A few days have now passed since England’s UEFA Euro 2012 exit. The finale of Sunday’s quarter-final defeat on penalties against Italy was a familiar experience. England had battled their way through the group, landed superior opponents in the last eight and then collapsed like a drunken teenager in Newquay when faced with a penalty shoot-out, allowing an altogether calmer Italy to advance to the semi-finals.
But this was no ordinary tournament. English football has begun to reap what it’s sown, with lowered pre-competition expectations reflecting the creeping realisation that the Premier League’s one-eyed focus on global television money has been as damaging to the national team’s prospects as has the country’s negligent approach to coaching and youth development.
The supposed golden generation expelling its final footballing breath, it was very clear before the Euros that England’s top-level talent pool isn’t a patch on the teams we were likely to face should we reach the quarter-finals. Despite Italy’s penalty area profligacy, there is no doubt that they were far better than England and it is my opinion that England’s much discussed tactical approach failed. The Azzurri were not contained or anything close to it.
On the whole, England’s Euro 2012 results and indeed performances met expectations. It’s not after every competition that we can say that, and it’s certainly not after every competition that the expectations of many pundits and commentators can be said to have been exceeded.
Arguably it was only the most pessimistic journalist or supporter who didn’t back England to qualify from Group D, but few expected them to be unbeaten, to win two games or to finish top of the group. Drawing with France was a very respectable result, and to go on and pick up two wins in potentially difficult clashes against Sweden and Ukraine made for an impressive journey through the group stage. In pure success-or-failure terms, it’s difficult to criticise what England achieved in Ukraine this month.
In that sense, Roy Hodgson did a fine job and made a good start to life as the manager of England. We all know how little time and how few training sessions he had to prepare his team, and his willingness to be pragmatic helped to guide England through the first competitive football since a chaotic start to the year. At Euro 2012 Hodgson did as much as could have been asked of him, reaching as far into the competition as anyone could have realistically demanded.
He has negotiated his first hurdle in the job and largely dispatched the spectre of the media’s choice for the job, now former Tottenham Hotspur manager Harry Redknapp. I’ve heard Euro 2012 described as Hodgson’s period as a caretaker, or as the support act before the main event. This competition was always a bye for the former West Bromwich Albion boss; he was never going to lose his job in the aftermath, nor was he ever going to be able to truly stamp his authority and vision on the team. The real test begins now.
The main criticism levelled at Hodgson and England this summer has been that their playing style hasn’t been pretty enough or positive enough. It’s all a matter of taste, of course, but the reason for England adopting an approach that was at times hyper-defensive is a worry. It wasn’t a purely tactical choice, it was a decision taken out of necessity and based upon the knowledge that the players available weren’t really all that good compared to their continental counterparts.
Chelsea’s UEFA Champions League success has been cited as the inspiration, both before England kicked off against France and in various analyses of their play. In truth, the pragmatic adoption of defensive football predates both Chelsea’s triumph and Hodgson’s appointment.
That the players were willing and able to take the style on and win the group speaks volumes of the attitude of the team, which is possibly the most pleasing aspect of Euro 2012 from an England perspective. There was no scandal, no mutiny, no indiscipline. The players acquitted themselves well, didn’t moan about their circumstances and did what they were told to do. The team spirit seemed good and Steven Gerrard, so often prone to taking responsibilities that aren’t his to take, played a tactically savvy role in midfield and came out smelling of roses thanks to a very solid tournament.
But what of the future? While there is cause for optimism – not least from neutrals – nothing has changed in light of an acceptable performance at Euro 2012. England still operate on a tournament-by-tournament basis, which dictates that the next competition is always the most important. That needs to end.
The right noises are being made and positive steps continue in terms of infrastructure. St George’s Park is a massive move forwards for the Football Association and should help improve the teaching of coaches and better enable them to nurture and develop young talent. None of this will be exploited to its full potential without the creation and redefinition of an “English way”.
It doesn’t have to be the abhorrently nicknamed tiki-taka, and it doesn’t even have to be attractive, but the national team at its various levels needs a unified philosophy and the room and time to deploy it free of unreasonable pressure. Two years, even six or eight years, won’t be enough.
While Hodgson has made an impressive start and gave plenty of us something to be more cheerful about, I must admit to hoping that his tenure amounts to his being the right man to keep the seat warm for a few years for the figurehead of a new vision. One can dream.