Estonia.

So a swift verdict.

(Mid-evening last night, I’m thinking) this is not a night to have a right old go at Hodgson, Rooney or anyone else. Things – black and white things like tables and like plans – are ‘on track’. Mind you, I hope Roy did have a go at his players after a performance we’d all surely plonk confidently in the medium lame category.

One-nil against a poor team playing with a man short for half an hour or so? Hardly inspiring but that’s how it was. Save a thought for Roy’s White Army trudging back to trains planes and automobiles, or hopefully friendly bars, feeling they needed a bloody sharp glass of Estonian hooch to reboot slightly dulled and yes, disappointed minds. You’d need some top quality banter or booze or camaraderie – remember that? – to haul back this particular adventure from the brink of the flattish.

But look results just don’t always tell the story, right? A reasonable judgement – remember that! – might be that England weren’t actually poor (being too generally comfortable on the ball now) but the result is. Relatively. They ‘failed to execute’, there was a general lack of a gear-change about the performance – in part I would argue due to selection – but also because Wellbeck in particular rarely sprinted to any purpose. England were kinda sluggish yet largely competent… except when within thirty yards of the Estonian net.

One or two things do concern me, however; let’s start with Lallana.

The word itself smacks of slightly exotic fluency and this is what us purists hope the Liverpool man may deliver, smoothing the pathway forward from that old angular, muscle-bound past into a slick, balletic future.

But because he’s never going to dominate proceedings (‘cos of that cool, minimal-contact, slinky-intelligence thing he’s got goin’ on) Lallana must influence by either linking to effect, or providing assists. And he needs to do that especially against poor teams who need opening up. Failed tonight. He has to take his opportunities because he is more droppable than somebody less gifted (Henderson/Delph?) because of this non-combative essence. In tonight’s game Lallana wasn’t the chief disappointment but he may need to start scoring or threading dream passes pretty urgently.

Wellbeck had a poor game, I thought. In the context of that opposition, think about it. It felt another example of how players just fail to sense when their moment is come. If the universe hasn’t spoken loudly enough to Danny, let me, on all of our behalves, re-iterate. NOW IS THE TIME for you to chase down your destiny – or at least chase round the park. Chase! Sprint and pressure without the ball and sprint and offer and give and spin and strike with all your might when you have it. Go right past urgent into ABSO-LUTELY ON FIRE; because when you’re at full throttle (by that I mean really racing down the inside/outside channels or attacking the ball in the box) you’re actually fairly tasty. Go do that.

Wellbeck surely must have been told to turn and get them legs a-pumpin’? Drive at people rather than simply jog through the game, back to goal. Estonia would surely be somewhere between static and clueless? Like Rooney though, his touch was often too sloppy to achieve the ‘I could play fer Barca, no probs’ level he no doubt (we no doubt) dream(s) of. Consequently instead of scaring the life out of very ordinary defenders, he pootled, he under-achieved – significantly.

Let me stick with this for one more moment. To say that yes I know I’m on the one hand suggesting Ingerland play more like Germany (say) and on the other I’m bawling at the centre-forward to leg it round the place. Well yes… and no…

A) Wellbeck is a particular case because he can hurt the opposition with his sprinting power and he under-uses that strength. B) We are of course aiming to be both comfortable and composed in possession AND rip-roaringly dynamic around their box. C) I do slightly fear that even our leading players are so busy projecting a Messi/Iniesta/Muller into their own footballing presence that they almost forget to be themselves and play. D) We aren’t good enough to merely cruise and ‘be patient’. In no way do I single out Wellbeck for some spurious blame here; it’s just his lack of awareness re this urgency that seemed comment-worthy.

Rooney was allegedly ‘involved in everything’ and yet for much of the time he was dispiritingly awful. In cruise mode, like Wellbeck, only marginally sloppier. Clunky touches and ill-judged passes; ordinary finishing. Even his goal was from such a conservatively struck free-kick that a genuine international keeper might have kept it out. (I thought Rooney’s muted celebration suggested that – as though in mild surprise and embarrassment that a strike so gently and obviously coaxed towards that post should beat the goalie’s belatedly grasping palms). Quite rightly, moments before, Hodgson had his skipper lined up for the hoik: following the goal, he stayed.

Elsewhere England did their jobs/saw out the game. Wilshere was perhaps most notable; he flashed in a few choice passes and he did try to vary things. Importantly, he wanted the ball. The feeling remains, however, that his singular lack of pace and a certain lack of immediacy must be compensated for elsewhere. England had the game sewn up from start to finish but (no-brainer) one goal is never enough. There was an absence of threat – even against ten – and this needs looking at. Was the blend wrong or did players simply not perform?

Brief word on today’s Sterling story – that he pulled out ‘tired’.  If the manager has put this into the public arena in order to keep the squeeze on his players – i.e. demand complete commitment to the cause – then fair enough.  I’m no loony patriot but important to keep egos and apathy in check.  Also fair enough to drop him to the bench.  Plainly Sterling’s form is way down on last year and tiredness – mental, particularly? – is likely a factor.  No need to be punishing anyone here… but a marker laid down, in my view and a warning that urgency and passion should be non-negotiables.

