To the delight of the rest of the world, especially the Wales team, England crashed out of the European Championships on Monday night at the hands of Iceland. This shock result has caused a backlash on the England team, leading to Roy Hodgson and his coaching team being sacked and the FA insisting that a major change in their regime was on its way. This is not an unfamiliar situation, as similar promises of change were offered at the end of Fabio Capello’s 2010 World Cup exit and Steve McLaren’s failure to qualify for Euro 2008. However, this change does not seem to have happened yet, and England find themselves offering the same old excuses of the players being tired and their domination of games without being able to take their chances.
Certainly, it is true that England were statistically dominant in their games at the Championships. England had both more shots and more possession than their opponents in all four matches of their campaign, however, crucially, they only scored four goals in those games. Anybody could tell you that that record is rarely going to be good enough to progress very far in a major tournament, especially when the defence is weak enough to have kept just one clean sheet in those matches. England managed to concede the same number of goals as they scored during the competition, which gives a fairly comprehensive explanation as to why they only managed one win. In fact, they came within two minutes of not winning a single game throughout the tournament. If it had not been for Daniel Sturridge’s stoppage time winner against Wales, England would have exited at the group stage having drawn all three of their games.
In my view, the reason for the lack of goals was that Hodgson was undecided on his best team, even when it came to the Iceland match. Despite spending much of the pre-tournament friendlies using a 4-4-2 diamond system, Hodgson decided to play a 4-3-3 formation in all of the games in the tournament. What made this even more baffling was that, when Hodgson announced his squad, he included only one winger in Raheem Sterling, leaving Andros Townsend at home, who would surely have occupied the other winger’s position had he been taken to France. For me, this shows clear indecision on Hodgson’s part, as he seemed to be leaning towards using a diamond system in the weeks running up to the tournament, and then changed his mind between naming the squad and the opening match.
I would not have had a problem with England employing a 4-3-3 system from the start if Hodgson had seemed prepared for it. If he had taken an Andros Townsend or a Michail Antonio over one of the numerous central midfielders that were named in the squad such as Jordan Henderson and Jack Wilshere then I would have been content, as England would have had strength in depth to play that tactic. However, Hodgson seemed to pick a squad that was perfect for a 4-4-2 diamond, and used it in a 4-3-3.
Another example of this is that Hodgson picked his squad with a wealth of talent which would be perfect for playing in the role behind the two strikers. Adam Lallana, Ross Barkley, Wayne Rooney, and Dele Alli have all spent much of last season playing in that position for their clubs, so one would think that it would be one of the strongest positions on the pitch for England at the tournament. However, the tactic that Hodgson ended up using doesn’t employ an advanced midfield player, leading to England having to accommodate these players in other positions.
Lallana was used on the left wing, and Rooney and Alli played deep in the centre of midfield, while Ross Barkley clearly didn’t fit the 4-3-3 system so didn’t play a single minute all tournament. Again, if one of the above had been axed from the squad in the first place, most probably Barkley, everything would have been fine as it would have cleared space for someone like Danny Drinkwater, who fits into the 4-3-3 formation perfectly. Instead, England wasted a position in the squad with somebody who, although would have been a valuable asset in a diamond system, was never going to play in a 4-3-3. Once again, Hodgson needed to pick his squad having already decided on his tactics, rather than waiting until after and finding that his squad didn’t fit his system.
Another problem in England’s campaign was that Hodgson seemed reluctant to change his team. He has always been a manager who is loyal to his players, but when the stakes are so high, maybe it is better to be ruthless rather than to do everything possible to befriend his players. In England’s opener against Russia, he was widely criticised for his substitutions when many thought the pace of Jamie Vardy would give England a good outlet when 1-0 up, rather than the ineffectual Harry Kane. However, Hodgson instead brought on Jack Wilshere for talisman and captain, Wayne Rooney.
Soon after this, Russia equalised with the last kick of the game after England were unable to deal with the continuous Russian pressure. In the second game against Wales, England remarkably names the exact same team which had failed to beat Russia. This time it was substitutions which came to Hodgson’s rescue as his half time change bringing on Daniel Sturridge and Jamie Vardy led to the two substitutions scoring the goals to secure England a vital win. However, it was concerning that Hodgson had to see his team struggle for 45 minutes before he felt the time was right to change his team.
Against Slovakia he made six changes, which was equally concerning as he did it to rest what was clearly his preferred eleven for the knockout stages. England ended up being unable to break down the Slovakian defence and struggled to a goalless draw, leading to Wales winning the group. Unsurprisingly, Hodgson reverted back to ten of the eleven who started the first game of the tournament, with his only change being dropping Adam Lallana, one of the most impressive performers, due to injury. Despite the clear signs that the team hadn’t been working in the previous games, Hodgson refused to make any unenforced changes. Even so, however out of form the team was, one would expect them to dispatch Iceland by several goals.
