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England vs Italy: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly

After spending Saturday night in an absolute cauldron of a bar that decided to allow its air-conditioning to break on one of the warmest and most packed nights of the year, I needed all of Sunday to recover before posting about England’s opening group match in this explosive Brazilian World Cup. I am glad I did, because after allowing the small disappointment of not getting a result to sink in, I find I am not alone in feeling almost relatively happy and fairly optimistic despite the defeat. Not to the point of delusion as too many failures have nullified that sort of thinking. Instead, it is so pleasing to know that we played one of the most inexperienced and youngest teams in England’s history against one of the top teams in the world, and it nearly worked.

I was one of those jumping on the bandwagon after the last tournament, demanding that we play with freedom, youth and with an attacking style, and I have to credit Hodgson for doing exactly what the public have asked. He has given these young lions every opportunity to thrive in the absence of misplaced optimism. Therefore, on the performance alone, we as England fans can all pat ourselves on the back for creating a media storm and being completely correct in thinking this approach would make for a better England team, because it did. This has strangely taken any blame for lack of results off of the players and manager’s shoulders, and if we go out playing like we did Saturday night, then so be it, it was what we all wanted anyway. Everyone would trade in playing risky but exciting football on the world stage for a painfully dull and depressing exit at the hands of penalties, and I bet that there were a few neutral fans around the world that nudged each other, and said, “you know what, England look pretty good”. That is what makes me proud to be English and to support the national team.

I would think that the Italians were as surprised with how good we were, as we were of them, and both teams’ friendlies leading up to the game were extremely deceiving, and I was genuinely not expecting so much of an improvement from our players. But the best thing about losing whilst playing well, is that it is a lot easier to tweak, make adjustments and find those problems, as well taking advantage and build on strengths. So without further a do, here is the Good the Bad and the Ugly of England vs Italy:

The Good

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  • England played the best football I had seen since Hodgson took over, and it is easy to see how much the squad has developed as a team in the past couple of years. They have mostly all earned their place, and again, Hodgson must be given credit for balancing World Cup qualification with experimentation with younger players. Sterling was driving Italy up the wall on Saturday night and his pass to Rooney proves that his ability transcends mere pace. Barkley looked good again coming off the bench, and this England team seems full of bright young talent.
  • England had a high passing accuracy against a good Italy side, who had 93% to England’s 91%. Not only this, but England’s possession far outweighed that of two years ago, which shows massive improvement considering Italy have improved as well. Qualification will be difficult, but playing like that against a poor defence in Uruguay and Costa Rica will surely bring some goals for Sturridge and co.
  • We can add strength where needed over the next two years and try gain, but at least we will have a plan at long last, and one that we have the time to compete given the overall youth of the players. Who would be the captain after the inevitable retirement of Gerrard, willingly of otherwise. Cahill? Hart? Maybe Sturridge? Who knows? The future, for once, looks bright.

The Bad

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  • Defence still looks shaky, but we were always going to take risks short term by going to the tournament without more reliable players like Ashley Cole, but that is just testament to the determination to start again with a young side. Glen Johnson is still questionable, but he put in better performance on Saturday. A lot of pundits and commentators, when asked for their starting eleven before the match, often started with, “well, the back five picks itself”.  After Saturday night, I am not sure whether this is a good thing after one of two defensive errors. But, at least a consistent back line will mean the young team will gel together more quickly over time. If anything, Jagielka is really growing into the position, and I think Cahill and he can form a good partnership for England over the years, we just need some better cover in case of injuries.
  • I really liked the combination of Gerrard’s passing range and Henderson’s boundless energy and forward runs and passes. But although Gerrard’s long ball game does stretch the opponents, it also stretches our players, and these moments in the game where a breather is needed without relinquishing possession, requires the England players to practice piggy in the middle with the opposition for ten minutes. Whether we have the “technical” players for this is yet to be seen, but it would be good to at least have a plan B for these situations as the Italians looked above all very comfortable in the closing stages.  In a close game, grinding out a win with sustained possession and pressure does not come naturally to us, and this obsession with finding players that “like to turn and run at defenders” is almost overloading our football philosophy, and the need to also move the ball around without purpose is sometimes necessary.
  • Without doubt the biggest problem that was highlighted throughout the game was the left-hand side, more specifically a lack of cover for Baines. Unfortunately, this lack of cover was very much pointing at an overpaid white elephant in the room, which leads me onto. . .