Finally I offer some ratings… because other folks are… and it gives us all something to argue about.

Hart – 6. Another night where judgements are ludicrous; had nothing meaningful to do. His distribution was slightly mixed but this may be partly down to a lack of dynamic movement in front of him.

Chambers – 6. Offered himself and did okay but no better. Untested due to lack of a threat from the opposition but if I was pushed I would say not ready for major internationals yet.

Cahill – 7. Almost uniformly composed and rightly happy to mix it (within reason) when his oppo’ barged and banged. Limited distribution and under-achieves in terms of goals scored from dead-ball situations but if he stops their attackers attacking fair enough. He cruised through this… in a good way.

Jagielka – 6. Almost completely surplus, in a sense, such was the lack of penetration from Estonia. Honest, relatively aware,solid enough. In his comfort zone but who wouldn’t be, playing against no-one.

Baines – 6. Again another night when you expect him to have a whole lot of fun raiding down the left… passes by. A waste but impossible to know how much of this is down to the player’s ongoing slump and how much to calls from the bench to be ‘responsible’.

Wilshere – 7. Possibly England’s best player. Liked the variety/want more care and yes, more urgency. He’s good enough to treasure the ball and hurt teams with it.

Delph – 5. Disappointing. Can hardly remember a telling contribution. Subbed.

Henderson – 6. Decent night but no better than that. Couldn’t find a killer pass/didn’t always strike the easy ones well.

Lallana – 6. Can’t afford many performances where critics or fans can use words like ‘wafted’ or ‘barely affected’. He must know things conspire against anybody (from Hoddle forwards) who can be dropped into the ‘luxury player’ category.

Rooney – 6. Busy-ish but unconvincing; sluggish. Missed guilt-edged chances/was wasteful too often with possession. Hope Hodgson is telling him his place is not guaranteed. Even if it is.

Wellbeck – 6. Snuffed out his own after-burners.

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Immediate reaction? This is a crisis.

Unwise and unnecessary to be too gentle on the lads, just because of their alleged general impressionable yoofness. Don’t forget these people are massively over-remunerated athletes who live in a competitive environment but cannot seem to accept that challenge. Not when it gets big on them.

I’m not typically a hard-hearted sort but it feels like they’ve scudded beyond the range of our sympathy and even if some of them are decent enough blokes they’ve been so Sunday-League hapless we’re entitled to unsheathe the knives.

Lots of what we have seen from England was barely international standard; there may be cultural reasons for that or structural reasons or sociological but that’s where we’re at. I rate the main protagonists (ha! Like they affected anything!) here; the view being of the tournament rather just tonight’s dismal showing. I think I may have been generous.

Hart 5 – unconvincing. Probably our best but this again reflects very low standards elsewhere.

Johnson 5 – ordinary and rarely exposed entirely – which was something of a pleasant surprise.

Cahill 4 – ordinary and occasionally totally duff. Distribution often woeful.

Jagielka 4 – ordinary and rarely looked comfortable. Is actually quickish and reasonably dynamic if poor on the ball. Not here (except the poor on the ball bit). Nerves or just found out?

Baines 5 – offered a glimpse for about fifteen minutes against Uruguay. Otherwise a pale shadow.

Sterling 6 – nearly fabulous against Italy. The one player who can be reasonably satisfied with what he offered. He lifted us but then was garbage against Uruguay, mysteriously.

Gerrard 5 – a significant disappointment again. Could certainly play on in that Liverpool role – deep-lying, strolling about. Hope he doesn’t.

Henderson 5 – okaaaayish because we don’t expect fireworks… but (doing the easy job, remember) barely made any impact.

Rooney 5 – not a total embarrassment. Just ordinary but missed key chances.

Barkley – huge distance away from fulfilling Golden Boy status. Genuinely hope he gets there but this was not the start he would have wanted. Even given that his brief is a high-risk zone, he was disturbingly wasteful.

Lallana 5 – needed to show us something – that fluency, that movement, that composure. Didn’t, really.

Wilshere 4 – may have been unlucky with injuries but may have been lucky to get a further opportunity; which he manifestly didn’t take. We thought he may be the answer 3 years ago; his cuteness and skills seemed set to bring in some new, cultured, contemporary age. May be now that his chance has gone.

Wellbeck 4 – poor and probably the closest to full-on embarrassing at times.

Sturridge 5 – good against Italy. Disappeared, pretty much, against Uruguay, diabolical against Costa Rica.

Conclusions?

Need a book or at least another blog but clearly the manager was neither motivational nor tactically bright enough. But the players can’t hide behind that. They appeared marginally less petrified than in South Africa, marginally less rooted but still that central soul-crushingly painful fear of the natural gamble ate away. Only Sterling flew, looking and no doubt feeling in his element. And then he – the real Raheem – was gone again, against Uruguay.

So how do we get players – even ordinary players – to (in that famous phrase) express themselves?

