Sam Jose

Jose Mourinho

Jose Mourinho, photo by Aleksandr Osipov,

It’s the year of the manager. Jose, Pep, Antonio, Jurgen and Claudio – reads rather like a Euro boy band – are set to be the real superstars of the Premier League season. Meanwhile, Big Sam has taken on the big job of attempting to restore England’s credibility at the international level.

The TV cameras will be trained on the dugouts more than ever as the aforementioned, plus Arsene, Slaven et al plot, scheme and tinker. The vast sums being paid by the broadcasters for their seat at the table means that the most important decisions the managers make will occur during the transfer windows. Take note Arsene.

Wenger must be getting a better interest rate than most in the UK who leave their money in the bank at the moment as he persists with his almost comical reluctance to invest. The joke is wearing thin for Arsenal fans though as they can see that in standing still, their side is sliding slowly but surely backwards.

If Wenger is waiting on the market cooling off he may have a long wait ahead and he’s likely to feel some considerable heat from his supporters before that happens. The start of the season should be a time of hope and expectation for fans but Arsenal fans know what to expect: top four (maybe, just), last 16 or quarter finals in the Champions League, and at least one decent domestic cup run.

One man who hasn’t hesitated to throw open the owner’s wallet is Mourinho. He’s spent extravagantly but wisely. Of course Pogba is not really worth all that in absolute terms but if Man U win the title, it will prove to be money well spent.

An even smarter decision that Jose’s made is snapping up Ibrahimovic. He’s a Cantona-esque signing: top-quality, a proven winner, and brings with him an unmistakable aura. I make United slight title favourites ahead of their Manchester neighbours based mostly on the Zlatan signing.

I foolishly left him out of my initial fantasy league selection; a mistake that I have now rectified.

City fans meanwhile are enjoying the long-held fantasy of having Pep in charge. As expected, he’s wasting little time in putting his stamp on the side and appears to have little love for Joe Hart. The squad still needs more of an overhaul and I’d be surprised if his summer spending has reached its conclusion.

Guardiola will probably want to avoid getting caught up in a sideshow with Mourinho but the Portuguese will relish it, stoke it, and embrace it. The first Manchester derby of the season should be worth a watch.  I’d be quite happy to watch a camera that only showed the two managers throughout – like that strange film they made a few years ago that focused solely on Zidane (‘A 21st Century Portrait’) for 90 minutes.

Conte must seek to make something of an omelette from the broken eggs that Jose left behind at Stamford Bridge and Chelsea fans will have been encouraged by what he was able to eke out of a modest Italian squad at Euro 2016.

It might not be pretty but it’s sure to be intense under the Italian. Chelsea will be very hard to beat, their work rate will be off the charts, and they will be tactically flexible. I don’t think they’ll be champions but I expect them to be the highest placed London club this season.

Two games in and I have almost no idea what to expect from my club, Liverpool. Triumph at Arsenal followed by disaster at Burnley suggests that one of those performances was an imposter but it’s hard to tell yet which one.

Klopp has declared the squad at Anfield his own and he knows that vast improvements on last season are required. In any of the last few seasons, Liverpool’s current squad under Klopp would be near-certainties for the top four but this is likely to be the most competitive season in a long time.

Klopp is as competitive as they come and he doesn’t lack ambition. His squad still lacks something though and a further addition or two could make a big difference for Liverpool.

Ranieri must be hugely relieved that his squad doesn’t now lack most of its best players. It’s a tremendous tribute to what Leicester achieved last season, and the way in which they did it, that almost everyone has opted to show loyalty and stay.

They surely cannot repeat the heroics of that fairy tale run but they will enjoy the experience of being champions and are unlikely to relinquish the crown meekly. Ranieri, once seen as something of a jester, has been enthroned as the Premier League’s managerial king. The loyal subjects at the King Power Stadium may never witness anything so remarkable again.

It is to be hoped that none of us ever have to witness Gary Lineker presenting in his pants again although whoever sold the garment in question may warrant investigation under the Trade Descriptions Act.

Whatever embarrassment Lineker may have felt was probably not as great as that of the England players who contrived to lose to Iceland in the Euros. That defeat – possibly the worst in the country’s history – brought to a close the rather farcical reign of Roy Hodgson.

Big Sam thus has small boots to fill.

