How Roy Hodgson Can Rebuild England in Germany's Image
Sunday's loss was about more than penalty kicks for England. It was a total failure of footballing philosophy.
The "Three Lions" looked outdated, a side clinging to the tenets of a bygone age. They played the role of Aztecs: attempting to stave off with slings and arrows the musket-laden attack of Conquistadors.
It began with an impressive few forays in the first fifteen minutes. After that, they essentially fell back and let Andrea Pirlo dictate proceedings.
A country with perhaps the best domestic league in the world pinned their semi-final hopes to obdurate defending and a few desperate counterattacks.
The result was poetically justified. The best team won. Italy advanced.
What follows is an assessment of where they got it wrong and how those negative trends can be reversed. Next, we look at the players best suited to carry out a transformation.
Where They Got It Wrong
Let's start with the negatives.
The 4-4-2 has to go.
It cedes control of the midfield and does not adequately facilitate high rates of possession.
Against Italy, Scott Parker and Steven Gerrard served as the lone central midfielders. Both players are over 30-years-old. Thus, when facing a team with three in the middle, they get stretched.
The idea is that James Milner and Ashley Young are available to provide additional cover from out wide.
In reality, that rarely works out.
Thus, when England run up against a disciplined side like the Italians they get overrun. Accordingly, players lose their composure on the ball. They make the kind of passing decisions which correlate with frustration and impatience.
Further, anticipated movement in the final third is too speculative. The system relies on crosses and long balls generally directed towards a holding center-forward. Neither form of pass yields a high enough completion percentage to be warranted with any regularity.
There is also the tendency to leave the holding striker exposed if the team is consistently dropping back. This was the case late in the Italian game when Andy Carroll was essentially playing on an island.
The German Model
So how do they fix it?
Following the German model deployed by Joachim Low makes the most sense. It has the potential to modernize by emphasizing passing and movement. However, it still leaves room for the aggression and speed which characterize the English game.
In short, Low utilizes a 4-2-3-1. It would be an improvement in three major areas.
First, it places three midfielders in the middle of the park at all times. That gives Hodgson's men a fighting chance at keeping the ball.
Second, it modifies wing play into a hybrid centre-forward role wherein the players cut in as often as they cross. Possession is once again improved. It also provides a more diverse attacking threat.
Finally, the 4-2-3-1 is far more fluid than the current model. Each player fits into a distinct passing lane in a hybrid role. As a result, play is more dynamic and challenging to defend.
The New Starting XI
Overhauling the entire system will not happen overnight.
Taking the long view, I selected only those players who are currently under the age of 27. The idea here is that it is best to start almost completely fresh.
Hodgson may take a few more lumps at first by abandoning some of his stalwarts. However, the present generation have had ample opportuntiy to perform.
Further, Germany's roster at 2008 puts forth the argument that youth may not necessarily correlate to worse results even in the short term.
Without further ado, here are my selections.
GK: Joe Hart (Captain)
Subs From: John Ruddy
No surprises here.
Hart was one of the few standout performers this summer. There is also a total lack of suitable alternatives.
He is given the Captain's armband. It makes sense given his confidence on the pitch and the likelihood he will be guarding the goalposts for the foreseeable future.
RB: Micah Richards
Subs From: Martin Kelly
Glen Johnson is excluded purely for age reasons based on my aforementioned premise. Martin Kelly is placed on the bench because he provides less offensive support than Micah Richards.
The Manchester City full-back's physicality is daunting. He also has the ability to aid the attack with runs forward. Finally, he possesses tremendous athletic ability which helps him avoid getting caught up.
Tactical CB: Gary Cahill
Subs From: Phil Jones
The modern game relies on a two-pronged approach to selecting center-backs.
The first defender should possess more technical skill than his counterpart. Ideally, they are comfortable playing the ball at their feet and will regularly start the attacking movement by directing play with intelligent passes.
Gary Cahill provides the foil for the physical John Terry in this way. He should play here until Phil Jones fully hits his stride and takes over down the road.
Enforcer CB: Chris Smalling
Subs From: Ryan Shawcross
At 6'4" and 6'3" respectively, both Chris Smalling and Ryan Shawcross can fill the role of the physical center back.
