Defensive frailty and lack of world-class midfield put paid to England ambitions
Luis Suarez performance highlights absence of John Terry and Ashley Cole
It is strange to look back and consider that most of the important things were said before the Uruguay game. Roy Hodgson teased Luis Suarez to prove he was a world-class player. Steven Gerrard suggested defences would decide the outcome. Over in the Uruguay camp, Suarez said he had his own premonitions: “I dreamed about this,” he said, after the match. “The truth is I dreamed about this game many times.”
Poor England woke up yesterday to discover their nightmare continued. Costa Rica took a scissors to the slimmest of threads with a well-deserved 1-0 win over Italy, officially knocking England out of the World Cup after just six days.
They are not the first to leave, but the detail is worth thinking about: 10 qualifying matches over a year, weeks of training camps, dozens of press conferences, millions of column inches. The greatest league in the world. Six days.
Anyone with a fleeting interest had something to say: Matt le Tissier, Chris Waddle, Rio Ferdinand. On Sky Sports, Jamie Carragher expressed what we all knew. “It was a group you felt England could come through but defensively they have not been up to it . . . They have struggled and been found out.”
In the mixed zone after the game Leighton Baines spoke about “positives” – the strange term that seems to have become a mantra for England’s players since the night of the Italy defeat. “I felt we’ve made a few positive strides . . . then if we can continue on that path we’ll be going in the right direction,” mumbled Baines. Hodgson, too, groped: “I think in both the games we’ve shown . . . we are a team that’s making progress.”
In the week’s glass-half-full sentiments you felt you could hear the influence of Steve Peters, the squad psychiatrist.
Quite apart from personnel limitations, there was a sense that England had tried to overpsyche themselves.
You could break down the Uruguay game in the most simplistic terms: fearlessness of youth versus hard edge of experience. Many felt England’s young legs and pure hearts would run freely over the ageing limbs of the Uruguayans.
But what happens if you replace fearlessness with fear? What if you tell the youngsters all about the pain they will feel if they don’t get it right? It is hardly the only reason their flowing attacking performance against Italy was not reproduced, but in the light of day it feels like a key factor.
It took half an hour to grasp the idea that Danny Wellbeck was on the pitch. On the other side, Reheem Sterling caused danger, invited lunges, but was never central to the action as he was in Manaus. Wayne Rooney had one of those games that are increasingly a feature of his Manchester United career: doing lots of good things, while unable to make the attack around him function.
Source of positives
“I think we’ve just got to keep embracing our young players . . . we’ve got to embrace our future,” said Ferdinand. And it is true that England’s young attacking players, Sturridge and Sterling especially, are a source of positives.
But you wonder where their future platform will come from. There was something sad in Gerrard’s lamentable night on Thursday, when he had a role in both Uruguay goals. An increasing object of criticism, Gerrard’s time is surely up, but you feel his quality will be missed.
Behind him it was the defence that was their ultimate undoing though. They lacked awareness, they were fearful. What would they have given for John Terry’s leadership? In the 39th minute you watched as Gerrard gave the ball away in midfield, and Edinson Cavani bore down on the defenders, and you wondered where he could possibly go. And you waited and waited, and they backed off.
Cavani’s run was brilliant, and his pass to Suarez magnificent, but who had the courage to attack the ball, or the brains to track the forward? With this England defence you feel you get neither bravery nor awareness. It was a telling moment, but there were many others: the Suarez corner played to Cavani at the edge of the England box; the failure to anticipate Gerrard’s flicked header for Suarez’s winner.
Joe Hart’s uncertainty on setpieces made things worse, but it was hard to tell the chicken from the egg. All five were culpable, and the experience of a player like Ashley Cole was sorely missed.
It was as if Suarez sensed an opportunity so glaring he couldn’t leave. “After 70 minutes I was ready to go off. But something, I don’t know what it was, told me to stay on.” Could it have been England?