by Richard Brook
Following England, whether as fan, writer or both, we can’t have it all ways. There is a fickleness in the reaction to England’s 2-1 defeat to Uruguay that left the Three Lions participation in the 2014 World Cup hanging by its fingernails, which is extremely unfair on Hodgson and his team.
The same subjects that drew praise, less than a week ago, as England lost to Italy are now touted as reasons to criticise player and manager alike. There are legitimate points of criticism to raise from the performance but these have become diluted by the twenty-twenty hindsight which pervades a dissection that began before England’s tournament fate was confirmed by Costa Rica’s 1-0 victory against Italy.
That is not to suggest England fans should have expected the team to make it to the round of sixteen. England were left needing to be the first team ever to lose their opening two games and finish in a qualifying spot. Scraping into the second round could have made all the difference in terms of the criticism directed at Roy Hodgson. While Bob Dylan had subjects of greater gravitas on his mind his warning to “writers and critics who prophesize with their pens” that they should not speak to soon “’cause the wheel’s still in spin”, springs to mind.
Reliance on iracles notwithstanding it is inconsistent that following the Uruguay result we are lamenting the selection of young and inexperienced players on the Thursday, when we lauding the selection of these players as adventurous and forward thinking the Saturday before. Against Italy England’s vibrant, attacking football was widely praised along with the selection of the young, inexperienced players who caused Italy so many problems such as Daniel Sturridge and Raheem Sterling. In the wake of the Uruguay game the suggestion has been made that you cannot expect consistency from players who are still learning their trade. This seems fair. Another suggestion has been that Hodgson should resign. This seems anything but.
At the time of the draw for the 2014 World Cup pundits and supporters alike were using words ranging from “daunting” to “nightmare” to describe England’s placement in Group D. In truth those words were overstating the task that faced England in the first place but that is not an excuse for the inconsistency of the reaction that has greeted England’s second defeat of the tournament. Of course it is incredibly disappointing to exit the World Cup at the first hurdle, but we simply cannot refer to a “nightmare” group and then react with disbelief when England are defeated by the teams regarded, before the competition, as the two strongest opponents of the three they had to face.
In the build up to England’s tournament much was said of how low the expectations were for this World Cup. That would seem to have been meaningless noise. A device constructed to build pressure behind the thin veil of constantly saying there is none. The journalistic equivalent of playing pool with your mate and as he settles over a straight forward black ball shot, mischievously saying to him, “game over, no pressure”. If England had no expectation on their shoulders then the reaction to the Uruguay defeat would not have been the hyperbole-laden outcry that has followed.
Aside from the difficulty of the group, we knew long before England’s team boarded the plane to Brazil that the “Golden Generation” had come and gone, forever tarnished by the lack of any gold to lend credence to their name. We knew that the team we do have would not stand up to going toe to toe with the best in the World – in some areas of the side England show promise coupled with naivety in others merely fragility. The criticism would be legitimised if the critics had spent the last two years of qualifying baying for the inclusion of other players in the team’s weaker areas, or even if they raised such concerns when the squad came out. They didn’t. In truth Hodgson has selected a fairly incontestable squad – the best of what is available to him. If they are not good enough that is neither the players’ fault nor the manager’s.
The performance against Uruguay was unquestionably of a lesser standard than against the superior opposition provided by Italy and of course that is a source of frustration. That is not a reason to go after inexperienced players or the manager’s decision to select them. Part of the criticism is the inconsistency of such players and if we recognise this, we recognise they will not always hit the heights they did against Italy – just yet at least. Too many players had an off day but this included England’s most experienced players.
England captain, Stephen Gerrard was largely anonymous and the quality of his delivery at set pieces did not live up to his usual standards. This was especially disappointing given the problems Costa Rica managed to cause Uruguay from crosses into the box during their match. The link play between the lines by Gerrard, Jordan Henderson and Wayne Rooney was virtually non-existent. As a result England did not attack effectively in central areas, forcing them to play in wider areas. Rooney, in particular, did not move enough to support the ball so he could be a real danger in his preferred number ten role, but was far from on his own in terms of lack of movement. In both of England’s opening games at Brazil 2014, defensive lapses have had a crucial role to play.
If Hodgson is to be criticised, it should not be for the decision to bring and select young players at a World Cup, but for a reticence to change his tactics, or make substitutions except in reaction to a change in the score line. Against Uruguay the momentum of the game was with England after their equaliser but there were no changes made to capitalise on the change in tide. The one criticism of the squad selection that has continued from the build up to England’s elimination was the omission of Ashley Cole.
Of course people get carried away in the build up to a World Cup and desperately want England to succeed myself included. What we must not do is allow that to colour what we expect of the team to the point where we go from a point where we are shifting from our original assessment that we will do well to get out of the group, to a point where failure to do calls the manager’s job into question and forget the positives in the performances.
If we all meant what we said about reduced expectations because of the difficulty of the group and the side being inexperienced then we have plenty of positives to take. In football the ‘what if’ game is always tempting but against Uruguay, England drastically underperformed but could have won. If Rooney’s magnificent free-kick had drifted inches inside the goal, if his header had not cannoned of the crossbar and most frustratingly if England’s defence had adequately dealt with Fernando Muslera’s long punt down field for Uruguay’s second it could all have been so different.
Against Italy the young Lions provided enough of a match for the Azzuri for coach Cesare Prandelli to dub them “one of the strongest attacks in the World Cup”.
Whether a fortuitous combination of Prandelli’s men winning their next two matches and England securing a victory against Costa Rica had come to pass or not, one only need think back to the last World Cup and the European Championships to realise that, at least against Italy, Hodgson oversaw the most modern and the most attacking performance, at a major tournament, by England side in years. Add to this the fact that it would not have been an unfair reflection had England picked up points in both of their matches. That is progress and it is valuable experience gained.