First off let me start by saying that I am a fan of Roy Hodgson. I think he is the right man to lead England at this point in time. The expectations among English fans were pretty low leading into this tournament so a quarter-final appearance is probably more than they hoped for. Toping their group was also a shock as many pundits predicted France to finish top with either Sweden or England finishing second.
But having said that there were plenty of disappointing aspects about this side that Roy Hodgson can now address as the lead up to World Cup qualification begins. Going in the Euros Hodgson was always going to play a defensive and structure approach due to his lack of time with the team. It’s unrealistic to think England could play like Spain or even Germany at this moment but that’s not to say they that should accept the level of performance that they saw in England’s four matches. So what could they have done better and what needs to change if the three lions are to progress and finaly become a contender for a World Cup or European Championship.
Fans attitude and expectations
Football is always going to be debated in pubs and clubs throughout the nation but one of the things that upset me when watching the England v Italy match with the public is the chants and calls you hear throughout the match. If I had a pound every time I heard ‘take him on’, ‘beat him’, ‘hit him’ I’d probably have about £20, the pub wasn’t that crowded, but anyway. It probably stems from watching the Premier League so much that fans expect their national side to play the same way. They want England to score as soon as they win the ball and just attack, attack, attack but that approach won’t win you anything at this level. Spain might be accused of being boring but that is only because they don’t make as many goal scoring opportunities as their dominant possession might demand. What they are really doing is controlling the match. The fans attitude is what is mirrored in the media and that leads to the unrealistic expectation that is placed on the England team. If fans started to understand the whole nature of the game and not look at a match as if it has to be won in the very first second that would unburden the side a bit. But that won’t happen, it’s in English culture to pride ‘spirit’, ‘commitment’ and ‘passion’ over possession and tactics. Unfortunately these things they pride are just buzz words and won’t win you a football match against sides that think about the game more than their English counter-parts.
The role of the goalkeeper
Every one could see that England just could not keep the ball against Italy. In fact over 120 mins England only managed 36% possession. That’s pretty embarrassing at this level and considering the clubs these players play for more is expected of them. It’s not just the outfield players that are guilty of being wasteful with the ball, the keeper Joe Hart is also a culprit. The best keepers in the world now Neur, Reina, Valdez are an extension of their side, they are no longer just keepers they have to be good with the ball as well. Valdez at Barcelona has started many attacks with his throws out from the box and he also looks to pass to his defense even when under pressure instead of just kicking it up-field. It is a very flawed mentality to tell your keeper to just boot the ball up field as you are just handing the ball back to the opposition. Wasting an opportunity to build an attack from the back. It is exactly what Hart did against the Italians, lumping the ball either to wing and going out for a thrown in are straight up field where neither Rooney or Welbeck could win it back. Hart needs to improve his disruption and the team needs to be set up to receive passes from him. That means the centre backs moving wide when he has the ball to offer him an outlet.
Does 4-4-2 still work?
Roy Hodgson has stated that his favourite formation is 4-4-2 because of the partnerships it allows you all over the park. You are able to have groups of two all about the field who in theory can support each other when tracking the ball or when in possession. But the major flaw with 4-4-2 is it only really works if your opponent is playing the same system (or the other players are of poorer quality than your own). Probably the most favoured formation at international level is 4-3-3 and the advantage there is three central midfielders are always going to dominate and a flat central pairing in a 4-4-2. Gerrard and Parker were often outnumbered by Italy’s midfield diamond and found passing the ball difficult as they were dispossessed easily or had no one to pass to. Having said this Hodgson didn’t really have the players at his disposal to effectively play any other system. This is a group of players that have grown up with 4-4-2 imbedded into their DNA (and they still can’t make it work) but what needs to change is at a junior level. Already Gareth Southgate (The head of the FA’s Elite Development program) has said the FA are making changes with youth development to make future English players more adaptable to different systems and emphasising technique and intelligence over strength and power. What is clear is 4-4-2 just does not work at this level, it is too one-dimensional and is probably only suited to a side that wants to defend the entire game. Something that English fans and players would naturally rebel against.
The Bulldog spirit will only get you so far.
