England's Defence Is Their Biggest Threat to Early World Cup Exit

Rob PollardFeatured ColumnistJune 16, 2014

Italy's Mario Balotelli, centre, gets in-between England's Gary Cahill and England's Phil Jagielka, left, during the group D World Cup soccer match between England and Italy at the Arena da Amazonia in Manaus, Brazil, Saturday, June 14, 2014.  (AP Photo/Matt Dunham)
Matt Dunham/Associated Press

England's defeat to Italy in their World Cup opener has left them desperate for a win against Uruguay, but unlike at most other recent major tournaments, the English fans and media are content after watching their side play attacking football full of purpose and excitement.

For the first time in a long time, youthful promise and pace run through the England forward line; their reputation as perennial bores now severely under threat.

LONDON, ENGLAND - MAY 30:  Phil Jagielka of England celebrates scoring the third goal with Adam Lallana and Gary Cahill of England during the international friendly match between England and Peru at Wembley Stadium on May 30, 2014 in London, England.  (Ph
Warren Little/Getty Images

Roy Hodgson, to his credit, should take much of the praise. He has a well-founded reputation for being a cautious manager, with some bizarre press conferences—particularly during his time at Liverpool—damaging his reputation badly, yet it is he who has dispensed with the old guard and implemented an improved formation.

His side look all the better for it and, for once, England fans see a bright future.

The form of Wayne Rooney remains a concern, but with Raheem Sterling, Ross Barkley, Daniel Sturridge and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, England possess a wealth of options in attacking areas capable of producing moments of real quality.

They should benefit hugely from their World Cup experience, and England should reap the benefits in future tournaments.

Defensively, though, they are badly lacking, and it threatens their progress in the tournament. As well as being wonderfully entertaining, this World Cup looks open and unpredictable so far, meaning England, despite their youthful side, could well have impacted the latter stages given their attacking options.

But their defensive frailty, although only fleetingly exposed against Italy, undermines their chances.

The days when England has a plethora of top-class defenders are well and truly over. Think back a few years and the strength of their defensive options ran deep: Rio Ferdinand, one of the best centre-backs in Premier League history and an England great; John Terry, a habitual winner whose ability to organise a back four and demonstrate leadership at the highest level is proven; Ledley King, one of the most naturally gifted defenders in the history of the game; Sol Campbell, a force of nature feared across the world.

And at full-back, Ashley Cole on the left is considered one of the world's best over the last 10 years, while Gary Neville, although not as naturally gifted as other English defenders, was one of the most consistent right-backs in the game.

It's a very different picture to the one we see now. Gary Cahill and Phil Jagielka may have formed a decent pairing—one arguably greater than the sum of its parts—yet they lack the brilliance and physical stature of their predecessors.

LONDON, ENGLAND - MAY 30:  Gary Cahill of England celebrates scoring their second goal with Leighton Baines, Phil Jagielka and Danny Welbeck of England uring the international friendly match between England and Peru at Wembley Stadium on May 30, 2014 in L
Shaun Botterill/Getty Images

At full-back, Glen Johnson remains woefully out-of-form and without a serious challenger to replace him, while Leighton Baines, a fairly late entrant to the international scene, struggled in England's opener, never really getting forward with intent and beaten too easily in the build-up to Italy's winner.

Which means the chances of England progressing deep into the competition are slim. Their attacking play is improving all the time, despite some issues with their final ball against the Italians, and their ability to play possession football is also showing signs of development.

But with a defence bereft of quality, don't expect miracles from Hodgson's men in Brazil.