who can summon up superior wisdom and ability to fend off his challenger.
Perhaps it was too bold of Hodgson to go with such an attacking system against Italy which left Pirlo free to pull the strings as they finally managed to break the resistance down the right flank in which Wayne Rooney had failed to offer Leighton Baines sufficient protection.
The manager will be wiser for such an error, just like he should be for persisting with Steven Gerrard and Jordan Henderson in a midfield 2 against Uruguay in which their defensive vulnerability was seized upon by Nicolas Lodeiro and Edinson Cavani. Gerrard in particular struggled and played an unwanted part in both goals, offering a bristle stand against Cavani’s break for Luis Suarez’s first goal before miscuing a header that fell crisp into the path of his Liverpool team-mate for the heart-breaking decider.
The buck here stops with Hodgson, not the paucity of young talent coming through into the Premier League or the alarming lack of coaches, but the tactics of a man who failed to realise that the centre-midfield of a Liverpool team that conceded 50 goals last term may have needed an extra body.
The 4-3-3 was tried out in March’s friendly with Denmark but as Jack Wilshere suffered the injury that ruled him out until the final day of the season, that plan disappeared. A 4-2-3-1 was then used, centred around a reliance on Rooney who, despite a goal and an assist over 2 matches in this tournament, can be frustratingly peripheral for large portions of matches.
Back to the midfield once again and one of Hodgson’s priorities for the forthcoming qualifying campaign must be to unearth a midfielder capable of controlling a game in the same vein as Italy’s Pirlo or, to a different extreme, how Arevalo Rios did for Uruguay, shackling Rooney with a tenacious marking job.
For all of Gerrard’s achievements across a superb career it was clear in Brazil that, at the age of 34, the captain is no longer that player. It may be a mystery why Gareth Barry remained at home after spending an excellent season at Everton, but it must now become apparent to Hodgson that reputations must be sacrificed for whoever can do the best job for the team.
England got a taste of the new generation out in Brazil with Ross Barkley, Raheem Sterling, Luke Shaw, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Chris Smalling Daniel Sturridge, Phil Jones, Welbeck and Wilshere all 24 years of age or under.
John Stones, aged 20, and the 21 year old Jon Flanagan both capped off excellent breakthrough Premier League seasons with stand-by call-ups while Theo Walcott, Jay Rodriguez and Andros Townsend, missing the World Cup through injury after playing a huge role in getting England there with exciting performances against Montenegro and Poland in qualifying, will play big roles over the next 2 years.
Southampton’s stream of talent also provides James Ward-Prowse, Nathaniel Clyne and a potential replacement for Gerrard in Jack Cork. Aston Villa’s young midfield duo of Ashley Westwood and Fabian Delph should be handed more consideration than they are afforded currently, Nathan Redmond of Norwich shone at the Toulon tournament this summer with the under-21s while Saido Berahino has 7 goals off just 9 caps with that age group after a stunning breakthrough season at West Bromwich Albion.
Hodgson’s biggest problem lies in defence with a lack of leadership clear following John Terry’s acrimonious departure. Both Gary Cahill and Phil Jagielka were punished by predatory striking in Brazil and as the manager acknowledged, at this level there is little margin for error.
The talented 21 year old Liam Moore of Leicester will get Premier League football next season while Eric Dier, the rarity of an English player abroad with Sporting Lisbon, has a bright career ahead.
Hodgson definitely deserves more than two thirds of foreign imports accounting for the starting line-ups of Premier League teams who began last season and this year the figure will probably increase as English clubs again head abroad to look for exotic bargains.
The Premier League is a global market and is now a global league, motivated by money and business with most its clubs showing little regard for long-termism as they become desperate just to stay in it.
Those at the other end, fluttering eyes at the Champions League occupy a different level all together. Jack Rodwell, once a future star for England, was signed by Manchester City for £15 million but his career has since stagnated badly, with his place now lost to Fernandinho, the Brazilian signed a year later for £34 million.
With such obscene levels of cash now at stake in the higher reaches of England’s flagship league the problem has now passed beyond curtailing, unworthy of attention as Richard Scudamore and the healthy line of foreign investors he has attracted to these shores remain too wrapped up in self-interest to listen. Neither does the solution lie in the wretched proposal to replicate the Spanish B team idea and to create a league 3, an absurd idea that was rejected swiftly.
There is no panacea to the mess English football seems to have arrived at. A lack of coaches, Spain has 20,000 more than England, the total breakdown of grass-roots football which creates an irreversible apathy in children who could be inspired to play, or a win-at-all-costs mentality that exists in teenage years. They are all insidious problems that go well beyond Hodgson’s realm of influence.
This summer showed England to be at least a decade behind Uruguay and Italy, astute national teams and as Wayne Rooney called them “streetwise”, but there was an explicit desire, driven by Hodgson, to change with the times. An emphasis on passing football, a positive, well-organised camp that was light-years away from the dreary, prison-like hold-up in Rustenburg with Fabio Capello four years ago.
If Capello led English football to its watershed moment with destruction by Germany in Bloemfontein, we have since seen the belated opening of St George’s Park and the introduction of the Elite Player’s Performance Plan, then Brazil four years later should be an encouragement to stay on the path to which it is heading. It has been a major setback but not one big enough to knock Hodgson or England back off course as they prepare for a pivotal next 2 years.