England fell to their lowest ebb at a major tournament on Monday night with a 2-1 loss to Iceland which saw the Three Lions exit the European Championships in the last 16 stage, a defeat considered as the most humiliating result in the nation’s history.
Given the opposition at hand, a country bearing little over 300,000 people and appearing at a major tournament for the first time, it is completely understandable that the loss has provoked such a strong response that trumps even the low points of the World Cup in Brazil in 2014, South Africa in 2010 and the failure to qualify for the Euros in 2008, all in recent memory, but still no one can quite comprehend how even a national side as prone to embarrassment on the big stage as England has managed to defy the odds once again with this latest installment.
It will go down as one of the biggest shocks ever to occur in the European Championships and in international football history, but in hindsight the result was always a likely prospect given the performances and inabilities displayed in the opening three group games against Russia, Wales and Slovakia.
Those games saw the same recurring problems which were never truly ironed out going into the last 16 tie against Iceland – who were no different in their approach to England’s previous opponents, having witnessed how slow, lethargic and devoid of ideas the Three Lions were the longer that they failed to make the breakthrough in the group games.
So when a penalty won by Raheem Sterling was clinically dispatched by captain Wayne Rooney to give England the lead after four minutes, it came as a surprise, especially at such an early point in the game with Roy Hodgson’s men failing to score in the first half of any of their group games at Euro 2016. It was an almost too perfect start for England, the players were left taken aback after such an ideal start that within seconds the scores were level, knocking the wind out of England’s sails as quickly as they had gained it.
That’s where the game was ultimately lost. Had England kept the lead, you felt they would eventually open the game up and extend their lead with the opposition chasing an equaliser, but to have given away such a poor equaliser from one of Iceland’s biggest threats in the form of the long throw was a sucker punch for the players.
A lacklustre, passive attempt from the England back four to close down and prevent the eventual winner from Kolbeinn Sigthorsson and an even worse attempt from Joe Hart to keep out the strike were enough signs to point towards another England struggle in a match they should be controlling.
And so that was the case, as the likes of Wayne Rooney, Harry Kane and Dele Alli looked shadows of the players that have served their respective sides so well last season, a statement that can reflect on most of the eleven men on the pitch. The passing, control of the ball and the confidence of the team in general looking completely shot against the resilient Icelandic’s and in the end, it did not take a great deal of effort for the team ranked 34th in the world to retain their lead and see out the game for the nation’s most famous victory.
The question has to be asked: why can some of the most consistent and impressive performers in the Premier League last season suddenly look a million miles from their best when playing for the English national side?
The excuses which have been banded about to explain previous tournament exits cannot apply to the latest humbling defeat, tiredness of the players is certainly not an issue, it does not seem to affect the many other Premier League stars who represent their national teams so this explanation is dismissed instantly.
People may question the desire of the players, whilst on occasions this has been a feasible argument in the past. This was not the case here judging by the reaction to Daniel Sturridge’s late winner against Wales in Group B and this defeat will hurt more so than any other previous failure for these England players who have been a part of the side in recent years.
For many of the young talents who have appeared at their first major tournament for the national side though, this will be a completely new experience for them and you hope that they can eventually come good on the biggest stage playing for England and learn many lessons from the past few weeks.
Blame is not an easy one to pin on any one person or aspect of England’s preparation or performance at the tournament, but the one individual in this sport who will ultimately carry the burden of expectation and the consequences of defeat is always the manager. This defeat proved to be the final straw for Roy Hodgson and the curtain finally came down on his England reign after four years and three major tournaments, one tournament too many some will say.
Analysing Hodgson’s decisions during the tournament, it is fair to criticise the now former England boss for his failure to fully understand how to get the best out of this young, talented group of players. You get the feeling that Hodgson never truly knew how to structure his midfield and forwards to maximise the attacking potential that England have in their ranks and to coincide with this, he was never completely confident in his best team selection, alternating the forward line constantly in the group games and playing the likes of Sturridge and Vardy out of position on the wings.
The most catastrophic error made by Roy Hodgson actually happened before the tournament even started, when deciding to drop two of the most in-form English players going into the Euros in Danny Drinkwater of champions Leicester City and Andros Townsend of relegated Newcastle United, favouring Jordan Henderson and Jack Wilshere, both recovering from injuries and lacking match fitness, and out of form names such as Raheem Sterling – who failed to have any kind of impact all season.
Hodgson cut the figure of a man fearing for his job on the sideline and looked completely helpless to prevent his side from faltering at the first hurdle of knockout football, that body language transferred itself onto the players and they never looked as if they could muster any kind of resolve to keep England alive in the European Championships.
