England’s Half-way-to-the-World-Cup Analysis
In the era of snapchat, neuroscience and nuclear weapons, memories are these days contained as photographs, social media posts and interviews. Such memories of the darkest and most damaging night in English football history are finally beginning to fade. The two most pivotal and talked-about men of one year ago, Wayne Rooney and Roy Hodgson, both became subject to ridicule, heated discussions and even abuse – the former not for the first time.
Both seem long gone now.
A year on from Iceland’s humiliating and ridiculous victory over the Three Lions, no result as embarrassing has occurred for England since. It has hardly had the chance to. Hodgson brought stability and sensibility to the England setup, but all that disintegrated at once, as his team failed to come from one meagre goal behind in seventy-five minutes against the islanders. Not Icelanders; islanders. How was it even fathomable that we could lose to a nation ranked amongst the very worst in Europe in this century? It was not fathomable. But has become a more possible prospect in the ‘fifty years of hurt’ since the Bobbys did their thing. But, for Roy and his boys, it happened.
Sam Allardyce came in as permanent manager, then got sacked after falling for a situational test, set up by The Sun. Under the management of former international and U-21s manager Gareth Southgate, England have looked marginally better. They thrashed Scotland, squeezed past Malta, drew in Slovenia where they were lucky not to lose, and threw away a priceless 2-0 lead over Spain, albeit in a friendly, to draw at 2-2. Eighty-seven minutes and then the last kick of the game. Painful. English. The FA deemed this perfect evidence for a manager’s position, and Southgate was appointed. The former Middlesbrough player has fresh ideas and the country needs that. After losing in Germany in what was practically Lukas Podolski’s overhyped testimonial, Southgate’s men managed to score just twice against minnows Lithuania at Wembley. The crazy 2-2 at Hampden, then the ten-man tease in Paris, and now here we are. One year until the prospect of a first ever World Cup in Russia. Similar-ish weather conditions to that of the UK, but political and social differences spreading as wide as length of the country itself.
It would take a remarkable sporting effort from the three S’s of Slovakia, Slovenia and Scotland for England not to qualify. Once again, qualifying feels like a formality, but with England one never, ever knows. Southgate has seemed quietly nervous and ponderous about the prospect whenever the fact the World Cup is getting closer is mentioned in an interview. England are not the force that they once were, and the nation’s press, despite the disappointment tournament after tournament after tournament, remain speculative and expectant that the country can and often will put on a dazzling display in the tournament that sits closest in the calendar. One thing stands out as one of the biggest factors to England’s constant failure to succeed on the international stage. It is the World Cup win of 1966. Human beings are greedy. Once we get something we want it again and again and again. England’s team of 1966 deserved to win the World Cup. But, we have not deserved to win it since. Human understanding does not go backwards. It goes forwards. The further time goes on, the more advancements are made in, well, everything. England’s football team do go backwards. They go backwards by performing worse and worse in each tournament, and they go backwards with the ball too. Back to Joe Hart and then hope for the best. Will it even be Joe Hart anymore?
It is not surprising that England first had the breakthrough of business, capitalism and of the industrial revolution. It is a perfectly situated island with such a changeable climate that the growth and prosper of anything is possible. England had the football revolution too. Only when the Magical Magyars of Puskás and Kocsis and Czibor visited for a kickabout did things start to get sticky.
There is a stereotype of immigration in this country where the downtrodden and more bleak cry out “they’re stealing our jobs”. Well, they’re stealing our talent – and we haven’t got it back. But that’s not it. It isn’t our talent that seems to be missing, yet present for others, it’s performances and results and, ultimately, trophies. England has talent. England just won the most prestigious and coveted youth tournament in international football – the U-20s World Cup. We are World Champions for the first time since Geoff went flirting with the crossbar back in 1966. We are World Champions at U-20 level for the first time in history. England won the U-17s European Championships in 2010 and 2014 too, losing on penalties in the final to Spain this year too. At U-21 level, the nation put together effectively an A-team for the European Championships in Poland and a B-team for the annual Toulon Tournament in France. In Poland, Aidy Boothroyd’s side lost on penalties to Germany despite playing excellently in the group-stages. And in the Toulon Tournament, the Three Lions successfully defended their 2016 title by beating the Ivory Coast on penalties in a tense final. And, to cap off an excellent summer of English youth football, England’s u-19s beat Holland, Portugal and thrashed Germany 4-1 on the way to becoming European Champions at that level for the tenth time in their history. That is a record. So, England have, and has always had, footballing talent. Mark Sampson and his women saw off everyone but hosts Holland in the semis at the Euros too. But, its mens’ senior team results would indicate that this youth talent is not being streamlined nor improved successfully.
