Fifty Years of Hurt: 2014 and 2018

THERE is no doubting that Brazil 2014 was England’s worst World Cup in history. Exiting the tournament in the Group Stage as they did in 1958, although then they only lost once in four games, England finished bottom of Group D with two losses and a draw. It was a truly forgettable campaign, with the Three Lions scoring only twice while playing a fairly non-descript brand of football. But why did things go so wrong? After all, the successful qualification campaign had brought the usual outbreak of belief and optimism.

As quite often happens, England were handed a relatively kind qualification draw. Roy Hodgson’s side topped the group undefeated, although progress was not quite as smooth as that record suggests. Lacklustre draws with Ukraine, Poland and Montenegro meant that England only secured their place in Brazil with a final game win, a 2-0 defeat of Poland. But with talisman Wayne Rooney in good form (he scored seven goals in qualifying), the likes of Steven Gerrard and Daniel Sturridge playing well domestically and with the emergence of some exciting youngsters, things looked rosy as the team boarded the plane to Brazil.

The opening game, against Italy in the Amazonian city of Manaus, started well enough. England looked positive from the outset as the attacking quartet of Welbeck, Sterling, Rooney and Sturridge linked up well and caused Italy problems. Although Italy took a 35th minute lead courtesy of Claudio Marchisio, England responded immediately with a deadly counter attack. Sterling sent an incisive pass down the left to Rooney, who crossed brilliantly to the back post where Sturridge coolly slotted home. Unfortunately, England weren’t level for long, as Mario Balotelli headed past Joe Hart shortly after the interval. 2-1 is how the score line stayed and England were off to a disappointing start.

Next up was a Uruguay side led by familiar foe Luis Suárez, fresh from a Golden Boot winning season with Liverpool. The England players, in particular the Liverpool contingent, knew well the threat of Suárez, but they still couldn’t stop him. England defended shambolically throughout, leaving Suarez unmarked to tuck away a header in the first half, before Gerrard’s mistimed header gifted the Uruguayan a second. England rallied and Rooney scored his first (and only) World Cup Finals goal, but it wasn’t enough. Hopes of progressing from the group hung by a thread, a thread that snapped hours later as surprise package Costa Rica claimed a shock win against Italy. England, the supposed home of football, was out after two games.

With Costa Rica already assured qualification and England already eliminated, the Three Lions fans in Belo Horizonte were treated to a dull encounter between the pair. Hodgson rang the changes for the meaningless fixture to little effect, as his deflated side struggled to create clear opportunities. It’s probably no exaggeration to say that the highlight of the encounter was the final whistle, as it signalled the end of a frankly depressing campaign.

Although one now has the benefit of hindsight, even at the time the reasons behind England’s failings were clear. While blame can be attributed to the lack of chance creation and conversion, England were never going to succeed with such a frail defence. The lack of centre-back options left Hodgson with little choice but to select Gary Cahill and Phil Jagielka as his starters, both experienced no-nonsense defenders but with frighteningly little pace and agility. Full back options were similarly scant, meaning that the attack minded but defensively compromised duo of Glen Johnson and Leighton Baines got the nod.

England seemed to be in a transition period, a gap between generations. The old guard of Gerrard, Lampard and Rooney had all passed their best, while the exciting youngsters of the squad had very little experience; ten squad members were under 25 years old, while an astonishing 18 of the 23-man squad were playing in their first World Cup. There was no middle generation, no group of players in their prime that could drive the team. While Germany had Thomas Müller and Mario Götze and Argentina had Lionel Messi and Angel Di María, England had no world-class talent.

There seemed to be a lack of strong leadership in the team too. In the Aftermath of England’s elimination, former England striker Gary Lineker recognised this. While admitting that captain Gerrard had leadership qualities, he assessed that, “he’s not really a player that can organise and spot problems on the pitch. We don’t have anyone that can spot something and deal with it”. In past generations, the likes of Terry Butcher, Ray Wilkins and Bryan Robson played the role, taking control on the pitch and holding teammates accountable. That kind of figure was severely lacking in Brazil, particularly in the opening game when Italy’s continuous exploitation of England’s left side provoked no on field reaction or adjustment.