Instead, England found themselves 2-1 down after 18 minutes. Still, Hodgson refused to do anything drastic, instead bringing on Wilshere for Eric Dier. It was not until the end of the game that one of Hodgson’s changes worked, as Marcus Rashford looked bright in his four minute cameo. Again, it was too little, too late and England crashed out of the competition after their most embarrassing ever defeat. Still, all is well as Hodgson stayed on the good side of out of form players like Harry Kane and Raheem Sterling.
Not everything can be put down to Hodgson, however, as anybody who has been playing football for as long as some of the senior players should be able to see when things aren’t working and identify why that is. A prime example is in the last 16 tie with Iceland, when Rooney was marking Kari Arnason from long throw-ins, despite the fact that England had identified the long throws as Iceland’s primary threat. Sure enough, using the exact routine which yielded a goal against Austria, Arnason flicked on Gunnarsson’s throw-in for Ragnar Sigurdsson to score.
You would expect an experienced international player and captain like Rooney to realise that he shouldn’t be marking the main target man for a long throw anyway, but the shocking thing is that he then continued to do so after they conceded from it! Another Arnason flick on found Sigurdsson again, and by pure luck his bicycle kick cannoned into Joe Hart’s chest rather than the back of the net. The fact that a long throw was able to yield a chance once was poor organisation. The fact that it did so twice was unforgivable. However, there was no objection by Rooney to marking Arnason, as he was happy to simply to meekly do whatever Hodgson and the coaching staff told him without a second thought.
Similarly, Harry Kane was put on all set pieces at the start of the tournament. He had been taking them in the final friendly against Portugal, but most people thought that was just a ploy to confuse watching scouts. However, when it came to the first match, Kane took every corner and every free kick. This would have been fine if he was able to conjure up magical deliveries whenever he approached a dead ball, but not a single one of his set pieces led to a goal. Although Kane is not a terrible set piece taker, it is not as if England do not have any other options in that department.
Rooney takes corners and many free kicks for Manchester United, Lallana regularly takes corners for Liverpool, and most of the other midfielder are capable of putting in decent delivery from out wide. Eventually, after two games of fruitless corners, Rooney took over that duty, but Kane continued to arrow free kicks majestically into the stands right up until England were knocked out. Surely, even if Kane is too arrogant to realise that he is not the right man to be taking set pieces and would be better served to be in the box trying to score, one of the other senior players or the manager really should have the guts to tell him to give up his dream of being a dead ball specialist. Another example of a lack of leadership from both the management and the senior players.
Not all of the problems for England were things that could be easily solved. It goes without saying that a big reason for the woeful performance was that many of the players were simply out of form. Raheem Sterling, Harry Kane, and Jack Wilshere, amongst others, failed to play at a standard anywhere near that which they normally play for their club sides. Although there is not much anybody can do about a player being out of form, with the exception of dropping them (but let’s be realistic!), it is important to find a reason for them being out of form.
I do not go along with the idea of players being too tired after a long, grueling Premier League season. It is not the case that players suddenly wilt the day after the last game of the season, especially not that only the English players do. I don’t see the numerous Spanish players playing in the Premier League complaining that they are too tired after a long season, nor the French, nor the Irish, not Arron Gunnarsson. England need to stop making excuses such as being too tired, and concentrate on their football.
In my opinion, the main reason English players looked out of form was because they are used to playing with better quality foreign players, which means they do not have to do as much to look good. Harry Kane can score much more easily when he is heading in a pinpoint cross from Christian Eriksen than when it is a long, aimless punt into the box by Wayne Rooney. Kyle Walker’s defensive errors are far less costly when he has Toby Alderweireld to mop up after him than when it is Gary Cahill lumbering after the man with the ball. It is not surprising that Adam Lallana fails to connect his crosses when, at club level, all he needs to do is pull the ball back to Phillippe Coutinho or Roberto Firmino, whereas for England he has to put the ball perfectly in the path of Jack Wilshere.
The sad fact is, the best foreign players are better than the best English players. This means that world class foreign players disguise the ineptities of English players at club level, meaning that fans like us get an unrealistically good impression of their abilities, meaning that we are all surprised when England crash out of major tournaments when they don’t have foreign players to cover up for them.
Overall, there is a catalogue of reasons for the demise of the England team. The management are far from blameless, as are the senior players, but the truth is that the squad has to shoulder much of the responsibility for England’s underachievement. However bad the tactics and decision making was, however little leadership was shown by key men such as Rooney and Cahill, the squad did not deliver. Maybe it is that we think they are better than they really are. Maybe it is that they think they are better than they really are.
It is probably both of those. Maybe it is time for us to reduce our expectations, maybe it is time for us to be less hard on the managers, maybe it is time for us to stop demonising players. One thing is for sure, the FA will keep promising change and sacking managers until England finally deliver in a major tournament. Hopefully one day, one England team will deliver. Until then, we will keep supporting the team and we will have to hope that the next tournament will end better for the country.