And so it begins.
Costa Rica’s brilliant win over Italy on Friday, coupled with England’s defeat at the hands of Uruguay the previous day, which was England’s second loss at this World Cup, means that England are out of the tournament with one group game still left to play.
The recriminations have started in earnest back here in England. The finger of blame is being pointed squarely at manager Roy Hodgson by many, because blaming the manager has become de rigueur following yet another World Cup failure from England; because, despite all evidence to the contrary, many people still believe England should be brushing all opposition aside and winning major tournaments.
Hodgson has said that he’s not planning on resigning, and the FA have stated that they want Hodgson to lead the team to EURO 2016, which the FA say is the tournament they reckon England have a chance of success in.
The FA seem to have recognised that England were in a tough group at the World Cup, when the draw was made FA Chairman Greg Dyke was caught on camera making a throat-slitting gesture, especially as there wasn’t a great deal of experience in this England team and have made allowances for that.
Hodgson’s tactics and team selection have come under fire following both defeats. Hodgson was criticised by some for playing Rooney out of position against Italy, after Rooney had a pretty terrible game. Now he’s being criticised for moving Rooney back into position and Raheem Sterling out of position against Uruguay, where they both had terrible games. Others are blaming him for playing Rooney at all, as though leaving England’s most consistent goal-scorer over the past few years was an option Hodgson, or any England manager for that matter would have taken.
The same goes with Hodgson’s decision to leave Ashley Cole out of his England squad and go with Leighton Baines and Luke Shaw. Baines was poor against both Italy and Uruguay, but he’s been the standout English left-back for the past few years, while Shaw is the best young English left-back in the league. Cole on the other hand, had a quiet season for Chelsea, missing a lot of games through injury. So it’s not surprising that Cole, despite all of his experience and great service to England over the past ten years or so, was left out. At the time the World Cup squad was announced, Cole’s omission barely raised an eyebrow, so any claims he should’ve been part of the squad are purely reactionary.
I’m not an England fan, but I thought England played pretty well against Italy, and, at times, reasonably well against Uruguay. I don’t think there was anything wrong with Hodgson’s tactics. In my opinion, the difference in both games between the two teams was the way England defended.
Usually, England’s defence has been their greatest strength, but that certainly hasn’t been the case in the World Cup so far, where the defence as a unit has been error-prone and has struggled to deal with late movement from attacking players and has been caught out by its collective failure to read the game. Suarez’s second goal against England owed as much to the England defence failing to anticipate the danger as much as it’s owed to Steven Gerrard’s inadvertent flick-on.
The problem that England fans have to accept is that there aren’t really many other options other than the back four that have started both games so far, especially in central defence. I’m unconvinced that either Chris Smalling or Phil Jones have significantly improved since moving to Manchester United, and apart from those two, and perhaps Steven Caulker, there really aren’t many obvious candidates.
For all the talk about Hodgson being too conservative, and I don’t think he was in this World Cup, and the current clamour in England to bring in a young, progressive manager to replace him, people are forgetting one thing. There isn’t one. Not an English one anyway.
It was the FA’s insistence on the England manager being English following Fabio Capello’s resignation that led to Hodgson getting the England job. He was the best English candidate then, and I think he still is now.
I think part of the problem Hodgson has is one of perception. Most England fans have never known what to make of him. He’s not an easily definable person. He’s certainly not from the new school of managers, but he doesn’t really belong to the old school either. He’s different, and in English football, that’s seen as a bad thing.
Hodgson isn’t a typical England manager. He isn’t a man full of bluster, who feeds the press and public with an endless stream of quotes. He isn’t a man who lets his heart overrule his head. Hodgson is a man who can discuss existential literature as freely as he can discuss tactics.
Hodgson isn’t even someone who is that familiar to the casual English football fan, having only had a relatively short managerial career in England, having spent most of his career managing all over Europe; which has led many of his critics to discount and dismiss what has been a hugely successful managerial career both in club and international football, where Hodgson took Switzerland to the 1994 World Cup, and a world ranking of three, as well as coming close to taking Finland to their first ever major international tournament. Hodgson is fluent in several different languages as well as becoming fluent in several different formations and tactics.
As is the case after every time England fails at a major tournament, which is every tournament, the question now is ‘what can be done?’
Patrick Vieira who, as well as working for a English channel that thinks France and Belgium have the same flag, works with the reserve team and youth squads at Manchester City. He suggested that part of the problem was that the English players were tired after a gruelling season, and that the Premier League should look at implementing a mid-season break, in line with other countries.
Perhaps he’s right. But that’s not going to happen anytime soon.
You have to remember that the Premier League is totally separate from the FA; they don’t necessarily share the same interests. For the FA, a strong England team is in its best interests, as it brings both prestige, and more importantly, money to the organisation.
By contrast, the Premier League is its own main interest. It cares about generating revenue and building a stronger brand. It doesn’t give a damn about improving the England team. In fact, given the choice, it would probably do away with international football altogether.
You also have to remember that the FA are so weak and inept as an organisation that they can’t compel the Premier League to do anything. The Premier League certainly won’t change its competition by introducing a mid-season break unless there’s something in it for them.
I’m of the opinion that England needs to encourage their players to play overseas so that they experience different styles of play, but I’m not sure how this can be done other than cajoling players to do so. The only member of the current England squad not playing in the Premier League is goalkeeper Fraser Forster, who plays for Celtic. Historically, England benefitted hugely from its players playing abroad and learning new skills and ways of playing the game, but since the inception of the Premier League, fewer and fewer players have done so. The fact is that when they are being paid astronomical wages and being treated like demigods at home, there’s little incentive to move abroad.
The Premier League has a very fast-paced style of play, which makes it entertaining, but it isn’t a league with a particular emphasis on technical skill. This is not conducive to international football, where there is a far greater emphasis on retaining possession and having the ability to be able to keep the ball under pressure, which is something that most England players can’t do.
This, coupled with the backwards thinking that physical attributes such as height, speed and strength are more important than skill, which have been endemic in coaching in England for the past few decades, have led to England producing players which aren’t as technically proficient as those from other countries, which is why most of the England team never looks comfortable on the ball.
England suffers badly from a lack of quality coaching at youth levels, mostly because the fees charged to take coaching courses are simply too high for most of the people who’d be inclined to take up coaching to afford. That’s something that needs addressing far more than who the England manager is.
England also suffers from the poor leadership that has been exhibited by the FA, which has taken years to come up with any sort of cogent, coherent plan for how to improve English football, and the one they’ve come up doesn’t inspire any confidence that it will help at all. There’s still no clear plan for improving youth football, except the self-serving, Elite Player Performance Plan, which the Premier League strong-armed/persuaded clubs into adopting.
Looking for scapegoats has only served to hide the glaring deficiencies in English football. Until that stops, England have no hope in becoming the team most of their fans believe they already are.