Can England be the Dark Horse?

Phew.  We’ve finally done it.  Qualification achieved; next stop Brazil and the World Cup, in the slightly unfamiliar territory of underdogs.  It’s strange to think that a side with such proven world class talent as Wayne Rooney, Steven Gerrard, Ashley Cole and er, James Milner is not classed as one of the favourites – but the shift in the football paradigm has been so marked in recent years that even the so called lesser teams are all more than technically proficient (witness Montenegro).  True, England did make a bit of a dog’s dinner of qualification from a group that, let’s be honest, was about as tough as a soufflé, and in doing so ruined their chances of being one of the top seeds.  Yet this could be seen as a good thing: the British public no longer has unrealistic expectations of its football team and neither does the rest of the world.  Consequently England can go into the tournament under the radar without so much pressure and attention.  This should release them from their familiar turgid tournament performances of recent times and hopefully result in at least a respectable showing in Brazil.

Reasons to be Cheerful:

  1. The younger generation of England players are really starting to make an impact.  Roy Hodgson’s selection of Andros Townsend was inspired and England finally has someone who can deliver some end product down the right flank (take note Theo Walcott).  Kyle Walker, Danny Welbeck and Daniel Sturridge are still relative novices at this level, yet have contributed significantly during this qualifying campaign (Welbeck especially).  With the likes of Jack Wilshere and Ross Barkley waiting in the wings (who seem at home on the international stage and could slot straight into the team), the future looks bright for the England team.
  2. Wayne Rooney has returned to form, and just in the nick of time.  After the Manchester United forward’s turbulent summer, he has settled down under David Moyes and is showing signs of returning to his top performances of three years ago.  I have noted a slight maturity in Rooney’s place.  Gone is the fearless tyro who would chase after everything like a dog on speed and shoot on sight.  He is now more measured in his play and has become a vital link man between the midfield and attack.  Couple this with a timely goal-scoring knack and England has a player who is absolutely crucial to any chance of success next summer.
  3. Leighton Baines.  As much as I rate Ashley Cole (even though he is a deplorable man he happens to be a very good footballer), the Everton man brings more to the table.  The way he overlapped time and again against Montenegro and Poland gave England an extra dimension that they have been crying out for.  People go on about how good Cole is at defending, but they don’t seem to realise that Baines is almost as good, and is also an infinitely more dangerous attacking threat.  He provided the delivery for Rooney’s opener against Poland and together with Gerrard, England have two of the most lethal dead-ball specialists in the world.  If England are to progress in Brazil, Hodgson must be bold – and that means selecting Baines.

Reasons to be fearful:

  1. Central defence.  Phil Jagielka and Gary Cahill are very good players in their own right, but will the likes of Neymar, Messi et al be losing sleep at the prospect of facing these two?  Almost certainly not.  Admittedly, the pair did manage to keep the Brazilian quiet last season at Wembley but that was only a friendly.  Nevertheless, the manner in which Poland wilfully opened up England like a can of beans was slightly worrying and had Robert Lewandowksi not left his shooting boots at the team hotel, the scoreline could have been very different.  Against better teams than Poland, England will be punished.  If either of the first choices get injured (God forbid) then the next in line are Phil Jones, Chris Smalling and Michael Dawson – all unproven at international level.  Oh for the good old days when England had Sol Campbell, John Terry, Rio Ferdinand, Ledley King and Jamie Carragher at their disposal…
  2. England only just managed to scrape out of a group that included such football powerhouses as Moldova, Ukraine, Montenegro and Poland (and San Marino).  Away from home, England only managed to beat Moldova and San Marino.  Now I know that going through a whole qualifying campaign unbeaten is impressive but when it comes to Brazil next year, plucky draws just won’t cut the mustard – witness England Neanderthal performance against Italy at Euro 2012.  Finding ways to win when you aren’t at your best is the hallmark of a quality team (e.g Spain in the 2010 World Cup Final).  England have beaten some of the world’s best teams in the past few seasons; Brazil, Spain and Sweden all spring to mind.  However England rarely does it when it matters in competitive matches at major tournaments.  Roy Hodgson must find a way to change this before next summer.
  3. Goalkeeper.  A lot of nonsense has been written about Joe Hart in recent weeks, most of which has been totally unjustified.  He had two commanding games against Montenegro and Poland and silenced the critics who had been slamming his recent performances.  He is the best keeper England have had since David Seaman hung up his gloves and hopefully he will remain between the sticks for a good while longer.  There comes a serious problem however if Hart gets injured.  England does not exactly have a wealth of goalkeeping talent at its disposal and below Hart the options are thin on the ground.  John Ruddy, Scott Carson and Jack Butland all have international experience but two of them play in the Championship and the other, Ruddy, plays for a team that are struggling in the Premier League relegation zone.  There has been recent clamour for the inclusion of Celtic’s Fraser Forster and I wholeheartedly agree.  He has played in the Champions League for the past two seasons against some of the world’s best (Barcelona three times in the past year alone) and hence has experience at the top level.  He should at least be given a chance because if, touch wood, something befalls Joe Hart, England needs someone of the requisite ability to step into his rather sizeable shoes.

