“In a football sense justice was done” was the barely audible whisper from the English TV commentators as Alessandro Diamanti’s coolly stuck penalty sent Joe Hart the wrong way and duly ripped out the hearts of an estimated twenty-five million England fans watching around the country. England were out of Euro 2012, succumbing yet again to the sword of the dreaded penalty shootout. Six of the last seven international tournaments have seen England eliminated in this manner – the one exception being Germany’s brutal demolition of the Three Lions in Bloemfontein back in 2010 – and few observers could claim that Italy did not fully deserve to prevail in Sunday’s quarter-final encounter.
But first things first. Roy Hodgson was appointed Head Coach of England after the reign of Don Fabio Capello was mercifully cut short in March 2012. That Capello resigned and was not sacked – as he surely ought to have been following England’s FIFA World Cup 2010 debacle in South Africa – merely accelerated Hodgson’s ascent to the England throne ahead of media darling and press favourite Harry Redknapp. Hodgson’s mission brief was simple; to bring some much needed stability, unity and pride back to the national shirt whilst ensuring the team did not suffer humiliation at the upcoming Euro 2012 tournament. Expectations were at an all-time low, the usual crescendo of media hype and tub-thumping reduced to the tame background noise more commonly found in elevators and shopping malls. Emerging unscathed from a group that included an inexperienced France, a past-it Sweden and a poor Ukraine was just about the sum total of the hopes of a nation grinded down by a bi-annual festival of shattered dreams, underachievement and routine disappointment.
And with a squad already lacking in quality, which was then severely depleted by unfortunate injuries to the likes of Kyle Walker and Gary Cahill alongside the controversy surrounding John Terry and the omission of ‘The Ego Kid’ Rio Ferdinand, the affable Hodgson has dutifully, considerately and competently achieved all that could have reasonably been expected of him by guiding England to a creditable quarter-final berth. And in the coming days and weeks I sincerely hope the English media remember those pre-tournament fears, recall the oft-discussed possibility of England falling at the group stage and resist their natural urges to unleash their trademark torrents of abuse and general lampoonery of Hodgson and his squad.
But it is equally important to calmly assess and debate the reasons behind England’s current standing as a second-rate football nation.
A decade and more ago the English FA voiced their ambition to replicate the much-heralded Clairefontaine academy following France’s triumph in the FIFA World Cup in 1998 and their subsequent victory at Euro 2000. Thierry Henry and Nicolas Anelka were both lauded graduates of the Clairefontaine system but, in fairness, barring a Zinedine Zidane-inspired route to the FIFA World Cup Final in 2006 France have performed disastrously in international competition since those heady days. An embarrassing first-round exit in defending their World Cup in2002, a quarter-final exit at Euro 2004 followed by a first-round exit at Euro 2008 topped by the truly humiliating events in South Africa! In fact, prior to Euro 2012, Zidane’s decisive penalty to eliminate Portugal in the FIFA World Cup semi-final back in 2006 was the last time France managed to win a match at the finals of an international tournament! So come the late 2000’s, with Spain now in the ascendancy, England’s football hierarchy hailed the unprecedented youth development programs at Barcelona and across Iberia as the way forward instead.
But, hidden among all these well-meaning tit-bits and media sound-bites from FA HQ was the largely-ignored fact that England’s own revolutionary youth development and coaching facility, St George’s Park in Burton – a project originally undertaken as far back as 2001! – continued to cough and splutter in the face of numerous construction delays and financial uncertainty. And while the FA harbour high hopes that their investment will reap the rewards by churning out a generation of Diego Maradona’s, St George’s Park is hardly an overnight solution to England’s woes either, assuming it can have any real impact with the established English Premier League club academies! After all, Clairefontaine opened its doors in 1988 while Barcelona’s legendary La Masia began life way back in 1979 before being remodelled by Johan Cruyff during his tenure as Head Coach between 1988 and 1996.
So England have little choice but to address their failings with simpler, more immediate solutions.
Roy Hodgson had a limited time to enforce any real change in the England camp so understandably showed faith in his tried and tested 4-4-2 formation, with just two designated central midfielders in Steven Gerrard and Scott Parker. But semi-finalists Spain, Italy, Germany and Portugal all adopt a fluid three-man central midfield model that has long since surpassed the rigid 4-4-2! Even a recent Matriculate could figure out that three is a bigger number than two…and thus the two are likely to be totally overrun. Even with youth on their side Gerrard and Parker were always going to be up against it; with a combined age in excess of 60yrs old and niggling injuries debilitating their stamina and movement – both essential ingredients of a successful midfield duo – they never had a prayer! Gareth Barry and Jack Wilshere would have been likely starters if fit and Michael Carrick perhaps ought to have been considered as more than a stand-by option. But would their presence have altered Hodgson’s tactical thinking? The disappointing lack of game time given to the hugely promising Phil Jones would suggest not. Jones’ youthful energy in a defensive midfield role – ahead of James Milner in the first-XI – could have been a valuable asset in competing on an equal footing with the top nations.