Ashley Cole came out before the Italy match and claimed that his side are like “eleven bulldogs” and would basically “die on the pitch for each other”. England love their sporting clichés. How often have you heard an England player come out after a match and say that they played with ‘passion and commitment’? England like to rely on their ability to group together and team unity to see themselves through matches when they face sides with superior players. Again this is something that is linked back to the Anglo-Saxon heritage of the country which would see people pull together to get themselves through harsh winters or when invaders would come. They are not used to dominating games and are often on the back foot. They did manage to hold their own against France where they held out to get a 1-1 drawn but if you keep playing like this it is going tire you out in a short tournament like the Euros. Gerrard, Parker and Milner spent most of the tournament chasing the ball trying to win it back or blocking opponents shots. Against Italy the side looked tired and leggy even after half an hour after a bright start. It is far easier to rest when you team has the ball. If you have it you can control the tempo and dictate how fast you want to play. The match is over 90 mins so there’s no point running around at full pace the entire match as you will tire yourself out. England were let off by Italy’s poor finishing and it’s telling that the longer the match went on in regular time the more chances Italy made. Parker and Gerrard just had nothing left in the tank to shut down Italy’s attacks.
Defense was strong but room for improvement.
John Terry and Ashley Cole both had good tournaments but now that England are out we can go back to hating them and start criticizing them. Also the whole England defense. England set out with two banks of four to help stifle opponents attacks but England were still guilty of lapses in defense. Against Sweden the two goals they gave away were from set-pieces, something that would angered Hodgson. In that match John Terry failed to take charge of the defense that saw England play opponents on-side or fail to deal with balls into the box. Also too often Terry and Glen Johnson were busy making recovery tackles when really they should never have let opponents get beyond them. The ‘goal’ that was cleared off the line by Terry against Ukraine is a good example. Terry thought he read the play well so stepped up to intercept a pass on the floor only to see the ball sail over his head and left him trying to chase down the striker. Only a poor call from the assistant on the goal-line saved his blushes. Ashley Young was also poor defensively as he acted timidly when shutting down opponents and he forced Ashley Cole to go wide to mark wingers when that should have been his job. Cole is now dragged wide leaving space between him and Lescott that Ukraine almost exploited. So the wingers need to understand their roles better when it comes to defending,
It seems so simple, keep the ball!
I left this point till last because it’s the most obvious and the most discussed point when the match was reviewed by pundits. Everyone seems to know it except the England players themselves. If you have the ball then the other side can’t score. Whenever England would win the ball they would try to break at pace to score straight away when really they should be trying to build up play. It’s all well and good to try to counter attack to catch the Italians out before they can get their shape back but with Ashley Young and Wayne Rooney asked to do so much tracking back attacking at pace is going to be difficult. I highlight these two players because when it comes to counter-attacking it is these two that you expect the most from considering that Manchester United are a counterattacking side. English footballers seem to have a real aversion to passing the ball backwards if there is no options going forward. There is nothing wrong with going back to your defense or even your keeper if there is nothing ahead of you. I know it’s cliché to use Spain as an example but they are the bench mark, if there is nothing ahead of them they will pass back to Pique or Busquets as they are happy to build up a new attack. But with England when they get to the penalty area and you can feel the tension. They always want to try a cross when it’s not on or a shot when really there’s no chance of scoring. Doing that is eating into your opponents hands as you cheaply hand the ball back to them. There seems to be this internal pressure that the players put on themselves that they have to score when they get the ball near the opponent’s goal. If you keep the ball you can work it around the pitch and try to stretch the defense or tire them out by making them chase the ball. The injuries to players like Jack Wilshere, Gareth Barry and the non inclusion of Michael Carrick certainly hurt England’s chances of playing a more possession based game but this is the single most important area that England need to improve upon quickly before the start of World Cup qualifying.
Overall the tournament seems to have reinstated people’s faith in the England team. After some mediocre performances from England teams that greater expectations in the past (2006, 2010) this side with its lower expectations, new manager, injured players probably did as well as it could possibly do. They made the quarter-finals and now have a manager who can start to implement the changes and style that really wants on this side. He also seems to have the backing of the majority of English fans after some were skeptical about his appointment when popular choice Harry Redknapp missed out. Of course not everyone will be happy with him, after some of his team selection and substitute choices but that’s natural in football. Not everyone is going to agree on everything regarding the England team and that’s what makes it so fascinating. People love debating about this team, who should start, who shouldn’t and none of that is going to change. But what has to change is the way that England approach the game in a technical sense. That is something everyone can agree on.