With one classy and outrageous penalty kick, Andrea Pirlo confirmed what we’ve known all along: England just aren’t good enough.
Perhaps we knew, but just didn’t want to admit it.
The players certainly didn’t want to: All the pre-quarterfinal talk was about how good the team felt playing together, how they would continue their fine defence-first run, how they were dreaming of reaching the final on the back of such momentum.
But after 120 minutes of being battered by Italy, England couldn’t have anything else to say but that Italy were deserving winners of Sunday’s Euro 2012 quarterfinal.
Not so long ago, England confounded all expectations by finishing as comfortable winners of Group D, but perhaps the reason they’ve always exited at the quarterfinal stage is that they’re good, but not that good.
Here are 10 lessons learned from England’s Euro 2012 campaign—and, as usual, feel free to have your say in the comments below.
One of the defining images from this summer’s Euros has to be the white-shirted walls on display against France, Sweden, Ukraine and Italy.
Roy Hodgson’s “two banks of four” were put in place impeccably and formed two walls of nearly impregnable warriors between Joe Hart’s goal and opposing attackers.
His favored 4-4-2 system worked, but only got England so far.
Looking across the continent, we saw the innovative (if somewhat baffling) 4-6-0 employed by Vicente Del Bosque’s Spain, the 4-2-3-1 of Joachim Low’s Germany, the 4-5-1 of Paolo Bento’s Portugal, and so on.
We saw the frequency of Ukraine’s Andriy Yarmolenko and Italy’s midfielders finding space between those two walls of defence, perhaps as the textbook example of playing “between the lines.”
Either way, the summer of 2012 was when the old English favorite, the good old 4-4-2, was finally assigned historical status and should be banished to the history books.
When we limit ourselves to the, well, limited permutations that the 4-4-2 does offer, we see that Roy Hodgson’s defensive selections in John Terry and Joleon Lescott were ultimately justified.
Perhaps Gary Cahill should count himself unlucky as having been ruled out of the tournament through injury, but in a backs-to-the-wall defensive setup, a more elegant, classy defender might not have made the starting XI.
The deep defensive line employed by Hodgson in the tournament meant that ruggedness, aerial ability and a no-nonsense approach were his favored mental attributes.
And until Ashley Young and Cole missed from the spot against Gianluigi Buffon, England threatened (if that’s the right word) to make defending count.
Perhaps Rio Ferdinand was omitted for footballing reasons after all.
The England we saw this June, while underwhelming and having cemented their status as good underdogs, were far from their best.
Remember that the aforementioned Gary Cahill was ruled out, and so were Frank Lampard, who could have provided a valuable outlet through the middle, and Jack Wilshere, who could have been a much more effective No. 10 than Ashley Young turned out to be.
Remember, also, that aside from the injury list, Micah Richards, Kyle Walker, Michael Carrick and Daniel Sturridge were not selected on the back of excellent personal seasons for their respective Premier League clubs.
Whether their exclusions still make sense in hindsight, England still overachieved, arguably, with the players they had at their disposal.
But England—media, fans, players and coach alike—need to stop thinking that one player can make the difference.
Steven Gerrard’s continent-beating performances as England captain perhaps justifies somewhat the importance that we put toward one specific player, but several examples provide evidence to the contrary.
First of all: Wayne Rooney.
His return to the team against Ukraine after serving his two-game suspension was heralded as the return of a player who would lead England into the knockout stages and provide the quality that had been so lacking from England’s first two games.
He contributed an all-important goal to make England group winners, but his overall ineffective play against Ukraine and Italy meant that his return was ultimately an unfortunate and underwhelming affair.
For other examples, see Ashley Young, who was seen as England’s new No. 10; Scott Parker, who couldn’t sustain his terrier-like performances for 90 minutes every game; and Theo Walcott, whose impact as an impact substitute against Italy was sadly negligible.
Another case of eggs-in-a-basket is the curious post-tournament shouts for a return to the England scene for Paul Scholes, led by ex-colleague Michael Owen.
After Pirlo’s performances against England, perhaps this is understandable. After all, Scholes has been one of the best midfielders in English history, and has had his game lauded by many of the game’s greats.
However, this yet again smacks of an overreliance on one player.
A player who has been away from international football for eight years and was a United retiree just a year ago.
In times of defeat and soul-searching, real solutions need to be found, and not a “what-could-have-been” scenario that would only have served to paper over the cracks.
And that is not even considering the fact that Scholes might not have gotten a game in such a defence-heavy Hodgson system.
Whenever it comes to England, underachievement and tournament football, the next term that is brought up is inevitably “Golden Generation.”
Which makes some sense, as a crop of fine players often underperformed as a team in both the European Championships and the World Cup.
But to call on Roy Hodgson to discontinue their selection is just a tad premature.
Three of England’s Golden Generation—Steven Gerrard, John Terry and Ashley Cole—have proved that there is considerable life in the old dog yet, even though they will not be able to put in 90-minute games week in, week out (as Gerrard showed against Italy).
In a young team that will invariably be nurtured going forward, the trio provide much-needed experience, stability and leadership.
It seems that Roy Hodgson agrees.
One of the most sobering realizations on the back of this Euro 2012 campaign is that England just aren’t good enough technically.
If the shots-on-goal statistics in the quarterfinal against Italy weren’t enough, it was even more harrowing that, in those rare times that England did have the ball, they found the blue shirts coming at them again within a matter of passes.
And it certainly didn’t help to see the counterattacking flair of Portugal, the devastating efficiency of Germany and the passing patience of Spain around them, all on display in the other quarterfinals.
The almost complete lack of a passing touch, composure and ball retention summed up England’s approach: heroic but in vain.
But one of the things that Roy Hodgson has unequivocally succeeded at is instilling the fighting mentality that is so typical of his teams.
After the team seemed broken and divided during and following the 2006 World Cup, uninterested and dispirited in their eventual failure to qualify for Euro 2008, and detached and distant during the 2010 World Cup—the England team on show this summer has been united and committed.
And the players, as much as Hodgson himself, deserve much of the credit.
England may lack the technical brilliance to win a tournament, but they now possess the fighting spirit that makes them a good underdog.
That’s the easy half of the journey…
The defining argument in and around English football is that club will always be important than country, that the Premier League far outstrips the national team in importance.
Given the popularity and commercial success of the Premier League, it is hard to begrudge the fans for holding such an opinion.
The cynics in England fans may insist that, while England’s starting XI may possess many a top-four player, they remain the support act for their club sides.
Scott Parker provides the platform for Luka Modric, Steven Gerrard for Luis Suarez, Gareth Barry for David Silva, and so on.
The nature of the EPL beast dictates that English clubs will continue to pursue the best players internationally.
But considering the Financial Fair Play rules that are to come into in the next few seasons, and with the homegrown player mandates already in place, Premier League clubs are putting increasing emphasis on the development of young players.
To some extent, this has already happened.
Waiting in the wings, besides the excluded Micah Richards, Kyle Walker and Daniel Sturridge, are Martin Kelly, Phil Jones, Chris Smalling, Tom Cleverley, Jack Wilshere and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain in a talented group of young English footballers looking to burst onto the European and international scene in the coming years.
Amongst the crop mentioned are defenders who have strong attacking tendencies and midfielders who opt for finesse over pure graft.
So amidst all the resignation that has come with England’s exit from Euro 2012, the national team’s future is not all doom and gloom.
Now for an England coach that is prepared to nurture and unleash the latest off the conveyor belt.
What did you make of England’s Euro 2012 campaign? What do you think about England’s future in international football?
Let us know in the comments below.