England & The Twin Devils of Hope & Expectation
In the midst of the hysteria surrounding England’s performance in Berlin last night, here’s a surprising yet salient statistic. If England were to win the 2016 European Championships, they would have to win four straight matches after having got through the group stages of the competition. Since the end of the 2006 World Cup finals, England have won three matches in the finals of a major competition, including the group stages. That alone gives us some idea of the scale of the task awaiting Roy Hodgson were he to somehow to negotiate all that rests before him this summer. Make no mistake about it, managing what some have suggested might be possible this summer will be a very tall order indeed.
For the avoidance of doubt, both England’s performance and their result in Berlin were, by any measure, magnificent. Fired by majestic displays from a quartet of Tottenham Hotspur players and a pair of inspired second half substitutions, they fought back into the match from two goals down, away from home, against the current world champions. Setting aside the rivalry between these two nations – which remains largely one-sided on the part of England – this was a result of which any other nation on earth would take justifiable pride. When England completed their one hundred per cent record in the qualification stages for the European Championships, those who retained their cynicism noted that England’s next four friendly matches, against Spain, France, Germany and the Netherlands might throw a harsh light upon the team’s deficiencies. The Spain match ended in a defeat that seemed to vindicate such opinions and the France match was, of course, overshadowed by the horrific events that took place in Paris at the end of the previous week.
In Berlin, however, there was no defeat and there were no mitigating circumstances. Although Germany had the majority of possession throughout the first half, the hosts frequently looked blunt in attacking positions. When they came, though, their goals showed up shortcomings that England will need to fix. The first came about from an error of judgement goalkeeper Jack Butland, who put the ball back into play when he should have put it into touch after picking up an injury and paid a very heavy price. The second goal came from a second misgiving that we might have about this England team, a simple looped diagonal ball and a well placed header from Mario Gomez felt like a hot knife through butter. At that stage, one was tempted to think of Bloemfontein in 2010 and wonder whether the outcome of this match might be similar, or worse.
The younger English players, drafted in from Tottenham Hotspur and playing the season of their lives, however, did not seem fazed by this. They were hauled back into the game by a wonderful spin and shot from Harry Kane, a goal unintentionally but appropriately reminiscent of Johan Cruyff, but it was the introduction of Jamie Vardy and Ross Barkley that span the game on its head. Within two minutes, Vardy, who hasn’t necessarily been firing on a cylinders by the lofty standards set this season, impudently flicked the ball in at the near post to bring England level, and in stoppage time, with the Germany defence now visibly creaking under the weight of relentless England attacking, Eric Dier headed in at the near post to complete a remarkable turnaround. The best performance from Roy Hodgson’s time in charge of the England team had ended with the result it deserved.
At the fulcrum of this performance was the Tottenham quartet of Harry Kane, Delle Alli, Danny Rose and Eric Dier. Alli in particular looked just about unplayable at times, and it is to his considerable credit that he didn’t allow his head to drop after scooping the ball over the crossbar from eight yards out with seven minutes to play when it might have seemed easier to score. These four players were the crucible through which most of England’s best football of the evening was channeled, though it is also worth flagging up the performances of Adam Lallana, who is only a little confidence in great positions from being a very, very good attacking player indeed, and Ross Barkley, whose second half introduction added an extra dimension to England’s passing options from deep positions.
The defensive problems, however, are very real. England still seem to have a defence with the consistency of a melting middle pudding, and any seasoned England watcher will already be aware of Robinson against Croatia, Green against the USA, and James against Brazil. The propensity of England goalkeepers towards horrendous errors of judgement remains as high as ever, and Joe Hart will have slept a little more easily for having seen Jack Butland play on Saturday night, even if the circumstances – a fractured ankle that will keep Butland out of Stoke City’s team for the remainder of the season and this summer’s tournament – are something that no player would wish upon another. Perhaps John Stones will be an answer to this issue and it would be no great surprise to see him start on Tuesday night, but his own patchy form within an erratic Everton team this season has not indicated that he is much beyond a hope for the future, at present.
Perhaps the most pressing issue facing Roy Hodgson over the next few weeks, however, will be what to do with one Wayne Rooney this summer. The simplistic answer to this question is to suggest that Hodgson just bins him off, thanking him for his service whilst adding that he is now surplus to requirements. The manager will, however, be fully aware of the fact that this matter is trickier than this. Rooney is England’s captain and their highest ever goalscorer. He is also believed to be extremely popular amongst other players. The truth of the matter is that it really isn’t as simple as leaving Rooney out of the squad because he is the captain – we can safely blame the slightly odd English fetishisation of the captain’s role for this – and, if he is in the squad, can a captain be left out of a team. In an ideal world, no player should be guaranteed a place in any team without meriting it, but the culture of English football is far from ideal and, unless he finds himself injured and unavailable for selection, Wayne Rooney will likely be a divisive figure, whether he plays or not.
Perhaps a similar level of performance coupled with the inclusion of Jamie Vardy from the start on Tuesday night will clear a few minds. Perhaps Wayne Rooney will come back from his latest injury with a bang and prove his detractors wrong. These ifs and buts are solid reasons why there remain, for now, sufficient doubts to believe that England can get particularly close to winning the European Championships this summer. Last night’s performance in Berlin, however, was one of ambition and confidence, and these two characteristics have been significant primarily through their absence over much of the last decade of the history of the England national football team. They have given supporters room for hope, but are still short of the excellence required to embed a feeling of expectation in that many. A work in progress but solidly heading in the right direction, and it’s been a long time since anybody has been able to say that with much confidence about them.
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