When the likes of Harry Kane, Dele Alli and West Ham’s Aaron Cresswell walked off the pitch in Saint-Denis against France, they looked confused and slightly sheepish. It is embarrassing to think that our players lost from an equal position to France, with ten men, without Rapha Varane, and without the lucrative Antoine Griezmann. Our players did not play badly nor look [too much] as if they wanted to be free to lounge around in St Lucia rather than represent their country. In fact, under the surely destined new captain Harry Kane, England did not entirely embarrass themselves, and looked proud to bare the badge. They were worse than France, and that is because they are. England are worse than France, and the players need to know this, be receptive to it, and want to change it.
England are a capable side, and our players light up the Premier League, but very few remain at the top level for as long as Arjen Robben, Hugo Lloris or even Nani of Portugal have managed to do. Wayne Rooney, in that way, is a true English anomaly and, regardless of opinions to his legend status, a true great. But, Rooney was not happy at United, and Southgate did not even think he warranted a place in his latest squad. Fair enough. Shall we move on? The media absolutely love to talk about Rooney, and it is reasonably obvious to understand why they do. Wayne Rooney is good at football. He may never have rippled the back of the net eight times in a single World Cup or sent Germany out of the Euros singlehandedly, but Rooney has continued to score goals and set up goals and work tirelessly throughout his England career, and without him, the twenty-first century would have been even bleaker. Rooney is a metaphor. A metaphor for the presence of English talent. There need to be more where we came from. Of course, he is not the only of his kind. Steven Gerrard, Frank Lampard and David Beckham all retired as England greats. Where are their replacements? Could Jordan Henderson be the next Steven Gerrard? Yes, he could, but he is twenty-six now though, and Gerrard had already racked up forty caps and ten international goals by that point. Is Henderson that much of an impact player? No. Harry Kane and Dele Alli appear to have star-studded futures ahead of them, but then so did Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain when he broke onto the Arsenal and international scene in Wilshere-esque [Wilshere – he’s another] style ahead of Euro 2012. The Ox’s international career looks as primitive and dictated by form as ever. All this talent is present. But where is it all going?
One big problem for England is their first game. Not their very first game – a 0-0 draw with Scotland in 1872 – but their opening game of every tournament. England have not won their opening game of a tournament since a Carlos Gamarra own goal helped the Three Lions see of Paraguay in Frankfurt at the World Cup in 2006. If England are at the World Cup in 2018, they will be trying to win their opener for the first time in twelve years. The women’s England team had not won their tournament opener in twelve years either – until they beat Scotland 6-0 a few weeks ago. Jodie Taylor scored England’s first ever women’s tournament hat-trick in that game. England’s men must win their opener to give them a good chance of qualification out of the group in 2018. But, even if they were facing South Korea, Costa Rica or New Zealand, it is by no means certain that they would win. If Germany were playing any of these three, a win would be much closer to certainty than for England. The eras of Bobbys Charlton and Moore, of Lineker and Robson and of Gascoigne would have snapped these sorts of opponents up with ease. Southgate’s England will need confidence, quality and patience if they want to emulate these great teams of olde. England’s tournament teams rarely have confidence and quality – just patience – too much patience.
So where do we sit with a year to go? Well, behind all of the past World Cup winners in terms of ability. Behind Portugal too – not because they are better but because they won Euro 2016. England did not. Where else do we sit? We sit two points above Slovakia in qualification, having drawn in Slovenia and Scotland. Roy Hodgson’s England didn’t draw once en route to Euro 2016.
What do we need? More than anything, the nation needs a tournament that resembles Italia ’90. The only major semi-final the Three Lions have ever reached whilst on their travels. Russia will provide travelling – a hell of a lot. England’s players need to reach the summer feeling as fresh as is possible having completed an entire season in the world’s most competitive and unforgiving league. On top of the this, the players need to be in form – and that includes Jonjo Shelvey, Nathan Redmond, Jordan Pickford and Tom Cleverley. No team has ever won anything with a small pool of players to choose from – and if they have, they were mighty lucky. England’s starters, substitutes, fringe players, youth players and uncapped players all need to have good seasons. Germany won the last World Cup – without Marco Reus. Other players deputised and his absence did not end up mattering. This depth, confidence, form and energy is all vitally important if the nation is to do well in Russia. The fans are so desperate that many could not care less if England don’t end up winning. They just need to play well and get much further than recent times. The final thing England need is hunger. England teams of old had it in bag-loads. In an era with club football taking the absolute front seat, international football has had to suffer. It has had to suffer players-wise and importance-wise. England’s players must want to win games if they are going to do so.
Winning games is very rarely easy at the World Cup. England can win every game they play if they approach each one right. Whoever they field in their opening match [should they qualify], they will have over fifty million people backing them all the way.