England’s young and energetic side actually travelled to France having displayed some promise in the build-up to the tournament. Not unusually of late, it was a promise they failed to keep. Is Big Sam the man for the rebuilding job?

Why not? He has lots of experience, he excels at man management, and he’s more tactically astute than he’s often given credit for.

There are no quick fixes for England in terms of the fundamentals: players who are not as talented as they think they are, a squad that is tactically naïve, and a lack of opportunities for young players at many top clubs.

That said, he will select players who are in form (I don’t envisage many Allardyce ‘favourites’), instil a simple but consistent style of play that his squad is comfortable with, and attempt to create more of a club atmosphere for the national team.

None of these changes will turn England into Spain or France overnight (or even Portugal or Croatia) but they should suffice to avoid banana skins such as the Iceland debacle. For England then, as well as in the English Premier League, it’s the manager who looks set to take centre stage.

So put your clothes back on Gary, be careful of the bets that you make, and let’s see who turns out to be this season’s special one.

En France

France 2016

Euro 2016, France. Photo by Brigitte Djajasasmita,

My favourite scene of all in Only Fools and Horses has the two Trotter brothers in their trusty van, driving through the French countryside. Del professes his love for duck a l’orange and asks Rodney: “how do you say duck in French bruv?” Rodney pauses then replies: “it’s canard Del.” Try saying it out loud if you don’t get it.

And so it is with predicting the winner of the European Championships which commence later tonight in France with the hosts taking on Romania. The French are many people’s favourites and that’s understandable given their strong and balanced squad plus home advantage.

Since hosts don’t have to qualify it’s always difficult to assess their form ahead of a tournament. The ease with which they beat Scotland last week told us more about our travails than French prospects of triumph.

We Scots have been looking on with envy as the rest of the home nations have crossed the Channel to do battle against Europe’s best. And Albania.

Indeed, the last time we made it to a major tournament was in France, the World Cup of ’98. I was still a teenager, with a Kurt Cobain poster on my wall, and had recently moved to England. The Scotland team did as usual: almost beat Brazil then exited meekly.

We had a tough qualifying group for France ’16 but we still should have edged out the Irish for a play-off spot. I expect most of the home nations to return home pretty quickly with the exception of England.

I don’t think they’ll win it (they don’t look like a squad who could handle the pressure of going all the way) but it wouldn’t surprise me to see them in the semi finals. England are suspect at the back, which is true of most teams in the competition, but they have considerable talent and options up front. Personally I wouldn’t start Rooney but Hodgson will and the balance of the side will be disrupted as a consequence.

I see some of the England fans have already been making friends and influencing people. They’ve been on the receiving end of some tear gas and more tears will surely follow when the inevitable defeat on penalties comes to pass.

Elsewhere, the Spanish and the Italians both arrive somewhat uncertain and potentially underestimated. Conte will squeeze every ounce of sweat out of his side but he lacks a really menacing goal scorer. The Spanish are trying to evolve their tiki-taka style in the absence of Xavi, the man around whom the whole system once revolved at both club and national level.

Belgium are ranked highly but I’m not convinced they’re ready to breakthrough and actually claim a title. My tip then is the Germans. Betting against Germany rarely pays dividends and I don’t recommend it on this occasion. They were poor against Scotland twice in qualifying but they have quality throughout the spine of their side and, more importantly, they know how to win.

It promises to be an exciting month and for those of us watching from afar, a tiring one. Many of the games kick-off at 3am Malaysian time. I’m much older than a teenager now, so I’ll have to pace myself.

Can England win Euro 2016?

England v France

England v France at Wembley. Photo by Ben Sutherland,

If England were to be crowned European champions in France this summer it would come as something of a surprise to me. By then of course, Leicester may already be Premier League champions and an English triumph at the Euros wouldn’t be as big a shock as that. Still, England have never previously won the tournament nor, remarkably, ever even made the final.

Recent friendly matches were an opportunity to assess the form of Hodgson’s squad and their prospects when they cross the Channel in June. A 3-2 victory away in Germany was a significant statement of intent, subsequently tempered slightly by a 2-1 loss at home to the Netherlands a few days later.

What struck me most about these recent matches is the extent to which the England side has changed from the last major international tournament, the 2014 World Cup in Brazil. Let’s compare the starting line-ups from England’s crucial group game against Uruguay in 2014 with the team that took the field in Berlin last month.

