As soon as the group was drawn the FA and England were preparing for an inevitable early exit from the World Cup. Roy Hodgson himself admitted, “It is difficult. There is no doubt with Uruguay and Italy we have almost got two number one seeds in our group” whilst Greg Dyke made the infamous and pessimistic throat-slit gesture. But make no mistake, Group D was no ‘Group of Death’. This is not the glorious Italy team of old, they are much weaker defensively and lack conviction going forward – and were deservedly beaten by Costa Rica. Uruguay have suffered a sharp decline since winning the Copa America in 2011, were also deservedly beaten by Costa Rica, and rely heavily on a couple of select players. Costa Rica have performed admirably, but ultimately have a population of fewer than 5 million and had one player in the self-proclaimed best League in the World last season (who was injured for this tournament). With the players available, England should have at least qualified in second – however, Hodgson seems to be receiving very little backlash from the mainstream media (primarily the BBC) whatsoever, and has received assurances on his future from the FA.
In 2010 England crashed out of the World Cup and Fabio Capello was widely derided and mocked, with a dash of xenophobia, and many in the media called for his head. This was a man who had won multiple leagues in both Italy and Spain, not to mention the Champions League, and still wasn’t good enough for England. But it seems merely because he is English, Hodgson is beyond reproach. Now, I am not suggesting Hodgson is an inept manager – he has managed extensively abroad, is evidently intelligent and multilingual, a quality that should be applauded and is sadly rare with modern English managers – but he is not the type of manager England should be persisting with at this moment in time. He does not fit any bill – he is not the free-spirited attacking manager some have made him out to be, and he has proven both at the Euros and now at the World Cup that he is incapable of grinding out results at knockout tournaments with England. Yes, England did not play too badly in either of their two defeats (so far), but that was largely down to the relative mediocrity of the opposition.
Everyone knew that England’s defence was vulnerable, yet Hodgson did not select a single natural defensive midfielder in the entire squad. Jordan Henderson, who had a fantastic season in a midfield three, was left to cover far too much, with Gerrard not fulfilling a role of any kind. Gareth Barry, who has played consistently well anchoring a midfield this season was not selected, on grounds of age, but Frank Lampard, who now does not really fit into a rigid 4-2-3-1, still was. Natural strikers – Welbeck and Rooney – were played out of position, reducing their capabilities going forward, and leaving attacking full-backs Baines and Johnson woefully exposed at times. Baines was widely lambasted following the Italy match (despite the recurrent overlaps he had to contend with), as was Rooney, but the man who forced that situation upon the players seemed to escape criticism. So many fans and pundits could see the situation unfolding, but relatively little action was taken. James Milner, England’s best defensive winger (who could also fill in at central midfield) has not played a single minute of football.
Perhaps such decisions would be excusable if England had been immeasurably potent going forward. But they were not – two goals in two games is not impressive. It could be argued that they had many more shots than Uruguay, but to me this is indicative of a lack of clinical finishing, and more importantly creativity and incision. Too often the fullbacks made good attacking runs but were never found, with natural strikers understandably wanting to cut inside. Gerrard often slowed the game down with his typical Hollywood balls, which are painfully easy to defend against, and there was an absence of a natural playmaker. The solution to this particular problem was probably Ross Barkley, if not maybe Adam Lallana or even Jack Wilshere, but as Hodgson so positively said: “I’m not prepared to address your obsession with Ross Barkley. If he’s going to be the player we want him to be, he has to make better decisions of when he turns with the ball.”
Hodgson may well be right when it comes to Barkley, but those are not the quotes of a positive, attack-minded manager. They are the quotes of a naturally negative, conservative defence-minded slightly antiquated manager, who felt the media pressure to seem offensive. Brendan Rodgers, Roberto Martinez or Arsene Wenger would never have criticised a 20 year old player in that manner – and it is a manager of that ilk England should now seduce.
Grassroots football should be invested in, but I don’t believe a massive overhaul of the system is required. England had and will have the players to play genuinely attractive and attacking football, with the right players to balance the system. This World Cup could have been refreshing, exciting, and a sign of significant progress from 2010 – but crushingly, it was inevitably an abject failure. And the buck stops with Hodgson.