So there you have it.  England almost certainly won’t win the World Cup but at least they will be at the tournament and these days, that is an achievement in itself.  I would be happy if England simply progressed out of their group and in doing so played some attractive football that made the rest of the world sit up and take note.  Many things aren’t in their favour – the biggest of which is the heat they will have to endure but, if they trust in their ability (maybe don’t trust James Milner’s), they can hopefully achieve something (not being a laughing stock would be a start) especially if they can stay under the radar and out of the spotlight.  At least I have an excuse to spend a whole month in front of the telly and for that England, I thank you.  Roll on next summer.

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England not a force to be reckoned with

If England learned anything from their two friendlies against the Republic of Ireland and Brazil, it is that they are certainly no longer a major force in world football.  The manner in which they were outplayed for large swathes of the match against the Selecao was alarming – they lacked the ability to put even the most simplest of moves together – and indicative of their standing in international football, hanging on for dear life.  It does not bode well for the World Cup qualifiers where England can’t afford any slip-ups in their remaining four matches if they want to be back in Brazil this time next year.

            England do not have a terrible record this season.  In 11 internationals they have only lost once – to Zlatan Ibrahimovic – but they have also played out three 1-1 draws against Poland, Montenegro and Ukraine; not the sort of form that will be the rest of the world sleepless nights.  This apparent ability to make their rather average opponents look like world-beaters is admirable, but also slightly problematic if you’re trying to qualify for a World Cup.  Add to that another lacklustre 1-1 draw against Eire on Wednesday and it’s not been an annus mirabilis for the Three Lions.  On the one hand, after a long season a turgid performance is perhaps understandable – then again the top teams would comfortably dispatch a spirited but limited Ireland side.

            There have been some positives for the national side.  Two friendly victories against Brazil and Italy are not to be sniffed at (both are incidentally ranked lower that England in the official Fifa rankings).  The emergence of Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain as a player of considerable potential is encouraging and Theo Walcott has played marginally less shite than usual this season.  Frank Lampard is enjoying an Indian summer and when Jack Wilshere plays, England have the air of a team that isn’t a steaming pile of manure – which is a positive I suppose.

            My issue with the current England team is that they never dominate supposedly lower-ranked opposition (apart from San Marino and Moldova – which is hardly that commendable).  They always seem to play just about well enough to scrape an undeserved win or to hang on for a draw.  Take, for example, the 1-1 draw in Montenegro in March.  10 of the starting 11 had won the Premier League, the other (Gerrard), everything but.  Not exactly strangers to the idea of winning a crucial match.  In the next 90 minutes, Montenegro (ranked a very respectable 27th in the world) proceeded to dominate all facets of the game, forcing England into hopeful punts up field for most of the second half in the face of heavy Montenegrin bombardment.  Now the initiated football novice would have claimed that the Montenegrins were in fact the 7th best team in the world and England the 27th such was the gulf in class, not the other way round.  In the lead up to conceding the goal, England had to defend a series of corners and the defence just didn’t take control of the situation.  Dare I say it, John Terry would have put his head in where it hurts for the team (about his only redeeming feature).  Instead the defence resembled a confused group of schoolboys who had just been asked to recite the complete works of Shakespeare in Swahili whilst enacting the exact choreography to Stravinsky’s ‘The Rite of Spring.’  It was a performance that would have had Alan Hansen tearing his hair out (or licking his lips with glee at the prospect of saying ‘terrible defending’ in his own indomitable style).

            Perhaps I shouldn’t be surprised.  England haven’t played well in a major tournament since Euro 2004 and quite frankly, compared with the top European nations, they are light years behind.  Germany proved as such at the World Cup in 2010 and Italy, more recently at last year’s Euros.  One only had to watch the Champions League final to see the difference in playing style.  Dortmund and Bayern Munich were both physically and tactically adept at possession, counter-attacking, direct and tika-taka football whenever they so desired.  I was struck by the speed and incisiveness of the passing and movement.  There was always someone available to pass to, always someone in space or someone willing to make a run.  The forward lines were interchangeable making it difficult for defenders to pick them up.

England have often recently been accused of adopting tactics that are too rigid, that they play in lines instead of in a dynamic formation which operates in between the traditional 4-4-2 formation.  The truth is that the English are not intelligent enough to play such a system.  The top German/Spanish/Italian players have a footballing brain that is all too rare in this country which enables them to act on instinct.  This instinct is almost unteachable (unfortunately) because it relies on the player’s awareness of his teammates, the opposition, available space and the consequent passes he can play armed with all this information – something that takes a lifetime to absorb.  That’s without even considering the ability to actually execute these skills and the physical attributes required to compete for 90 minutes at the highest level.  Jack Wilshere is the only current England player that fits into this category.  In the last 25 years, Paul Gascoigne and Matt Le Tissier are the only players that come to mind.  The FA has recently changed its coaching blueprint, with the emphasis on technique.  This is undoubtedly a forward step because the national psyche needs to adapt and pronto at that.  For now, England may now have to accept that simply qualifying for the World Cup is an achievement in itself.