Hello darkness my old friend, England is back with you again. Another major tournament, another exercise in failure as the Three Lions add to the 50 years of hurt by combining it with the most humbling of defeats at the hands of Iceland.
It started early on in qualifying, where many point out that they had an easy time of it as they won every single game. They did, but people forget to add the narratives to that qualification, like when they struggled to break down Estonia for a long time away from home and that Slovenia took the lead in both of the fixtures during qualifying.
Those were then drowned out by positive friendly results against Germany and France. The former was experimenting with their squad, which seemed to be a constant with England, while the latter was recovering from a harrowing few days after the terrorist attacks in Paris just a few nights before.
Buoyed by an exciting Premier League season, fans were expectant of at least an exciting team, if not looking for winning the whole thing. Those initial hopes took a small blow when manager Roy Hodgson decided to avoid outstanding players of the season like Danny Drinkwater and Mark Noble for experienced internationals that had barely kicked a ball all season in Jack Wilshere and Jordan Henderson.
Then came the friendlies, where worry began to set in. The first against Turkey was a little lucky, they started well but faded badly, but it was forgiven as it was almost a week after the season and the team were waiting on the Manchester United players to join from their FA Cup exploits.
Australia were next and were dispatched nicely, especially in the second half, but the fact that Hodgson had rotated a lot of the team and not played a full-strength side had people a little shaky. Then came the calamity against Portugal, ruined by a silly red card from Bruno Alves and what was an awful attempt to employ the 4-1-2-1-2, that seemed like the manager had maliciously butchered it to stop the calls for its usage.
Either that or he vastly misinterpreted what the formation should be doing but that would have been incompetence unbecoming of someone that coached at the highest level.
Reassurance came in the shape of the first game against Russia, where England clearly dominated the possession and looked like the only team in the game. It took a free kick to break the deadlock and in true heartbreaking fashion, the Russians stole an equaliser right at the death.
Undeterred, they faced Wales with the same kind of gusto until the first Joe Hart mistake put the neighboring nation in front. Hodgson was then praised for his attacking substitutions, rather than lamented for starting the same side that had struggled to score in the last game, and the Three Lions got away with a win after two rather fortunate goals.
With the fire back in their bellies, surely they would simply put Slovakia to the sword? Everyone was wrong. England really struggled to break them down bar a few glimpses in the first half before barely creating a decent sniff in the second, a goalless draw that would see them finish behind Wales in the group.
A blessing in disguise, many said, as they had to take on the small nation of Iceland. England’s domination had them waiting to pummel someone and it looked like they would be the one’s for the taking, with people already drawing up plans on how to take on France.
They looked way too far ahead after England capitulated from a decent start to concede almost straight away before another dreadful error from Hart handed Iceland the lead. Devoid of ideas, disinterested in changing the pace and frankly dire in the second half, where they switched to the famous tactic of four up-front playing off centre-back Gary Cahill, England disappeared from the European Champions with what was less than a whimper.
Attack was our strong suit but nervous Hodgson did not want us using our biggest asset to our advantage. England had 20.5 shots per game, that resulted in four goals with only two coming from open play and 51% of all strikes at goal came from out of the box.
Tepid forward play brought on from just one natural winger playing and the decision to avoid using our strengths by sticking what had got them through one of the simplest qualifying campaigns in recent memory. If it worked against San Marino, it’ll work against the world.
Some blamed a long, Premier League season had tired some of them out and in that second half, that looked like the case. The onus on fitness is the manager, if he saw fatigue in some of his players before the tournament, he should have catered their training to preserve and renew their fitness so they could go at full throttle come tournament time.
An article from Matt Hughes of The Times said today that players were confused in Hodgson’s ideas, with one source saying: “Hodgson is the type of man who doesn’t know whether he wants tea or coffee in the morning, and this permeated to the players.” That was clear from the lack of cohesion in his selection both in the friendlies beforehand and the competition itself, he had no idea how to get the best out of the group.
In very much the style of Manchester United this season, it took Marcus Rashford to come on for the final five minutes to add a little bit of verve and creativity. It was an embarrassment to see, he should be heralded for trying something different while others around him simply gave in the ghost.
In the end, the obituaries will come and lessons need to be learnt but at the same time, it always seems to fall on deaf ears. Until someone finally cracks these players and how they should be functioning, which shouldn’t be too difficult for a qualified professional, then we will be stuck in the mud.
This has become a habit, passed on by generations, that this kind of level is acceptable and almost unavoidable. But much like Hodgson’s useless press conference yesterday, until someone champions a way forward, we will only be greeted by the sound of silence.