You can only pick from the pool of talent available to you and England simply do not enjoy a particularly vast pool to choose from. But surely to deserve a place in the tournament squad of a supposed top-eight European nation you must also command a regular starting spot in your respective club side! In a slight contradiction I have no issue with the likes of Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Phil Jones being selected as youthful options with, hopefully, a bright future in the game. But England cannot hope to progress when they rely on a James Milner – 10mins action in the last 7wks of the season for Man City – while only Roy Hodgson knows his justification behind Stewart Downing’s inclusion with an unenviable 2011/12 EPL record of zero assists and zero goals. But in Hodgson’s defence, with the exception of the cruelly overlooked Micah Richards and arguably Peter Crouch, and the Rio Ferdinand debacle together with Michael Carrick’s stance on his stand-by role, there were few absentees who could genuinely claim to feel hard done by.
INJURIES & SUSPENSION
Wayne Rooney’s petulance saw him deservedly absent from England’s two opening group matches through suspension and he looked a shadow of his usual bustling self against the Ukraine and Italy. But Hodgson was in a no-win situation with the Man Utd talisman; leave Rooney at home and face the inevitable barrage of criticism for jettisoning England’s most potent attacking weapon – despite Rooney’s poor tournament record of acquiring as many red cards as goals since 2004 (One) – or risk exposing an undercooked Rooney in the latter stages of the tournament…assuming England escaped their group! Hodgson made the only sensible decision considering the circumstances and the dearth of alternative quality available to him.
Hodgson also suffered desperately with injuries to likely starters Kyle Walker and Gary Cahill, alongside Frank Lampard, as well as losing the dubious merits of squad regular Gareth Barry and of course the long-term injury to Arsenal starlet Jack Wilshere. Despite featuring in all four of England’s matches Scott Parker also seemed hampered by his niggling Achilles injury.
The oft-cited excuse is the lack of a winter break within the hectic schedule of the EPL, but would that make such a noticeable difference to England with the likelihood that clubs would simply engage in money-spinning tours across the globe instead? A more viable suggestion for me would be to drop the much-derided League Cup from the EPL schedule; a competition which a growing number of clubs throughout the country treat with a barely disguised contempt. And, in any case, is it just me who fails to see the same fatigue in foreign players plying their trade in the EPL such as David Silva and Mario Balotelli while the likes of Xavi and Andres Iniesta have played virtually year-round football for club and country since 2008?!?
The English Premier League remains the most exciting league in Europe, if not necessarily boasting the highest quality. Yet England have consistently failed to transfer the strengths of that style of play, the tempo, the aggression and the skills that thrive within that furious cauldron onto the international stage. And while the likes of Joe Hart, Wayne Rooney, John Terry, Ashley Cole and, at a push, Steven Gerrard remain at the heartbeat of their respective clubs it is equally apparent that even the very top English clubs rely on foreign talent at crucial stages of their season. Man City’s spine consists of Hart, Vincent Kompany, Yaya Toure, David Silva and Sergio Aguero, Ashley Young did reasonably well at Man Utd but Sir Alex rued the day he lost the colossus that is Nemanja Vidic to injury, Arsenal rely entirely on Robin van Persie, Spurs look to Gareth Bale and Luka Modric for inspiration, Newcastle have their French and Senegalese contingent, Everton’s late-season surge was inspired by Nikica Jelavic, Marouane Fellaini and Steven Pienaar, Chelsea still found their prayers answered by Didier Drogba – ably assisted by the probing of Juan Pablo Mata – while Liverpool’s hopes increasingly lie with the controversial Luis Suarez. While English clubs continue to gorge on the riches of the EPL and compete among the European elite, English players are an ever-declining influence on those exploits. And until that situation changes for the better, while I don’t quite share Jamie Carragher’s view of England’s apocalyptic future, England and Roy Hodgson will continue to face an uphill battle to compete for international honours….
Assuming everyone is fit, playing regularly for their club and ready for action my England team for the first World Cup Qualifier would adopt a more flexible 4-3-3 formation and look something like this; Joe Hart, Kyle Walker, Gary Cahill, John Terry, Ashley Cole, Phil Jones, Steven Gerrard, Jack Wilshere, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Ashley Young, Wayne Rooney