It can often feel as though some forms of football are better suited to the age of the internet than others. The league season, with its constant hum of white noise, is particularly well suited, as is the sudden explosion that comes every other summer when international tournaments rumble to life. International tournament qualifiers, however, seem particularly ill-served,thanks to a combination of their stop-start nature and the fact that, even as they reach their conclusions, they are ultimately a precursor to something else, and a something else that is considerably more important than they have been.
The current international break system makes a reasonable hash of papering over these cracks, with its spread-eagled schedule offering five solid days of matches within which the carping of those for whom the Premier League is a be all and end all may be soaked up, but it feels rather as if the conclusion of the group stages of qualifiers for Euro 2016 has left us all in something of a state of limbo. We know the identity of most but not all of the teams that will travel to France next summer. We’ve seen them play, but largely not against the opposition that will cause the biggest tests in a tournament environment. Should such things ever occur, the conclusion of these group stages would probably carry the tag-line, “To be continued…” and if there’s one thing that the internet hates, it’s a lack of conclusion.
Matters are complicated further when the matter turns to England, the curate’s egg of European international football. There are two diverging opinions on England’s campaign to qualify for Euro 2016. The first is that England were in an exceptionally weak group, that winning ten matches out of ten against such enfeebled opposition is nothing to crow about, and that England remain a team that will be found out if or when they come up against opposition with any sense of nous about them. The conflicting opinion to this is that any national team can only beat the opposition that they come up against, that they came through their ten matches without ever looking like not easing through, and that Roy Hodgson has comfortably moved on from last year’s disastrous World Cup campaign in Brazil.
To a great extent, the argument of those that would seek to detract from England’s recent winning run is one that Roy Hodgson cannot win. Had his team encountered any significant difficulties in the course of their ten qualifying matches, he would doubtlessly have been pilloried and ruthlessly mocked. The team didn’t, though, so the criticism has shifted to the paucity of quality in the teams that they beat instead. Some have argued that England will face a truer test in their forthcoming friendly matches against Spain, France and Germany, though it’s likely that these “tests” would diminish in importance to becoming “just friendlies which don’t mean anything” in the event of Hodgson’s team being successful in those matches.
The more optimistic prognosis for Hodgson’s team based on its qualifying successes is also problematic. The truth of the matter is that England have a long history of dealing with moderate opposition without too much difficulty before coming unstuck against the first team from a more accomplished footballing nation that they come across, and all that seems to have happened over the majority of the last decade and a half or so has been that the margins of those defeats have become wider and wider. Even the comparatively recent outlier in terms of this trend – their penalty shoot-out defeat in the quarter-finals of the 2012 European Championships against Italy – would have been considered by most to be an act of grand larceny in comparison with the notion of, say, England beating Portugal in 2004, Argentina in 1998 or Germany in 1996, all matches that they eventually lost on penalty-kicks.
What can be surprising about England is the extent to which out of date tropes continue to push their way to the top of the agenda when it comes to discussing them. There remain many, many people who still somehow believe that England’s following still genuinely think that the team has some sort of “right” to a place in the latter stages of international competitions. They don’t, and even some of the more hysterical outposts of the fourth estate seem to have tempered their language over the last couple of years or so. Similarly, Hodgson’s team still occasionally pick up criticism for the sins of the so-called “Golden Generation,” a grouping of players that had – or, rather, didn’t have – its moment at the 2006 World Cup finals, almost a decade ago.
Contained herein is the open secret that forms the lion’s share of the reason why the England manager’s job is such a poisoned chalice. The England manager will always be damned if he does and damned if he doesn’t. He’ll be criticised for clinging onto the past if he picks too many older players and for fielding too little experience if he goes for a younger generation. There are reasons for English supporters to be quietly optimistic that their team might have bottomed out after the failure that befell the team last summer. There seems to be a reasonable batch of young players that have come through, players who play with a degree of composure and confidence. After several generations of England players that represented their team as if carrying the weight of the world on their shoulders, perhaps this lot too will have any signs of joie de vivre beaten out of them by the press and other detractors too. We shall see.
For now, the truth about the England national football team is somewhere between all of the extremes that we see written about them, everywhere. With a number of relatively inexperienced players either in or on the fringes of them team, it’s difficult to consider them to be anything more than at best a work in progress if we’re talking about a team that might be capable of getting to the latter stages of the European Championships next summer. Having said that, however, this is a team that certainly shouldn’t be amongst the weakest at next summer’s jamboree either. Beyond that, however, there are too many variables still to be decided before anybody can say with confidence how they might get on. Who will squeeze through the play-offs? What will the draw for the finals of the tournament look like? Which players might blossom over the remainder of the course of the season and which might flounder or find themselves injured and unavailable for selection? We don’t know. Nobody knows. And the internet just hates that.
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