On Saturday June 28, the real World Cup begins with the Round of 16 matches, and England fans, pre-tournament pessimism or not, should ask why their team isn’t in Brazil any more.
It isn’t a tragedy – football is just a sport – but after Roy Hodgson’s common sense era and the lessons learned from the last 3 major international tournaments, England simply had to do better than score a single point from three games.
Roy Hodgson’s pedigree as a manager, or the quality of the players available to him, is not in question. I’m only concerned with the decisions taken in selecting the squad and deciding the tactics leading up to each game.
International football is different from club football – Hodgson knows this, everyone else knows this. He also knows – and has said this in the past – that you need your best team on the pitch, not the best XI.
England made mistakes in their World Cup squad selection and the team selections. There are long-term and short-term issues aplenty, but the three biggest mistakes were:
Not including a midfielder who can help recycle possession
You can argue that Henderson and Wilshere deserved to go to the World Cup purely on potential – except that neither player can sit in front of the back four and provide cover or retain possession or effectively play a defensive midfield role. You can argue that Milner, Gerrard and Lampard offer quality and experience, except Lampard didn’t score at his peak in the last two World Cups, both Milner and Lampard hardly played and Gerrard, well, Gerrard needs two other players in midfield sitting alongside him.
The obvious missing piece in the line-up, and the player that should have been the first name on the team-sheet given England’s inability in the last decade to field a competent midfield was Michael Carrick. Carrick alongside the always-running Henderson would have soaked up enough pressure in midfield to give both the England defence breathing room and the four players ahead of them the time to create and score goals.
Not picking the right players in defence
From sticking Rooney out on the left (why start him if you’re not going to play him in the right position) to not using a more aggressive center-back (Jagielka and Cahill were never going to effectively deal with Suarez or Balotelli), the team selection was a dud. England were caught in between the need for experience and the desire to build for the future, and failed miserably to find the balance.
Shaw – delightful talent that he is – should have been kept back for the Euro qualifiers, with Cole starting the three games and Baines acting as the deputy. In an international tournament, Cole may have lacked the legs but he would have delivered a better defensive performance than Baines 10 games out of 10. Or 2 out of 2, as it turned out.
None of the backup centerbacks got enough playing time in the qualifiers – granted, injuries played a part but Hodgson had two years to build this team – and they didn’t play the key games either. With Cahill and Jagielka both preferring to cover rather than break up attacks, the England defence (and Joe Hart) badly needed a defender who could push up. Jones, and to an extent Smalling, would have offered something different.
Hodgson had two years to put together a competitive team and there was little evidence to suggest England had progressed – fleeting cameos and ‘encouraging’ performances by one or two players don’t count for too much when the rest of the team is still playing like it’s 2004.
Refusal to drop star players
Who is England’s best left-sided attacking player? It’s not Rooney. Who is England’s best #10? It’s not Sterling. And yet the two players played in different roles and while you could understand the logic of playing Sterling behind Sturridge, there was none in Rooney on the left. If Hodgson wanted to use younger players, Rooney should have started up front with Welbeck on the left, Sturridge on the right and Sterling in the hole.
And then there’s Gerrard. The Liverpool and England captain had nothing left in the tank after Liverpool’s tilt at the Premier League title this season and it showed in game one. Worse, there was little support around him to help him do what he does best, and as a result England suffered. Again and again.
England fans should think back to Sven Goran Eriksson and learn to appreciate what they had then – three consecutive quarter-final appearances seem like the stuff of dreams now – since then England have missed Euro 2008, got knocked out in first knockout round twice and bottomed out their group in 2014.
Building for the future
Keeping Hodgson on board till Euro 2016 makes no sense – the four year World Cup cycle is a reasonable amount of time for a manager to build a competitive team, and if England need to make a change, it is now.
And whoever is in charge in 2016, 2018 or beyond, if they don’t select and play a team that complements each others talents and can play to their strengths, they won’t last long in their job.
Remember what Neville said after 2012? Start afresh with young players and blood them for two years up to Brazil 2014? If England wanted to rely on youth, that’s what they should have done. Half measures don’t work.
England’s best XI
If you were picking England’s best ever starting XI, you would pick the best player in each position. How they played together as a team wouldn’t matter, and you could just as easily pick two exceptionally attacking midfielders, two number 10s up front or two left-sided centerbacks in defence. It wouldn’t matter, because a) it’s a fantasy selection and b) you’re picking the best ever players, so surely their quality would paper over the cracks?
An all-time England XI makes for pretty viewing. Arguably world class players in each position, and since it’s a fantasy selection, playing at the peak of their powers.
However, if you were to pick a best XI from the current crop of England players, you’d be hard-pressed to find any world-class player. Wayne Rooney is an obvious choice but if you want to build a team around him, he needs to play up top, and you lose the whole point of having 4 strikers in the World Cup squad. If you pick Gerrard, you need to build the team around him, and there’s a chance Rooney doesn’t fit that team. If you pick Barkley or Sterling, rinse and repeat.
Having said that, England knew going into this World Cup that they needed Rooney at his best, and if you were to build your team around him it would look like this:
The team has a stronger, more composed spine – Jones gives the defence aggression and ability to close down strikers, Smalling gives them the aerial superiority England have lacked since Rio and Terry left the setup, and Johnson / Cole give the defence experience.
In central midfield, the Carrick-Henderson duo (where Henderson can be replaced by a fit Wilshere or Milner) provide defensive cover, industry and creative ability in equal measures.
Further up front, Sturridge is not an automatic choice on the right but is young enough to adapt and incisive enough to be a goal-scoring threat from that position. In the centre you can pick any of Gerrard, Barkley, Wilshere or Sterling, although if we are picking the best XI then Gerrard doesn’t make the cut. On the left Welbeck has played many times for United in that position, while Lallana should have been exposed to international football more often in England’s qualifying campaign if he was to play in Brazil.
Up front, it’s a simple choice. Play Rooney as a number 9, not as a false 9 or a number 10 or anything else. Paul Scholes has a sharp football brain and he was spot on when he said that to get the best out of Rooney he needed to be played as an advanced striker, where he would need to be more disciplined and focus on scoring goals instead of winning back the ball.
This lineup would have done far better than the confused fits and starts we saw in Brazil. And while it doesn’t compare with the England All-Time Eleven, it would have at least ensured that England made it out of the group stages and with some luck, topped their group. Seeing as the prize for topping the group is to play Greece, England on Monday morning could have been preparing for a quarter-final instead of speaking to their agents about another transfer move?
England and Hodgson should be criticised for wasting the last two years. There’s no use crying over the last couple of weeks – why blame the outcome when the cause is clear as day in front of you?