England Defence Must Be Rebuilt for the Promising Young Attack to Succeed

Karl MatchettFeatured ColumnistJune 24, 2014

England's manager Roy Hodgson, center, speaks to defenders Glen John, left, and Phil Jagielka away from the rest of the squad during an official training session the day before the group D World Cup soccer match between Costa Rica and England at the Mineirao Stadium in Belo Horizonte, Brazil, Monday, June 23, 2014. (AP Photo/Matt Dunham)
Matt Dunham/Associated Press

England's 2014 FIFA World Cup campaign ended with barely a flicker of notice as they fought out a thoroughly forgettable 0-0 draw with Costa Rica, ending bottom of Group D as the CONCACAF side went through to the last 16 on top.

The ignominious exit of the national team was made all the more galling later on in the evening with the realisation that top spot in the group was rewarded with a thoroughly winnable last-16 clash against an unambitious Greece outfit.

Despite all the talk of a bold squad selection, the inclusion of a number of inexperienced but fearless young attackers and plenty of hope that the likes of Raheem Sterling and Daniel Sturridge could transfer their domestic form to the world stage, England still go home winless, with no cause for celebration following their worst-ever World Cup performance.

Not that you'd know it listening to the manager.

Hodgson: "I'm pleased we gave the fans something to cheer about with our performance. We outplayed them in midfield." #CRC 0-0 #ENG

— England (@england) June 24, 2014

Cheer about? There didn't seem to be any inside the stadium. Or on social media. Or, specifically, for that exact tweet from the FA.

Despite Roy Hodgson apparently watching a different game/World Cup than the rest of us, it can't be denied that England do have a number of talented young attackers who should be able to go on and be international regulars over the coming tournaments.

Aside from the aforementioned Liverpool duo, the likes of Ross Barkley, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Jay Rodriguez and others offer further encouragement in attack, but concerns linger at the opposite end of the pitch.

The defence must be stronger to allow the likes of Ross Barkley to flourish.
The defence must be stronger to allow the likes of Ross Barkley to flourish.Jeff Gross/Getty Images

England were roundly pilloried for their inability to cope with fairly routine attacks against Italy and Uruguay, which led to defeats and an early exit, and it is likely that at least half the starting defence will need to be phased out by the time England arrive at the 2016 European Championships.

With Switzerland in their group, by the way, that is no certain thing if results do not improve against half-decent sides.

Glen Johnson's club form gave no reason for his international career to continue beyond this summer, while Leighton Baines has serious competition on the opposite flank. Phil Jagielka will be 33 by the time the Euros roll around, while Gary Cahill will also have hit the 30 mark.

Hodgson just said, of the 'young back four', "even Cahill is only 24 years of age." - he's 28.

— Tom Peck (@tompeck) June 24, 2014

The problem for England is, who replaces them?

Chris Smalling looks far off the quality needed for this level, while Phil Jones could be an aggressive leader at the back—if he manages to hold down a position for his club over the coming seasons.

It's a big campaign coming up for the 22-year-old, who is now past the "promising youngster" stage and into what should be the part of his career where he nails down his role in a side—if he is indeed going to fulfil the undoubted potential he carries.

Steven Caulker has been vaunted as an international prospect, but he's currently a Championship defender and has two fairly good, not stupendous, Premier League seasons behind him. John Stones is another possibility who may yet progress rapidly over the coming seasons.

Flanagan (aged 21) and Stones (aged 20) were England's standby defenders.
Flanagan (aged 21) and Stones (aged 20) were England's standby defenders.Richard Heathcote/Getty Images

Luke Shaw, Nathaniel Clyne, Jon Flanagan and maybe even Micah Richards—all possess the ability to fight for a place at full-back. Others will emerge as candidates too; they always do, though only one or two may make the step up over a longer period.

It's not just names that England need, though, but a system.

They must be more aggressive and have a better plan of attack to make use of the forwards in place. They need a stronger and more adventurous midfield shape to try to win games rather than not lose them.

Most of all, though, they need to let the quality attackers they have at present go on to fulfil their abilities at international level. And to do that, they need a solid defensive unit behind them backing them up. It's time for changes once again for England, and if the manager is really staying in place, he needs to find the right balance at the back to enable genuine progress.