The team we wanted, the performance we wanted…just not quite the result we wanted.
England did not do everything right on Saturday—far from it, in fact—but they did far more right than they ever managed in international tournaments of the recent past. Hyperbole is an odd thing to worry about in the aftermath of a painful opening defeat, but this may well have been England’s best all-round performance at a World Cup since they dismantled Denmark in the knockout rounds in 2002.
The unvarnished reality, of course, is that England will now face Uruguay in Sao Paulo on Thursday knowing that another defeat could leave them open to being one of the first teams eliminated from the tournament, should Italy and Costa Rica draw when they meet a day later.
England’s 2-1 loss to Italy was ultimately the result of a couple of defensive lapses at an inopportune moment, as both Danny Welbeck and Leighton Baines failed to seal off the left flank, giving Antonio Candreva just enough time and space to aim a deep cross into Mario Balotelli at the far post. The former Manchester City striker duly steered his header past Joe Hart, giving the Azzurri their second lead of the contest.
The first lead—granted after Andrea Pirlo’s astute dummy had created the time and space for Claudio Marchisio to fire home from the edge of the box—was cancelled out almost immediately, as Wayne Rooney found Daniel Sturridge with a measured left-foot cross for the Liverpool forward to smash home.
But the second deficit proved altogether harder to recover for Roy Hodgson’s side, as Italy locked down defensively and prevented their opponents from creating more than a handful of half-chances and dubious penalty appeals.
This was a lesson to many of England’s players, inexperienced at this level: You don’t always get what you deserve, and even the slightest mistakes will be punished.
“We played most of the second half in their half,” captain Steven Gerrard told the BBC. "At this level, it's so cruel. You can try so hard and come away with nothing.”
Hodgson added: "It's very tough to accept that we have lost the game. But the performance gives us great confidence going forward.”
Both men have a point, even if Pirlo’s remarkable late free-kick could have actually added an extra gloss to the final scoreline for Cesare Prandelli’s men, who also ensured Hart was generally the busier goalkeeper on the evening. Nevertheless, there were many positives to be taken.
Hodgson gave the public what they wanted with his starting lineup, bringing in Raheem Sterling to play behind Daniel Sturridge, and asking Wayne Rooney and Danny Welbeck to patrol the flanks ahead of Steven Gerrard and Jordan Henderson.
Sterling, just 19, started brightly and was a constant threat throughout, justifying his selection fully as he made himself central to a more fluid passing approach than is often seen from England. Two years ago, when the two sides met in the European Championships, Joe Hart to Andy Carroll was the most attempted pass from Hodgson's side. This time around, Hart almost always looked to throw the ball out to a defender in space.
England’s greater array of young attacking talents was further showcased as the game went on, as Ross Barkley, Jack Wilshere and Adam Lallana all got their chance to come on and impact the game.
Prandelli on England: They really have one of the World Cup's strongest attacks. I'm so satisfied because we played against a great team— tariq panja (@tariqpanja) June 15, 2014
Barkley in particular showed flashes of inspiration (admittedly, he got the longest time on the pitch) but ultimately could not find a way through an Italy defence that (surprise, surprise) offered a lesson in protecting a lead.
Welbeck, in a rare slip from a forward who usually defends so diligently, may have been partially at fault for the winning goal, but it was actually Rooney who struggled most in that regard for much of the match.
Leighton Baines, making his World Cup debut, did not have his best game either, which coupled with Rooney’s errant tracking allowed Italy to create numerous chances down England’s left.
Rooney had another poor game, at least in comparison to many of his team-mates, and occasionally proved a liability to his side with his poor defensive work, yet it was his moment of quality in the first half that created England’s only goal. This is the Rooney dilemma, one Hodgson may or may not continue to wrestle with ahead of Thursday’s pivotal encounter.
“I thought Wayne Rooney did very well and set up our goal,” Hodgson said, when asked if Rooney’s role would be reviewed again. “We know he can play in different positions…he can be satisfied with his performance.”
The defeat was rendered all the more significant by events earlier in the day, as Costa Rica came from behind to beat Uruguay 3-1 in Fortaleza. Costa Rica had been dismissed in some quarters as also-rans ahead of the tournament, yet their victory means the group is now wide open.
For Uruguay and England, the parameters have been altered. The loser of next week’s match in Sao Paulo will almost certainly be taking an early flight home from Brazil.
England will see more reasons for encouragement from viewing Uruguay’s opening match than the South Americans will have gained from watching this one.
That is unlikely to provide England with much comfort this evening, though.
"We were hoping for a perfect start, but we don't live in a perfect world,” Hodgson concluded. “Yes, of course we can still qualify—but we're still a bit downhearted."
All quotes taken from BBC's live match broadcast, unless otherwise stated.