London: It is never encouraging when an England manager has to discuss whether his team would be better off bringing one of the old guard out of retirement. Roy Hodgson has previously had it with Rio Ferdinand. Now it is John Terry’s turn and another reminder that a successful team, playing fully functional football, would not have to keep looking backwards to take the next step forwards.
That it has become an issue is probably a reflection of the sobering nature of England’s past two games and the clinging sense, with the World Cup draw just round the corner, that Hodgson’s team look far more vulnerable than he is willing to admit. Hodgson likes to trot out the statistic that England conceded only four goals in their 10 qualifiers. What he does not mention is the standard in Group H and what tends to happen when the team face more refined opponents. As Germany and Chile have shown, that is when it becomes a little easier to understand why it was not until the last week of qualifying that England’s win record extended beyond San Marino and Moldova.
England certainly cannot harbour any feelings of injustice about not being among the seeded teams on December 6. A win in Ukraine would have seen them make the cut. Now they could find themselves against Spain, Germany, Argentina or Brazil. Conversely it could work in England’s favour bearing in mind Italy and Holland did not make it above the jagged line either. All that really can be said for certain, however, is that it is difficult to shift the feeling that a team with England’s limitations will be found out as soon as they come up against a decent side.
The idea of recalling Terry comes about because, in successive matches, England have looked susceptible to crosses into their penalty box. Gary Cahill had an undistinguished match against Chile and Chris Smalling, despite Hodgson’s attempts to shelter him, was guilty of some basic errors against the Germans. Terry let it be known a while back that he wanted to return and Danny Mills, whose position on the FA’s commission makes him a colleague of sorts to Hodgson these days, has said it should be a priority.
Hodgson’s response, put bluntly, was to forget it. “John retired a long time ago, right at the start of our qualifying campaign. We have played nine games without him. We have qualified without losing a game. I think Cahill and Phil Jagielka have done a good job at centre-back. Chris Smalling showed [against Germany] he is a very good centre-back in the making. Phil Jones is there as well. It is time to keep moving forward rather than turning back.”
It is also true that Terry’s involvement would not mean the team automatically taking better care of the ball in midfield, or Wayne Rooney’s partnership with Daniel Sturridge in attack suddenly taking off. England’s problems are certainly not consigned to losing the odd aerial challenge at the back. Steven Gerrard, for all his qualities, does not have the dynamism of old. Rooney is a striker every opponent respects but it is not the fear he used to inspire. Sturridge has flickered only sporadically in England’s colours and managed only one pass to Rooney against Germany. Joe Hart has attracted a lot of praise for his saves against Germany but there was still that moment when he rushed from his goalline, collided with Smalling and the crowd watched through their fingers.
Hodgson talked about using the Denmark game on March 5, England’s last match before he names his squad, to leave out some of the players he knows will be going to Brazil and embark on another exercise in experimentation. Others would contest it is time he devoted himself to his first-choice XI, or at least something close to it, on the basis that England need to work on improving the level of understanding between the players. For now, nobody can really be certain who will play in the full-back or wide-midfield roles. It keeps the players on their toes, appears to be Hodgson’s thinking. It also means there is not the kind of cohesion that comes when everyone understands each other’s game and feels comfortable with one another.
Germany can get away with the occasional night of mixing and matching when their understudies are accomplished enough to fill in almost seamlessly. England, in stark contrast, look precisely what they are: a team who try to get by, with some reasonable players, but lacking spark or real quality.
The 1-0 defeat by Joachim Loew’s team was the first time since facing Scotland in November 1999 that England have not registered a single effort on target on their own ground. Yet England won that Euro 2000 play-off 2-1 on aggregate, however insipid they were in the second leg, and it just needs a look at Kevin Keegan’s team — David Seaman, Phil Neville, Sol Campbell, Tony Adams, Gareth Southgate, Paul Ince, Jamie Redknapp, David Beckham, Paul Scholes, Alan Shearer, Michael Owen — to be reminded about the deterioration in quality over the past 10 to 15 years. It is pointless trying to argue the opposite.
That really is the legacy of the past two games: the jubilation of qualifying for Brazil replaced by a damp, familiar sense of foreboding. “That is the risk, I suppose,” Hodgson said. “That is what defeats do to you but I think that would be a disappointing attitude. I would like to think that what we did in qualifying, especially in the latter games, still gives us some credit and reason for optimism.”
It would be a shame, he added, if “all the good feeling that came in October had suddenly dissipated just because we didn’t win these games”. Unfortunately for Hodgson, that is what can happen when it is the first time since Don Revie’s last few months in the job that England have lost back-to-back games at home.
On the plus side, it should spare everyone the usual hype over the next few weeks and hopefully none of the over-excitement that prompted a headline of “E-A-S-Y” in the Sun after England were put in the same group as Algeria, Slovenia and the United States (“Yanks”) in the last World Cup. Equally it is never ideal when the crowd are booing a team in their own stadium.
“We just have to work at it,” Hodgson said. “I don’t expect in these coming months, travelling around watching games, to be suddenly finding players, whom I had never really thought of before, jumping out at me. We are going to have to work very hard with the ones we have. Add the six or seven who weren’t available and hopefully between that 30 or so players we can produce a team that can give a good account of themselves at the World Cup.”