Here We Go Again

And thus begins another two years of hurt for England. The only difference this time is that the inevitable penalty-shootout defeat was a deserved punishment, rather than a cruel trick of fate.

England’s tournament destiny was sealed the moment that injury ruled out Jack Wilshere. Wilshere isn’t the first, and certainly won’t be the last, player to be touted as the “future of English football,” but he would have added cohesiveness to an England midfield that was outnumbered and overrun in all four matches.

With Wilshere unavailable, Hodgson should have worked harder to recruit a player capable of dictating the tempo of a game. Gareth Barry was never going to be the answer. Michael Carrick and Paul Scholes are the only fully fit English players at all comparable to Italy’s Andrea Pirlo. But Carrick turned down a place in the squad when Hodgson refused to guarantee him a starting spot. And Scholes, frustrated by coaches who constantly played him out of position, had retired from internationals in the mid-2000s. He showed no interest in a return. Without a passer in midfield, England never had a prayer. Possession is the crux of international football, and it was England’s inability to maintain possession that ultimately cost them a place in the semifinals.

Even if he wants to, Steven Gerrard can’t do everything on his own. He is, after all, on the wrong side of thirty. His rocket shots, which were once weekly occurrences, are becoming fewer and farther between. Gerrard has been England’s best player at the last two international tournaments, but his time is coming to an end.

The defensive tandem of Lescott and Terry had its moments, particularly against France and Italy, but Ukraine proved that both players are vulnerable to pace.  Luckily, England have access to a talented pool of young defenders: Gary Cahill and Kyle Walker kept out of this tournament with injuries; Phil Jones and Chris Smalling, who can expect more playing time at England’s next major tournament if they continue to cultivate a partnership at club-level,

It is Wayne Rooney, though, who has once again provided the biggest headache. After performing solidly in his return game, he disappeared against Italy. Indeed, his failure to pressure Pirlo when Italy had the ball was partly responsible for England’s midfield helplessness. The various problems that have prevented Rooney from enjoying an uninterrupted international tournament since 2004 are mostly of his own making. His temperament is as unreliable as his metatarsal.

This year, England will have no scapegoat. Against Italy, England benefitted from an astute offside call in the dying minutes of extra time. On the whole, the quality of refereeing at the Euros has been hugely impressive – even the Ukranian “ghost goal” favored neither side, as it simply cancelled out an incorrect offside decision. Two wrongs made a right.

It would be easy to point fingers at Ashley Young, who was largely ineffective. But, like all of England’s attackers, he was isolated by a defensive system. Hodgson’s decision to start James Milner in all four games while the more dynamic Theo Walcott sat on the bench epitomized the setup. The biggest question after England’s draw with France was whether the team had played with two banks of four or simply one bank of eight.

Those who say that England’s approach at the Euros was merely a temporary system, implemented solely to solidify a team that Hodgson had worked with for only a month, are deluding themselves. Hodgson, the coach who popularized 4-4-2 in Sweden, is notoriously pragmatic. There is no reason to believe that England will transform into an attacking juggernaut the moment that World Cup qualifying kicks off in September. Recent changes in the coaching structure at grassroots level will take years to bear fruit. Fans should expect more of the same.

Tactically and technically, England still lag behind Europe’s strongest nations. It takes more than a token visit to Auschwitz to turn overrated, overpaid players into a cohesive squad. England were good tourists this time, but they certainly weren’t a good team.

The gap between England and Europe’s best has never felt wider. Even if England had miraculously beaten Italy, they wouldn’t have stood a chance against Germany in the semifinals. Jogi Loew’s team is everything that England should be: fast, streamlined and balanced. Twelve years on from Euro 2000, where both England and Germany were eliminated at the group stage, only one of the two nations has progressed.

England will recover from this heartbreak. The Premier League kicks off in less than two months. With players like Young, Rooney and Gerrard restored to their natural habitat, hope will slowly rekindle. In the summer of 2014, England will kick-off another World Cup campaign. The public will participate in the habitual captaincy debate, hotel furor and Rooney fitness scare. England will flame out in the quarterfinals, perhaps on penalties. History will repeat itself; the cycle will start anew.

 

 

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