First things first, let us not diminish or ignore the performance of Luis Suarez.
The one truly world-class player on the pitch ultimately made the difference in a tight contest—and at a World Cup, is that not how we want it to be?
The Liverpool forward all but ended England’s World Cup hopes with two brilliant finishes for Uruguay on Thursday, in what was his first game back after undergoing keyhole surgery on his knee exactly four weeks earlier.
After completing a hastily prepared rehabilitation program (one that, by his account, relied in part on a well-placed elastic band), Suarez was clearly still not fully fit for the game in Sao Paulo, which only made his performance all the more impressive, as he pounced on the only two clear-cut chances he was presented with to fire Uruguay to a 2-1 victory.
In the process, Suarez joined the likes of Garrincha, Diego Maradona and Thomas Mueller as only the fifth player to score two goals against England in a World Cup match. Illustrious company indeed.
"This is incredible,” Suarez told Univision, via Football365. “I told my team-mates that I had a dream that I was going to score two goals in this match.”
For England, however, this was an all too familiar tale—albeit one with an added twist. Not since 1958 have England been eliminated from a World Cup at the group stage, the fate that now almost certainly awaits them.
Faced with the knowledge that a second successive defeat, following Saturday’s 2-1 reverse against Italy, would most certainly send them out of the competition, Roy Hodgson’s side withdrew into their shell against Uruguay and duly paid the price for it.
This was the decisive contrast: Suarez, half-fit, rose to the occasion and seized his moment, while England forgot their lines when the spotlight fell on them.
After gradually improving performances over the last few months, with a tangible improvement in both tactical preparation and individual application, this was a return to the dark days of the 2010 World Cup, where England’s tactical ineptitude was only matched by their paralysing fear.
The result against Italy in Manaus was undesirable, but England’s performance had actually been generally encouraging. They showed plenty of pace, invention and ambition in attack as they took the game to their opponents, but were unfortunately exposed by some sloppy defensive mistakes as the wily Azzurri gave them a lesson in the fine margins of play at this level.
Improve that defensive base, however, and surely a similar performance against Uruguay would earn more suitable rewards.
Yet, from the first whistle, this was a completely different England performance, one much more recognisable to the long-suffering Three Lions fan. The movement in attack was suddenly incoherent, the midfield shield was often nonexistent and the defensive unit remained less than convincing.
From the start, there were warning signs of what was to come. England’s passing was suddenly tentative, with players eschewing the progressive pass time and time again for the safer sideways and backward ball, passes that carried less risk of an interception or damaging loss of possession.
England's conservative approach only served to slow down the play, allowing Uruguay more time to track back and lock into their defensive positions. By the time that first or second pass had reached its safer target, the recipient would look up and find he had no obvious next move to make. With Edinson Cavani sticking close to Steven Gerrard, England's captain and most versatile passer, they suddenly looked uninspired.
Within this pattern, England’s attacks quickly petered out, invariably ending with aimless balls into the forwards that were easily swept up.
They had chances, but they all came from set pieces; Wayne Rooney dragging one free-kick inches wide before heading Gerrard’s swinging ball against the crossbar.
Uruguay, in contrast, had far less of the ball but used it more aggressively—pushing it forward quickly as they sought to expose any breakdown in England’s organisation. From one such attack, they broke the deadlock, with Glen Johnson losing Cavani on the left before leaving him too much space to clip in a perfect cross for Suarez, who had curled in behind Phil Jagielka.
With Joe Hart spreading himself, Suarez nodded back across goal to give his side the lead just before half-time.
If falling behind had stifled England’s play, realising that fear should have released them, should have allowed them to find their rhythm now that they had nothing further to lose but everything to gain.
Instead, England stumbled out after the break, with Uruguay three times threatening to double their advantage in the opening 10 minutes. England eventually found a groove, but their equaliser with 15 minutes remaining was more about luck than either judgement or sustained pressure; Johnson making amends for his earlier miscalculation as his driving run and determined low cross allowed Rooney to score his first World Cup goal.
“We started the second half badly, but after the first five or six minutes we got ourselves back on track,” England coach Roy Hodgson told ITV afterward, via David Kent of the Daily Mail. “Having worked so hard to counter that first goal, I fully believed we would go on to win the game or at least draw the game.”
England continued to push forward—given Hodgson had already made three attacking substitutions, they arguably had little other choice—but they rarely looked like finding a second goal, with Daniel Sturridge forcing Fernando Muslera into one smart save soon after Rooney’s breakthrough.
Yet as much as England struggled to find another final ball, Uruguay were even less of an attacking threat. Unfortunately, there was to be a deciding, cruel twist in the tale.
No one but Suarez spotted the potential danger as Muslera aimed a long ball at Cavani, before Gerrard’s inadvertent deflection sent the ball perfectly into his club team-mate's path.
Onside, but already beyond the last defender, Suarez then summoned a final burst of energy to take the ball into his control and thump an unequivocal drive past the spread-eagled Hart.
After many casual English fans had delighted in Gerrard’s slip against Chelsea that effectively cost Liverpool the Premier League title, this felt like a particularly cold-blooded, nationwide taste of that same medicine.
"It didn’t go our way with Steven flicking the ball on, and you just hope that he mis-hits one, but he hit the target,” Jagielka bemoaned, per Stonehouse.
England still had four minutes and injury time to find a second equaliser but, just as had been the case against Italy, that task proved a bridge too far.
For the first time in their history, England have lost their opening two World Cup matches. For the first time in over 50 years, the Three Lions look set to go home before the knockout rounds.
“We are more than disappointed, we are devastated,” Hodgson added, via Kent. “To concede the second goal as we did is unbelievable.
“It’s a goal we don’t expect to concede. Long goal kicks, we know now to deal with them."
Some of the talk in the media prior to this game had been about the job Hodgson had done in boosting spirits in the England camp, after the sour experience many individuals endured under Fabio Capello four years ago.
Ultimately, though, it looks like the ex-Liverpool boss will fail to even match the last-16 performance of his predecessor. Partly, that is a result of a tougher group draw; But partly, it is the result of a similar inability to address his players’ seemingly instinctive trait to withdraw when the pressure is on.
Uruguay, in even deeper trouble after their opening defeat to Costa Rica, had no such trouble.
"We had to win this match and we did it playing like Uruguay does in these kind of games,” Suarez added, via Football365. "This victory is for all those people who said so many bad things about the team.
“Now we have to think about Italy, another very important rival.”
While that game is going on, England will be facing Costa Rica, a match that will only mean something to Hodgson’s side if the Central Americans lose against Cesare Prandelli's men on Friday.
That may well happen, giving them a glimpse at a lifeline. But that will surely only delay the inevitable, the now-quadrennial postmortem into England’s failings at the highest level.
This time around, England have failed to produce a player like Suarez, or a collection of them that rise to the occasion like he does.
Solving both those deficiencies will not be easy. Hodgson—whose contract runs until after the 2016 European Championships—will likely be around to try to do it.
"I don't have any intention to resign,” Hodgson said, via Kent. “I've been really happy with the way the players have responded to the work we've tried.
“We had been in control for such a long time. But it doesn't matter how many times you get near the other team's goal, it matters how many times you put it in the back of the net and we haven't done that enough.”