Respect to Roy Hodgson. England can look forward to an excellent France 2016 tournament.
What England needs to do, and perhaps in two years this will be accomplished, is to play a complete game at the level Italy plays. Not half a game, as it did on Saturday in Manaus.
Roy Hodgson has, as England’s manager, done something remarkable. He’s nourished tactical smarts, picked young, talented players and turned down the volume of the tabloid-fuelled, delusional expectations that usually accompany England to any tournament.
This 1-2 loss to Italy was a revelation. For 45 minutes there were periods, actual sequences of several minutes in length, when a person could think, “Crikey, England look crafty here.” Against an Italy side relying heavily on Andrea Pirlo’s exquisite passing, and tactical cunning, that was a fine accomplishment.
As a unit, England looked comfortable in possession of the ball. The game unfolded at a stately pace. The plan, it was clear, was to stay calm and if possible, get the ball to young Daniel Sturridge, who was superb throughout and who levelled the game, meeting a beauty of a pass from Wayne Rooney. That was in the 37th minute and at that point England appeared to be Italy’s equal.
Come the second half, things went awry for England. To some extent Rooney was to blame. He seemed unsure of his role and position. But in general the disappointment came from the performances by the substitutes, the heavily hyped Jack Wilshere, Adam Lallana and Ross Barkley. Followers of the English Premier League will know the names – skilled youths with a bright future already written in neon by exitable pundits.
However, here, all seemed clueless about structure and creativity. And that’s the missing element. They were guileless. (The tally was 18 shots on goal for England and only five on-target.) But guile is something the starlets can learn.
For years there has been a peculiar dynamic in the England set-up. Egos and bad attitude have thrived when England is playing away at a tournament. At the World Cup in South Africa, some England players famously declared they were bored with the isolation. At Euro 2012 in Poland and Ukraine, there was no such controversy. Instead there was just the matter of being utterly outclassed and looking desperate against Italy in a knock-out game.
On Saturday, at this World Cup, in a rematch, England didn’t look desperate. A startling improvement on two years ago. And didn’t seem outclassed for half the game. That’s Roy Hodgson’s achievement. Give it another couple of years and, well, England can surely take the next crucial step away from utter mediocrity and present a challenge to a team such as Italy.
As for Italy, it will surely play tougher games than this one. That is, in the next round of the World Cup. Next it faces Costa Rica and then Uruguay. Both are beatable.
Italy’s two goals against England illuminated its sophistication. The first was a little masterpiece of shrewdness. Claudio Marchisio drove the ball hard from distance and was able to do so thanks to Pirlo’s canniness. From a corner, the ball was aimed at Pirlo’s feet but he dummied, allowing Marchisio time and space.
For the second, Mario Balotelli headed home from close range at the far post, meeting an Antonio Candreva cross that was perfectly weighted and timed. In fact Candreva hounded England all night, easily finding space as they looked confused about how to stop him.
Balotelli could have had three goals. His speed and intuition scarily sharp. Wisely, from Italy’s point of view he was substituted right at the moment when his legendary temper seemed about to flare.
Group D at this World Cup is now Italy’s to own. Costa Rica’s surprising win over Uruguay can be explained by speed, energy and flashes of panache. Uruguay, lacking Luis Suarez, seemed dull-witted and slow-moving. It’s hard to believe Costa Rica can do the same to Italy and it seems unlikely that Suarez, should he be fit to play, can save Uruguay’s campaign now. His skills are phenomenal, but he’s human, not a super-hero who can instantly heal from injury.
England’s World Cup is probably, in truth, over. It lasted an excellent 45 minutes, really. But England’s supporters can look forward to a more satisfying tournament two years from now. Respect to Roy Hodgson for that.
Editor's note: An earlier version of this story misspelled Jack Wilshere's name. This version has been corrected.