|By Lawrence Ostlere
It was hard not to notice a familiar, misguided sense of achievement in the air after England topped Group A, a wholly unjustified feeling of optimism that we were finding form at the right time, on the cusp of a miraculous charge to glory. In fact the defeat of Ukraine in the final group game was one lucky goal away from being even more painful to watch than the almost eye gouging stale nil-nil draw with Algeria in Cape Town two years ago.
When questioned about defeat to Italy, manager Roy Hodgson bemoaned the “lottery” of penalties, as if suggesting Englands’ exit was decided by the toss of a coin, but the shoot-out simply hammered home the same message of the previous 120 minutes, that of Italy’s vast superiority.
England are stuck many years behind modern football. 442 is out-dated, a formation rarely seen in major international or Champions League matches today. England averaged 33% possession against the French and Italians, and only 1 shot on target in each match, not exactly all-conquering stuff. Roy Hodgson’s system is especially rigid, deliberately making the team hard to beat, and in this he succeeded – Hodgson has gone six matches without loss – but such weak concession of possession left players defending desperately, rapidly fatiguing as they chased the ball and imparting no control on the tempo of the game.
As a nation the fundamental problem is perceived to be a lack of technical players. This is blamed on grassroots football being played 11 aside on big pitches from a young age, with too much focus on physical rather than skilful attributes, causing an unstoppable domino effect of uselessness leading to the inevitably embarrassing level of possession (and use of it) seen in major tournaments.
But this is a myth. England had Gerrard, Rooney, Oxlade-Chamberlain and Ashley Young, all of whom have technical quality in abundance, but very little of which was used by Hodgson. Take them out of a static, defensive 442 and into a progressive, controlling 433 or 4231 and England would start to get a foothold against quality opposition.
Like Spain’s Sergio Ramos and Gerard Pique, Manchester United’s young defenders Chris Smalling and Phil Jones are confident on the ball. In Tottenham’s right-back Kyle Walker there is the pace and penetration from deep that Spain exploit using left-back Jordi Alba, who created the opening goal against France. To allow Alba time to get forward Spain keep the ball in central midfield, and if England were to deploy 3 players in midfield they too could play this way.
Rio Ferdinand made the pertinent point that had the masterful Andrea Pirlo been English, Hodgson probably wouldn’t even have selected him. At the top of Roy’s job description for a central midfielder reads brave blocks and last-ditch defence required – a piercing pass is just a bonus. In January Swansea City’s Leon Britton boasted the best passing statistics in Europe (success rate of 93.3%) beating even Barcelona’s Xavi (90.0%). That Britton was never even mentioned as an option for the tournament perhaps sums up English football’s current predicament.
Pair Britton with the brilliant touch and control of Jack Wilshere, and the skill and energy of the emerging Tom Cleverley in midfield and England would have an excellent base from which to play in the future. Surround these players with pace and excitement from wide areas like Adam Johnson (England’s best talent running with the ball, not even selected in the squad) and Oxlade-Chamberlain and England would have a team that is not just hard to beat but hard to stop.
Heck, you might even make the argument that England should have drawn David Beckham and Paul Scholes back into the side. While certainly not youthful, they have the skill and talent of Italy’s Pirlo.
But now it’s about the future.
There is no dearth of English technical talent, indeed there a treasure chest of quality waiting to be unlocked. There is, however, a huge dearth of creative, progressive management and until England find some, they will not win a major tournament.
England’s progressive team for Brazil 2014: Joe Hart; Kyle Walker, Phil Jones, Chris Smalling, Leighton Baines; Jack Wilshere, Leon Britton; Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Tom Cleverley, Adam Johnson; Danny Welbeck.
Lawrence Ostlere is a freelance writer and can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org