The English National team: A sitting duck


England v Ukraine - FIFA 2014 World Cup Qualifier

LONDON, ENGLAND – SEPTEMBER 11: Steven Gerrard of England is sent off by match referee Cuneyt Cakir during the FIFA 2014 World Cup Group H qualifying match between England and Ukraine at Wembley Stadium on September 11, 2012 in London, England. (Photo by Clive Mason/Getty Images)

The English national side has a certain lure when we talk of football fans in India. Very few support them at international tournaments, but almost all EPL aficionados look out for England’s results and performances; no doubt keeping tabs on their favourite players and the issues that surround them. Should Rooney be dropped from the side for his mediocre international displays? Can Gerrard and Lampard do the seemingly impossible and actually play as two distinguished, veteran footballers and pull the team in the same direction? Or maybe some just tune in to watch them fall, so they can point fingers and laugh at the England manager and rival club players. Like it or not, the England team gets its share of attention in this land.

Opinions are passed around like ketchup on the dinner table. Chokers! Inflated egos! Obsolete football! They’ll never win anything (TNWA?). It’s easy to come down hard on this team. The England national team is a soft target, and fodder for knee-jerk reactions. The English media does a good job of it, and people buy into it. Folks back home are culpable of doing the same as well, writing eulogies one week and obituaries the next. “English team is brilliant and has the squad to win the WC in Brazil”.  “Oh never mind, they are crap again, just like they always have been.” And the wheels on the bus go round and round.

As you must know by now, England drew with Ukraine in a routine WC qualifier at Wembley last night. Hush. Do you hear that? It’s the cacophony of journalists scrambling to their desks to pen down the problems ailing the English side, a team that should have beaten a criminally under-rated Ukrainian side – “should” being the operative word. Roy Hogdson will once again be castigated for, well, just being Roy Hodgson, Lampard and Gerrard’s performances will be scrutinized, with the latter not helping his case via a late dismissal and the English team will once again be hauled down in front of the self-appointed judges and jurors. They just can’t do anything right, it seems. Winners and losers in equal measures, with no middle ground.

The “Golden generation” is now on its last legs, but the pundits haven’t wasted time in finding their replacements. It seems England will simply have to turn up with Cleverley, Wilshere, Chamberlain and Sterling to win matches. Wilshere is a player whose reputation has sky-rocketed ever since he stopped playing due to injury. The heart grows fonder in absence, they say. Cleverley is apparently the new Paul Scholes, but judging by the chances he squanders for his club and country, it’s fit to say he doesn’t have the goal-scoring instincts of the Ginger Ninja, among other things yet. Raheem Sterling is being touted as the next big thing simply on the basis of a couple of high-quality performances for his club. Astonishing? Yes. Premature? You bet. They are good, no doubt, but it would be a folly to assume they will make England an all-conquering juggernaut simply on the basis of their club performances. Gerrard and Lampard have been good for their clubs as well, but look how that panned out.

The truth (and the pudding), though, as has always been the case, is somewhere in that middle. Like every country apart from Spain, England are trying to find solutions to their problems. The problems seem amplified because of the fact that we watch them do wonders in their club jerseys week-in, week-out. And moan (or celebrate) the fact that they can’t do it for their national team. But it’s not all that bad. Germany, Netherlands, Brazil even – they have all had shocking results and below-par performances in World Cup qualifiers. Because that’s what the qualification matches are all about – trying to find the right solution. It’s a blank canvas, a fresh start, and there is room for risk-taking and innovation. You can even afford to sneak in through the play-offs, it’s getting there that matters. How you get there is something that will be forgotten by the time the World cup kicks off.

England v Ukraine - FIFA 2014 World Cup Qualifier

LONDON, ENGLAND – SEPTEMBER 11: Roy Hodgson manager of England looks on prior to the FIFA 2014 World Cup Group H qualifying match between England and Ukraine at Wembley Stadium on September 11, 2012 in London, England. (Photo by Shaun Botterill/Getty Images)

“Work in progress” is a subjective term, because it does not apply to all things. Ever watched plants grow? It’s boring. Nothing happens, or so it seems, and in time, the plant has transformed into a tree. From the outside, it might look like the English team is standing still, but there are signs of life. Hodgson’s selections are intriguing, and there appears to be a road map in his head. The English team in the Euros was a true Hodgson team. Relying on defensive solidarity, willing to concede possession but keeping their shape, attacking with as few as three players and looking to maximize set-piece abilities. And that was probably the safest way to set out a team that Hodgson had just taken over. Job done, group stages cleared, out in the quarters.

Now Hodgson has the breathing space to manufacture his team. He has the license to make choices, tinker with formations and players alike and try to integrate the young brigade into an ageing team. It’s a time-consuming process, and further draws against unfancied sides are likely. But with rank outsiders like Lallana and Livermore getting call-ups to the squad and settled players being overlooked due to “attitude” issues (looking your way, Mr. Crouch), the process has already started. England will probably not win the 2014 WC or even make it to the tournament proper, but it will still be interesting to see how the team evolves under Hodgson and co. Who knows, the former Liverpool boss may even be able to remind Stewart Downing that he is in fact a professional footballer and eke out good performances from him.

Roy Hodgson is a football man through and through, and is more than capable of playing a formation other than the much maligned 4-4-2. Judge him and the team when they are done. For now, lay off them. Men are at work, just sit back and try not to point out the glaring holes in the wall they are trying to fix. You wouldn’t go up to a bunch of fire-fighters and tell them how to put out the fire, would you?