Firstly you choose a superb manager; an inspirational sort, ideally. Then that manager chooses a dynamic blend of characters for his squad. Guys who will turn up, more often than not, when those big questions are asked. (If we again have to stick the label Mentally Strong on this then so be it). Then you work with them and sort a team pattern. If players are not up to being flexible or are not pretty damn comfortable in international fixtures – specifically, if they don’t look comfortable on the ball – you get shot of them. That ease over the pig’s bladder in Munich or Rio or Belfast is a NON-NEGOTIABLE. Wherever they play, positionally. Plainly we still lack that.

Sure there are questions about training methods and percentages of foreign players and all that but dumb maths says we should have enough bodies to gather a competitive international side. (If, for example, Uruguay can.)

I’m not going anywhere near those arguments right now. I’m just going to say that against ordinary opposition we looked (can I use the word literally, please, please?) Hopeless. And therefore I revert to the word crisis; in the knowledge that we have some young talent but a whole load of work to do. If Jones and Smalling (for example) are the future then yeh – a whole load of work.

So… what have we learned about England?

Maybe not much. Because we can only speculate about what might have happened should Roy have been moved to (say) bench Rooney and Wellbeck for Uruguay. Or Gerrard/Henderson – or whoever. Because the wry, chortle-inducing truth is we’re into the lurid, ridiculous and (c’mon!) essential business of this or any World Cup now: that sanctuary or graveyard or AA Meeting equivalent for all of us lovers and/or bitter haters and bawlers who just wanna say something about England. Because England are out (already) and that’s what we’re left with.

We may love to have known how an out-and-out 4-3-3 might have gone. Or how a yet more decisive lurch into free-form, youthful expressionism could be – dispensing with the presumed anchor that was the Liverpool skipper and casting off instead around flashers and dribblers and marauders like Barkley and Sterling, with Wilshere and A.N. Other manning the hospital ship. We may.

At the more caustic end of the spectrum we may be muttering darkly about the criminal, soul-draining absence of Cole, Terry and Carroll, whose presence might have a) stemmed the right-sided success of Italy in particular and b) dug the ribs of artsy pretention wherever it threatened to indulge – for or against.
There are a zillion great arguments for why England have failed again, many of them accepting of and possibly even grateful for the mild resurgence (or emergence) of some occasionally brightish attacking football. But what do we need to take note of? Is there cultural stuff as well as specific technogubbins around individuals or areas of the park? What can we learn – even if we can’t agree on it – what have we learned?

A few thoughts, vaguely geographically put.
• It might seem weird to start here in the context of arguably bigger issues elsewhere but… our goalies. Hart – himself another fumble away from outright membership of Dodgy Keepers Inc – is almost certainly the best of a mediocre bunch. That briskly faux confidence worries me and more importantly surely undermines any defenders quaking out front. He made minor errors again early in last night’s game, including patting away two corners like a reluctant twelve-year-old schoolboy press-ganged between the satchels. I freely admit he is not our biggest problem but he is a crack in the foundation.
The bigger question, of course is where are our ‘keepers? Answer – not in the Premier League.
• Full-backs. Twelve months ago Baines was a genuinely fine modern full-back. Bossing games with his energy and craft; ‘bombing on’ with almost undeniable vim. This season’s form has gently dipped and in this tournament we’ve seen just a wee hint of his best. (I’m thinking last night, either side of the Rooney goal – something worth noting, perhaps?) Then, without entirely blossoming, Baines was finally rolling; available, incisive, as opposed to nervy and literally withdrawn.
The chronic failure to defend ‘his’ flank during the Italy game was a strategic as well as an individual flaw. Ar Leighton might certainly have done more but Rooney let him down and so did Hodgson, for failing to direct remedial action or changes.
I confess to being mildly interested in the argument (however) that A Cole Esquire might have barked more successfully for support when Pirlo and co were unpicking England down his side of the park. Tight call as to whether Cole should have remained in the squad – with Baines then a candidate for either an advanced wing-back slot (possibly even in front of Cole against Italy?) – or the full-back position proper. Lastly on this it seems only sensible now to play Luke Shaw in the final game, does it not?
• Johnson. Has been something and nothing – which may not be as bad as forecast. In defence not exactly routed but crucially last night sloppy and slow to close down Cavani pre that peach of a chip for Suarez’s first, headed goal. In attack, where he can look positively Brazilian when the flow is with him, he was broadly unable to find the necessary pass or the surge to take himself clear. Johnson was medium pallid rather than petrified and diabolical –as he had been in South Africa.
• The two holding players disappointed. Henderson was in there to buzz about and cover but also to hit committed passes forward – to thread things. He did little of this, being if not an irrelevance, a minor minor player. Gerrard we needed – bigtime. We needed him to find both that easy control from deeper positions but also the whiff of, the threat of Roy of the Rovers that changes things. The cruel errors aside, he has significantly underperformed again, being simply too marginal when he – being one of few who could inspire in this way – had to grab a hold and shake his side to action.
Stevie G has been wonderful but not, in my view, for England; he’s been solid or so busy playing within himself that he forgot to really play. Ludicrous to criticise, perhaps but he will know (and he has said) his England career is a six out of ten not the eight he should easily have achieved. And now that career I think is over.
• The three who played behind Sturridge agin Uruguay will all feel England’s pain acutely. Wellbeck because he was relentlessly awful – presumably simply nervous beyond the ability to co-ordinate – Sterling because he fluffed too many passes and never broke the shackles and Rooney because he should have added to his single goal. Sterling, having been hearteningly in his pomp against Italy, has shown enough to get more opportunities; the other two… I’m not so sure.
Rooney was visible, without being eye-catching. In a first half that was largely (let’s be honest) barely of international standard we wondered if he was heading for a dispiritingly early seat back on the bench. Later he did improve as England had a goodish spell and he scored that goal/removed that monkey. But without being the calamity that his previous tilts at major championships have been (after his international infancy, as it were) this has been another low-key affair; Wazza has shown the world little. The brutalist view might be that this is the moment to move on from not just Gerrard and Lampard – the obvious oldies – but from Rooney too.
Wellbeck did reasonably well against Italy but we know he is no striker. He can sprint beyond folks but rarely does it. Mostly, he looks reasonably comfortable at elite level and yet… it doesn’t quite happen. When Townsend is back competing for a place and if the vogue turns towards Lallana and Barkley, he may be struggling.
• Sturridge was a tad isolated and a tad wasteful against Uruguay but he is our best genuine striker, no question. Much sharper and more dynamic than Lambert and yes, clearly ahead of Rooney. Like Rooney last night there were times when he failed to provide that crucial option for the midfield – he was too static, too markable – but he is a threat, always.
So much for the Director’s Notes. Where does this leave England?

