In the wake of England’s World Cup exit, it is natural that questions are asked and fingers are pointed. As commentators and pundits alike have pointed out ad nauseam, it is 60 years since England have departed a World Cup at the group stages. However, the usual sense of despair is perhaps not as sharp as the situation might suggest.
Indeed, the consensus certainly seems to be that, despite being dumped out of the tournament after just two games, England really haven’t played that badly. They have taken on two very strong sides and, had the winds of fate blown slightly differently, could easily be standing on 6 points. That luxury, however, is left to the surprise package Costa Rica.
The small Central American nation has done amazingly well. Drawn into a group with three sides which are not only historically strong, but quite capable right now, the Costa Ricans cannot be said to be topping the group on luck alone. Costa Rica are, in fact, the only team to face three former World Cup winners in their group; no other group contains more than one.
The luck of the draw
England’s first round exit sees quite a few parallels with that of another footballing heavyweight, albeit one with far more recent success: Spain. Both go back home with more questions than answers, and yet the reality is that had either been drawn into a group such as France’s or Belgium’s, they might well be looking at a quarter final, rather than an inglorious exit.
As this tournament has shown, however, such things cannot be taken for granted. As Italy-and-Uruguay-beating Costa Rica, Netherlands-bothering Australia, Brazil-thwarting Mexico, Argentina-frustrating Iran and Germany-troubling Ghana show, anyone appears to be able to beat anyone right now, making for a fascinating World Cup.
A new era
The fact of the matter is, however, than people have beaten England, and there is very little getting away from that. There is no doubt that English football is entering a new era. Lampard and Gerrard are the last of the so-called Golden Generation for English football. That generation, however, was only ever Golden on paper.
While it might be tempting to yearn for a side that boasted genuinely world class players in several positions, we must not forget that this was a side in which reputation – not usefulness to the team – reigned supreme. Of course, the likes of Ferdinand, Terry, Cole, Lampard and Gerrard in their prime are something any team would be glad to have, but the reality of that team was less sweet than the teamsheet suggests.
As the Golden Generation exits, a new group of players is coming to the fore. England’s World Cup squad this time around has an average age of 25.7, compared to 28.1 in 2010. That combined with genuinely better performances (sadly against genuinely better opponents) should give England fans some encouragement.
At 23 years old, Aaron Lennon was the youngest face in a conservative South Africa selection from Fabio Capello. Raheem Stirling, aged just 19, has that honour this time around. In Stirling, Barkley, Oxlade-Chamberlain and Shaw, England have, for the first time, selected players for a World Cup born after the founding of the Premier League. In total, the England squad for Brazil boasts eight players – those four plus Wilshere, Henderson, Jones and Welbeck – who are all younger than Aaron Lennon was in South Africa.
What must be avoided, however, is placing the same unrealistic expectations on this group of players as we placed on the last. The English fans and media need to be realistic and accept that actually, reaching the quarter finals is pretty good. Coming in the top 8 of over 200 countries is, mathematically, not too dissimilar to finishing first in a league of 20 teams. Of course there are differences, but England are all-too-often guilty of forgetting how well we have done to even be in contention for a prize coveted by the entire world.
The case for Hodgson
A side anchored for a decade by one of the best centre back pairings in the world at the time – Terry and Ferdinand – now looks to the future without top-class options at that position. It is hard to argue that any of the current crop would even have made the 2006 squad ahead of the aforementioned duo plus Carragher and Campbell. Defenders usually peak later, however, so it is possible that the likes of Jones and Smalling could become England’s answers at centre half. Starting the United pair against Costa Rica could be a wise move by Hodgson.
It is in attack, however, that England’s future looks brightest, with a new, more technical generation of players coming through. Stirling, Barkley, Sturridge and co will not, however, form themselves into a cohesive attacking unit. A guiding hand is needed, and it this time it doesn’t look like Hodgson has done a bad enough job that the disruption caused by a change of manager would justify any potential gain.
An attacking line featuring Sturridge as a striker with Stirling, Oxlade-Chamberlain and Barkley behind with Wilshere or Henderson pulling the strings from midfield and perhaps the occasional cameo from a veteran Rooney is an exciting prospect, should all of them continue to progress. This is far from a certainty – Jack Wilshere has definitely stalled in his development, and many footballers struggle to find the electric form of their breakout seasons.
Hodgson is the person who has begun assembling this team, and there is little to suggest that he has done much wrong. Hodgson can no more turn Cahill and Jagielka into Terry and Ferdinand than he can turn water into wine. Taking 10 years off Rooney and Gerrard is similarly beyond his capabilities. What he has done is take the fear out of the England side. The defeats were disappointing, yes, but England looked like they at least believed in their ability, which is more than can be said for the timid sides of the McClaren and Capello eras.