The idea is to have an aggressive physical presence to complement a smaller counterpart. Either player listed should be able to grow into this role.
LB: Kyle Walker
Subs From: Kieran Gibbs
Walker was selected as the PFA Young Player of the Year over the likes of Daniel Sturridge, Sergio Aguero and Danny Welbeck. He is an incredible talent at full back.
By the time of the next World Cup, Ashley Cole will be 33 and Leighton Baines 29. Thus, I think it makes sense to change the guard sooner rather than later.
Tottenham's starlet has tremendous offensive ability and would provide an imposing physical bookend to Micah Richards.
DCM: Jack Rodwell
Subs From: Emmanuel Frimpong, Phil Jones
Germany's three man midfield is nominally a 2-1 with Sami Khedira and Bastian Schweinsteiger in the back and Mesut Ozil up front.
However, there is a tremendous amount of rotation between the three. Rodwell plays the Khedira position here.
Assuming both outgrow their present troubles they should be able slot in well as defensive midfielders. Rodwell appears the best fit as he is further along in his development. Frimpong is also a touch more one-dimensional at the moment.
CM: Tom Cleverley
Subs From: Jonjo Shelvey, Henri Lansbury, Jordan Henderson
Tom Cleverley is the selection to mirror Schweinsteiger in the center of the pitch. Thus, the mission statement here is to pass and move and then pass once more.
Cleverley must be ceaselessly available as an outlet. He must also possess the confidence to maintain the ball and direct forward movement.
For those who doubt his aptitude in this regard, I refer you to the quality of his play early in the campaign before going out with injury.
You could be looking at the heir apparent to Paul Scholes.
ACM: Jack Wilshere
Subs From: Josh McEachran
Within the 4-2-3-1, this is the lynchpin. Germany are largely so successful because of the world-class ability of Mesut Ozil.
Fortunately for Hodgson, he has two outstanding options in Wilshere and McEachran.
Great sides in the modern game require a dynamic creative midfielder. Names which come to mind include Andrea Pirlo, Luka Modric or just about anyone from the Spanish national team.
Wilshere represents England's best prospect to take on the responsibility.
RW: Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain
Subs From: Theo Walcott
Despite his relative youth an inexperience, Oxlade-Chamberlain has the potential to become a more well-rounded winger than his Arsenal counterpart Theo Walcott.
Walcott is incredibly quick, however that speed has served as somewhat of a crutch in stunting his technical ability. Oxlade-Chamberlain on the other hand, has already shown flashes of the ability to take the ball at defenders with more regularity.
That tendency to move into the center of the pitch fits this system best. For that reason, Oxlade-Chamberlain gets the start.
He could easily play on the right flank for England for the next decade.
LW: Ashley Young
Subs From: Adam Johnson, Scott Sinclair, Danny Welbeck
Stewart Downing gets dropped because of his age and tendency to push wide too often. Adam Johnson has potential, however, his lack of regular minutes at Eastlands is worrying. Scott Sinclair is highly intriguing as he essentially played this position under Brendan Rodgers.
That said, Ashley Young is the best choice for now. He had a tremendous scoring record in World Cup qualifying and a reasonable first campaign with Manchester United.
However, Johnson, Sinclair or even Danny Welbeck can push him for minutes should he not perform.
ST: Wayne Rooney
Subs From: Danny Welbeck, Daniel Sturridge, Andy Carroll, Fraizer Campbell, Connor Wickham
Although Joachim Low currently uses Mario Gomez as his first-choice striker, the better model to follow is that of Miroslav Klose.
Within the 4-2-3-1, forwards are equal parts conduit and poacher. Rooney is ideal because he displays the box-to-box qualities necessary.
Behind him there is a wide array of raw talent. Only time will tell who consistently earns inclusion.
So there you have it: A rebuilt English side full of youth and potential. They may not win the next World Cup. However, it will till the ground for a modernized side built to compete with the world's best.
England have the talent to compete with the likes of Italy. They should not have to play like they did on Sunday. The Three Lions are better than that.
With a change of philosophy, patience and the right players, anything is possible.