If that sense of a significant cultural shift towards pacier, brighter football moves you – Italy game? Sterling? – you will no doubt draw away from the harsher view. Unless you think Hodgson’s hand was forced only by media pressure towards a gambol with the kids? In which case vent thy spleen fully once the final fling is flung, when rounder conclusions may be drawn on Roy’s inadequacies. (My guess is Hodgson caved in to the pro-Sterling/pro Liverpool style barrage rather than genuinely experienced some conversion to energetic and open play. He remains a decent enough but irretrievably conservative type unsuited and unable to energise the individuals and thereby pursue a dynamic game). But that’s just me; a former twinkling genius in the Duncan McKenzie mode – the sort of bloke, in fact, who never got picked by conservative gaffers.

Look if you played centre-back or full-back at whatever level, them thar Suarez-related cock-ups will define your fury. If you hate Liverpool, you’ll be pleased the whole thing blew up so sharpish. Whatever way we approach this, England are out after two games, which is apparently historically bad (as opposed to the hysterically bad under Capello last time out). And yet…

Seems to me there is no longer (simply) a monumental skills deficit and therefore no (single) imperative to embrace finesse. Improve skill, sure, but finding the blend of characters and the tactical framework to do the job has been as key as anything in Brazil. Part of this is about developing guys who are tough enough to stay clear-headed when the squeeze is on. Are enough of the doughty stoppers and the precious youngsters gifted enough and committed enough and up to it in knockout football – in World Cup games? Weigh up the football of it and the human. This is the work of the top manager and it’s demanding work.

We knew before England went out there that this side was ordinary and the defence weak at this level. We couldn’t be sure how the rarer talents might go. Put simply it was mixed – heinous errors, unsurprisingly punished, with an occasional burst of English footie. Two central disappointments for me personally? 1. The teams that beat us (so far) aren’t special, by any means. 2. My concerns about the gaffer largely confirmed.

England remain a side that tends to lack fortitude – yes! Mental strength! – as well as technical/tactical intelligence. They need a truly great and ideally visionary manager. Expect little to change under Hodgson and no major improvements until somehow… the pool of talent deepens.

Compare and contrast.

I know it’s daft… but just for the fun of it. Imagine there was some real intellectual weight to those impulses racing round. Imagine you really could make rilly valid points maaan by flicking that switch between footie and rugby realities. Relax; we’re all doing it but only some of us are daft enough to come out.

Hmmm. Hodgson and Lancaster. The one looking last night like a faintly doddering gramps on’t beach, wi’ t bucket an’ spaaaade, ‘n baggie shorts, like. T’other – despite Northern roots – a brightly forward-thinking member (arguably leader) of some new, bold, expansivist tendency, reassuringly or perhaps worryingly word-perfect but plainly succeeding with his revolution towards enlightenment. How the FA could do with er… a swap.

But we know it doesn’t work like that. Stuart’s upward curve, his Smooth Operation is his own – and England rugby’s own. His fondness for setting out both cultural and chronological stepping stones and then (blow me!) stepping neatly over and through them appears not so much justified as brilliantly engineered. His team have gone from dullards to committed dazzlers in no time. Where there was Johnson’s monstrous intransigence there is now hard-earned fizz and buzz – or at least the potential for that. They are dynamic. Rugby England has become a fifteen man game again.

