Hindsight is a wonderful thing – especially after a World Cup which has produced more concerning questions for England than positive solutions.
And as the Three Lions autopsy begins, one can rest assured that every coroners’ report will be laden thick with an unhealthy dose of retrospect. Scapegoats will be targeted – Steven Gerrard, Wayne Rooney, Phil Jageilka and of course, Roy Hodgson.
But in my opinion, at the tournament itself, there isn’t much the England manager would have done differently if time-travel wasn’t a fictional fantasy. Using four forwards in a 4-2-3-1 formation may have been ambitious, but the notion that the Three Lions would have to be progressive at Brazil 2014 to improve the nation’s apathetic mood was fairly unanimous before the tournament began.
Likewise, one can question Hodgson’s starting line-ups; should Phil Jones have featured over Glen Johnson at right-back? Should ‘boring’ James Milner have been deployed in midfield to add experience and stability? Should Ross Barkley, following his season of great promise at Everton, have been given a more intrinsic role? Should Jack Wilshere have been selected over Jordan Henderson?
All fair questions, but any answer would be relatively subjective. In truth, I can’t remember an England squad for a major tournament containing so many unknown quantities at international level.
But one area I believe Hodgson can be justifiably questioned on is his overall squad selection – specifically his exclusion of Ashley Cole and John Terry. Those countless unknown quantities could have been two less with the Chelsea duo, boasting 185 caps between them, at the England manager’s disposal.
You can understand it from Hodgson’s point of view. John Terry hasn’t been involved with the Three Lions since he was handed a four-match ban by the FA for racial abuse in September 2012. Regardless of his impressive form at club level this season, why should the 33 year-old get a free pass to the World Cup, when a near-ever-present partnership of Gary Cahill and Phil Jagielka conceded just four times in the qualifying campaign?
Likewise, few will dispute that Luke Shaw, chosen over Ashley Cole as England’s deputy No.3, is a world-class full-back in the making. Theo Walcott, Joe Cole and Rio Ferdinand were all taken to major tournaments arguably prematurely and it’s done nothing to stutter their international careers.
But Greg Dyke’s much-maligned cut-throat gesture upon the announcement of England’s opponents in Group D back in December typified that the Three Lions were always in for a rough ride. Italy, with their immense technical quality and well-experienced squad, and Uruguay, boasting two of Europe’s leading strikers in Luis Suarez and Edinson Cavani, are no opposition for players yet to be fully blooded at international level. One would expect a manager of Hodgson’s pedigree and experience to have been more aware of the obvious dangers.
Furthermore, of all opponents England could have faced at the World Cup, it’s hard to think of two more suitable for Terry and Cole than Italy and Uruguay.
An un-dynamic Azzurri side lacking in natural pace and penetration would have been ideal opponents for the Chelsea veterans, with the vast majority of the play in front of them and Italy’s strike force, Antonio Candreva and Mario Balotelli, unlikely to proficiently try and look for space in behind.
Similarly, although Luis Suarez may offer that penetrating threat, club form suggests Cole and Terry would have handled the Uruguayan significantly better than Jagielka and Leighton Baines. Suarez didn’t put a single goal past Chelsea last season but destroyed Everton with two goals and one assist in two Premier League appearances. With that in mind, should it have been any great surprise to Hodgson that the Goodison centre-back was found wanting for both of the Liverpool striker’s goals last Thursday?
Uncharacteristically, it’s lapsed defending that’s let England down at the World Cup. For generations, we have been blessed with exceptional defensive talents, but the Three Lions’ starting backline for Brazil 2014 constitutes one of the most progressive and untalented in living memory.
In some respects, one can argue Hodgson has resultantly become a victim of circumstance – the quality and range of home-grown talent has become so poor in England that Dyke is now requesting the lower tiers of English football to be reconfigured and include ‘B’ teams.
But ultimately, it was the manager’s decision to further weaken what was already our weakest department by excluding the Chelsea defenders.
I’m not suggesting an England side containing Terry and Cole would have won the World Cup or even significantly progressed to its latter stages. We all knew before a ball was struck that the Three Lions’ chances were virtually non-existent, which indeed became Hodgson’s justification for a youthful selection policy and a more expansive brand of football with Euro 2016 – and of course, Greg Dyke’s target of winning 2022 in Qatar – in mind.
But what has the great experience of losing to Italy and Uruguay and failing to advance from the group stages taught England’s many exciting young stars? Apart from acclimatising them to the feeling of inevitable disappointment shared by their many predecessors, not a lot.