World Cup 2014: This England is still a work in progress, with a lot to be done
Hodgson’s task includes improving tactics, but it’s not all as bad as the results suggest
Results shape perceptions, which is understandable in a tournament because ultimately only the results matter. However, it does mean judgements are skewed. Had it not been for conceding a very poor goal six minutes from the whistle, England’s performance against Uruguay would have been regarded as acceptable, if far from perfect.
But given all are agreed this is a team in development, some weaknesses are to be expected. The task for Roy Hodgson is to work on those, both in the immediate context of Tuesday’s tie with Costa Rica, and the longer-term outlook of the 2016 European Championship.
Defence was always likely to be England’s Achilles’ heel and so it has proved.
The second Uruguay goal was awful from an England perspective (see panel). The first was brilliantly created and executed but one of the four players around Edinson Cavani should have stopped the cross – probably Glen Johnson – and Phil Jagielka was drawn towards the ball, allowing Luis Suarez to drift behind him to score.
Just as Italy could have scored more goals so could Uruguay, with Cavani and Suarez both missing good opportunities. But good teams will create chances; what was worrying about England’s defence was the lack of composure and the constant sense that it would come undone under pressure. Too often players hacked clear, and it is all the more obvious at this World Cup when teams such as Chile and Italy are passing the ball out of defence in tight triangles. Until the likes of John Stones develop enough to justify a starting place, that will remain an issue. It is to be hoped he trains on better than Phil Jones and Chris Smalling, whose development appears to have stalled.
Behind them there is an argument that Joe Hart could have stood big for longer as Suarez bore down on him, but the impish genius would probably then have shot low into the net. Hart has generally been very good at this tournament.
Adam Lallana could usefully have been brought on earlier (Getty Images)
England did create chances, but not many clear-cut ones. Much of the time the tempo of their passing was too slow and predictable, allowing Uruguay to get into defensive shape.
England have rarely had so much possession against a major team but for much of the time they did not appear to know what to do with it. There needs to be more imagination around the box and the ingenuity and clever feet of Adam Lallana could have been introduced earlier.
In deep midfield Steven Gerrard has looked off the pace and there is every chance Tuesday will be his 114th and last match for England. He will, though, leave a hole that there are no obvious candidates to fill. Maybe England’s midfield future is to eschew a holding role completely and copy Croatia, who have Luka Modric and Ivan Ratikic in the centre. Jack Wilshere and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain perhaps?
Wayne Rooney scored, and looked dangerous, but Raheem Sterling, having been shifted to the wing, did not. Danny Welbeck is industrious but rarely threatening and while Daniel Sturridge looked sharp around the box he was not deadly enough in it. The last three named are aged 19, 23, 24; they will improve.
Hopefully that development will include better movement off the ball as England were often static in attack. At one throw-in Leighton Baines had to gesticulate to team-mates to move around and still had to send the ball backwards.
This England do struggle to penetrate a deep defence, whether it be Italian, Uruguayan or Honduran. Ross Barkley’s dynamism and Lallana’s trickery will help in the long term, but the main issue is poor movement.
What if? The question defenders didn’t ask
Coaches tell their players always to think “what if”, as in, “what if the ball skims off Steven Gerrard’s head and plays Luis Suarez onside? Am I in position for that?” On Thursday in Sao Paulo England’s central defenders did not ask themselves that question and paid the price.
Gerrard, once he knew he had misjudged the flight of Fernando Muslera’s long kick, should probably have let the ball go over his head, but with Edinson Cavani jumping in front of him he probably only realised it at the last moment. Had Phil Jagielka dropped off deeper once he saw Gerrard trying to head the ball, and Gary Cahill dropped off and tracked Suarez, it would not have mattered. Either Jagielka would have intercepted the ball or Cahill would have prevented Suarez controlling it.
English defenders deal with this scenario dozens of times in every league game. Maybe, after 84 minutes’ play, they got lazy; maybe their minds just switched off. Either way, they were clinically punished.
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