Roy meanwhile appears to be stuck in what feels like the usual quicksand. Players subsumed beneath too much ‘responsibility’ and maybe simply too much fear. Players who can play not playing through… what? Fear that minnows like Honduras might score. Fear of the expectation that goes with being England – even when there is a generational low in that expectation – because England have been so shocking at tournament football for so long?

What IS this thing that so debilitates the whites of Ingerland – the footie whites?
Part of it must surely be lack of inspiration. Roy plainly does not motivate the group; certainly not in the sense of freeing them up. If England do go on to prosper in Brazil, it seems more likely to have been down to an individual moment of brilliance than through general, spring-in-the-stepness. England look dull and often downright wobbly.

Last night’s weirdly storm-affected game was, despite what FA staffers may say, a failure and a waste. The momentum again drifted or went backwards, because England were sloppy and yes, dull. Forwards notably simply often unable to control balls pinged at them; Hart back into that unconfident loop. Wilshere (despite really needing a performance) was infuriatingly close to pitifully wasteful and Rooney unconvincing at best; Sturridge just literally off-target. This week’s golden boy Barkley epitomised something of the oppressed state of things by being almost completely absent, despite playing 10 for half an hour against a poor side, down one man.

As a team England looked short of will, ingenuity, energy. Most of the second period they were what us over-educated scribes term ‘shite’. Rubbish. Against a side who looked largely Sunday League and who lost a bloke after 60-odd minutes. Much of this falls at Hodgson’s door.

In the moment of opportunity, with a team that is known to be limited but which has pace and brightness amongst its cohort, Roy has and will look for steadiness – Wellbeck not Sterling. He will counsel Baines against really ‘bombing on’ – playing his natural role, the one that got him picked – and thereby compound the sense that there’s little chance of breaking out. Just in case they (England) come a cropper. That narrowness, that lack of generosity towards fans, players and the game has been a central flaw in England footie’s approach for years.

I am fascinated by the importance of belief, in sport, as anyone who has read my blogs will have realised. My strong suspicion is that even at the very highest level the role of the coach is massive. This is NOT, I swear, because I happen to be a coach, it’s more about experiences through playing sport at decent (admittedly not elite) level.

The coach needs to be the spark as well as the strategist. It’s not enough to sort team shape. Players need inspiration – license. They need to believe in you the coach and to be liberated not enchained within the system. This is about relations, then, deeply personal stuff. Or rather it perhaps demands an (intuitive?) understanding of personalities – and the ability to touch differing individuals – to get to people. Most of us have been in dressing rooms where nobody listened to the coach, because he/she didn’t have us under that spell. It’s a deeply unsatisfactory experience. But the sharp, communal buzz that comes from maybe just a few words from a coach who is respected (or often loved?) is real sporting magic. Transformative; inspiring; precious.

Stuart Lancaster I have doubted and I still have concerns about his capacity to whole-heartedly inspire. But he is light years ahead of Hodgson in terms of what he has delivered and what he offers. England rugby is/are contenders. They are also entertainers, remarkably transformed when we look at a) their playing style b) selections c) their capacity to gamble.

Lancaster has been bold enough not only to use words like vision with a straight face but to enact change, to step or gambol towards that aspiration. That target is to establish a dynamic and structured and generous (i.e. open, diverse) playing style – that has the guile, power and responsiveness to beat great teams. The England rugby coach doesn’t think conservatism can win him the World Cup but that this new model might. Not only is he right, he deserves to be right.

Defenders of Mr Hodgson might argue that Lancaster has the resources – the players – to go the braver route. And that the footie man doesn’t. In fact I think Hodgson, in the absence of great players has been gifted an extraordinary opportunity. We all know his young fliers are flawed but just how well-equipped are we to play that allegedly mature international cat-and-mouse thing? Far better to say bugger it and let Barkley, Sterling and Sturridge go play. So do it Roy.

How brave?

Earworm du jour is Dreaming, by Blondie. Not sure if I’ve even heard it today but whatever, blame BBC Radio 6, who have been touting Her Relentless Gorgeousness whilst I’ve been battling through chores. There’s something both triumphal and powerfully sharp about Harry’s vocal on this but it does also – I suppose primarily through that dreamy chorus – take us somewhere pleasantly, sleepily lush with yearning. Which brings me to football.

I can imagine Roy Hodgson tapping a toe, albeit absently to Dreaming, whilst cogitating on pressing strategic issues – team shape, perhaps? Perhaps the insidious brilliance (and crucially the winning-ness) of that sassy Blondie formula is somehow transferable to a certain upcoming football venture? Could Roy, like Debs and Chris, limewash his own parallel line to fame and glory by stepping a touch left of the dumb certitudes around no-brainer mainstream practice? Could he play a little fast, loose and punky with his own creative possibilities? Or will he stick with his Phil Collins? This appears to be the question.

So how brave is Roy? How burdened with responsibilities? How protective in a conservative way of his own legacy and the ‘reputation’ of English football – or rather of England the football team? How much dare he do?
And are we about to find out? Will Hodgson suddenly tear holes in his t-shirts and spike up his barnet with his beer-soaked fingers? Will he gob copiously during the national anthem? Hardly. The suggestion is that for tonight’s friendly against a weakish and unconvincingly surrogate Uruguay Roy will keep the tartan bondage trousers in that dressing up cupboard. But the tease is that folks generally, though aware that little will be revealed tonight, think and hope that he might – he just mi-ight – be preparing to plump for something high-octane come Brazil.

