Greg Dyke set the tone. With the draw for Group D of the World Cup concluded, the FA Chairman promptly drew his finger across his throat: a group of death. Of course, back in December it was Costa Rica who were expected to end up in an early World Cup grave but they went on to outlive all of the group’s more celebrated sides.
England got rumbled in the jungle by Italy (or more precisely by Pirlo, again), suckered by Suarez (a less painful experience than the Italians had of him), and the match against the Costa Ricans was essentially pointless in every sense bar the literal one.
How much more should have been expected of England? Consistently laborious performances in qualifying were enough to suppress the expectations of all but the most optimistic of their fans. Last year Gary Linker lamented a return to the tactical “dark ages” following a draw at home to the Republic of Ireland. The World Cup offered little indication of renaissance.
Pre-tournament expectations were low but not all hope had been renounced. There was some hope that Rooney would demonstrate beyond doubt at an international tournament that he is world class; there was perhaps greater hope that an emerging young talent such as Sterling or Barkley would take the tournament by storm in the manner of Gazza at Italia 90; and there was just enough hope that the blend of those youngsters with tournament veterans such as Gerrard and Rooney would produce a side that was both attack-minded and competitive.
Rooney did manage to score his first World Cup goal and provided an excellent assist for Sturridge against Italy but overall his limitations were more apparent than his strengths. Played out of position in the opening game, he frequently left Baines exposed and the Italians were savvy enough to take full advantage. There’s no question that Rooney is a very talented footballer but he did not answer the doubts that linger about him at the very highest level. He’s certainly not able to carry a team in the way that Messi or Neymar can, or indeed Robben or Colombia’s Rodriguez.
Barkley didn’t have much too much opportunity to prove himself in Brazil but he’s a player that, for all his qualities, has an awful lot to learn. The most important lesson that has escaped him so far is that genius is more often to be found in simplicity than complexity.
Sterling meanwhile has emerged as the most promising young English footballer at present. This is somewhat surprising in my view, as for at least a season at Liverpool he demonstrated little more than searing pace. He had a mystifying tendency to take the ball down dead ends, and his final delivery (on those rare occasions when he either avoided or reversed out of cul-de-sacs) was generally abysmal.
In the last 12 months however he has grown in strength, tactical appreciation and technical ability and now offers a real threat beyond his speed. His fast start to the tournament was not sustained and while he returns home with his reputation enhanced, a lot of work remains to be done if he is to prove himself worthy of being the player that England’s immediate future is constructed around.
On paper, the blend of youth and experience in the England side did appear quite positive. Much of the build up to the tournament focused on whether or not Hodgson would be able to overcome his customary caution in team selections. Starting Sterling in the opening game was overwhelmingly interpreted as praiseworthy boldness on the manager’s part but looked to me to be a rather more straightforward decision to pick arguably the most in form player in the squad.
In fact there was very little drama about the starting 11. Most of the debate, as ever, revolved around Rooney. Hodgson certainly erred in not playing him in his best position against Italy but otherwise most of his selections required little justification. Personally I’m far from convinced by Wellbeck, he’s a player that does nothing badly but nothing particularly well either. Left back also became an area of scrutiny as Baines failed to play anywhere near his best but his initial selection was absolutely understandable.
Tactically, Hodgson has more to answer for. It still seemed as though England were generally set-up to nullify the strengths of the opposition rather than impose their own. With so many Liverpool players in the team, Hodgson could have opted to play closer to the style of Brendan Rodgers’ side with a quicker tempo and more emphasis on pressing higher up the pitch. In his selection, the England boss recognised that his side was stronger in attack than defence but he failed to reflect that in his tactics.
England’s tactics were apparently shared with the world before they even started their first game. Gary Neville was photographed with his training notes on display and thus, in the typically understated language of the English press, he ‘unwittingly revealed England’s master plan.’
The notes read: “When the ball goes into control zone – team must make at least 3 passes before hitting the CF. Once the ball is played into the end zone – 2 MFs try to get in and support for a 3v2. However, if the defending team win the ball back they counter straight away.” I can imagine the England squad listening to Oasis on the team bus and singing, “we’re all part of a master plan.” Neville’s tactics gaff was about as revelatory as his brother’s attempts at co-commentary.
It would have been great if a photographer had captured a similar piece of paper in the Argentinean camp: “just pass the ball to Messi lads.”
Hodgson developed an increasingly pink complexion over the course of his side’s short stay in the tournament. It is unclear how much was attributable to embarrassment and how much to neglecting to take a strong enough sun cream. He didn’t have a strong enough defence either.
Uruguay’s winner was a particularly shocking example of what’s come to be universally known as ‘schoolboy defending.’ I can remember being lambasted for that type of defending – and that exact phrase being used – when I was a schoolboy. It struck me as rather harsh at the time but it cannot be considered harsh when applied to the ineptitude of some of England’s defensive displays.
England’s world cup campaign was probably best encapsulated by an incident in the aftermath of the equaliser against Italy when team physio Gary Lewin dislocated his ankle amidst the exuberance of the celebrations. He went home early but the rest of the squad were not far behind.
The best sides at the World Cup either had an exceptional individual (Argentina, Brazil, Colombia, Holland) or a very well developed but still flexible style of play (Germany and the Dutch again warrant inclusion here). England had neither. Rooney is good but he’s not exceptional and it remains to be seen just how good Sterling will become. In terms of style of play, England may have progressed a little from the dark ages but not nearly far enough.
Greg Dyke has set England the target of winning the World Cup in 2022. That’s just 8 years away. 8 years ago, England lost on penalties to Portugal in the quarter finals of the World Cup in Germany. Since then, they’ve gone backwards. In 2010, the Germans humbled Capello’s calamitous side 4-1 in the last 16 and in 2014 Hodgson’s men failed to make it out of the group stage.
Unable to survive a group of death (I don’t use the term the group of death as there were other groups just as tough), it seems likely that it will take longer than 8 years to breathe life back into England’s World Cup prospects.