Uruguay v England (19/06/14)

Hart, Johnson, Baines, Cahill, Jagielka, Sterling, Henderson, Gerrard, Sturridge, Rooney, Welbeck.

Germany v England (26/03/16)

Butland, Clyne, Rose, Cahill, Smalling, Dier, Henderson, Lallana, Alli, Welbeck, Kane.

Only three players – Cahill, Henderson, and Welbeck – appear in both line-ups. Several others who played against Uruguay may also start England’s first match in Euro 2016 against Russia with Hart, Rooney, and Sturridge probably the most likely among them.

Nevertheless, it’s a significant overhaul of his side that Hodgson has undertaken. No bad thing that in all likelihood given the fact that the ‘golden generation’ scarcely got anywhere near bronze.  So is the 2016 vintage better?

Defensively I don’t think it is. England are a team that leak goals against decent opposition and there’s quite a lot of inexperience at the back. Clyne is average in my view and Rose has a lot to learn before he can consider himself a master of international football. Smalling is a link in the chain that opposition sides will regard as vulnerable.

The emergence of Alli provides some real dynamism and vigour in midfield, of the sort that Sterling briefly promised at the World Cup but has failed to deliver this season at Manchester City. Lallana, after failing to convince me in his early days at Liverpool, seems to be growing in confidence and influence. Henderson is no Steven Gerrard, for club or country (I suspect Klopp may be inclined to let him leave in the summer).

Up front things get particularly interesting and, as has been the case for rather a while now, the biggest dilemma concerns Rooney. The Manchester United striker is more often found splitting opinion than splitting defences these days.

One school of thought maintains that Rooney is still England’s most important player and should be the first name added to the team sheet. A dissenting school contends that peak Rooney was reached quite a long time ago and while he might retain a place in the squad, he should not feature in the starting eleven.

Hodgson is a cautious manager by nature and thus I suspect that Rooney (if he’s fit) will start in the game against Russia. Personally, I would pair Kane and Sturridge up front although Vardy certainly deserves consideration for the extraordinary season that he’s having.

There are goals in the current England side and they look like a much more threatening proposition than the team that limped so meekly out of the World Cup with just two goals in three games.

The recent round of friendly fixtures point to an open championship coming up and England are far from alone in carrying defensive frailties into the tournament. It should make for entertaining viewing.

Scotland, sadly, won’t be in France this summer but will be facing England in World Cup qualifying later in the year. After our recent friendly in Prague, Gordon Strachan observed: “we are not a great side but we can turn ourselves into a decent side by working hard.” That’s a fair summary of our current state and I think it also describes where England are at the moment as well (although they undoubtedly have a lot more quality).

Roy Hodgson justifiably claimed that the win in Berlin was his best night as England boss but went on to acknowledge that: “we have got an awful long way to go before we can claim to be anything like Germany with all they have achieved.”

Hodgson has been a master of expectations management since taking charge. The hype and hysteria that used to carry England teams into tournament battle has largely dissipated with more sober assessments being made of a squad that is good but lacking in greatness.

How much greatness is there elsewhere though? The Germans looked quite ordinary in qualifying (Scotland were unlucky to lose to them twice); the Spanish have lost more than a little swagger of late; the Italians are hardworking but not exactly inspired under Chelsea-bound Conte; the French face the pressure of playing at home (something that worked for them in 1998 but could easily go against them); while the Belgians will rightly travel in hope but I’m not convinced they yet have the expectation of victory.

The UK referendum on leaving the EU falls between the end of the group stages and the start of the knockout phase. England have a favourable group so there shouldn’t be any Engxit before a potential Brexit.

So, can England win it?  Yes, given how open it looks to be and the shortcomings elsewhere. But I don’t think they will. Hodgson is a realist and his assessment is correct: it’s only a short journey to France, but his squad still has a long way to go.

The Monday Post – 17/11/14

Photo by: Football Gallery

Photo by: Football Gallery

This new format of spreading international games over several days is still taking a bit of getting used to. Some people seem to have just got bored and given up entirely. I was amused to discover that more viewers tuned in for the BBC quiz show Pointless on Saturday night than for ITV’s coverage of England v Slovenia. I’ll let you do your own puns. The quiz show averaged 4.99m viewers with a peak of 7.26m while the football averaged 4.56m with a peak of 6.3m.