There is a career full of evidence to the contrary, ‘tis true. Roy’s very being speaking much more of supremely bland intelligence than White Punks on Dope rebellion. His footballing oeuvre ranges from a soporific mode to a calm but inoffensive expression of that central Roy/Phil Collinsness? So solid – no, let’s be fair – elite level percussive/structural heartbeat but godawful actual statement. If it wasn’t so crass and unforgivable – and if Roy was a musician – I’d recommend a hearty dose of amphetamines to spark the whole thing up. Which naturally if a little shoutinginthefacingly brings me to Sterling and Barker. And possibly Lallana. And co.

These are the boys most likely to, this time around, yes? The ones who might Liverpool us through to some cockle-warming (or who knows?) explosive moment that brings on that healthy fury that comes with winning with some style. Because I think it’s true that finally England supporters– fascinatingly, in the absence of real expectation – want more than anything else something positive and bold and stylish, even. A contribution that they can be proud of rather than a specific goal… like the trophy itself, or a semi-final slot. People want England to turn up and play some recognisably vital football. If that means ‘risking’ Barkley and Sterling and Lallana alongside yer Rooneys and yer Gerrads and yer Sturridges then so be it. Go an’ avago Roy!!

But Mr Hodgson is what? A relatively profound thinker, we imagine. Impenetrable, maybe? Skilled in diplomacy and to be fair, shrewd. Hard to read. Dull.

I’ve never been a huge fan, I have to say. Can accept that he was a sensible appointment but still think he fails at the first hurdle in that he seems unable to truly inspire; we’ve seen enough already to know that. He will find it difficult to free himself up sufficiently to liberate his players, to get them believing they really can, in that wonderfully evocative phrase take on the world’s finest. I can see that happening – but much more through a few seconds of fearlessness from an individual than through what we might call team policy.

As is always the case, players thriving or hiding in the challenge of the moment will control events as far as they can be controlled. However, Managers can contribute massively to how those moments feel. Managers provide the matrix of confidence or otherwise. My concern is that Hodgson may not be the man to either actually commit to a high-energy attacking game or genuinely let his players – encourage his players – to play without fear. His background, his force of habit and his body language all stand somewhat contrary to that aspiration. Is he not just too stiff a bloke to inspire Raheem Sterling, for example?

There may be clues tonight in the game v Peru. Clues about selection, energy, where the team seem to be re Brazil and more broadly speaking – because Brazil isn’t everything, right – it just feels like it?
I hope there are encouraging signs but this is a low-key game. It’s in Brazil where most of us want to see our lot go fly. Even if the climate allegedly mitigates against teams from the North and against playing with pace and energy. If we lose the ball, we’ll get back to a compact shape, rest and recover before nicking it back. Then the movement should be imaginative and (that word again) vital.

There’s a dog-turd of a lump of historical baggage here we can’t ignore. And yes even the young lads will be conscious of this. Despite the relatively ordinary standard of competition, England have been close to laughably poor at a whole series of recent international tournaments; offering nothing, then wilting. This one presents a special opportunity; a) because it’s Brazil; b) because England go there with less pressure than for decades, quite possibly and c) because everyone acknowledges things can’t go on like they have been. There is a consensus for change… and hang the consequences. Hodgson knows this.

So, how brave is he?

World Cup Ready?

England’s second home defeat on the bounce clearly underlines where we’re at – we are middling rather than fair. Beaten with relative comfort by both Chile and Germany. Chief worries include the fact that the German B team unpicked the England defence with pretty alarming regularity and that Chile played at a pace that laughed in the face of our stodginess. Plus I don’t recall a single shot on target from England last night – other than Townsend’s post-doinking drive.

I have been critical of Hodgson before and I will be again – believing him to be a thoroughly decent, articulate man entirely lacking the dynamism and motivational skills England need at this obviously lowish point. As a side we remain locked for the most part in the 4-4-2 culture –or certainly unable to play with pace, fluidity and imagination – and some of this is due to poor management. The only way for us to find some belief seems to be via isolated outbreaks of brilliance from certain individuals. Whilst these may come, that ‘environment’ is… where, exactly?

Player’s World Cup Readiness assessments, following the Germany game –

Hart    – nip and tuck whether he still retains the ‘Our Best Keeper’ tag. If he does then there will be little confidence from us fans or – more significantly – centre-halves wondering if they should clear the lines themselves… or expect him to come thundering out the box. Don’t rate him but we’ve seen too little of Forster in an England shirt. (Mark that down as an error against the manager.)

Walker     – swift and sometimes penetrative going forward, consistently poor defensively. Awareness and possibly temperament simply not good enough to see him through. A weakness. The gallivanting outside Townsend may pay off but good international wingers will have a field day against him.

