IF it feels like we have been before, then it is because we have. Repeatedly. The only difference this time is that the post-mortem has begun before the last rites have been administered.
England play their final World Cup group match against Costa Rica this afternoon, and for the first time in their history, they are already out of the tournament with a game to go.
Humiliation has never been as prompt, yet amid all the fevered analysis that has followed last week’s defeats to Italy and Uruguay, one salient point has been largely overlooked.
England got what they deserved. There were no hard luck stories this time around, no controversial red cards, last-minute injuries or goalkeeping gaffes to blame. A team of limited quality tried its best against opponents ranked higher in the world, and was ultimately found wanting. That is generally what happens in sport.
Yet for all that this was supposed to be the year when expectations were set at a realistic level, an acceptance of English inferiority disappeared as soon as our brave young boys stepped onto the tarmac in Rio de Janeiro. This was England at the World Cup finals. Forget all previous evidence, barring the one time the tournament was held on home soil almost half-a-century ago, what could possibly go wrong?
Plenty as it transpired, but whereas the tournament approached with most people accepting that an exit at the group stage was a possibility, the reality has sparked a kneejerk response that ignores the brutal reality that England are not a leading international side.
Get rid of Roy Hodgson? Who would you get to replace him, and why should it be assumed they would do any better? Ditch half the players in the squad? Some will inevitably fall by the wayside, but it’s not as though there’s a queue of alternatives on the sidelines who should have been in Brazil in their place.
By and large, the players that played against Italy and Uruguay are the 11 best players in the country. Because the Premier League is constantly and misguidedly trumpeted as the ‘best league in the world’, we assume they’re world beaters. In reality, however, Danny Welbeck is no better than most other attackers in the tournament just because he plays for Manchester United, and Gary Cahill isn’t an excellent centre-half just because he’s a regular starter for Chelsea. They’re high profile certainly, but that shouldn’t be confused with being high class.
So if we can accept that the England side has major limitations, what can be done to address the key issues? The answer is twofold, but one set of solutions is really for a separate debate. We’re all aware of the structural issues handicapping the England national side – too much power in the hands of the Premier League, not enough domestic players in the top-flight, a set of lost years between 17 and 21 when English players are ignored by their clubs, inadequate coaching – but while a recent FA commission attempted to tackle some of the problems, it is already too late to put most of them right.
Change, if possible at all, will be generational, so as Hodgson looks towards the 2016 European Championships in France and the next World Cup in Russia, he needs to concentrate on factors he can influence. Which once again brings us to an acceptance that England are not all that good.
The prevailing philosophy during the current tournament appears to have been, ‘Pick a few of the kids, throw them on the pitch, and tell them to attack’. In fairness to Hodgson, it is what most of the country was demanding. It even resulted in a fair bit of praise in the wake of the Italy game, even though England lost.
Yet it is the worst possible approach to adopt when you’re in charge of a team that has deep-rooted problems, the majority of which are concentrated in defence.
In any major tournament, you have to be an exceptional team to effectively throw organisation out of the window and focus solely on attack. Brazil haven’t done it, fielding two defensive midfielders, and even the likes of Argentina and Germany have sacrificed some of their attacking talent to guarantee a reliable and well-drilled defence.
England? Pick what you think is your best four defenders, even though they don’t particularly complement each other, and stick Steven Gerrard at the base of midfield, even though the defensive side of his game remains limited.
Having been ripped apart by Germany at the last World Cup in South Africa, you might have thought England would have learned. The warning signs were there again in the friendlies against Chile and Peru, when mobile attacking sides caused chaos on the counter-attack, yet still nothing was done to address the issue.
It’s not just a question of personnel because as has already been stated, the alternatives don’t really exist. Instead, it’s about tactical change and trying to develop a team rather than a group of individuals.
If you’ve got a weakness at centre-half, why not play three at the back with wing backs? That’s what Chile and Costa Rica, two of the most effective teams in the tournament, have done, and it’s also what England did in 1990 when they produced their best World Cup performance since 1966.
‘The players don’t play that way with their clubs,’ will be the cry. Fine. But isn’t that what friendlies and qualifying matches are for?
Instead of simply picking the best 11 players, why not work on a line-up that is more than the sum of its parts? If Phil Jones is the only player in the squad with the assets to play as a defensive midfield screen, why not play him there for a series of matches? In terms of individual talent, he might not be worth a place in the side. When it comes to making the rest of the team tick though, sacrifices are required.
And why, when Andrea Pirlo and Luis Suarez were clearly going to offer the greatest threat in England's opening two matches, was there not a plan to negate the opposition's key asset? Costa Rica boss Jose Luis Pinto instructed his players to shut down Pirlo as soon as he got the ball, and Italy's playmaker was rendered redundant. England, despite having witnessed a Pirlo master-class in Euro 2012, appear to regard targeting an opposition player as a sign of weakness. That mentality has to change.
There are lessons for the future, but there has to be an acceptance of England’s limits. Surely, on today of all days, we can agree that we’re starting from an extremely low base.