What next for England?
And so, England's participation at Euro 2012 comes to a grim and predictable end, bounced from the quarterfinals by a resolute and determined Italian side. After 120 minutes of stout defending, good fortune and silent prayer, there was no room left to run as the game ran its course.
To lose, 4-2 on penalties, should have been expected. After all, losing on penalties is the most English of fates when it comes to soccer. The pure, crystalline nature of the shootout allows no room to hide or defend. It's man versus man with 12 yards between them, and from the moment that Andrea Pirlo so casually stroked his spot kick into the net, Joe Hart left helplessly flailing, it became clear that luck would never enter into the equation. Pirlo's impersonation of Antonin Panenka's Euro 1976 effort underscored the gulf between England and Italy on the day. The talent gap never looked so obvious.
But as the dust settles on yet another tournament disappointment for the Three Lions, an entirely different storm approaches. What could England have done better? What did it do so wrong at Euro 2012?
First, the negatives. There is a fundamental defensiveness to manager Roy Hodgson that his side never threatened to transcend. Stars like Wayne Rooney, Ashley Young, Danny Welbeck and (on the bench) Theo Walcott, Jermain Defoe and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain have genuine pace and confidence in the attacking third, yet none consistently showed his abilities. Against Sweden, there was a glimmer of what this England team could be -- surging runs, engaging interplay and pure pace flipped a 2-1 deficit into a breathless 3-2 winning margin -- but Hodgson's stall would never waver as the field narrowed: defend with sense and counterattack with speed.
Aside from a burst of creativity in either half against Italy, England was content to cede ground and possession to a more talented, methodical opponent. Much like I criticized France's Laurent Blanc, the same could be said of the Three Lions: just nine shots (one on target) in 120 minutes compared to 36 and eight for Cesare Prandelli's patient, persistent side. What's more, 68 percent of the ball was at Italian feet. England looked exhausted before extra time given its heavy-legged pursuit of Azzurri shadows.
Several players surprised and thrived -- Joe Hart was robust and gaffe-free, Steven Gerrard was at his most elemental, while Andy Carroll and Welbeck both served as able partners for Rooney -- but many more underwhelmed. Ashley Cole was frequently isolated and outmatched at left back. Ashley Young never truly got going. James Milner took defensive duties to heart and showed little interest in the attacking third. Scott Parker was more pedestrian than influencer. The fact England failed to construct a coherent, consistent 90 minutes against anyone is a concern. Glimpses of attacking menace and incisive play were overshadowed by a largely timid, passive, typically English approach. Hours of energy expended in disrupting other teams instead of seizing initiative and dictating tempo.
But to flip this around, what should have been expected of such a disadvantaged squad heading into Euro 2012? New manager, new captain and several new starters thrown together in the final month before boarding the plane. In such disarray, it's a wonder England could even shape itself enough to top Group D and, thanks to some serious good fortune, hold Mario Balotelli & Co. scoreless through the end of extra time.
Hodgson's tactics may be grim, but there's proof in Fulham's Europa League runs (and West Brom's 10th-place EPL finish last season) that his system can work if applied properly and with serious discipline. It's not pretty, but it kept England unbeaten under Hodgson until penalties proved to be the one arena in which his strategies don't matter.
With just a month to get it right, his squad fought and scrapped, yet never really performed beyond the ordinary. The media will gripe and groan about the lack of silky passing -- Gerrard's influence was vastly reduced in Kiev, largely due to the relentlessness of Daniele De Rossi, Riccardo Montolivo and Claudio Marchisio in pursuit -- or the dearth of tiki-taka, but fans expecting such pyrotechnics from England are misguided.
After all, there is no English equivalent of Mesut Ozil. There is no Andrea Pirlo singing "God Save The Queen." Furthermore, the sumptuous technique of top teams like Germany and Spain is a skill and rhythm learned over many years. The Spanish have a devotion to possession soccer born and taught from an early age, and the fact so many play on the same club teams helps solidify those ideals. Similarly, Germany's vaunted youth system has been teaching this current generation for years. By contrast, England's players are a distant, itinerant bunch from club teams with vastly differing philosophies and methods. The players can learn Hodgsonball quickly but not quickly enough.
Yet what Hodgson does have is a patience and a degree of respect among the England players that, in light of Fabio Capello and Steve McClaren's disjointed, unhappy tenures, cannot be overlooked when looking ahead to the 2014 World Cup and impending qualification campaign.
It's also worth noting the youth at Hodgson's disposal. Only five of the 23-man squad are older than 30 -- 11 were 26 or younger -- meaning that evolution for the Three Lions can happen given the time that he has to mold this team into the best it can be. It might never be as awe-inspiring as Germany under Jogi Low, but few can possibly match what Die Mannschaft has built from the ground up.
All is not lost for England, but what should perhaps be lost is the dissonance between expectation and reality. In the meantime, Rooney & Co. exit the Euros with heads held high. Time to prepare for 2014.