With England, there is always a meta-narrative. The team plays in the knowledge that it has not won a trophy since the 1966 World Cup final in England and in the awareness of the post-mortem that will inevitably follow a defeat. Nothing it does is judged on its own merits but everything as part of a wider history: the team of the present pays for the failures of the teams of the past.
If a club side lost two games narrowly against very good sides – Italy reached the final of the last European Championship; Uruguay are the South American champions – it would move on without too much fuss. England will not play another World Cup game for four years (assuming they qualify for Russia in 2018).
That’s why far too much is read into World Cup matches, nonsensically so, for surely nobody believes that Costa Rica offer a model for England to follow? Nor does this team have much to do with the one that so underperformed in South Africa four years ago, let alone the sides that failed even to qualify for the World Cup in 1974 and 1978: yet it becomes another chapter in the saga of failure.
Certain statistics make this campaign look terrible. From kick-off to elimination, England’s World Cup lasted five days, 19 hours and 49 minutes. Nobody would pretend this was a triumph, or that England played well or were somehow cheated, whether by refereeing or outrageous luck. At the same time, it wasn’t as bad as all that. Because of a difficult draw, an early exit was a possibility and in the defeats to Italy and Uruguay England created many chances.
Research by the former Norway (and Wimbledon) manager Egil Olsen has shown that in about three-quarters of games the side creating more chances wins; to that extent, as José Mourinho noted, England “didn’t have the football gods on their side”.
They lost those vital first two games because of a combination of a lack of composure in front of goal and a couple of moments of inconceivably sloppy defending. The header Steven Gerrard missed to allow Luis Suárez in to score the winner for Uruguay was as basic as they come – and yet it was remarkably similar to Matthew Upson’s gaffe in the World Cup against Germany in South Africa four years ago. These were freakish, inexplicable things, the sorts of errors Upson and Gerrard wouldn’t make half a dozen times in a career. As Roy Hodgson said, “Things happen in football.”
In the banality of the phrase lies a profound truth. Not everything is controllable; there’s not always somebody to blame. But that doesn’t suit the national mood, particularly not when there are 48 years of failure to explain. At least this time there seems to be a reluctance to take the traditional way out and find a scapegoat: Hodgson will be kept on until 2016 and the next European Championship in France. Instead, there is a search for wider forces rooted in economics and English culture. The contributory factors are legion: there is never just one cause.
That there is only about a tenth the number of qualified coaches in England there is in Spain, for instance, can’t help, and at least in part explains the apparent technical deficiencies of the English game. The destruction of school sports and the ongoing sale of playing fields have had an impact. The Premier League – and the way club football is structured towards servicing its greed – is certainly deleterious. That the bigger clubs sign so many talented young English players and then, rather than taking the time and making the effort to develop and integrate them, prefer to buy off-the-shelf exotica, must hamper their progress. Daniel Sturridge was 23 when he left Chelsea for Liverpool in January 2013 but had made just 47 Premier League starts.
But much still comes down to luck. The Dutch have been the darlings of this tournament so far, winning all three group games and beating the defending champions, Spain, 5-1. Yet two years ago they lost all three group games at the Euros. They settled on their formation only a few weeks before the tournament when the key midfielder Kevin Strootman was ruled out with an injury. Whatever else their performances are, they are not a victory for long-term planning. Things happen in football.
If Hodgson erred, it was probably in exposing the back four by not offering them sufficient cover in midfield. Gerrard and Jordan Henderson had fine seasons for Liverpool but tended to play in a 4-3-3 rather than a 4-2-3-1. Although Gerrard has adapted his game as he has got older, he is not a natural anchor and that was exposed – ruthlessly and deliberately so by Uruguay, as their manager, Óscar Tabárez, made clear.
Hodgson had played with an extra midfielder in the 1-0 friendly win over Denmark in March but the stodginess of that performance led to calls for a more attacking approach. Hodgson, perceived as conservative, was perhaps conscious that the only other candidate for the job when he was appointed in 2012 was Harry Redknapp, who is regarded as being far more attacking. It seems conceivable that Hodgson got caught up in the meta-narrative of the post-mortem: he knew it would be crueller if he played up to the stereotype of Boring Roy and so opted for a more cavalier approach.
In that regard, the key moment of England’s World Cup campaign perhaps came in Kyiv, after England had produced a superb defensive display to draw 0-0 against Ukraine, maintaining the top spot in the group and making themselves firm favourites to qualify automatically. Hodgson bounded into the post-match press conference, clearly expecting the tone to be congratulatory; instead, he was faced with a barrage of questions about why England had been so dull. With England sometimes, you just can’t win.