When you say it out loud, it's fairly obvious. Roy Hodgson's England are not genuine contenders for the World Cup.
No matter how you slice it, even if England win their two remaining qualifiers and secure qualification for Brazil 2014, they have no hope. A last eight spot (if that) is optimistic. A last-16 one may be also, considering that only San Marino and Moldova have been put to the sword in qualifying.
Ah, but it's a cup competition you say, the best side doesn't always win, and Hodgson's men have only lost on penalties in competitive games since his arrival. Look at Brazil in 2002 and the horrendous way they qualified, or Italy in 2006 when no one gave them much hope in the midst of the Calciopoli scandal. They both took the crown despite not being favourites.
Or what about Spain in 2010....actually let's forget about Spain.
Yes it's true that both Italy and Brazil weren't expected to leave either Japan/South Korea or Germany with the World Cup trophy in their hands. However, make no doubt about it, they were both very good sides with astute tactical plans, capable of keeping possession when necessary and with individual talent—Ronaldinho, Rivaldo and Ronaldo for Brazil, Francesco Totti, Alessandro Del Piero and Andrea Pirlo for Italy—which set them apart.
They, unlike anything Hodgson's England have shown thus far, were capable of doing more than just not losing matches; they had it in them to win against good sides also.
The Three Lions on the other hand...not so much.
Wayne Rooney's an excellent striker but hasn't done it at an international tournament since his breakthrough in 2004 when he frightened the life out of European defences with his rambunctious nature, while Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard are now very much in the twilight of their careers and all together have never been further than the quarterfinal stage.
As for the younger brigade, Danny Welbeck has eight goals in 18 internationals to suggest he's finding his feet with the national team (more so than his goals record at Manchester United does), Jack Wilshere shows promise but needs to be protected with bubble wrap to stop from breaking down every five minutes while Theo Walcott remains Theo Walcott: blessed with outstanding pace, but the infuriating tendency to pick the wrong option time and again.
A defence of Cahill and Jagielka despite a responsible, resolute performance in Ukraine doesn't scream out Cannavaro and Materazzi—he flopped at Everton, but the man is a World Cup, Champions League and five-time Scudetto winner: you can't knock it—while the less said about the under-21s recent travails in Israel, the better.
Aside from personnel, the age-old adage still rings true: England simply do not keep possession well enough.
In the Olympic Stadium in Kyiv on Tuesday evening, against a toothless Ukraine side, the Three Lions were at it again. A couple of decent passes here, go backwards, run out of ideas and aimlessly clear it long for another 50-50 between their defenders and our isolated centre-forward. Other nations see such acts as sacrilege, a very last resort. We see it (still) as a way out of trouble despite other sides having realised that retaining possession stops trouble from occurring in the first place.
And why do we give the ball away so often?
Because still it's the same old linear fashion, full of straight lines and few options for the man actually in possession. Whether it's 4-4-2, 4-1-4-1, 4-3-3 whatever the tactical plan, it doesn't make a difference.
Sure it sees off Moldova and San Marino. But they're Moldova and San Marino!
Certainly Gerrard, Lampard (whoever) can sit in front of the back four and give it to an unmarked centre-half all day, or look for the adventurous killer pass to exploit Walcott's pace. But then, if not straight out of play, where does the ball go? Inevitably Walcott's pace makes him the furthest man forward, but when was the last time you saw him tie a defender in knots through silky dribbling. He thrives on 10-20 yard slide-rule passes inside the full-back—Cleverley vs. Scotland a prime example—not 60-yard blockbusters that stick him along the touchline. Where's the logic?
And how is Michael Carrick, a five-time Premier League winner and perhaps England's best recycler of possession, still not worthy of a starting place? Against Ukraine it was clear as day that Hodgson's XI weren't keeping possession well and were turning it over all too readily. But Carrick wasn't called upon.
Perhaps that point is registered somewhat moot by the lack of movement in front of Carrick's optimal position. After all, Andrea Pirlo has long looked fantastic for Italy with his passing range and vision, but stick him in an England jersey with minimal forward runners and even he'd struggle to find a killer ball worthy of the name.
And away from just keeping possession, what about our propensity for actually creating chances. Once again against a reasonable defence, they were few and far between.
As a national team, our interpretation of space and movement in the final third proves time and again a let down. Too few angles, too few purposeful runs and too few goalscoring opportunities.
(Sure we're decent from set pieces, but what international side worth their salt isn't?)
The closest we have to a Thomas Mueller, a player who picks up intelligent positions off the flank, is arguably Welbeck. But for all his potential he isn't in the same league as the Champions League winner.
But where's our Fabregas, a player adept at finding space in between the lines and creating chances?
Certainly Jack Wilshere can drive through midfield past his man, only to be greeted by a wall of defenders and no passing option, from where his slender frame is inevitably buffeted aside. He's a No.8, someone charged with carrying the ball through the middle third and opening up midfield in the initial attacking phase.
At club level he has two No.10's to play to in the shape of Santi Cazorla and now Mesut Ozil, who can then influence proceedings in the final third. Where's the No. 10 on the international stage, the man capable of providing that central cut and dash to create openings?
We'd like to imagine Rooney rampaging in such a role and dictating proceedings, like Fabregas, but when was the last time he did precisely that against a nation of any relative substance? The 5-1 win over Croatia in 2009 perhaps.
Other than Rooney?
Ross Barkley you say. Come on, let's not get ahead of ourselves, we aren't Roberto Martinez comparing him to Michael Ballack (as reported by Chris Bascombe of the Telegraph).
Talented he may be, but he's had three solid showings to start his club season featuring an excellent goal at Norwich and 30 minutes against Moldova. Jonjo Shelvey was similarly capped at the start of last season and now can't get a sniff. Don't expect Barkley, a man who at under-19, under-20 and under-21 international level has 21 caps and just one goal to be that guy.
Still, we lack. And yet still we talk of the future like some renaissance in waiting, where once again we will meet the best and defeat them when it matters. New FA chairman Greg Dyke spoke of winning the 2022 World Cup. At least he didn't say next year.
Nevertheless, England are seemingly set to be haunted by the same old failings as we head closer to next year's World Cup.
The Three Lions should now—barring two Wembley disasters—qualify and take their place alongside 31 other nations. But without tactical and stylistic changes, its going to be a similar story to South Africa 2010 and Poland/Ukraine 2012: Good enough to be there, but nowhere near strong enough to threaten.
Hodgson's men will never be found wanting for effort and endeavour. But contrary to what some may have you believe, at the highest level wanting it isn't nearly enough. And unfortunately, inspiration, both on the pitch and on the bench, remains lacking.
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