Learning curve too steep for England
SAO PAULO -- A hurt, deeply frustrated Steven Gerrard slowly touched on the heart of the matter of England losing another hard-fought World Cup match -- this time against Uruguay.
He bemoaned that England had been "not clever, not cute enough to manage the game" after Wayne Rooney's equaliser. The Three Lions' captain pointed to the fact that the side had allowed itself to get carried away with momentum, and the reality was that this all sounded vaguely familiar.
A reporter asked: Was it a similar story to that of the 4-1 defeat against Germany in Bloemfontein at the World Cup four years ago? Gerrard didn't answer the question directly, but he nodded, vaguely in agreement.
"It's been a steep learning curve for this team," said the 34-year-old.
Too steep. England were still alive on Thursday night, so it wasn't the right time for a detailed inquest and decisions about the future. Gerrard will surely contemplate his resignation. Manager Roy Hodgson, despite ruling out that possibility, might not be afforded the luxury to make that call if England lose their third game in this World Cup when they face Costa Rica on Tuesday.
That match will take place in Belo Horizonte, one of those fateful places of failure that litter English football history. The 1-0 defeat against the USA in the 1950 World Cup exposed, for the first time, the wide chasm that had opened between England's self-image and its true position in world football. The next 64 years -- with one brief interruption in 1966 -- retold that story over and over again.
England have long been aware of the problem, but they fail to learn from their past failures. Instead, they react to them, violently, like a driver who abruptly leaves his lane to avoid an obstacle. Every tournament seems to be played out as a belated riposte to the ills that have gone just before.
Hodgson came in ahead of Euro 2012, determined to stop England from getting embarrassed as they were in Bloemfontein. His answer was a radically defensive setup, with two banks of four in front of goal, and two forwards who were told to chase long balls over the top. This perfectly decent, if limited, strategy brought results (of sorts): England went home technically undefeated. But the negative approach played badly at home with fans and the media.
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The emergence of new attacking players and public pressure resulted in Hodgson making a 180 degree turn going into this competition. His 4-2-3-1 system, with four attacking players, was designed to overpower teams with pace and the sheer force of numbers.
A surprisingly uncritical UK media bought into this "having a go" philosophy. Words like "courage" and "bravery" were bandied about after the Italy defeat to the point that the result almost felt like a small win. England had re-found its identity in the rain forest, the line went. Surely that was worth something.
But the Uruguay defeat, just as unnecessary and avoidable as the one in Manaus before, showed that there is always a price to pay for playing the traditional English way. The back four, an unremarkable collection of players who could have done with some midfield protection, were left exposed by Gerrard and Jordan Henderson, who themselves were always outnumbered in central areas.
It was curious that an England team with a strong Liverpool slant didn't replicate the three-in-central-midfield formula that has so obviously brought out the best in Gerrard and the attackers ahead of him.
England have not been able to control the pace and direction in either game in Brazil because they were deliberately top-heavy. With so many attacking players, they posed a constant threat to the opposition but in turn made defending Joe Hart's goal more difficult.
To compound matters, they were wedded to going forward as the first course of action, whereas the Italians and Uruguayans were happy to slow things down, mix things up, change the pattern. Why didn't England step on the brake in the last few minutes? This inability to adjust the playing style midway through the game has been a hallmark of all England teams since Glenn Hoddle's 1998 World Cup team.
Why that should be the case remains a mystery. The technique of foreign players has undoubtedly rubbed off on English players, but their game intelligence hasn't. An army of foreign coaches doesn't seem to have made a difference, either. Maybe England will need an outstanding player, like Italy's Andrea Pirlo or Spain's Xavi, to become a pace-setter with variable speeds. Neither the current generation nor the management have been able to bring that extra dimension to proceedings.
Yes, all-action, full-throttle England could just as easily have won both games because they turned them into Wild West shootouts. The party getting hit more often lost out. World Cup games shouldn't be like a coin flip, however; the aim must be to limit the influence of chance, not to maximise it. The all-or-nothing approach, Hodgson's team found out on Thursday, is only fun when the outcome is happy one.
How comfortable was the national manager deep down with taking on so much risk? He must have known the pitfalls of this overreaction to Euro 2012, the dangers of this tactical over-steering. Maybe he was persuaded by his staff to disregard the flaws in favour of going for it with his young guns, believing that the press would give him a pass under those circumstances. They certainly won't do that if England lose to Costa Rica, however. And neither will the FA, in all probability.