England are in a state of flux but they are not dire, not yet
More questions than answers after average display against Denmark
When it comes to the England football team, there are times when you find yourself not exactly watching them, more like staring at them. There is something about this sporting entity that distorts vision. Why? That’s a question you ask yourself. Why do they almost always seem less than the sum of their parts?
Perhaps that’s an explanation for the reactions England provoke. These are strong. There is an awareness of individual talent that is seen weekly in the Premier League. There it can flourish; yet with England so often it withers or jars. And that perplexes.
Trying to gain perspective, never mind retain perspective, can feel like an unfathomable task. England are champions at dis-orienteering.
Despite a general recognition that there are frequently small margins between success and the lack of it – and the lack of it does not automatically equal failure – responses to performances soar or plummet in a manner that does not quite reflect reality.
England were not dire. They were not great either, but they were not dire. They are an average team who delivered an average display – a bit above average actually – against average opposition.
This is exactly where England are in 2014, three and a half football-filled, injury-prone months before they meet Italy in their Group D opener: capable of being above average.
How far above average is the question. That is Hodgson’s job and there have been times over the past two years when he has allowed his capacity to achieve anything above average to be doubted. This is a squad who were underwhelming at Euro 2012 and who reached this year’s World Cup finals by finishing one point ahead of Ukraine.
England gathered 22 points in qualification, 12 of which came against San Marino and Moldova. Against those two genuine minnows, England scored 22 and conceded none. There is not much to be learnt from this.
When it came to more established nations, England drew twice with Ukraine, once with Poland and once with Montenegro. England did not zip through this group, which was by no means the strongest in Europe. You learn more from re-looking at that.
What Hodgson took from Wednesday is another matter. Staring at England rush through the first half hour, maintaining some good possession but still somehow always seeming to be in a rush, it was as if this was a must-win final qualifier. It wasn’t, it was preparation for a tournament in South America when the conditions will be altogether different from a cold night in early March in London.
Steven Gerrard and Jordan Henderson were fast and accurate (mostly) in their passing, in a way that they are for Liverpool. It’s just that it is a bit unlikely that in Amazonian temperatures and humidity, against a team with Italy’s style, England will be playing the current Liverpool way.
The thought was that England will need to be much slower in the Arena Amazonia in Manaus. The chances are it will be a game suited to the tempo and methods of Michael Carrick rather than the clip of Henderson.
England too slow
And yet part of the critique of Wednesday was that England were too slow: there was not enough acceleration in a team that began with Raheem Sterling on the wing. It was felt matters improved when Daniel Sturridge scored in the second half, but Sterling was only an inch away from doing that in the first. The difference in the game was not vast from half to half, it’s just that one chance was taken (admirably) by Sturridge and one hit the woodwork (Sterling’s).
Had England won 2-0 against a Denmark side keen to defend, the post-match atmosphere would have been less doom-laden. Then the focus would have been on the ease with which the Southampton pair, Adam Lallana and Luke Shaw, settled in as substitutes, Shaw at half-time, Lallana on the hour.
These two alone were cause for English optimism. Shaw is 18: with Leighton Baines and Ashley Cole, Hodgson’s left-back options, Shaw is a third. He looked born to Wembley and is not a talent to be overlooked lightly.
Shaw’s presence and ability raised a question over Cole, but it should also raise one over the four-man defence as a whole. Why, when international teams now field one striker, is a flat back four required? Italy had Pablo Osvaldo up front on his own against Spain in midweek.
A re-jigged defence might also enable Hodgson to omit Chris Smalling, who, on this season’s form, should not be in the squad never mind the team. Yet he is.
Dropping a defender, however, will always mean a subsequent conversation about a man called John Terry. The trouble is then the talk would be about race as well as pace.
England are in flux. But they are not dire, not yet.