England can’t win the World Cup in Brazil next year.
Since qualifying last month, that is all we have heard from former England players turned pundits, including Chris Waddle and Alan Shearer. We've heard it from a variety of opponents, including Chile’s Alexis Sanchez, too.
Even the chairman of the Football Association, Greg Dyke, had earlier told the BBC: "I don't think anyone realistically thinks we are going to win the World Cup in Brazil."
While it is very difficult to imagine Steven Gerrard hoisting the World Cup above his head at the Maracana next July, none of this should now detract from Roy Hodgson’s achievement in reaching the tournament and his growing confidence as manager.
Appointed on the eve of the European Championship last year, the start of Hodgson’s reign was first characterised by caution.
What did England fans expect? Over 38 years in club and international management, Hodgson had built a reputation as a highly respected coach, but his sides have always been solid and organised rather than cavalier and attractive.
At Euro 2012, England emerged as group winners with wins over Sweden and Ukraine and a draw with France, but then with depressing predictability lost to Italy on penalties in the quarter-finals.
To lose by the lottery of penalties is no shame, but it was their sterile performance in the 120 minutes before that which was most frustrating.
Hodgson suffocated England with a defensive approach that saw them have just 36 percent possession of the ball. Italy passed the ball 815 times compared to England’s 320. The team's most prolific passer was goalkeeper Joe Hart.
The Italian press mocked England’s timid capitulation.
Corriere della Sera declared, as reported in the Guardian, “Old Roy knowing the limits of his team ordered everyone back. This was an embarrassing England for its lack of ideas and decent feet.”
The lack of decent feet is a polite way of saying England struggled to keep hold of the ball. This was acknowledged by Three Lions captain Steven Gerrard, again per the Guardian.
It's one of the biggest points the management and coaching staff will have to look into. They have to analyse why we aren't keeping the ball better. Especially at this level because it's fundamental, and it's the key if you want to beat the big teams. You have to keep the ball, otherwise you work so hard without it the other side end up running you into the ground.
The truth is England’s World Cup qualifying campaign was largely an uninspiring affair, beating up San Marino and Moldova, while only securing draws away at Poland and Montenegro.
After eight games, England had not lost, but they had drawn half of their fixtures with an increasingly cautious approach.
The 0-0 away draw in Ukraine in September was ostensibly a good result, earning a crucial point, but accomplished with another overly defensive performance that provoked a great deal of frustration.
In Kiev, England suffered once again from an inability to keep the ball, and resorted to playing long balls into the opposition half to avoid the risk of having to pass through them.
It felt outdated and staid. As reported in The Independent, it prompted former England captain Gary Lineker to brand England’s performance “awful.”
Hodgson was unrepentant. As reported in the Daily Telegraph, he said: "Did we play longer balls forward early? Yes, we did. That was a tactical change. We didn't want to play out from the back and invite the pressure from a very strong pressurising team."
Ahead of England’s final two qualifiers at Wembley where they needed to win both to be certain of reaching Brazil, Hodgson knew he had to be decisive.
For the first game against Montenegro, he selected three strikers in Wayne Rooney, Danny Welbeck and Daniel Sturridge, and handed a debut to Andros Townsend.
The 22-year-old Tottenham winger responded with a stirring performance, setting up one goal and scoring another in a comfortable 4-1 win to reward Hodgson’s boldness.
The England players revelled in their new freedom, with Wayne Rooney being quoted in the Guardian praising Hodgson:
Credit to the manager, he picked a really young, attacking team. There were four of us up front, with Steve and Frank behind, and we all attacked. Andros Townsend made a great debut, especially in such a pressure game. To come in for your first start, perform like that and score such an important goal was great for him and the team, and exciting for the future.
Ahead of next year's World Cup, has Hodgson evolved into an adventurous and attacking coach? Probably not. Needing those two wins, it was more of a pragmatic move.
Hodgson has seen the benefit of adopting an attacking approach, though. Furthermore, England proved they possess the players to play attacking football, with flying wingers and overlapping full-backs. Hodgson has really no excuse for not doing it again.
If the manager retreats back to his early England sides, they will struggle in Brazil. If he wants to do more than survive, and if he wants to prosper and test just what this group of players are capable of, he will remember the verve and freedom they played with against both Montenegro and Poland.
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