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Jun 19, 2014

Defensive shambles hurts England

England manager Roy Hodgson admits his disappointment for falling short of the mark in their second 2-1 defeat of the 2014 World Cup.

"Schoolboy football," some said. And so it was, if schoolboys have the power to punt the ball as far as Uruguay goalkeeper Fernando Muslera. From England's point of view, Luis Suarez's winning goal in Sao Paulo, Brazil, on Thursday night was shambolic football, shocking football, sorry football. It was an object lesson in how not to defend and it was delivered on the world stage.

One swing of the boot from Muslera; one hint of movement from striker Edinson Cavani, running away from Phil Jagielka and toward Steven Gerrard; one back header from the captain; one piece of anticipation from Suarez and one unstoppable finish. It is tempting to call it the most embarrassing goal of this summer's World Cup and, barring the growing collection of goalkeeping errors, it is.

What was most damning was that this wasn't just an individual mistake. It was symptomatic of a wider malaise. England's defending has veered between the undistinguished and the unacceptable in this World Cup. They have been disorganised: each of the back four -- some would say the back seven, including goalkeeper Joe Hart and the two central midfielders -- has proved susceptible at times, while most have been exposed. This is not just about one goal, or two: consider the 10 minutes after half-time when both Suarez and Cavani nearly scored as chaos reigned in and around the England box.

From the first whistle against Italy in Manaus on Saturday, they seemed to conclude attack was the best form of defence. It transpired it was the only form of it. England have gone from a rigid, utterly unambitious 4-4-2 in Euro 2012 to a reckless, pseudo 4-2-4 in the 2014 World Cup. It puts more pressure on the full-backs, who don't have a minder, and the midfielders, who see space either side of them. It means each is forever at risk of being dragged out of position because of a gap elsewhere. Roy Hodgson has been out-thought by Cesare Prandelli and Oscar Tabarez, who have steered creative talents into pockets of space. A third central midfielder might have provided a bigger and better shield for a fallible back four, but Gerrard and Jordan Henderson were overworked.

Systemic issues are compounded by personnel problems. The sight of the culpable captain Gerrard prompted thoughts of his long-term sidekick. Jamie Carragher was the finest centre-back in the Champions League in both the 2004-05 and 2006-07 seasons, a bastion of red-faced defiance. Such was the luxury of riches England enjoyed at the time that he started only one World Cup game as a centre-back, and that as a declining figure in 2010. Now the Merseyside presence at the heart of the defence is Everton's Jagielka, guilty of diffidence for Suarez's winner and hanging haplessly in thin air as Cavani's cross was converted by his strike partner for the opener.

In truth, this World Cup probably came a year too late for Jagielka. His season was disrupted by a hamstring injury and, so accustomed to playing as the right-sided member of a partnership for Everton, he is always more uncomfortable when selected to the left of Gary Cahill. Jagielka was the finest all-round English centre-back from 2011 to 2013 but that is relative: he did not touch the level Carragher, Sol Campbell, Tony Adams, Martin Keown, Rio Ferdinand and John Terry reached in the recent golden age of English defenders.

If defeat to Italy brought wistful thoughts of Ashley Cole (because of the limitations of Leighton Baines), now some may lament the absence of Terry, whose industrial reserves of self-belief can ensure doubt does not derail a defence and whose supersized personality means a back four rarely lacks communication. Cahill, so solid alongside Terry for Chelsea, was caught in no man's land when Suarez all but eliminated England from the World Cup with a stroke of his right boot.

England react after a poor defensive showing.

The reality is that Terry and Cole are the past; neither is a solution now. The latter's successor, Baines, was the one member of a porous rearguard who ought to escape censure this time. He resembled his Everton self and provided some enticing crosses. His right-sided counterpart, Glen Johnson, recorded an assist; the problem was that he had afforded Cavani far too much room to cross for Suarez's first goal. Sadly, his poor form has been a constant, whether in warm-up games or World Cup fixtures.

But with Kyle Walker injured, Johnson does not have an obvious understudy in this squad. Cahill's and Jagielka's deputies are Phil Jones and Chris Smalling, objects of Roy Keane's scorn and players whose progress has stalled. England have gone from riches to rags at the back. The warning signs were there when a second-string defence was breached twice by Ecuador. Their supposed superiors have proved little better.

Even Hart, who ought to be the most dependable member of the rearguard, almost conceded twice to Suarez from corners. Once should have been more than enough, but that is England, slow to learn their lessons and likely to be quick to leave this World Cup.

It amounted to their worst defensive display since the last global gathering: the 4-1 demolition by Germany in 2010. The days of 2002 (Campbell) and 2006 (Terry), when English centre-backs were named in the team of the tournament, seem a long time ago. Those defences were barely dissected. Certainly not by something as simple as a goal kick.