I don’t usually accept guest posts for The Stiles Council, but when the author is a man who hosted a podcast with me for over three years then I’m obviously going to make an exception. Gary Andrews is a Welshman and is therefore not an England supporter. But he does take an interest in the England team and would be much better described as neutral than anti-England. Enjoy…
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Soul searching, blame-hunting post-mortems after England defeats are one of the inevitabilities of major tournaments. Even though this year’s disappointment for English fans is a little less acute due to suitably lowered expectations, the moratorium has already begun.
While Ashleys Young and Cole have received the inevitable knee-jerk criticism from those unable to comprehend just how pointless such an exercise is, the majority of soul searching has been directed at the traditional English trait of not being able to hold onto the ball for more than three passes.
Andrea Pirlo’s passing and retention was held up, quite reasonably, as criticism of England, but stat after stat has been produced to demonstrate the ineptitude of Roy Hodgson’s team throughout the tournament. You could be forgiven for assuming, by some column inches, that England weren’t unbeaten, that they actually lost four games heavily, and nothing short of drastic revolution is needed.
The inevitable need to blame and produce knee-jerk reactions is a constant trait that has never helped the English national team, as is the assumption that if the team isn’t winning, it’s a disaster. The truth is, as ever, somewhere in between.
And, to this neutral observer, there were plenty of signs of positivity that could be taken from Eastern Europe. Yes, there were problems, ball retention chief among them. Yes, some of the big name players had poor tournaments. But this wasn’t the England that has been nigh-on unwatchable at times over the past decade, and, amidst the gloom, there were chinks of optimistim. Here, then, are a few reasons to be cheerful.
The case for the defence
Much has been made of England’s bluntness in attack and the inability of the midfield to string passes together, but this does a disservice to an English defence that has tightened up massively in a short space of time.
It’s telling that, of the four games, the Swedish game can be viewed as an aberration, defensively. Even taking into account the two poor goals conceded in the second group game, England let in three goals in four games, including two clean sheets. This included a dangerous host nation in Ukraine and and Italian team with Antonio Cassano, Mario Balotelli and Andrea Pirlo.
Joe Hart, fine goalkeeper that he is, was hardly overworked, and this owed much to his back four and the defensive work of Scott Parker. Joleon Lescott finally looked like an international player and John Terry produced some of his best displays in recent years in an England shirt.
On the flanks, Ashley Cole was as steady as ever and Glen Johnson, while still positionally suspect at times (hence the selection of James Milner in front of him), also had a decent tournament.
Hodgson, not unreasonably, appears to have taken the view that if you inherit a struggling team, you make them hard to beat your first priority. The English defence is beginning to look like a well-drilled unit, and with several decent defenders waiting in reserve or on the injured list, this looks like one area Hodgson doesn’t need to tinker with much.
Smells Like Team Spirit
Previous English campaigns have been characterised by a very sulky bunch of egos causing off-the-field headlines. Poland and Ukraine was refreshing in terms of the news stories that didn’t emerge from the camp.
There were no reports of fights, mutinies or disagreements. Nobody misbehaved, nobody tried to brief against the manager or other team-mates. Nobody’s wife caused any distractions. Terry’s name made the headlines for his on-the-pitch performances.
In short, this was a squad that looked happy, relaxed and genuinely enjoying their tournament. Lowered expectations helped, but Hodgson appears to have created an atmosphere that has kept the players relaxed and entertained.
Neither as authoritarian as Fabio Capello nor as chummy as Steve McClaren, Hodgson has found a middle ground that has kept the players focused on their football. And as the Dutch can tell you, you can have the best players in the world, but if they spend more time fighting than playing, chances are you’ll be packing your bags early.
Promise for the future
One of England’s most impressive players was Danny Welbeck, who led the line with a surprising maturity. The Manchester United striker is one of a number of talented youngsters in and around the fringes of the squad or, in Welbeck’s case, making the graduation to full starter.
Injuries may have denied Hodgson an entire team, but many of those youngsters will be eying up a place in the future. Kyle Walker, Chris Smalling, Tom Cleverley, Jack Wilshire and Jack Rodwell all have plenty of promise and are comfortable holding possession, while Phil Jones, Jordan Henderson and Andy Carroll will have all benefitted from tournament experience.
With some of the more experienced players perhaps looking for one last hurrah in Brazil, and others hitting the prime of of their career in two years’ time, assuming the majority of players stay fit (something beyond Hodgson’s control), there will be plenty of competition for places, and this can only help the English national team.
Rome (and indeed Kiev) wasn’t built in a day
Had Harry Redknapp been in the dugout, he would have no doubt been keen to emphasise that he’d only had six weeks with the squad, and Hodgson’s lack of time to prepare shouldn’t be underestimated.
Given the lowered expectations, coming within a couple of penalty kicks of the semi-finals is no disgrace at all and England have arguably performed better than more fancied teams such as France, Russia and the Netherlands. For a team listing without a manager just a couple of months ago, that’s not a bad achievement.
Hodgson now has time to truly lay foundations for the World Cup in 2014 and, more importantly, for the two tournaments beyond that. More of a long-term planner than Redknapp, even if the former West Bromwich Albion manager doesn’t hit the required targets in Brazil he’ll undoubtedly leave England in a much better shape than he found them in.
(Photo credit: nicksarebi via Flickr)