Smalling – may be getting there as a developing player (at Manchester United) but hardly the lynchpin of any international defence. Has some composure but lacks stature. We don’t have time to wait for him to fill out into the role, so a likely squad player and decent back-up.

Cole     – for me our second best left-back, but still good enough. Authoritative and hugely experienced. Personally, think Baines has more fizz going forward and can also defend. Not much in this – and one of few positions where we have adequate cover.

Townsend – will now be a starter at the World Cup, having earned that right. Consistently positive – even when he fluffs his lines – and therefore genuinely likely to make something happen. We’ve already seen he can shoot as well as dribble… and teams will fear his running power.

Cleverley – has work to do to convince, having gone backwards in the last twelve months. At one stage looked bright and comfortable at elite level – must return to those heights to compete for a slot in the side.  Have previously admired his dynamism and wonder if he might provide balance, centrally.

Gerrard – increasingly looks our most influential player (imagine if he took a knock!!) Pinging passes all over and prompting to good effect. But he could do that stuff in his sleep and I still wonder if he was slotted into a relatively unambitious role too early. He is, after all, rarely a threat around the box these days and whilst it may be the case that his Roy of the Rovers days are over I might have preferred to have seen him further up the park, for longer. Perhaps that argument has now passed its sell-by-date but when Gerrard’s passing is off – and it sometimes is – he really does seem a pale shadow of a once rampaging force. But still a top top player and a worthy skipper.

Lallana – hmmmm. Offers balance and as yet only hints at the nature of his sphere of influence. Wellbeck ahead of him, currently in that wide left berth but… hmmm. Club form will be vital now. If he truly shines then a possible. The lack of fireworks not a concern if he links beautifully and nicks a goal or two. Again – arguably – should have had game-time earlier?

Rooney – an automatic choice either playing off the striker or right up front. His heart, consistency and ability not in question other than in tournaments (which may or may not prove anything.) But he has had two shocking major champs and will need to show well in Brazil. Thrives on possession, which is why I favour dropping him into advanced midfield/inside forward type role – but must play where we need him most…

Sturridge – which leads me to Sturridge. Was poor last night, reverting to that slightly laboured/out of touch mode he looked to have dispensed with early this season. Could well have been a function of playing slightly hurt but such is his current supremacy in the pecking order that Hodgson felt he must play against the Germans – understandably, given the relative lack of alternatives. England need him in poacher and swaggerer mode a.s.a.p. Then, he’s a handful and a genuine threat; last night, he wasn’t.

Subs who played some part:

Gibbs – still feels something of a rookie – and a distant third choice at left-back… but likely to be a realistic option in the future. Have some concerns about his awareness.

Henderson – returning from the ‘dead’ – very much to his credit – after poor start at Liverpool. Is now an option as midfield anchor and is beginning to thread a few meaningful passes as well as jog round and share possession.

Wilshere – injuries have cruelly undermined him. Has looked like our Great White Hope, being assertive, sharp and fabulous on the ball but niggling injuries are robbing him and us of something pretty special. Will he ever get the rest that seems necessary for a full recovery? If not, will we ever see him fulfil that promise?

Lambert – goodish journeyman but frankly barely an England international. Has neither the presence nor the killer instincts; can hold the ball up and links well enough but we simply need more than that. May make World Cup if options remain limited.  Obviously lacks pace.

Barkley – early days but has talent. Is he yet the man to come on and change the course or momentum of an international match though? If not, will he be going to Brazil for the ‘experience’? Answer yes – probably. But do rate him.

Carnival time?

Yes, surely, in an ‘everything’s relative’ kindofaway. England’s qualification for the Brazil finals will justifiably set one or two congas swaying – and why not? Hodgson’s team (if that’s what it is?) certainly succeeded (if that’s what it was?) by saving up or inventing their best two performances of the group stages for the consequently notably un-jangling end . As though all along they just maybes had a better sense of theatre than we did. Well good on ’em.

Over a genuinely entertaining and sometimes spicily competitive 90 minutes, a full England side did effectively on this occasion rise to the challenge presented by a thoroughly committed Polish group and their likeably raucous supporters. The atmosphere was palpably that of a proper game of footie, largely, it has to be said, because of the volume of – I think we’re talking nearer 25,000 than the 18,000 generally quoted pre-match – and the hearty defiance emanating from (if my translating skills serve me well) Lech Walesa’s Red and White Army. There was that pulse here; the thing that sets us aflutter. And god it was good to have that back.

In the first half in particular, this was an old-style ding-dong; a spectacle and a frightening test for the cardiac health of the management teams. Ludicrously open – with Cahill and Jagielka apparently only communicating via carrier pigeon – and with Townsend or a Lewandowski or two quick to exploit retreating space. To everyone’s credit – players, managers and fans in the ground – this had knock-out excitement and the feel of a knock-out match. (Which it wasn’t, remember, for the Polish contingent.)

