Hodgson finally casts aside caution
Roy Hodgson's dullness probably helped him get the England job. His predictability appealed to the FA, especially when the alternative was the all-too-quotable loose cannon Harry Redknapp. In contrast, Hodgson's sentences are full of caveats and conservatism, his opinions toned down by qualifying statements. He is not one of life's adventurers.
Yet the 66-year-old showed it is never too late to reinvent yourself. He revealed another side, Roy the risk-taker, setting up England's rumble in the jungle with his boldness.
Hodgson's bravest choice was to pick a teenager who was sent off in his previous game and who was making his competitive international debut. Moreover, Raheem Sterling was not just selected; he was installed as England's No. 10. He did not merely justify his place; he was Hodgson's best player. He became emblematic of a new England, a sign that the times are changing. Sterling and Ross Barkley are the future, and the future arrived earlier than England expected.
A startling rise was almost capped in the fourth minute with Sterling's swerving shot that flew into the side netting and fooled quite a few into believing England had an early lead. His role in their goal was not a piece of virtuoso individualism but an indication of why he is part of the next breed of No. 10s, marrying power with technical gifts, flair with directness. A driving run, a piercing pass and a Wayne Rooney cross later, Daniel Sturridge had scored. A counterattack was sprung successfully. A prodigy announced his entrance.
Sterling's progress has been so swift that is worth remembering it was a surprise when, three months ago, Brendan Rodgers chose him to operate centrally behind his strikers at Old Trafford. It proved an inspired decision, exposing central defenders and holding midfielders to the dribbling of a winger that, as Arjen Robben proved more spectacularly against Spain, can be a highly effective tactic.
It is a very English trait to get carried away when a newcomer excels. Perhaps it is rash to mention Sterling in the same paragraph as Robben, yet he captured the imagination even before he seized Rooney's preferred spot in the national team.
A nation got its wish too. The demand was for Hodgson to unleash the kids. England's recent history suggests their most dangerous attackers are untainted by past failures, unworried by reputations, unencumbered by pressure. They have been watchable -- for the right reasons, anyway -- in just two international tournaments since the halcyon days of Euro '96: the 2004 European Championship, when Rooney was the teenage tearaway who scared defenders with his direct running, and the 1998 World Cup, when Michael Owen adopted a similar approach, only at a greater speed. England, it seems, are fine until their youthful talents turn 20. Italy are the exact opposite, a country where the senior citizens are revered and whose oldest player, Andrea Pirlo, remains their outstanding individual.
A reunion with the Azzurri brought reminders of the Euro 2012 quarterfinal stalemate. Then England avoided defeat over 120 minutes, unlike in Manaus. On neither occasion did they grasp that failing to mark Pirlo allowed the Italian playmaker to run the game. The sense remains that Italian footballers still have a greater grasp of tactics than their English counterparts.
Yet this represented a huge step in the right direction, and not merely because England have jettisoned the archaic 4-4-2 they stuck to, limpet-like, in their joyless journey around Poland and Ukraine. A shoot-on-sight policy epitomised the new positivity.
Eighteen shots may have yielded a solitary, wonderfully constructed goal and England may have conceded two, which but for the woodwork and a goal-line clearance from Phil Jagielka would have been more, but entertaining football and youthful verve can camouflage flaws by engendering optimism.
This was that oxymoron in a results business: an encouraging defeat, perhaps the first England have experienced in a major tournament since the 2-1 loss to France in Euro 2004, maybe their first in a World Cup since Brazil beat them 1-0 in 1970.
In the broader scheme of things, England have to find the appropriate balance between defence and attack, but unlike their predecessors, there is now the feeling this team needs to focus on the forward threat. The sight of Uruguay's aging, error-prone centre-back Diego Lugano struggling against Costa Rica should encourage them to run at him.
Not just Sterling either. Barkley's bright bit-part role increased his case to start. It would entail Hodgson dropping either his beloved Danny Welbeck or the previously untouchable Rooney, but this wasn't the Hodgson we know and, rather than like or dislike, tend to tolerate. It was a more intrepid, more carefree Roy, venturing into the Amazon to emerge with reputation for caution cast aside. Because while they showed unwanted consistency and continuity by extending their wretched record against major nations at the World Cup, this was not the England of old.