It is a year to the day since Steven Gerrard outlined what his final words would be to his England team-mates in Manaus before their first World Cup group stage game against Italy. He said that, after weeks of preparation, it was “time to walk the walk. . . It will be a case of,” he said, “‘let’s not have any regrets’”. Ten days later England were out of the tournament and regrets were all they had.
The last game of the season, the Euro 2016 qualifier against Slovenia tomorrow, falls on the anniversary of that defeat in the Arena Amazonia, the beginning of England’s summer of woe. The team that Roy Hodgson starts in Ljubljana will include five of those who started in Manaus – it might have been more but for injury – and, while the team is changing, progress still feels slow.
One year on from the World Cup the sense of despair has dissipated but there has been no dramatic change in the fortunes of the team. England have a new formation now, which worked well against Switzerland in August but is still a work in progress.
“We are getting better and better every game at it,” Jack Wilshere said this week, and he is central to the midfield diamond. Harry Kane has emerged; Daniel Sturridge has disappeared; Gerrard and Frank Lampard have retired; Wilshere is fit again and Raheem Sterling is struggling. As a squad, they are about breaking even.
England are back where they usually are 12 months from a big tournament: sailing through qualification, hinting at a fresh start, excited by a few new faces, but largely untried against the big guns. The dark clouds are there, evident in that first-half performance against Italy in March, or the first half against Ireland last Sunday. Looking back on England teams of the last decade, it has been those bad performances which have turned out to offer a more accurate reflection of the future than the few rays of sunlight.
No one is talking about Hodgson’s suitability to continue, which is a result in his favour. When the players came out of the dressing rooms of the Aviva Stadium on Sunday afternoon, so many of them repeated the mantra that the team remain unbeaten – seven wins and two draws since the World Cup – that it was no stretch to believe perhaps it had been written on the whiteboard the management leave by the door, one of the positive messages to convey to the press.
At Wembley in November, Slovenia were beaten 3-1, having taken the lead through Jordan Henderson’s own goal, still the only goal England have conceded in their five qualifiers. It is indicative of the low quality of Group E that Slovenia, ranked 48th in the world, could yet qualify for the tournament. As ever with England, as when Gerrard issued that cri de coeur in Manaus a year ago, it is difficult to know where the team stand relative to the big hitters of the rest of Europe and the worry is always that they will come up short again.
The friendlies against Germany, France and potentially the Netherlands and Spain in the next 10 months will be a clearer indication of where England are as a team but, even so, the tournament atmosphere tends to affect them in ways that cannot be easily measured.
“People say, ‘It is not [like playing] Spain, it is not Germany,’ but at the same time we have gone about our business,” Gary Cahill said this week. “The performances, not just the results, for me have been an improvement with the tweaks we have made in shape from the World Cup. I think the performances have been great and next season will be fantastic if we can qualify as early as possible and then we have big friendlies.”
Hodgson has tried out Phil Jones at right-back and the indications are that he will do so again tomorrow, perhaps bringing Kieran Gibbs back into the defence at the expense of Ryan Bertrand. Andros Townsend could also get a start in place of Adam Lallana, who struggled to make an impression against the Irish. Again it looks like 4-3-3, with Fabian Delph potentially taking the place of James Milner to play in a midfield three with Henderson and Wilshere.
Ideally, Hodgson would try to give a chance to those players who have not yet figured for England, including Charlie Austin, now the squad’s only uncapped player. The squad will not be together again until early September for the qualifiers against San Marino and Switzerland, by which time the picture will have changed and players like Kane and Sturridge potentially be available again.
The interesting wild card in the summer is how the Under-21s face in the European Championship in the Czech Republic over the next two weeks. Hodgson has decided upon a way of playing, and a group of players that has taken him through qualification, but there is a small chance some of Gareth Southgate’s squad could make a case for their inclusion in the next few weeks. The win over Belarus on Thursday showed how raw some of them still are, but there could hardly be a better stage on which to make their case.
“Whoever has been put in front of us we have managed to beat,” Cahill said. “We have an unbeaten record this year, won all our qualifying games and got loads of clean sheets. It has definitely been an improvement. At the World Cup it was a young squad and everything that goes with that. Now it is more experienced and the younger lads have played a lot in the Premier League this season and a lot of these qualifying games... we have started to build something here but, without getting too ahead of ourselves, we have done really well. But next season will be a great season.”
He meant in the sense that it would be “great” for the preparation time a smooth qualification campaign would offer and, after that, the reality of Euro 2016 and the usual uncertainty about England in a tournament. Time to walk the walk all over again.Reuse content