For two years Roy Hodgson has been saying that England would be at its best when it faced a side that attacked it, when it could use its ace in forward areas to play on the counterattack. We’ll never find out if that was true.
No side has attacked England since Switzerland did in the second half of the Euro 2016 qualifier in Basel in September 2014, when England, playing with uncharacteristic poise, won 2-0. Perhaps this side could have challenged Germany or France (although the defending against Iceland suggests not), but we’ll never know, because it failed in what seemed the most basic of tasks, beating a nation with a population of 330,000.
It was hailed almost immediately as the most humiliating result in English tournament history, which perhaps underplays how good Iceland has been for the past two years –and it certainly wasn’t as much of a shock as the 1-0 defeat to the USA in the 1950 World Cup–but it heaped further embarrassment on a nation that had spent the previous four days embarrassing itself.
For all the anger and disappointment, this has been a very strange tournament for England. After the last 16, the Three Lions ended up having had more shots than any other side. They dominated possession in every game. They weren’t especially incisive and ran out of ideas and self belief far too readily, but the fact remains that but for four entirely avoidable defensive or goalkeeping errors it would have won the group and beaten Iceland (not that it would have played Iceland if it had won the group, but the point stands).
Twice, against Gareth Bale’s free kick and against Kolbeinn Sigthorsson’s relatively tame shot from the edge of the box, Joe Hart’s left wrist proved susceptible. Against Russia, England, having dominated, dropped weirdly deep having scored, inviting pressure, and then ended up with Danny Rose jumping against the much larger Vasili Berezutsky. And Iceland’s first goal came from exactly the sort of long throw that had produced its opener against Austria, something Hodgson had said had been a focus in training.
None of this is especially difficult, none of it unusual, none of it unfamiliar to players playing in the Premier League. More than anything it’s a failure of focus and application, something for which management and players take equal blame.
Then, more obviously, there was the attacking. Endless balls recycled and humped into the box, a joyless lack of imagination. When England fails, it fails in predictable ways. This was the same lack of guile and wit and invention, the same lumpen industriousness, the same faith in the age-old principles of getting it in the mixer that undid England against Croatia in 2007, against Brazil in 2002, against Norway in 1993, against Spain in 1982 … in almost any game when England has had a measure of control of possession and has needed a goal.
Yet even England’s crossing was poor. It has had 33 corners in this tournament and created one chance. Set plays were a disaster, just another chance for poor Harry Kane, thoroughbred Premier League top scorer turned plodding nag, to knuckleball a shout out for a goal kick. The easiest explanation is that Kane, after 50 games for Tottenham last season, was exhausted, another familiar problem for England at tournaments.
There was a calamitous lack of width. The injured Danny Welbeck, an incisive presence from the left, was sorely missed. With Raheem Sterling out of sorts and Adam Lallana suffering an ankle injury, England was left without anybody to stretch the play laterally.
Sterling blundered on till the hour mark against Iceland before being replaced by Jamie Vardy, leaving England with three center forwards up front. Inevitably that just meant it got narrower and narrower–at least until the belated introduction of Marcus Rashford–which meant crosses came from deeper and deeper and were thus easier to defend. Germany, against Slovakia, showed how to break down a massed defense, with rapid interplay around the box: that, as so often in the past, seemed beyond England.
Hodgson, of course, has to bear the responsibility for that, but this failure to adapt the game on the pitch, the inability to see an opponent’s weakness and unlock it, the lack of nous and wherewithal is endemic. There are those who argue academies have left players too pampered, without the streetwiseness to think of their feet, and there may be some truth to that, but it doesn’t explain why this is such a long-term phenomenon among English teams.
That Hodgson had to go was obvious, but it’s difficult to imagine any new manager doing much better. The same old cycle keeps on turning, an unwelcome bastion of familiarity in an unfortunately changing world.