10 Things England Must Improve for World Cup 2014
As usual, England have returned home from a major tournament having been dealt a harsh reminder of their limitations.
While going out in the quarterfinals to eventual finalists Italy on penalties might have exceeded most fans' pre-Euro 2012 expectations, England's performances in Ukraine did not exactly fuel sky-high hopes for the future.
But manager Roy Hodgson is only two months into his four-year contract as manager and must now turn his attentions to reaching the 2014 World Cup.
There is not enough time for any of the traditional "root and branch" reforms that are routinely demanded whenever England fail.
However, there are things that Hodgson can look to improve or change completely in time for the expected trip to Brazil.
Clearly Define Their Style
Watching England play at Euro 2012 was an unedifying experience to say the least. Whilst they claimed a shambolic but entertaining 3-2 win over Sweden, the 1-0 victory over Ukraine and draws with France and Italy provided little in the way of thrills.
However, at least they had a game plan. In previous tournaments England looked like a collection of individuals, so it was refreshing to see them working together with clear purpose.
It may not make for great viewing, but perhaps England should just focus on honing a play style that suits them best rather than impressing the spectator.
Take Friendlies Seriously
There have been more England friendlies over the years than many would care to remember. That’s not surprising, considering that the majority of them are so forgettable.
Too many times England have welcomed lacklustre opposition to Wembley to play out games in which none of the players really apply themselves for fear of injury, and eight or nine half-time substitutions reduce them to a confused kickabout.
International squads are brought together only a handful of times between tournaments, so it is important that they are treated as seriously as possible in order to reach the optimum level when they enter a major finals.
Strike a Deal with Clubs to Release Players
A major part of the reason why players are often given 30-minute runouts in friendlies before being hauled off again and wrapped in cotton wool is because of the power Premier League clubs wield.
Ever since Newcastle United’s huge £10 million compensation claim filed for Michael Owen’s injury suffered at the 2006 World Cup, the FA has been forced to tow the line of clubs who—understandably—do not want their expensive assets damaged.
However, many other major footballing nations are given the grace to play their star players as much as they want, and English football should follow that lead. If a man with the standing and sway of Roy Hodgson cannot convince Premier League bosses to play ball, then no one can.
Book High Quality Opposition
As mentioned previously, a large number of England friendlies are booked against sub-standard opposition who are beat with a regulation 2-0 victory; everyone leaves learning little or nothing.
At least in non-competitive matches last year, the FA booked opposition at either end of the world’s top 16—Spain and Ghana—and enjoyed enjoyable and well-contested games in which the managers all waited until at least the hour mark before making a slew of changes.
That is not to denigrate so-called “lesser” nations, but England play enough games against teams way down the FIFA rankings during qualifying campaigns, both home and away. Playing better teams more often is the only way to assess England’s true worth.
Pick Players on Merit and Form
There was a certain irony in Frank Lampard missing Euro 2012 through injury, as he had just ended a season in which he had developed into a player who looked like they could finally gel with long-time international midfield partner Steven Gerrard.
This is not to pick on the Chelsea man (pretty sure he’ll get over it, anyway). He is just one of several players who have kept their place in the England team when his form did not justify his place, and results suffered as a result.
The same could be said for Wayne Rooney walking straight back into the team after his two-game suspension was through, and he was one of England’s most disappointing players.
One of the first things Italy manager Cesare Prandelli did upon taking the job in 2010 was the break up Marcello Lippi’s old boys’ club and establish a true meritocracy in his squad. The benefits of such an approach are there for all to see.
Take Games Around Country
When the FA drew up plans to tear down the old Wembley Stadium, they were faced with a clear choice: build the new ground on the same site in north-west London or move it to a place which is far more accessible for the rest of the country.
They chose the former.
The new Wembley is a fine stadium, of that there is no doubt, but it is an hour-and-a-half journey from other parts of the capital; getting to it from football heartlands further north is even more of a task.
That has led to many northern fans dismissing the England national team as a mainly southern enterprise, a crying shame.
Spain, Germany and France all take their home international fixtures around their respective countries, something which would surely make the England team more appealing were it to be replicated by the FA.
Still, with the £800 million cost of construction still to be recouped, that probably won’t happen any time soon.
The Press Should Give Hodgson Time
Such was the uproar among the great English press corps when it transpired that their anointed sole candidate for the England vacancy, Harry Redknapp, was not going to get the job that the media’s reception for Hodgson was distinctly prickly.
Despite being the only candidate the FA spoke to about the position, and Hodgson having a strong claim for the job himself, the papers were noticeably negative about the appointment. The Sun, Britain’s biggest-selling newspaper, set the tone nicely by using its front page to mock Hodgson’s speech impediment: "Bwing on the Euwos! (We'll see you in Ukwaine against Fwance)."
They soon stepped back and let Hodgson get on with his job, and fortunately for him, results were sufficient for them to get off his back.
However, if England keep playing the way they do in the coming games, it will only take one or two disappointing results before they will be tempted to sharpen the knives. If that happens, they could drive him out, and England will be back to square one yet again.
England Must Stop Expecting
The long-standing argument used by the press to justify the way they savage England managers who are struggling is to say that they are only reflecting public opinion.
To what degree that is true is open to debate, but it is true that England fans are just as likely to lay into an England manager, some perhaps even more so. While it is the fans who go through the biggest emotional journey during a tournament, they must learn to realign their expectations with reality.
England have never beaten any of Spain, Germany, Argentina, Brazil, Italy, France, Netherlands or Portugal in the knockout stage of a major tournament outside of Wembley. The sooner England fans get used to that fact, the more they can just get on with enjoying the highs when they do come, rather than wallowing in the far more frequent disappointments of expectations not being met.
Be Lucky with Injuries
England’s prospects at Euro 2012 were hampered by several players getting ruled out of the tournament through injury.
The losses of Jack Wilshere, Darren Bent, Frank Lampard and John Ruddy all—too varying degrees—had an effect on the squad in the build-up to the tournament.
Wilshere missed the entirety of last season through injury, but it is still hoped that he will be able to play a major part in England’s qualification and finals campaigns for the 2014 World Cup.
Avoid External Issues Affecting Team Selection Policy
As well as injuries, other factors precluded Hodgson from being able to have certain players available for selection.
Despite Hodgson’s stubborn affirmation that Rio Ferdinand was not chosen for “footballing reasons,” it is hard to believe that the upcoming trial of John Terry for racially abusing Ferdinand’s brother Anton—a charge Terry vehemently denies—did not play some part in his thinking.
Manchester City right-back Micah Richards and Manchester United midfielder Michael Carrick could not be bothered with being put on the stand-by list. Ironically, injury to Kyle Walker meant that Liverpool’s Martin Kelly, put on stand-by in Richards’s stead, ended up going to the tournament and perhaps elbowed his way to the front of the queue should Glen Johnson fall out of favour.