“Cautious optimism” – Perhaps the most dangerous phrase ever heard in the history of English football. We were treated to a young and vibrant looking England squad and were filled with hope when it was announced. Since then we have fallen on our faces. Cue the hypocritical calls for more experience, from the same corners that called for youth, the usual cries of sack the manager and the outcry over one Mr Rooney. Yet what is the real reason for failure, and where do we go from here?
The primary reason could well be too much youth. Luke Shaw is not a better left back than Ashley Cole (yet), so why was he in the squad ahead of him? And what if we had lost Chris Smalling to injury? That would have seen young John Stones called up with little to no big match experience. These type of selections were youth for youth’s sake and very “flavour of the month” decisions. This left us exposed both defensively and mentally.
The next confusing step was the tactics, the deployment of key men and the general mindset of Roy Hodgson. Wayne Rooney deployed from wide against Italy and time and time again we were exposed down that left hand side. Leighton Baines is a fantastic attacking full back, but his defensive frailties were exposed. This begs the question, if this was the plan to play in such a way all along why was one of the best one on one defenders of the last 15 years, Ashley Cole, not deployed to cover this space? This makes you wonder, did Roy ever know his best team or his best tactics? Why was the in form and technically astute Lallana benched in favour of an out of form and underplayed Welbeck? It has to be said that Raheem sterling was a real joy in the first game. Understandably he was moved to try and get Rooney back in form for the second game against Uruguay but why to the right? Especially when he plays so sensationally cutting in from the left for his club side? Did Roy no longer trust Baines’ ability to cover his flank?
Next up we have the defence. Four goals conceded in two games is poor by any stretch, and especially at a world cup. We have been spoiled with an amazing strength in depth at centre back over the last 10 to 15 years, so much so that we never really thought about it. Names like Terry, Ferdinand, Carragher, King, Campbell and Woodgate in their prime would walk into this team, but those days have gone and we need to plan accordingly. Gary Cahill has come on leaps and bounds but is still better with a more able and experienced centre half beside him. We have dug out some fantastic young talents over the last 18 months when all seemed lost and we are going to need to do this once again in defensive positions.
The biggest problem for English football is the same as ever; how do we gel that club form from the premier league into consistent positive performances for the Three Lions? Baines, as we have already mentioned, was poor, and Rooney was a shadow of the man who plays for Manchester United. However, the biggest disappointment for me came from the captain. Steven Gerrard was very very poor against Italy and looked unable of covering the pitch properly. This is no surprise as age catches up with even the greatest players, but one thing that can not be forgiven, and that I never thought I would be able to level at Gerrard, is a poor mental attitude. Suarez had him in his pocket from the word go, and a semi fit Suarez at that. Straight away Gerrard was out-muscled, out-jumped and out-fought by his club colleague. Gerrard will never match Suarez technically but he should be able to provide him with a physical, mentally challenging battle as opposed to a free ride. This was evidenced for Uruguayans 1st goal. Whatever blame you lay at Phil Jagielka’s feet, equal blame must go to Gerrard. He refused to go into a challenge on his Anfield chum with the same vigour as usual and after Suarez had plowed through him, the ball broke to Cavani and 5 seconds later we were one down. You ask Marounne Fellaini (who needed stitches after a challenge from Gerrard in a Liverpool vs Manchester utd derby) if Steven Gerrard goes into challenges half heartedly and you will get a very different answer.
Still, there is much reason for optimism, below are our bullet points for future success
- Keep going with the youth- We have unearthed some fantastic young talent over the last 2 years such as Barkley and Sterling, when not long ago all seemed lost in our ability to produce young players. We need to keep pressing on with this and the success of our under 17 and under 21 sides should further this.
- The defence- It’s time to look for the next generation of English defenders and ensure they are coached in such a way that they become strong defenders, used to being switched on and playing against the very best that world football has to offer. It is also key we find balance and consistency in our back four in the coming international qualifiers, in readiness for tournament football.
- Time to move on- It may well be time for the likes of Gerrard to move on from the international stage. One of English football’s greatest talent and probably our most consistent performer at the previous big tournaments he has failed to truly adapt to a deep lying role for both club and country, especially from a defensive standpoint. The day has come for him to allow the Wilshere’s and Henderson’s of this world to carry the torch in midfield and inject the passion and energy that was once his trademark, but may now be on the slide.
- Wayne’s World- We must find a way to get the best of England’s talisman. At present he is our one true world class, create something out of nothing player. He needs to be managed, motivated and deployed properly and effectively in order to progress the national side, and make the young lions around him become even better.
The summer may have been a big anti climax if you’re English football fan, and the performances have not been anywhere near acceptable, regardless, there are still 3 more weeks of the biggest football festival on the planet to enjoy. Considering this tournament currently averages around 3 goals a game it is definitely a world cup to be enjoyed by the neutrals and after Tuesday night we will become one big nation of neutrals, for two more years at least….