Soccer

Wheeler: England incapable of seizing the moment

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Gareth Wheeler
6/19/2014 9:37:16 PM
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It shouldn't come as a disappointment anymore for England supporters.  They are used to this.  Losing.  It isn't underachieving when the team isn't good enough.  This is as good as it gets.

Whenever England's Brazilian journey comes to an end (they haven't been eliminated, yet) the diehard support and those responsible for overseeing English football will hold on to the positive moments.  Flashes of ability and promise are what constitute hope.  "They weren't that bad" is excused as progress.  The play of the likes of Sturridge and Sterling, and the futures of Barkley and Shaw will be used as evidence brighter days ahead.  Yawn.

We've heard this before.  We've done this song and dance.  The days of a semi-final shoot-out loss in Italia '90 are long gone.  Let's not go back to 1966.  The failures have piled on, one less painful than the next.  Success would be a surprise.  Losses to more intelligent and superior football nations are the expectation.  The English should be immune from the feeling of devastation or outrage.  From a Golden Generation not good enough, to the likes of Rooney, Lampard and Gerrard who have failed to capture the imagination.  It's a vicious cycle of mediocrity. 

A 2-1 loss to Uruguay is just the latest chapter.  England was poor.  Nothing new.  The how it happened is what drives home the obvious.  Too weak in too many areas and lacking true top talent to break down their competition.  Out-managed.  Out-witted.  Out-classed.

Uruguay only completed a pathetic 64 per cent of passes.  The South Americans struggled in build up and were content to sit back.  It was an astute page out of Italy's book from England's opening match; sit-back and force England to break you down.  Don't get beat for speed.  And counter-attack.  That's what Uruguay did, and credit for executing.  They got stuck in and remained organized.  Forget basic statistics telling you England dominated possession with Uruguay on the back-foot.  It was calculated.  It worked to perfection.  A basic approach against a basic team.  Simple.

The game winning goal incredibly came directly from the Uruguayan goalkeeper Fernando Muslera.  A ball put on the ground and a long ball played out.  Simple to defend, right?  Apparently not.  Edinson Cavani dropped deep all match to expose long-in-the-tooth Steven Gerrard sitting on top of the England backline.  For what the England captain has in experience, he lacks in legs because of the kilometers accumulated.  Cavani's aerial challenge of Gerrard forced a wayward header backwards from the England midfielder.  Luis Suarez, as proper poachers do, tucked in behind the backline looking for an advantage.  He gambled and he won, as Gary Cahill got caught.  Suarez was clinical in finish and again showed his special talent.  A game breaker and match winner, something England doesn't have.

Likewise on Suarez opener, he exposed England's backline.  The Uruguayan number nine did well to create the needed space on the far post behind Phil Jagielka.  The ball played to Suarez by Cavani was all-world.  But it was two Uruguayan players on six England defenders.  Nobody put pressure on the ball.  And to leave Suarez lurking on the far post wasn't good enough.  Not to mention is was a missed tackle by Gerrard in the midfield, leading to the attack. 

Two England centre-backs and two mistakes leading to goals conceded.  Cahill and Jagielka are experienced at the position, at least at the club level.  They are the best in the country at the position and they were exposed.  The best England has at an all-important position and not good enough. 

It's the same story at the other end of the field.  Not good enough.  Wayne Rooney and Daniel Sturridge are more than fine players.  They are very good.  But they are not at the same levels of other top forwards in this tournament, let alone not the top forwards on their own club teams.  Therein is the difference.  The likes of Rooney and Sturridge require real substance around them to be at their best, and that's fine.  They are better the complimentary piece rather than the focus at this level.  When played appropriately, they can shine.  In this England team, their play often times is representative of the whole.  These are the best England has and they are not good enough.

The midfield, a make-shift, comprised of decent parts with no direction on how it's supposed to work.  Jordan Henderson had a fine season on a good attacking Liverpool team.  Yet something suggests he has the makings of becoming the next Sinclair, Wright-Phillips, Mills, or Parker – take your pick of the long list of players you'll ask, "Did he really play for England?"  Is he really the best England really has?  The rest of the midfield is all over the place.  The left-side exposed defensively and the movement in attack not creative or consistent.  Passing the ball around without purpose won't break down a back line.  It's no surprise this area of the field is stagnant and lacks influence.

And the manager, oh the manager.  Roy Hodgson saw fit to keep England's double-pivot of Gerrard and Henderson on the field in a game begging for attacking players to breakdown the Uruguayan defensive wall.  Comically, two holding players were preferable to keeping on Sterling or Welbeck, or even throwing on a Rickie Lambert until after England went down.  The options at Hodgson aren't flattering.  But neither were the tactics. The very least Hodgson could have done was shuffle the deck.  Bring off a defensive midfielder or ineffective wing-back in preference of another attacking player.  Change the shape.  Instead, the end result of a cautious approach was not good enough.

Some will suggest Ashley Cole and Jermain Defoe should have been in the England set-up.  Leighton Baines has struggled and another forward option off the bench could have proved decisive.  Arguments can be made but how much of a difference they would have made most likely would have been negligible.  It made more sense to include Michael Carrick in the squad as a holding midfielder able to provide distribution.  But then again, this is a country deeming Paul Scholes not a proper fit to be an England regular over the course of his career.  The best England had, but not good enough?  There's a pattern here.  Selection issues are nothing new.  But no matter who dons the England kit, are they ever good enough?

There have been phenomenal performances over the course of the first week of the World Cup, both by individuals and team.  Honest assessment would tell the standard of football played by the true top football nations is a step beyond England.  It's all very disturbing considering important players for the likes of Chile and Colombia (etc…) are buried in the League Championship, or in some cases not deemed good enough for even that.  This should trouble the English to the core.  But it won't.  Overrating their own talent has become a past-time and feeds the beast.  Criticism and finding scapegoats has become a past time.  In reality, these are the best players they have.  And they are not good enough.

The Premier League is the most entertaining league in the world and the most popular.  It is not the best.  England's best players are not even the top talent in their own domestic league.  Taking a look in the mirror doesn't always cast a pretty reflection.  But the look in the mirror is necessary.  Acceptance is needed. 

This was a day England will never have a better context to beat a Uruguay team as such on a stage made for a statement performance.  The weather was an ideal 14 degrees Celsius for the hardened English.  The opponent was missing two of their preferred back-four.  The star player was not 100 per cent. And Uruguay's confidence was shaky coming off a shock 3-1 loss.  England didn't let it slip away.  They were incapable of seizing the moment.

It is possible England can still advance from the group stage, even though a team losing their first two games at a World Cup has never done so.  Italy must beat Costa Rica then Uruguay, and England will need a comprehensive victory over the Ticos to have superior goal differential.  But really, would that constitute success? 

Squeaking by would be as good as it gets for a team not good enough.

Wayne Rooney (Photo: The Canadian Press)

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(Photo: The Canadian Press)
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