As the summer of discontent rumbles on across Europe, one thing that has stayed very much the same is another dismal showing from the English football team in tournament football. A squad that, like so many before it, promised so much, undefeated in qualifying – albeit in less than trying circumstances – has failed to deliver once again, this time on a catastrophic scale.
First things first, the irony of England’s poor performance is that it came against a backdrop of success for the underdog. You’d think this group of players, management and coaching staff, would be well drilled in the concepts of team spirit and togetherness overcoming talent, after Leicester’s remarkable triumph in the Premier League. That it was a nation with the same population as that of lowly Leicester that hammered the final nail, show’s there are no coincidences in this world. Alas no, it was the same old arrogant English, with their same old mundane football and the same old aftermath – players operating out of position, no winter break etc etc.
With the greatest of respect and there’s certainly plenty going around, this by previous standards has been a poor tournament, in terms of quality. Look at the teams, and the reliance on an individual star is palpable. For Wales see Gareth Bale, Portugal – Ronaldo, Sweden – Ibrahimovic, Spain – Iniesta and so on and so forth. Dogged defensive displays have dominated the agenda, and with the exception of Italy, who manoeuvre the back line like a well-oiled military machine and are a joy to watch, and a lesson in pragmatism flourishing. Surely any forward worth on top of his game, and scoring goals at the highest level in league football would have been relishing the opportunity of going toe to toe with such talismanic, defensive luminaries as Skrtel, Gunter, Ignashevich, and Arnason. Never has an England team had a more straightforward route to the quarterfinals, even with the drawn out qualification process.
So where did it all go wrong?
Huge question marks remain about the technical acumen of young English players, and the inherent lack of nous having labored in expensive football academies without tactical style or direction. Of course, as well, Hodgson shoulders much of the blame – he’s never been one to play on the front foot, execute an expansive game. An old school footballing man very much stuck in the past. Ironically it’s hard not to feel like he abandoned his own tactical traditions, in an attempt to satiate an ever baying media circus that always follows the England camp wherever the pitch up, whatever the weather. In fact, had he stuck to the tried and tested, rigid set up that yielded an unbeaten record in qualifying – England may well have achieved much more, but it would have been no more thrilling a watch.
Looking back at the names that never even kicked a ball in anger, suggests Hodgson abandoned all but some of his principles. Milner and Barkley weren’t even spotted in training and Henderson barely featured having done so heavily in qualifying. Hodgson re-assembled his midfield to a confused shape and formation that left many fans scratching their heads. In Rooney, Alli and Dier there lie great footballing ability, but a young man who was very much a centre-half in waiting a season earlier, alongside England’s record goalscoring forward and a 19-year-old that twelve months ago was finishing a successful season learning the trade for MK Dons in League 1. The result a midfield that had zero cohesion with absolutely no sense of routine and each others movement, they looked as unbalanced as they were.
Milner and Henderson will never be everyone’s cup of tea, but two men who’s work rate, tackling, tracking and dogged determination has only been replicated by the successful minnows of the tournament, along with their ability to provide quality balls from wide areas, for a golden boot winner (Kane), who too often adopted the role himself would surely have been preferable. In Ross Barkley England have a tenacious, aggressive attacking talent that must surely have warranted at least a moments game time against those ever-stubborn defensive units.
Daniel Sturridge one of European football’s most prodigious goal scorers languished out wide in an area of the pitch from which James Milner has stormed to the top of the assist charts since the turn of the year. Marcus Rashford looked completely at home operating down the left channel, where Sterling’s lack of confidence made his misery complete. His willingness to take players on was something England lacked, indeed his naivety and frightening pace must surely have meant for longer than the four and a half minutes he was afforded against Iceland, particularly after his wonderful cameo versus Wales.
No, unfortunately, it was the same old England. Spain who stuttered with glimpses of past glories – like all generations that come to an end – would bite your hand off for a Barkley, Rashford, Stones and a goal scorer of Sturridge’s quality.
And as the fallout reached fever pitch, it was the same old management, same old FA, suits and ties staring down from above. Roy Hodgson’s fatal last words …
‘I don’t really know what I’m doing here.’
Sort of says it all really.