By all accounts England were pretty terrible and still won pretty comfortably. It’s not surprising then that interest in this current team and qualifying group is so low.

Rooney won his hundredth cap and scored a penalty. Wellbeck helped himself to a double. All of this happened very shortly after Henderson had scored an own goal to give Slovenia the lead. I’m not sure that there’s much else to say about the game other than that apparently Uefa made the Slovenians travel in a team bus to the stadium despite the fact that they were staying in a hotel just 50 metres away. Meanwhile, over on pointless …

TV producers love to get those shots of teams emerging from the bus and entering the stadium. Most players bounce off the bus with enormous headphones and try to either put their most serious game face on or make a strenuous effort at appearing serene. Some have huge bags and suitcases as though headed for a fortnight on the Costa de Sol while others make do with just a tiny wash bag.

The scene then cuts to the studio where former pros will make their pronouncements: “the boys look relaxed” or the “boys look focused” or “the boys look up for it.” Actually, the boys just got off a bus, that’s all. I wouldn’t read too much into it.

The tendency toward pointless analysis is now reaching such heights that it surely can’t be long before ‘the boys getting off the bus’ becomes subject to video analysis with slow-motion replays and comment being made on the formation.

There are no points available on Tuesday night when Scotland and England clash at Celtic park in what’s likely to be a feisty friendly. Viewing figures will probably be considerably higher than for England v Slovenia.

The other game that I was interested in at the weekend was Italy v Croatia. My love of Italian football has been well documented on this blog but Croatia is my adopted home (and team) as my wife is Croatian.

A 1-1 draw in Italy was a good result for the boys in the tablecloth tops but sadly, like a 70s disco act, Croatian supporters got a bit carried away with their flares. The game was interrupted twice as a result, with the players taken off the field for 10 minutes on the second occasion.

This is not the first time such incidents have occurred with Croatian fans (and they are far from the only ones who treat flares as a routine part of the match day experience) and I think it’s time that the authorities got stricter on stamping out flares at games.

The dangers inherent in lighting a flare in a crowded enclosed space (often with children in the vicinity) are pretty obvious. Speaking about the trouble at the San Siro, Croatia’s coach Niko Kovac said: “I was ashamed and I apologised to the Italians after the game. There were families with children up there.”

Let’s hope in future that Croatia’s considerable flair on the pitch is not overshadowed by a minority of fans who insist on the pointless endeavour of lighting flares in the stands.

Which is the best league in the world?

Photo by: Will Morley

Photo by: Will Morley

I raise this question today since David Moyes proclaimed the Spanish La Liga as the best league in the world at his first press conference as manager of Real Sociedad. His reasons were simple: “La Liga has the finest players and great coaches and I want to test myself against the best.” So, is Moyes right? Is the Spanish league the best in the world?

There aren’t actually that many competitors for this title. I don’t think it’s too controversial to restrict this search to Europe. There’s a lot of great football played outside Europe (in terms of current growth and future potential, the MLS in America is hugely exciting) but it remains the case that the best players, the best coaches, and the biggest teams are overwhelmingly concentrated in a select few European leagues.

After careful consideration I took the decision to rule out the Scottish Premiership.

The big four leagues in Europe are the English Premier League, the German Bundesliga, Italy’s Serie A, and La Liga in Spain (the French might make a case for being included over the Italians but I think Serie A remains stronger than Ligue 1 overall). As I’ve written before, I love Italian football even with all its present travails but there’s no doubt that the Serie A is not at the level of the other three right now. It could be thought of as the Andy Murray of the big four.

Let’s look at some evidence in order to give the impression of employing a scientific approach to ranking the three remaining contenders before arriving at the necessarily subjective conclusion.

I’ll start with the best players. The long list for FIFA’s Ballon d’Or was announced recently, comprising 23 players: Bale (La Liga), Benzema (La Liga), Costa (Premier League), Courtois (Premier League), Di Maria (Premier League), Goetze (Bundesliga), Hazard (Premier League), Ibrahimovic (Ligue 1), Iniesta (La Liga), Kroos (La Liga), Lahm (Bundesliga), Mascherano (La Liga), Messi (La Liga), Mueller (Bundesliga), Neuer (Bundesliga), Neymar (La Liga), Pogba (Serie A), Ramos (La Liga), Robben (Bundesliga), Rodriguez (La Liga), Ronaldo (La Liga), Schweinsteiger (Bundesliga), and Toure (Premier League).

