Dion Fanning: England had no midfield to speak of but that might have been the case even if they had played more than two midfielders.
When Roy Hodgson walked into his press conference in Manaus last night, he told a comforting and familiar tale, some of which had the added benefit of being true.
England’s young players had indeed provided moments of encouragement. They had played with pace and they were as willing as anyone could have wanted them to be.
Hodgson praised their efforts, insisting that neither the heat nor the Italians could deny England’s vigour and youth. “At the end, it was still us on the front foot and it was still us looking for a goal,” Hodgson said.
That was one way of looking at it. At the stage when England were still on the front foot and were still looking for a goal, Italy had no need of another goal as they already led by one.
So another way of looking at it would be to consider that Cesare Prandelli’s side had all the cunning and, having taken the lead for a second time, were content to control the game. They retreated when they had to and did enough to secure victory while England bombarded them with some of their traditional footballing values as they never gave up and never gave in.
This analysis would provide a little less comfort for England, especially as the performance, despite the many things to be pleased about, highlighted once again that England remain as incapable of thoughtful, controlled play as they have ever been and there is little to suggest the new generation is going to change that.
Hodgson had surprised many with his team selection. It wasn’t necessarily the inclusion of Raheem Sterling but by his decision to sacrifice a midfielder for him that was a jolt.
It was daring, of course, but it was particularly daring for Hodgson, like learning that the desk sergeant in the village police station had entered a stuffed giraffe wearing a toilet on its head in the Turner Prize.
This was so unlikely, so out of character that some people could only wonder at the motivation. Afterwards, however, it all made sense. England had achieved a sort of nobility in defeat and that wouldn’t have been possible without the young players’ presence on the pitch.
England had no midfield to speak of but that might have been the case even if they had played more than two midfielders.
Sterling had a fine game and caused Italy plenty of problems but again Hodgson was demonstrating his greatest gift of all as he continued his life’s work and lowered expectations.
England had been hopeful beforehand but after defeat in the opening game they reacted as they should probably react to a defeat against Italy. Gone was the anger and the bewildering rage that has always accompanied previous tournament losses. England responded with optimism to defeat and at times they almost rejoiced at the performance. They have nothing to fear from Uruguay on Thursday, except possible elimination from the tournament.
If they lose to Uruguay, Hodgson may find it more difficult to insist that all is well, although Uruguay look more likely to be thrown into full blown crisis this week.
Before then, there will still be a search for a scapegoat and, as long as Steven Gerrard’s inability to control an England midfield is ignored, Wayne Rooney will be the go-to guy.
Rooney’s failure to deliver on his once rich promise is naturally a source of some regret but Hodgson asked too much of him in Manaus when he was delegated to work up and down the left wing, something he would struggle with on a mild October evening, let alone a suffocating night in the Amazon rainforest.
Rooney failed to offer much protection to Leighton Baines and pair had a discussion just before Claudio Marchisio’s opening goal about where they were going wrong. It did nothing to alter Italy’s approach as Matteo Darmian demonstrated while moving unimpeded down the right for Italy all night.
Baines’ positional weakness would have made him vulnerable even if Rooney had been fitter and Hodgson’s decision to leave Ashley Cole out of the squad continues to look like a strange one.
Luke Shaw is in Brazil instead, another demonstration of England’s commitment to youth but England have been bewitched by youth before and the deeper problems have remained.
Only Ross Barkley offers encouragement when England look for a player who might solve their problems of intelligence and guile in the middle of the field.
“We take our hats off to their skill,” Hodgson said. England’s next manager or maybe the one after that will have to address the deeper problems.
Or maybe the next man will learn from a master. In the next nine days, England could beat Uruguay and Costa Rica before exiting in the last sixteen and all will be well.
Some of England’s players gave a glimpse of their talents in Manaus but perhaps Hodgson is having the best World Cup of all. He has given the most stunning display of his gifts. He demonstrated once again that he is a man you’d want in a crisis, except if you wanted a man to lead you out of the crisis.