The phrase ‘penalty heartbreak’ has become synonymous with England at major tournaments in the past couple of decades, so there was little surprise that it was a dreaded shoot-out that sent England packing at Euro 2012. You could say they were resilient and efficient, however you could also accuse them of being too defensively-minded and not ruthless enough in attack. Seeing a side blessed with talented players like Wayne Rooney, Ashley Young and Theo Walcott focus so heavily on shutting opponents out wasn’t what England fans would have expected this summer, and sadly for new manager Roy Hodgson, his defensive methods couldn’t guide England to the semi-finals.
It could be said that nobody was expecting much from England this summer, which is true. However, if you look at the appointment of Hodgson by the FA, it could just have saved them a lot of criticism. Had fan favourite Harry Redknapp been named as the new boss, fans would be filled with optimism and expectation, hoping for an appearance in the semi-finals at least. However, the appointment of the fans’ second choice slashed expectations, and the public would all of a sudden settle for progression into the knockout stages. But why? Both managers have the same pool of players to work with, so why should a Roy Hodgson England side be expected to do less than a Harry Redknapp one?
Realistically, England were unconvincing in each of their games. Against France they were totally outplayed, and relied heavily on a stern performance from the defence. However, the two central midfielders spent the whole match shielding the back four and offered nothing going forward, which contributed to the toothless attacking display. Credit to the attacking players for putting three goals past Sweden, however when they performed, the defence failed to, looking very frail at times. The Ukraine game was filled with good fortune for the English, as they progressed without dominating the game. The wrongly disallowed Ukraine goal should have been ruled offside anyway, but the linesman didn’t flag for it, so they could easily have dropped two points in that match and faced Spain instead of Italy.
For me, a prominent cause of England’s troubles was the selection of players on the right hand side. Glen Johnson is the most experienced of the right-backs Hodgson had to choose from, however he has trouble disciplining himself in terms of positioning, and would leave his centre-backs exposed at times. So, how did Hodgson compensate for this? By playing James Milner, a very defensively capable winger, in front of Johnson. The presence of Johnson at right-back meant that Walcott wasn’t an option in the starting line-up, and he proved his worth after coming off the bench against Sweden. Without him, England looked one-dimensional and predictable in attack.
Milner offered little going forward, and Johnson’s presence on the pitch was ultimately the cause of this lack of threat on the right wing, despite him actually playing fairly well throughout the tournament. Of course, the injury to Kyle Walker did give Hodgson one less right-back to choose from, however I can’t help but think that Manchester City’s Micah Richards would have been a more appropriate choice, allowing Walcott to play in front of him and terrorise defenders with his blistering pace.
So, the focus turns to Brazil in 2014. Hopefully by then the likes of Kyle Walker, Gary Cahill and Phil Jones will have all cemented places in the squad, and that players such as Daniel Sturridge and Danny Welbeck have become genuinely threatening, as opposed to merely showing streaks of potential. Hodgson will need to change the centre of midfield too in my opinion – Gerrard isn’t the marauding attacking player he used to be, and despite managing an impressive number of assists, he had a tendency to sit in a deep position for most of his time on the pitch, doing a very similar job to Scott Parker. One of the two will need to make way for ‘future England captain’ Jack Wilshere, who can provide the attacking threat needed from the centre of the pitch, while still defending responsibly when needed. It’s not all doom and gloom though – at least the reliable Joe Hart will most likely be a regular between the sticks for years to come. However Hodgson will need to get his side playing with more freedom and flair, or he may lose the backing of the fans that were willing to give him a chance.