Where do the Three Lions stand ahead of France 2016?
A loss to Spain in Alicante almost felt inevitable. England have improved much since the World Cup, going unbeaten in sixteen since Luis Suarez mauled their defence on a torrid night in Sao Paulo nearly a year and a half ago, but despite the improvements fans have seen since, taking an injury hit squad away to the incumbent European Champions was always going to be a tough ask, especially in an unimportant friendly really only meant to bookend the international calendar.
Spain ended up worthy winners, with a stunning strike by right back Mario Gaspar – the Villarreal full back’s second goal in his second international appearance for Spain – and a daisy cutter from Arsenal midfielder Santi Cazorla consigning England to eventual defeat, with post-game coverage almost unanimous in criticising England’s lack of intelligence in possession, certainly in comparison to their counterparts. England’s approach to the game was likened to that of an FA Cup minnow – a harsh assessment – while significant questions about England’s head-to-head abilities with their top European rivals have been raised with months to go to Euro 2016 in France.
England had one final test in this calendar year, coming against the tournament’s hosts, France, but in reality the game became a sideshow from which we didn’t learn anything too meaningful on the pitch in light of the terror attacks in Paris, attacks which left the French national team locked inside the Stade de France for the night alongside their German adversaries. The friendly was, quite rightly, emotionally charged, but it’d be unrealistic to expect that both sides went into Tuesday evening’s game with the football itself primarily on their minds. With just two further tests ahead of Roy Hodgson’s squad announcement, against Germany and the Netherlands in March, now is perhaps as good a time as any to evaluate the state of England’s hopes heading towards France 2016.
Firstly, it pays England some disservice to ignore a very successful qualification campaign in which moments of trouble were very rare and progression to the finals was secured at a canter. England are typically strong qualifiers, and strong previous campaigns haven’t necessarily translated to success at tournaments, a pertinent example being the calamitous World Cup of 2010 coming after Capello’s near perfect guidance of qualification. That said, qualification campaigns don’t get more impressive than ten wins from ten and, even if the quality of opposition might realistically be called into question, and a brief wobbly spell away to Slovenia in the summer aside, England looked commanding virtually throughout.
Hodgson changed his tactical set-up somewhat throughout – employing the diamond formation early on before switching to a 4-3-3 which seems to suit England’s players slightly better – but perhaps most interesting was how he had to switch up the team in terms of personnel. A number of players have made their debuts since the World Cup – even this season there’s been the likes of Eric Dier and Dele Alli, while players such as Fabian Delph and Jonjo Shelvey have established themselves as important figures in the England camp since the World Cup. It’s not surprising that so many midfielders have been tried – both Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard retired from international duty after the World Cup, and they were two mainstays of the midfield for over a decade – but with the likes of Harry Kane and Jamie Vardy also getting their chances to shine on an international level shortly after beginning to perform on the Premier League stage, there’s certainly no argument to be made for players from smaller clubs not being given the chance to stake a claim for an England berth under Hodgson. Sometimes this might be a little over-eager – Jesse Lingard was ushered into the England squad after a few hundred decent minutes of Premier League football, albeit because of injury – but for the most part this is a good thing, in testing talent, which is of course what friendlies are primarily for.
There might be some argument that this is an England squad slightly bereft of magnificent talent, especially in comparison to what England fans saw each international break with the Golden Generation ten years ago, but England are playing, for the most part, competently and in a style which doesn’t look as completely antiquated as has been seen under previous managers. While, like the Spain friendly has once more highlighted, England are still not masters of the possession game, they have looked a lot neater in possession than at times before, dominating the ball in most games. England’s pressing game is still not magnificent but a lot stronger than it was before the World Cup, while on the counter attack, and with quick young blood in both midfield and in wide positions taking over from aging legs, England look a lot more dangerous. With pacey attacking talents such as Raheem Sterling, Theo Walcott, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and of course Ryan Bertrand and Nathaniel Clyne (include the likes of Danny Welbeck, Daniel Sturridge and Luke Shaw when fit), England certainly have a lot of depth from wide positions.
So where does this leave us ahead of the European Championships in seven months time? Well, England are clearly a squad in transition, as the scatter-gun squad selection policy has shown in recent times, and it would be ridiculous to expect the Three Lions to win the tournament given that they’ve not really been tested by serious heavyweights since the World Cup, other than in friendlies with Italy and Spain. However, progress should be visible for all to see. There shouldn’t be a question about England making it out of the groups this time around, and a run deeper into the competition could even be realistic, all going well, but it’s almost beside the point; for the first time in a good few years, England arguably don’t deserve the public derision they continue to receive.
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