The responsibility for England’s questionable tactical approach falls firmly at the feet of Roy Hodgson. His favoured 4-2-3-1 formation only left two to control midfield, as the three attacking midfielders were essentially forwards. Consequently, the central midfield pair often found themselves hopelessly outnumbered in the middle of the park, in particular against Uruguay, which in turn left the central defenders vulnerable without protection. The fact that the personnel selected were not suited to carry out such a role made Hodgson’s system appear even more naïve. Steven Gerrard was in the twilight of his career, and while he was a fine distributor of the ball, he didn’t have the engine or defensive ability to effectively screen the back four. His partner, Jordan Henderson, was inexperienced and did not cope well with the constant outnumbering.

But Brazil is behind us now, it’s gone and we cannot change it. It would be very easy to be gloomy and disheartened by England’s previous World Cup exploits, but I think that the current crop of English talent heading to Russia this summer give genuine cause for excitement and anticipation. Call me deluded if you will, but here’s why we can do well.

In Gareth Southgate England now have a manager better suited to where they want to go and what they want to achieve. There’s no doubting that Roy Hodgson is a good manager, but he’s better suited to resurrecting teams, not taking them to the next level. Hodgson didn’t exactly inspire, his reluctance to take risks and his unwavering faith in one formation evidenced this. Southgate on the other hand is more adventurous. He has worked in the England youth setup for years so he knows his players. He’s recognised that England have bags of pace, skill and finishing ability, so has adopted at 3-4-3/3-4-2-1 formation to suit this. This approach should make England very dangerous on the counter but also solid in defence, as when not in possession the back three becomes a back five.

The squad, while quite inexperienced, contains both exciting prospects and world-class talent. Harry Kane’s meteoric rise to fame in recent years has propelled him into football’s upper echelons, while the likes of Raheem Sterling, Dele Alli and Jesse Lingard have all had great seasons. Marcus Rashford and Ruben Loftus-Cheek are still relatively unknown quantities on the world stage, so will bring some unpredictability to England’s game.

However, the squad selection does pose some serious questions. Southgate has selected a rather defence-heavy squad, leaving few options in midfield in the event of injuries or bad form. Central midfield is a particular area of concern, as Eric Dier and Jordan Henderson lack the creative qualities of squad omissions Jack Wilshere and Adam Lallana. Loftus-Cheek would bring more innovation to the side, although he does lack experience at this level.

For the first time in years, England enter a tournament unsure of who will start between the sticks. The shock, albeit probably justified, omission of Joe Hart leaves a three-way battle between Jack Butland, Jordan Pickford and Nick Pope for the starting job. Although some may not see this uncertainty as an issue, an understanding between defenders and a regular number one can help defensive stability.

England’s opponents in Groups G this summer are Belgium, Tunisia and Panama. The Belgians will be England’s main opposition in the group and may even be favourites to top the group. They sailed through qualification, winning nine out of ten games and scoring a whopping 43 goals. With a squad including the mercurial talents of Kevin De Bruyne, Dries Mertens and Eden Hazard, England will have their work cut out when the two clash on June 28th.

But the two “minnows” of the group should not be underestimated. Panama, playing in their first World Cup, are a physical and defensive team, the type of opposition England have been known to struggle against. They beat World Cup regulars USA and Honduras to a qualification spot, so they will be no pushovers. Tunisia will probably pose more of an attacking threat, although they’ll be without star man Youssef Msakni due to injury. Saif-Eddine Khaoui and Wahbi Khazri will lead The Eagles of Carthage, a well-drilled and organised side greater than the sum of its parts.

Ultimately, the minimum expectation for England is to reach the Round of 16. From then on who knows how far they will go. But if they do reach the last eight, it’s quite likely that Germany will be waiting.

By Alex Brotherton with artwork by Galang Kurniawan, @gxxlxg

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