England and disappointment at major tournaments. Two things which, if you exclude the 1966 World Cup and the majority of the Euros in 1996, seem to go almost hand-in-hand with each other. The latest attempt to put a halt to that national hurt came, once again, to a bitter end on Monday night in Nice – Iceland, the real fairy tale story of international football right now, overturning an early deficit and knocking Roy Hodgson’s side out in the first knockout round of Euro 2016.
Though in points terms their group stage performance was fairly average, there was a lot to be positive about at the time. Even if it feels like an age ago now. England dominated the opener against Russia, putting in a flowing, controlling performance, especially in the first-half, only to let their lead slip to a freakish goal in injury time. Then came Wales, where England were again the better side; this time experiencing the indescribable highs of a late goal for themselves as Daniel Sturridge secured a deserved three points in the 92nd minute. It was a little more of a let-down versus Slovakia in the final game, the difficulties of breaking down a low block being largely apparent, though they still did enough to win it regardless.
But that finished 0-0. If they had got the win, maybe things would’ve been different. Wales topping the group instead meant they went into the easier half of the draw, meeting and beating Northern Ireland in the first knockout round and they’re soon to play Belgium in the quarter-final – a side who, even if they're amongst the favourites, haven’t been overly convincing other than their frightening ability in transitions. Perhaps England would’ve fared a lot better against Northern Ireland and could be within reach of the semi-finals right now. They might not have. Maybe they’d simply have lost to another nation who, like Iceland, they should really be beating on paper. Who knows? There are always a lot of ifs, with England.
As it is though, as we all know, they went out. It was a pretty abysmal showing against Iceland, frankly, one now being compared by many to that infamous defeat against a part-time USA side in 1950. Up there with some of the worst performances people have ever seen the country’s football team put in. Harsh on Iceland, who were brilliant on the night and fully worthy of going through, but it shows the sense of anger that the loss inflicted upon a lot of the country. Hodgson’s resignation in the immediate aftermath was no surprise, and the usual inquisition into the state of the national game was quick to begin as usual.
In such a short time, all the common possible factors have been discussed – a poor, tactically-inept manager; a Premier League environment which hinders the development of local players; widespread problems within the structural foundations of English grassroots football. Plenty of other feasible suggestions. Even the lack of real passion and desire from the players, if you’re that way inclined. It’s right to bring these things up, to do all that you can to improve. But just as important as asking these questions is the addition of some perspective first.
However shocking the game against Iceland may have been, both on a technical and tactical level, the fact that it was so out of sync compared to their other performances at the tournament is something to hold in mind. England moved the ball pretty well against Russia, Wales and Slovakia, controlling things and dictating the matches. The offensive game worked nicely other than the conversion of control into real end product, effective movement from Adam Lallana and Kyle Walker on the right in particular being a highlight, while defensively they conceded very, very few chances.
Other than Spain, Croatia and Portugal (who had similar shooting issues), it’s arguable that no other sides were as convincing as England in the group stages. A relatively easy group does have to come into consideration, of course. And it wasn’t perfect by any means. But a lot of the positives from those matches were things that should have been transferrable into other games regardless of the opposition. To see those all fly out of the window against Iceland was incredibly odd. It was, much like that late goal which Russia scored, a real freak, something not at all reflective of how the young side had played up until that point. To ignore that is rather extreme revisionism.
Hodgson has been slated for using the exact same three words in his resignation press conference, but “these things happen” in knockout football. Being quite so drastically far down from your standard level is definitely unacceptable, of course, there’s no denying that, though launching into full-blown crisis mode off the back of one dreadful game? The situation isn't always that bad. Extremities and national inquests shouldn’t always be the reaction to going out of a tournament; it’s not like it’s worked too well for England so far, anyway.
But there are issues that need to be dissected and addressed. Even if the severity of them has already been blown way out of proportion. And speaking of the manager, maybe getting Hodgson’s replacement right is the biggest problem that the country’s FA have to solve. There’s always been a tendency for England to look at improving things from the bottom-up, more complicated methods of increasing investment into the processes of developing younger players and whatnot, but the opposite approach of working top-down can be just as, if not more productive when done properly.
Having a coach with a clearly defined style, who can implement that on a core group of players, would be a huge step for England to make. Some of the criticism directed towards Hodgson over his tenure was over the top, but that was something he can be fairly accused of not managing – to give the team an identity. Chile, who recently won their second successive Copa América, are a great example of a nation who have made that work for them. From Marcelo Bielsa through to Jorge Sampaoli, and now to Juan Antonio Pizzi, the philosophy has been planted and continuously built upon. Having a clear idea to revolve around has worked wonders for them.
Even if something like that happened and it didn’t trickle down the English system, the benefit of all that would at the very least be demonstrable in one-off games. There was no real strategy to fall back on in the game against Iceland when things clearly weren’t going England’s way; not a ‘plan B’, but a lack of a distinct plan in the first place at all. If you can’t piece it all together at the top level (i.e. tactics and team selections), everything else you may or may not have done in the build-up to that can be rendered somewhat irrelevant. Not that such a thing makes the process unimportant, a long way from it, you just want to try and minimise the possibility of that happening as much as you possibly can.
For that, Italy may well be a fair example. Going into Euro 2016 this Azzurri side were regarded by many as ‘their worst in years’, yet in Antonio Conte they have arguably the only world class manager at the tournament. That showed against Belgium and especially Spain, as they put in what were probably the two smartest tactical displays of any side throughout the competition until now. Countries like Iceland and Hungary could be used to exemplify that too, in the sense of them being able to get more than the sum of their parts out of their individual players. There’s no reason England can’t go on to do that under the right person.
Quite who the man to do that could – or should – be is another discussion, although right now there's lots of talk about Gareth Southgate taking the position on an interim basis. We'll have to wait and see what ends up happening. One thing that could go on to benefit whoever Hodgson’s replacement (plus English football as a whole) may be, though, is the influx of genuinely high quality coaches coming into the Premier League right now. Conte’s starting at Chelsea soon, of course, while the likes of Pep Guardiola, Jürgen Klopp and Mauricio Pochettino are all hugely progressive football minds. There are plenty of others as well.
The latter two of those specific names have impressively built strong foundations at their respective clubs already, while Guardiola’s changed and developed whole football cultures before. It’s nothing that England’s FA have consciously chosen to do, but if that kind of influence can rub off within their clubs and the nation’s younger players then that’ll be a big step in the right direction. Another way of going top-down that can help the country make the steps to where they believe they should be if the right people can maximise its effect.
Hopefully the organisation does make effective, deliberate choices regarding the English national team though. Especially for the managerial appointment. And them seeking to improve the model for academies and player development within the country is certainly something to be widely encouraged. Asking the questions is very important. Maybe it doesn’t need to be as complicated and drastic as they always try to make it, though.