It can be no coincidence that England players, no matter how much quality they possess, always seem to falter at the major tournaments and this was a point made in the press conference with FA chief executive Martin Glenn and Roy Hodgson on Tuesday, with the promise by Glenn made that they would seek an inquest looking to pinpoint the exact cause of this recurring problem in particular along with how best to move forward, but most importantly, who to select to take the England hotseat.
Mentally, there is a weakness in English players when under pressure for the national team, a weakness only displayed when featuring for the national side. This would suggest then that the media scrutiny, fear of failure and expectation on these players has become so intense that it hinders them from performing to their very best.
You only need to take a look at the amount of possession England had in their four matches at Euro 2016 to see this, the amount of cautious passes that were played to keep hold of possession over the number of passes that were ambitious and looked to open up the opposition defence were a minority in comparison. Our most creative threats in Rooney and Alli humbled by the fear of making mistakes.
Many of the players looked far too scared on the ball and made a noticeable amount of errors than is usually the case when playing club football, resigning themselves to playing conservative and safe instead of throwing caution to the wind and throwing numbers forward, taking risks and going all out to turn the tide of the game.
Had the England players been better prepared mentally, we may well have been talking up a quarter-final against France on Sunday night at this moment in time. The harsh reality is that each individual player has the mentality that they are inferior whilst playing for England and unless changes are made to rectify this, we will continue to falter at the business end of major tournaments.
You also have to question whether Roy Hodgson should have still been in charge after England’s worst-ever performance at a World Cup with a group stage exit having not won a single game in 2014, and if he possessed any kind of resolve to inspire this team to change their fortunes after such a damning blow early in the first half. Judging by his appearance on the touchline, Hodgson was nothing more than a rabbit in the headlights, and if this is the kind of attitude displayed by the manager of the national team, then it is little wonder why the supporters have been left deflated and short-changed by England’s exit if the players cannot be inspired by the highest paid manager at the Euros.
The after effects of Hodgson’s departure and the latest debacle in a long, sorry list of England failures will be felt for some time as the hunt for a replacement and the plans to move on ahead of the World Cup 2018 qualification campaign begin to take shape. Looking at the candidates, there are very few immediate contenders to stand a realistic chance of being appointed England manager or that withstand the credentials of being one of the best coaches in the game.
The very best managers in Pep Guardiola and Jose Mourinho are taking new positions this summer but neither of them will be at the helm of the English national team, so who exactly should the FA be headhunting to take the job?
If you want to look for longevity, a long-term plan for success in the future, then Eddie Howe of Bournemouth could very well be a respectable shout. A manager touted for a while as a future England manager, Howe has overseen a dramatic transformation for the South Coast club, taking them from the very brink in League Two to promotions through all four tiers of the Football League to the Premier League, accomplishing safety in the top flight with ease last term.
Howe is a manager who has little experience until late of managing at the top, but given his achievements in his managerial career already at the age of 38, the FA could shape their plans for the future around this young manager with the vision of achieving success in the long-term instead of the short-term, which has always been the approach by previous England managers.
You only have to look to the German FA for inspiration, who did something similar with youth football in Germany, completely overhauling their youth system after finishing bottom of their group at Euro 2000 and 14 years later finally crowning that long-term vision with a World Cup in 2014.
Other candidates may well be favoured although it is anyone’s guess at this stage with the list of candidates a narrow one. Glenn Hoddle has been out of management for ten years but is one of the favourites and would certainly be an interesting prospect should he put himself forward for the job, whilst Arsene Wenger is being touted as another high profile replacement for Roy Hodgson.
Alan Shearer has added an extra twist to the England manager saga following the defeat to Iceland on Monday, first revealing his previous attempt to take the management job and then putting himself forward for the vacancy once more. His comments on the importance of ex-professionals being a part of the national team set-up has been another important talking point and with Gary Neville taking up a position in the dugout for England in the previous three tournaments, more could well follow in the new look England set-up.
Germany have been a perfect example of this, offering the likes of Berti Vogts, Franz Beckenbauer, Rudi Völler and Jürgen Klinsmann – another favourite to take replace Hodgson – the top job for the German national team, all ex-pros who appeared for their country, with many others being involved in the coaching set-up along the way too.
As Shearer quite rightly stated, if more qualified and experienced coaches have been massive failures in the past, then why is it not possible for former players to not have a crack at tackling one of the toughest jobs in football? Who is to say that players who know what it means to play for their country and experienced the pressures and emotions of being at a major tournament can’t do just as good a job, if not better, than coaches who have accumulated success at club level but not transferred that across to international management in years gone by?
Whatever the fate of the England team and whichever route the FA decides to go down to prevent further embarrassments in future are unclear at this point and it is unlikely we will have any conclusions any time soon, but one would hope the lowest point in the history of the English national team can finally be the turning point in which actions can be taken to plan for the long-term and that the right steps can be taken to finally help England deliver on the big stage, otherwise, we may well just be having this same inquest into English football again in two years time.