England's Defence Was Always Going to Be Exposed at the World Cup

Sam PilgerContributing Football WriterJune 20, 2014


On the newsstands in England over the last week the cover of the satirical magazine Private Eye has been mocking England’s chances at the World Cup finals.

The cover shows the England squad arriving in Brazil and walking down the steps of the aeroplane while the captain in the cockpit says, “Shall I keep the engines running?”

A week ago it felt overly cynical and out of step with the prevailing mood of guarded hope and optimism building across the country, but sadly for England it has proved to be horribly prescient.

After last night’s agonising 2-1 defeat to Uruguay in Sao Paulo the engines to England's return flight home have already been started.

A series of results could still provide England with a reprieve, but it remains highly likely they will fail to get out of the group stages at a World Cup for the first time since 1958.

In the aftermath of their defeat to Italy on Saturday night there was some cause for hope, but the fluid England seen in Manaus failed to show up again and instead sent a more timid and error-strewn version.

Matt Dunham/Associated Press

It is impossible, however, not to have some sympathy with England.

They played well in patches last night, created good chances, and Wayne Rooney could easily have scored a hat-trick before eventually claiming England’s equaliser.

There was a sense of injustice too when the referee inexplicably failed to show a second yellow card to the Uruguayan captain Diego Godin and send him off for elbowing Daniel Sturridge in the throat.

But the brutal truth is England have lost their opening two matches at a World Cup finals for the first time in their history.

A week ago I wrote about the reasons why England should be optimistic about this tournament, which included the emergence of Raheem Sterling, the potential of Ross Barkley, the form of Daniel Sturridge, their smooth and scandal-free preparations and new evolving and attacking style of play.

I managed to comfortably list 10 reasons but a glaring absence was any mention of England’s defence.

A back four consisting of Glen Johnson, Phil Jagielka, Gary Cahill and Leighton Baines was always likely to be exposed in Brazil.

They are all accomplished players, but there is not a genuinely world-class performer amongst them.

England’s opponents with Premier League experience, Mario Balotelli and Luis Suarez, who has consistently tormented Jagielka in Merseyside derbies, would have been supremely confident of getting the better of them, and so it has proved.

For all the debate about how to accommodate Wayne Rooney and get the best out of Sterling and Sturridge, England lost twice because of their inability to defend properly.

SAO PAULO, BRAZIL - JUNE 19:  Luis Suarez of Uruguay celebrates scoring his team's first goal during the 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil Group D match between Uruguay and England at Arena de Sao Paulo on June 19, 2014 in Sao Paulo, Brazil.  (Photo by Richard H
Richard Heathcote/Getty Images

While Suarez is clearly a rare and brilliant talent, even when not fully fit, both his goals last night were eminently preventable.

The first one followed a series of basic errors; Steven Gerrard’s weak tackle in the centre circle, Johnson’s failure to shut down Edinson Cavani’s cross and Jagielka’s poor positioning allowing Suarez a free and uncontested header.

At the moment Suarez headed the ball he was the only Uruguayan in the penalty area and despite being surrounded by five England players not one of them got anywhere near him.

Suarez’s second goal will make for even more painful viewing for Roy Hodgson and his coaches when they review this game.

England got caught out by the long ball, a simple punt up field straight from the goalkeeper, which Gerrard only succeeded in glancing behind him to where Cahill and Jagielka should have been alive to any danger and ready to mop it up.

Instead both of them were out of position, frozen and flat-footed, which allowed Suarez another free run at goal to score the winner.

In the build-up to the World Cup there was no debate about who should start in England’s back four, for the simple reason there was no competition for the places, and Hodgson selected what was quite obviously the best four defenders at his disposal. 

The harsh reality for England was that defence was never going to allow them to genuinely prosper in Brazil and keep those engines quiet on the tarmac.