The now local or visiting Poles brought into the thing a charge whose only negative was the predictable but clearly unnecessary whistling of the home team’s national anthem. Beyond that, they made a magnificent contribution to the evening’s sport. Including, perhaps, raising the tempo as well as the atmosphere of the game to a level that may have suited the England players: in particular the thought strikes that given the sense that the only viable mode of operation was via high octane engagement, the traditional retreat into hesitancy and plodding predictability was denied to the fellahs in white. A lovely thought that; who knows, or could know how much the nature of the game was determined by tactical preparation… as opposed to beery Central European breath?

Afterwards a dramatically shorn, former trawler skipper name of Keano again belied his national stereotype for waxing lyrical by soberly deadpanning stuff about ‘big players in big matches’ – meaning Gerrard and Rooney. And he was largely right. Those two will gather most of the plaudits for a performance that generally kept the English Disease – of coming over all donkacious and crap when the pressure’s on – at Kenny Dalglish-style (i.e. palming the bear-like defender) arm’s length. In interview, the England skipper may be as dull as the brilliant Scot but last night his relentlessly omnipresent force probably was the difference between the sides. Whilst Rooney’s influence gathered slowly, Gerrard was simply there – everywhere – from first to last. Without being exemplary or truly inspired he more than anyone delivered the victory.

Pre kick-off, a disproportionate lump of our time/airtime had been snaffled up by a certain WBA fan casting around blindly for meaningful/topical subject matter and alighting on the subject of Hodgson’s alleged bravery. Apparently the Brainy But Dour one (twice) threw off the shackles in choosing Townsend. I don’t quite see it that way, not buying (myself) the notion of significant cultural change in the soul of the England Manager implied by the esteemed Mr Chiles’ line of thought. Ar Andros clearly has the potential to be that boldest of choices but softest of targets – The Luxury Player – but the now pretty standard inclusion of six defensively-minded players plus the creaking port-cullis that is Hart allows for a certain slack in the girlie attackers capacity to protect the castle keep.

For those who haven’t got it, the inclusion of two holding midfield players as the hardcore lance-merchants in the central-but-deepish areas of the pitch enables or licenses dafter, more frivolous stuff up the pitch. Like Townsend gambolling or Rooney flashing and flicking; Sturridge loping and loosing that shimmy-stepover; the riskier, bamboozle-heavy and ideally more penetrative offensive stuff. Lampard and then Carrick, therefore, made Townsend possible agin Montenegro and Poland. It was relatively pragmatic decision-making, seen in the whole – a whole where Wellbeck’s lack of goal-threat but tremendous willingness and Rooney’s ability to chase were acutely factored in to Hodgson’s careful pattern. Roy hasn’t, in my view, converted.

And I don’t fully accept that the fact of the qualification following two goodish performances vindicates Hodgson. Whilst this may be the start of something, it may also be another in the series of perceived new dawns which have directly contributed to English complacency around the game. We remain – as surely evidenced by the bulk of this qualifying campaign and certainly by the tournaments that have preceded it – a fascinating but dreadful example of the proud fool, unable and unwilling to actually adopt patently more skilled and successful and downright necessary strategies from elsewhere. Because we never quite accept we have to learn that (foreign) stuff. Because (I suspect – hilariously) we still think there’s something worryingly unmanly about being able to twinkle or caress, or just be comfortable in possession of the ball.

But that’s again the Wider Issue. One which can only be addressed over years and following the radical overhaul of the coaching system. Being undeniably pessimistic about this particular matter, I intend to simply skirt past this one as though it fails to intrude with any relevance. (But man it does… and it is relevant… bigger, for me than the World Cup. I just don’t want to depress either myself or you by going there again this morning. Let’s get back to last night.)

For now we can enjoy – and I do mean that – the sense that our lot not only turned up but played. Played a 65/35 part, I reckon, in a bloody good game of football. And showed some promise – through Townsend’s directness and will to engage and Rooney’s returning quality and Baines’ brightness and busy-ness. Through a much-needed display of convincing collective spirit. They’ll need all that in Brazil.

I’ve now seen all manner of cobblers and conjecture over the possibles and the ‘realistic targets’ for England in South America next year.  The Telegraph even had a ‘Can We Win the World Cup?’ thing going on!?!  Jaysus!! 

I return to my earlier point about radical and meaningful reform of coaching nationwide and throughout the age-groups being substantially more vital than a decent showing by our First XI in Brazil.  Even if Rooney and co had an inspired outing there.  Yes, there is some hope that the younger guys in the squad might yet thrive, despite conditions and the likely spookily alien walk-dart character of the games.  It is also true I think that the general standard of play is relatively ordinary at tournament level – sometimes even through to the defining stages. 

So there is some hope – there is some real hope that an energised, positive England side may perhaps over-achieve in the manner of an England rugby team of recent vintage, rather than bomb out amid the usual ignominy.  If this sounds a weary sort of optimisim then maybe… that’s what it is.  I hope the attacking players in particular fizz with confidence and belief; I just don’t see Hodgson facilitating that because I fear he lacks generosity, dynamism, inspiration – deep awareness even.   These things the English game itself clearly lacks.

We’re left with issues we cannot and should not duck.  Yes England had a real good night last night.  But the football matrix here is still a shocking and pretty depressing mess.