LONDON—On Friday, everyone agreed it was a job only half-done. By Tuesday, with a second successive win, it was a job duly—if not entirely comfortably—completed.
England are going to the World Cup.
Many different England sides have been to a World Cup before. Good ones, not-so-good ones, “golden generations.”
Invariably, however, recent England sides have headed off to the World Cup touted as potential winners, with thoughts of greatness, of sporting immortality, planted in their minds.
The reality has never quite lived up to the promise, the illusion invariably punctured by the actual results. Since their last voyage to the semi-finals of international football’s—heck, all football’s—most important competition, at Italia ‘90, England’s World Cup campaigns have followed a similar pattern.
Squeeze through awkward, but rarely truly “difficult,” groups without playing impressively. Then, if fans at home are lucky, an initial knockout triumph—perhaps misleadingly impressive (beating Denmark 3-0 in 2002); more often frustratingly laboured (1-nil over Ecuador in 2006).
But the end always comes too soon, and rarely with any great last stand. The memorable second-round contest against Argentina in 1998 apart, England have failed to really spark in subsequent exits to Brazil, Portugal and, infamously, Germany.
This England has a chance to change that.
For over a year, head coach Roy Hodgson waded through a fraught, unsatisfying qualification campaign where qualification never looked like being as straightforward as many hoped—with criticism of his squad and its tactical style reaching peak volume following the 0-0 draw in Ukraine last month.
But not losing in Kiev, setting up defensively to minimise the prospect of defeat, was ultimately crucial in England securing automatic qualification. And it set up two decisive final qualifiers that, hopefully, will send this squad to Brazil better prepared and with a more helpful mindset than their predecessors.
For so long accused of being scared of failure, especially on home soil, this England team came through two raucous Wembley atmospheres—Poland’s travelling contingent making the final qualifier feel more like a Manchester derby in the FA Cup final—to get the job done, scoring six goals (six!) in the process.
(Gerrard's clincher - GIF via Sportsnet)
Yes, it can be argued that both opponents were limited—even if Hodgson maintained Group H contained “no mugs” (and, in Stevan Jovetic and Robert Lewandowski, Montenegro and Poland have individuals lauded among the very best at club level).
But with a high price to be paid for failure in either contest, England instead produced attacking, inventive football that produced the desired results.
When they threatened to stumble (after Dejan Damjanovic’s goal to make it 2-1 on Friday, when heading into the final 10 minutes only one goal from disaster against Poland), they regrouped and got another goal to confirm victory.
“Both performances have been good,” Hodgson later opined. “The important thing was to do the job.
“It sounds easy, two games at home, two wins needed, but everyone who has been involved knows it is not as easy as that.
“We feel that we can be proud of that achievement and we can look forward to our reward, which will be playing in Brazil.”
It takes extreme pressure to turn carbon into diamonds. However subtly, England’s squad will have been changed, for the better, by these experiences.
While far from the finished product, England have suddenly become a team more feared for its attack than respected for its defence. Friday’s match-winning debutant, Andros Townsend, added another option to Hodgson’s swashbuckling forwards—Daniel Sturridge, Danny Welbeck (who can be inconsistent for Manchester United, but seems always to deliver strong performances for England) and the pivotal Wayne Rooney completing a quartet that is both unpredictable and multi-faceted.
Then there are the likes of Theo Walcott, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Aaron Lennon and Wilfried Zaha all hoping to return to that mix.
“England definitely have a great team,” Montenegro’s manager Branko Brnovic said on Friday, before a question about debutant Townsend sparked him to muse on this England side’s greatest strength:
“[Townsend] really a high-quality player. He’s fast and England were fast with the wingers. They were really hard to defend against.
"The whole team is very fast and we had problems against that, and that is why they won.”
Four days later, another opposition manager was praising England’s current crop, noting how they had grown since a dour 1-1 draw in Warsaw almost exactly 12 months ago.
“England are getting stronger and stronger,” Waldemar Fornalik said. “We can compare the way they played last time [against us] with the way they played tonight.
“They look better and better with every match they play and they will always be contenders for the [World Cup].”
Of course, Hodgson has a number of issues to deal with before such promise can be realised.
Firstly, there is the left-back conundrum—made real by Leighton Baines’ two outstanding performances in Ashley Cole’s absence.
Hodgson was full of praise for Baines but refused to go beyond saying the player should be “pleased” with his efforts, an indication that Cole remains first-choice when available. But the Everton full-back offers so much in attack, along with being perhaps the best dead-ball specialist in the squad, that leaving him out is beginning to feel like sacrificing too much.
Ousting Cole—who has never let his country down, not in over 100 appearances—is one possibility. Playing Baines in a more advanced, left-midfield role is another.
Central midfield is another conundrum. Gerrard, as captain, seems secure as one of the two deep-lying midfielders (Hodgson described it as “fitting” that Gerrard got the goal that finally secured England’s World Cup place), but his partner remains an issue.
Frank Lampard did not gel well with the Liverpool man in their 59th international appearance together against Montenegro, while the man who replaced him against Poland, Michael Carrick, seemed at time to impinge on his skipper’s role (as good as he was in doing so—leading the team in passes made and completion percentage before his substitution).
A more incisive, less-lateral midfield partner for Gerrard might work better tactically. Jack Wilshere and Ross Barkley (even Ravel Morrison?) might each get the rest of their domestic season to impress in this role, although there may remain concerns that neither give England the defensive bite they need.
If only Jack Rodwell had developed as hoped, maybe he could have been the best solution.
Defensively, England are clearly not as strong as they were when Rio Ferdinand and John Terry (in their primes) were able to be called upon. Gary Cahill and Phil Jagielka are a reasonable partnership, but not one you feel confident of frustrating the best attacking lineups for 90 or 120 minutes.
The only time England have been truly successful at a World Cup, winning it in 1966, it was a triumph predicated on a watertight defence.
"Perfection is an ideal seldom achieved,” as Manchester United’s Sir Matt Busby famously said of that back four. “[England’s] defence has almost achieved it."
Nevertheless, Hodgson now has six months to look at all those issues.
If nothing else, the squad may be further hardened by likely November friendlies with Germany and one of Argentina and Ukraine (both lined up by the Football Association for the next international break, assuming England were not involved in World Cup playoffs scheduled for then), and warm-up encounters in the Americas next summer.
In that time, any number of other young players might just force themselves into the reckoning, giving Roy Hodgson real options.
“At the moment you want to say, right all these 23 [are going to the World Cup],” Hodgson acknowledged. “That’s going to be a tough, tough job when the time comes, because I think there will be more than 23 who have made cases. I am not looking forward to that situation.”
This England squad remains flawed. It does not deserve to be lauded, as so far it has only achieved the minimum required.
But in these last two games it has shown glimpses of potential; a streak of creativity and unpredictability that the Three Lions rarely taken to a World Cup before.
This England squad might actually surprise us. It might actually be enjoyable to watch at a World Cup. That itself would be a victory of sorts.
“We've got a chance,” Hodgson mused. “If you want to win the lottery, buy a lottery ticket. We have our ticket.”