Where has it all gone wrong, yet again, for England?
Lack of superstar and top-class centre-back pairing are massive factors in early demise
Published 21/06/2014 | 02:30
English football has become obsessed with statistics, with too much focus on levels of possession and the number of passes made during a game. Possession stats are a waste of time. They actually obscure the issue.
Last season, I analysed the league table of possession stats in order to illustrate my point. The top two were Southampton and Swansea, who at the time were ninth and 17th in the Premier League, which proved that dominance of possession does not automatically mean you will defeat your opponents.
What possession stats cannot quantify is the pressure being placed on the ball when the team is in possession, and what we saw during the defeats against Italy and Uruguay is the importance of being in control of the ball when you have it.
Passing the ball when you are not under pressure is easy. The test of your technique comes when you have to move the ball at speed and with intensity and that has been England's problem for too long.
We can blame society, governments, the English FA – anybody – for the cause of this, but the reality is that there is no easy way to make young English players better.
Nowadays, youngsters no longer spend 10 hours a day enjoying themselves by kicking a ball against a wall, improving their technique and touch.
There are too many alternative distractions. So what was once a pleasure and a source of enjoyment has become hard work.
It is easier now to spend time on a PlayStation or an iPad.
Rooney is not a superstar
Italy defeated England because of Andrea Pirlo and Uruguay claimed victory because they had Luis Suárez. Italy and Uruguay each have a superstar, while England do not.
Wayne Rooney is a great player, but he is not a Pirlo or a Suárez, and you have to say that time is not on his side to assume the superstar mantle which he appeared destined to claim when he burst onto the scene at Euro 2004.
Rooney really had a chance. Until he broke his metatarsal against Portugal in the quarter-final of Euro 2004, he was a 'wow' player and, at 18, appeared to have the world at his feet.
He was England's best player against Uruguay and made things happen, but Pirlo and Suárez proved themselves to be on a different level.
If England possessed a player of similar world-class quality, then Roy Hodgson may now be sitting at the top of the group with two wins from two games, because great players decide games.
But it is unfair to burden Rooney with the pressure of having to deliver like Pirlo and Suárez. His inability to elevate himself into the same stratosphere as those players is a combination of two things. First, at 28, Wayne is no longer the player we saw 10 years ago, and second, the players around him in the England team are not as good as those surrounding Pirlo and Suárez, so it is more difficult for him to have the same impact.
Centre-backs are just not good enough
The centre of England's defence is a cause for concern, but it is not a new issue for Hodgson. England are now discovering just how fortunate they were to have defenders of the ability of John Terry, Rio Ferdinand and Sol Campbell, but the reality is that the current options are not in the same class.
Playing at centre-half is all about positional sense. It is the most important criterion, but neither Gary Cahill nor Phil Jagielka can claim to be impressive in this crucial area.
Cahill has had a great season at Chelsea. His strengths are blocking and tackling, but it is easier to shine playing for Chelsea because of the way they play, with eight or nine men behind the ball.
Positionally, he has never been the best, while Jagielka, without wanting to be harsh, is merely a very good club defender who is finding it difficult having moved up a level to face much better players.
They have rarely looked a great partnership, and the warning signs were there during the warm-up friendly against Peru, when their poor positional sense gifted the Peruvians three early chances to score past Joe Hart.
And against Uruguay, when England looked to be the only winner after equalising, Suárez was able to win the game with a goal that came from a big lump forward from the goalkeeper, straight down the centre of the pitch.
It is difficult to see England sticking with Cahill and Jagielka in the Euro 2016 qualifiers, but if Hodgson is to replace them, he has very few options to take their place.
Youngsters have not trained on
In football, the solutions to problems come in the form of new players, but there are no obvious answers to the questions now facing English football.
Three years ago, Phil Jones and Chris Smalling were being billed as the centre-half pairing that would dominate for a decade with Manchester United and England, but neither has trained on to justify the hopes invested in them.
I would be surprised if they have played together at centre-half for United more than 10 times during the last three years, but do not be fooled into believing their lack of progress is due to the foreign influx in the Premier League.
Raheem Sterling was able to break into a Liverpool team challenging for the title this season, so he is proof that good, young English players can take their chance.
But perhaps Jones and Smalling failed to dislodge an ageing Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic at United because, in the cold light of the day, they are not good enough. Both are now at an age where they should be established first-team players, but they have not risen to the challenge.
Sterling has undoubtedly benefited from playing alongside Suárez at Liverpool, but he must continue to develop.
And while the likes of John Stones, Luke Shaw, Ross Barkley and Jon Flanagan are being billed as the future, there are no guarantees that they will be the answer. Football does not work like that.
If the young players were good enough and ready, Hodgson would bring them in against Costa Rica, but I'm not sure anybody expects that to happen.
Few managerial options
Roy Hodgson's position will inevitably be scrutinised after two defeats in two games, but I believe England need some stability and that Roy should be given two more years.
It is also time for the English Football Association to be bold, however, by identifying the man to succeed Hodgson and allowing him to get to know the set-up before being given carte blanche.
Who should that be? Well, just like England lack players, they also have very few options if they want an English manager.
They need to look at the likes of Brendan Rodgers or Roberto Martínez – young, progressive managers who know the English game. There would be no value in recruiting a coach from outside the Premier League who does not possess an in-depth knowledge of the players and personalities.
Whoever the new man turns out to be, there should be an acceptance that he will get at least two tournaments to work at the job and impose his ideas.
Hodgson has earned the right to remain in charge for the Euro 2016 qualifying campaign, however.
He is a good man, a decent manager, and he should be given credit for embracing the younger players in Brazil.
The pace and purpose England displayed against Italy suggested that something positive might yet come out of this World Cup.
Hodgson will not turn England into world-beaters within two years – nobody can manage that – but let him at least attempt to nurture the green shoots that emerged in Manaus. (© Daily Telegraph, London)