The Ugly

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  • This isn’t a hate campaign, it is just all the fans can see there are players in better form. Maybe a case could be given for him behind Sturridge, but the fates are against Rooney, and the combination of Sterling’s dynamic performance in-behind Sturridge, and Rooney’s inability to be effective on the wing has left both Hodgson and the man himself with no excuses. I don’t know whether we as fans are missing the bigger tactical picture, or whether this is a sub plot involving Nike, but either way I think it’s time for a change . He does track back well and help midfield, and he did set up Sturridge for the goal with an an excellent cross, but by playing Sterling in the number 10 role behind Sturridge, Hodgson is admitting there are better players than Rooney in both positions, and by putting him on the wing, he is also admitting he won’t do anything about it.
  • I would rather see Milner keeping tabs on the left backs, as he is also a good crosser of the ball, something England was clearly lacking against Italy. Although this does not encourage youth across the park, it makes sense to learn from mistakes as we hopefully progress through the tournament. Rooney can always come on to replace a younger player, and let’s not forget an in-form Ox is now ready for his World Cup moment.

I am no Football analyst (as you probably have realised), but for what it is worth, here would be my starting eleven for the second game against Uruguay:

 Hart

Johnson / Cahill / Jagielka / Baines

Oxlade-Chamberlain / Gerrard / Henderson /  Milner

Sterling / Sturridge

IMPACT SUBS: Rooney / Barkley / Welbeck / Lambert

Did you think england played well? Comment below!

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Shapstik on England vs Denmark

There is no doubt that as an England fan my expectations have changed. After enjoying great semi finals in 90, 96 and a good show in 98, it has taken over a decade and several failed tournaments, for me to come it the sober conclusion that my hopes now rest less in winning trophies, and more on witnessing a decent England squad develop and make the most out of what they have. England’s display against Denmark on Wednesday night has proved two things: It isn’t happening, and it could happen.

Even if most agree that at the moment we do not have a World Cup winning squad, it does not mean that we cannot still surprise in Brazil. As an England fan I am by definition rather fickle, and it was only last year that I joined many voices complaining about the lack of youth development and choice of good English players. But after a great season from two squads in Southampton and Liverpool, the tune has changed and revealed some really good prospects such as Shaw, Lallana, Townsend for Spurs, Barkley for Everton and Sterling, as well as some improved and developed players like Sturridge, whom has become a regular goal scorer. When put out against Denmark, they all shone against the supposed established players with so called valuable experience. After witnessing the skillful Lallana torment a decent defense with consummate ease, it does put into question how important experience can be, when it is only mixed with memories of disappointment and loss.

Lallana’s literal lack of fear on the ball just emphasizes the importance of this moment for England to grab these players, play them in the first team and allow them to develop over time. The young Southampton midfielder is a vital component of the potentially new England squad, alongside other developing talents such as the Ox and Rodriguez. But with Hodge at the helm I am not sure this will happen. In a post match interview on ITV last night, when asked about why he played Sturridge in the position that ruined his Chelsea career, he said and I quote: “Well, if we want to play all these players together”. I was surprised by this, as I don’t think anyone would complain if not every household name was on the team sheet, as long as the manager has a plan and it means the team plays better as whole. Any gripes about their favourite player not starting would soon be forgotten I’m sure.

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Maybe Hodgson should listen to the public, whom most believe Rooney’s form for England has now got to the point of benching him, to make way for more emphasis on constructing a team around in-form players whom are in their best positions. Most, myself included would rather see talent like Ox, Sterling and Lallana feeding Sturridge playing down the centre, than struggling to fit square pegs into round holes. But maybe I am wrong. Either way, I still believe Gerrard is one of the best midfielders we have, and as a captain he is an essential part of the England squad.  His distribution on Wednesday was excellent and alongside the right creative midfielder it could potentially begin to click.

But if it all goes wrong in the summer maybe we can all blame Roy, for not playing Sturridge up front, or not communicating a clear style and set of tactics in the short time he is with the squad. But we have to also wonder if there is a mysterious stranglehold that takes hold on these players. After all, when Lallana came on and showed what bravery, skill and belief can do, many of the other players suddenly found their feet. Perhaps not in the same way, because the Southampton player does seem to be a genuine talent, but they begun to remember why they are in their respective first teams, good, fast and attacking teams at that.

Let’s just hope then, that we can build up the confidence over the pre-cup friendlies and also hope that Roy ensures that each game at the World Cup, whether with all young players or not, start with this belief in their ability and the support of everyone in the crowd and at home. Either way, I know I’ll be losing my voice in the pub supporting the Three Lions and I just hope the players enjoy themselves as much as me.