Moyes would appear to be right about the best players then. 10 players on the list are based in Spain, six in Germany, five in England, and one each in Italy and France. Overall, the Spanish league does have more of the best players in the world and in Messi and Ronaldo it has the top two.

Photo by: Jan Solo

Photo by: Jan Solo

It also has Suarez who is not included on the Ballon d’Or list. Some people are upset by that but the list is about players who have performed best over the year; Suarez has spent rather a lot of the year not playing at all on account of his disgraceful conduct. I have little sympathy regarding his absence.

How about coaches? There are ten contenders for Fifa’s coach of the year award: Ancelotti (La Liga), Conte (currently coach of the Italian national team), Guardiola (Bundesliga), Klinsmann (coach of the U.S. national team), Loew (coach of the German national team), Mourinho (Premier League), Pellegrini (Premier League), Sabella (coached Argentina at the World Cup), Simeone (La Liga), and Van Gaal (Premier League).

The Premier League comes out on top here with three, La Liga has two, and the Bundesliga one. It probably is true that most of the best coaches want to manage in England. I expect Guardiola to move to an English club at some point in the future.

Finally, let’s consider supporters since they are the lifeblood of the leagues. Earlier this year, the Sporting Intelligence website published average attendance figures for the leagues based on the 2012-2013 season ( The Bundesliga’s average attendance was 41,914 (total attendance for the season was 12,825,684), while the Premier League’s average was 35,931 (but with a higher total attendance of 13,653,780), and La Liga’s average was 29,330 (with a total attendance of 11,145,277).

I’ve been to games in all three leagues and I would award victory to the Bundesliga in the supporters’ category. The combination of low ticket prices, superb atmosphere in the stadiums, and excellent German beer and sausage makes the Bundesliga a clear winner here.

Photo by: lackystrike

Photo by: lackystrike

So where does that leave us? It seems that Spain is the place to be as a player, its England if you are a coach, and Germany if you are supporter.

The Spanish league is technically and tactically sophisticated, has the best players in the world and the two biggest clubs in Barcelona and Real Madrid (El Classico is the game in world football these days). Last season’s remarkable title triumph by Atletico Madrid aside however, the big two tend to overshadow the rest of the league in a way that’s not altogether healthy.

The Premier League is arguably the most competitive, has many world class players and many of the world’s best coaches. Ticket prices are generally too expensive though and the football can be of rather uneven quality.

The Bundesliga takes care of its supporters and offers an excellent quality of football but the increasing dominance of Bayern Munich is making it a bit less competitive than would be ideal. In the next few years, even Bayern may struggle to prevent more players following Kroos out of the Bundesliga.

Is Moyes right then? Has he just landed in the world’s best league? Has he just left it? Should he have opted for Germany?

It’s a tough call and a close one but for me, right now, I would still award the overall title of best league in the world to the Premier League. It’s the most exciting, the fan experience is not as great as in Germany but the atmosphere is still good, there are more than enough great players (including the likes of Aguero, Fabregas and Sterling who didn’t make the Ballon d’Or list) and some of the finest coaches.

England it is then by a whisker from Spain, followed by Germany. Do you agree?

No more Mr Nice Guys

Photo by: Bradford Timeline

Photo by: Bradford Timeline

Almost five months on from England’s dismal elimination from the World Cup and the squad have reached a conclusion on what went wrong: apparently they were “too nice.”

Ahead of their match against Slovenia on Saturday, Gary Cahill has said the side has been working on being more aggressive and less naïve. Much of the new emphasis is being credited to Gary Neville, a man that I don’t ever recall being referred to as “too nice” during his playing career.

Cahill describes the required defensive approach as “being aggressive and getting tight – when players are trying to hold the ball up and you’re behind them and they are thinking: ‘What is this guy doing?’”

I must admit it’s a thought that crossed my mind quite often when I played as a centre forward. Some defenders need very little encouragement to ‘get tight.’

I once had a friendly opponent, a practitioner of the not-too-nice school of defending, who suggested that he might be inclined to break my legs (that wasn’t the exact phrase he used). In reply I pointed out that he might first show some inclination to keep up with me (again the phrasing may have been slightly different).

