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England: What Exactly Went Wrong?

Tuesday January 1 2013

Fans' inquests have opened and the blood-thirsty media's cruel jibes have been published. Yes, England have lost their opening two World Cup group matches and they're now staring at the very real prospect of exiting the tournament.

We really ought to be used to waking up the morning after with a heady concoction of disappointment, absolute disbelief that Glen Johnson is still selected and a few units of alcohol making the whole sorry scenario a little worse. 

But here we all are, sitting at work and counting down the hours until Italy and Costa Rica meet to decide our fate. It shouldn't be like this, but it always seems to be.

So what exactly went wrong? For once, I don't think heightened, unbearable expectation set the players up for a fall. The pre-tournament hype wasn't there in its usual form; the media praised Roy Hodgson's choice of squad for its youth, pace and attacking threat. Raheem Sterling, Ross Barkley and Luke Shaw were tipped to set the tournament alight with their swashbuckling runs and alarming speed.

However, after that first defeat to Italy, the anxiety ramped up. Perhaps rightfully so, given the cut-throat nature of the group stages. It's three games to decide your fate - there's no time to waste - and a tough match against a rejuvenated Uruguay side loomed.

That meant facing the likes of Paris Saint-Germain's prolific Edinson Cavani, Atletico Madrid's duo of central defence star Diego Godin and dangerous winger Cristian Rodriguez, as well as Martin Caceres, Alvaro Pereira, Nicolas Lodeiro and the short, stout figure of Egidio Arevalo Rios. They all underperformed against Costa Rica, but star man Luis Suarez was to return to the starting 11 for the England match, and boy did we end up knowing about it.

We all know how the game panned out, so let's not revisit the pain of it. Instead, we should focus on where it all went wrong.

For me, Glen Johnson - despite his somewhat fortuitous assist for Wayne Rooney - performed abysmally. He seems to be the side's go-to throw-in taker, however it took until the 53rd minute for his throw to actually find a teammate. In each of his 12 attempts before, they all gave possession back to the opposition, and that's before we talk about Johnson's inability to retain possession. He's a liability, lacks composure, he's uncertain, lackadaisical and should not be playing for England. It's as simple as that. I'm at a loss as to why he's persistently included.

Perhaps mirroring Johnson's performances on a consistent basis is Danny Welbeck. You could argue his hold-up play is worthy of inclusion, but what did he exactly do against Uruguay? He faded into the background and you just can't do that when you're in a vital role. His lack of goals is a problem for both club and country, and despite appearing to be a star when he burst onto the scene, he's starting to be found out for being nothing more than an insouciant hindrance.

I also believe too much hype was placed on Raheem Sterling's skinny shoulders. Despite playing a massive role in Liverpool's tilt at the title, he came into his first major international tournament as England's shining star, despite only having a handful of senior caps to his name. He's young, quick and a prodigious talent, but placing the majority of your hopes on an inexperienced 19-year-old is ludicrous. Having terrorised Italy's defence in the Group D opener, it was almost like the expectation placed upon him nicked a yard of pace and robbed him of his fluidity against the Uruguayans.

Wayne Rooney's actual inclusion in the 11 was up for debate in the days after the Italy performance, but he looked hungry, determined and it appeared as if the much-needed fire in his belly had returned for last night's match. A free-kick narrowly missed early on, and his headed effort bounced back off the woodwork before half-time. Undeterred, Rooney kept his head and deserves praise for sticking at it. He was duly rewarded with a tap-in to equalise for his country. That was his first goal in the finals of the World Cup, but was too much made of him in the preparation for the crucial game? He brings a lot to the side - tenacity, goals, a hard-working ethic - but is he past his best? I think he is, and I wouldn't be surprised if this was his last World Cup.

Steven Gerrard's untimely slip against Chelsea in the final throws of the Premier League season proved costly for Liverpool's title chances, and a nonchalant header assisted Uruguay's winner five minutes from time. A leviathan for his club, but he's another whose form hasn't really materialised for his country. He'll retire from international football, as will Frank Lampard. 

So, what next for our national side? Well, it's back to the drawing board for the FA. Do they stick with Hodgson? Or do they pay millions of pounds for someone else? I'd be inclined to stick, given his radical redesign of the team. Deadwood like Glen Johnson should be shipped out, but the future's still a bright one with the likes of Joe Hart, Leighton Baines, Luke Shaw, Phil Jones, Gary Cahill, Ross Barkley, Jack Wilshere, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Raheem Sterling, Adam Lallana and Daniel Sturridge. 

Further youngsters on the fringes such as John Stones, Jack Butland, James Ward-Prowse, Nathan Redmond, Jon Flanagan, Will Hughes, Ravel Morrison, Tom Ince, Jesse Lingard, Wilfried Zaha and Connor Wickham may also be handed call-ups. 

Who knows, perhaps in four years' time...