Back in the day I was noted for having a ‘turn of pace’ as they say. I still do; I’m now quite adept at turning from slow to leisurely via dawdling before coming to complete rest. At school though, I was so quick that I briefly caught the eye of the rugby coach. He offered me the chance to play on the wing. I declined on the basis that however quick I was, eventually someone would catch me and thereafter it (and I) would not be pretty.

It’s that sort of fear that Cahill seems to want to inspire in opponents. He argues that since the World Cup, England have become “a lot harder to play against.” That may be true and they have kept clean sheets in their last 5 games but the opposition has got a lot easier. Clean sheets against San Marino and Estonia are nothing to get overly excited about.

Remarkably, Cahill also says that England are learning to play the ball longer when necessary. “Everybody has this philosophy of playing from the back but there are times to think, ‘Hold on, let’s kick up the front for five or 10 minutes.’”

Any time I’ve watched England recently, I can’t honestly say that I’ve been struck by the thought: ‘there they go again with that playing from the back philosophy of theirs.’

Long ball or short, tight or loose, nasty or nice, for this qualifying campaign it doesn’t matter too much for England. By the time they arrive in France though, they are likely to discover that their World Cup failure was not really a question of being too nice.

Rooney – more respected, less feared

Photo by: Brent Flanders

Photo by: Brent Flanders

Wayne Rooney is set to win his 100th England cap next weekend in the European Championship qualifier against Slovenia at Wembley. He will do so as captain. He was handed the armband following Steven Gerrard’s retirement from international football after the World Cup in Brazil.

Rooney is a player who divides opinion. For some he remains one of England’s few genuinely world class players and the most natural leader of the current England side. For others he’s a shadow of his former self who scarcely deserves a place in the England starting line-up.

I certainly think it’s true that he hasn’t fully fulfilled the promise that he showed when he burst on to the scene as a precocious teenager. With the exception of the European Championships in 2004, he has generally disappointed somewhat on the biggest stage at the very highest level.

There seems to be something a bit less swashbuckling about him these days which is not entirely explicable by the passing of years. The look on the faces of the defenders he faces has changed a little: a respectful wariness has replaced fear.

On his day he can still command a game but when he receives the ball these days there doesn’t seem to be quite that same anticipatory shift forward in the seat among the crowd. Di Maria is the one more likely to induce that movement at Old Trafford now. With England, Sterling is a more likely candidate.

Rooney has matured though. On and off the field he no longer embarrasses himself in the way that he once did. He appears more in control of himself, maybe a little bit too much in control sometimes. The leash has been shortened and he’s more disciplined but less dangerous.

Sir Bobby Charlton will present Rooney’s 100th cap (I’m not entirely sure of its origins but a cap has always struck me as a slightly odd thing to reward people with for international appearances). Rooney is a mere six goals behind Sir Bobby’s England record of 49 and there’s a very good chance that he will have overtaken Charlton’s haul by the end of the qualification campaign.

Rooney is also now captain of both club and country. He’s become an elder statesman of the game; entrusted by managers to lead by example and instruction.

Roy Hodgson is quoted today however as saying: “I worry that the responsibility is going to weigh him down.” It’s a strange thing for the England manager to say just a few months after appointing Rooney captain.

How much extra responsibility does the role really entail? The biggest decision that the captain has to make is heads or tails. Most of the other responsibilities (guiding young players, offering leadership on the pitch, communicating with the manager) would all be expected of a senior player anyway and there’s nothing to suggest that Rooney would shirk them if he wasn’t wearing the armband.

British football tends to inflate the role and importance of captain. I get the impression that it’s seen a bit more ceremoniously elsewhere. The fact that Rooney was seen as such an obvious choice for both Manchester United and England says more about his teammates at club and international level than it does about him.

Rooney will probably become England’s all time leading goal scorer. England will definitely qualify for the European Championships in France. Once there, Rooney and England will be respected but not feared by their opponents.

If Rooney does appear weighed down, I don’t think it’s the burden of captaincy that’s the cause. I think it’s much more likely to be the fact that he knows that considerably more of his career is now behind than in front of him and the heights he’s reached, impressive though they are, have fallen short of those that he hoped for and expected.

England expects … very little



England fans in Brazil. Photo by Rob,

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.