Nickname: The Three Lions
Rankings: FIFA (7), Elo (6), SPI (6)
Euro History: Semifinals (1968, 1996), Quarterfinals (2004), Qualified (1980, 1988, 1992, 2000)
Last Five Tournaments: R16 – DNQ – QF – QF – QF
England brought soccer to the world, then spent the best part of a century resisting the world’s innovations. There have been countless analyses of English tactics, player development and psychoses engendered by the 1966 World Cup triumph. The problem though is more simple, but more complex: translating club success into national team success.
From 1976 to 1984, English clubs won seven of eight European Cups. Those same players missed the 1974 World Cup, Euro 1976, the 1978 World Cup and Euro 1984. They went beyond the initial group stage once in 1982. Kevin Keegan, a two-time Ballon D’Or winner, played just 26 World Cup minutes during his career.
The recent disparity, though not as extreme, has been similar. Four English clubs, albeit with more cosmopolitan squads, have reached seven of the last eight Champions League Finals. England bowed out in the quarterfinals in 2006, failed to qualify for Euro 2008 and limped through an easy group in South Africa before getting blown up by Germany.
England will start four Champions League winners in its first-choice XI. Gary Neville will break from orgasmic bleating to be on WAG patrol, but with the England squad best by injuries, managerial turmoil and controversies it’s hard to see the pattern altering.
Qualification: England finished first in qualifying Group G, six points ahead of second-place Montenegro. They had a 5-0-3 record and outscored other teams 17-5. The English lost 3-2 to Holland under interim coach Stuart Pearce in February, but have beaten Spain, Sweden, Norway and Belgium in friendlies since November.
Coach: England’s coach is 64-year-old Roy Hodgson, who took over in May after Fabio Capello’s resignation. Hodgson has been itinerant, with 18 previous coaching stops since 1976 in eight different countries. He has won eight league titles and brought both Inter Milan and Fulham to the UEFA Cup Final. As an international coach, he took Switzerland to the knockout round in 1994 (1st tournament in 28 years) and nearly qualified for Finland (never played in major tournament) for Euro 2008.
Many English media outlets have ridiculed and undermined Hodgson, because he’s not their darling, Harry Redknapp. Hodgson is cultured, a fair tactician and has extensive experience at both club and international level. The choice, looking at resumes was a no brainer. Should he falter, however, the story will be him not rousing the players like old ‘Arry would have.
Squad: This is the weakest English squad in a while on paper, though the strong paper teams of late have been weak teams. The English are strong down the flanks, but, unfortunately, quite soft in the middle.
Wayne Rooney looks, sounds and, at times, acts like a lout, though he plays soccer like a refined genius. England will be without him for their first two matches. They could be out before he takes the field. Liverpool’s Andy Carroll or his Man U teammate Danny Welbeck will likely start in his stead. The former showed flashes toward the season’s end. If nothing else, his physical presence will terrify international central defenses.
England should start a five-man midfield, a trio of attacking midfielders with a bank of two behind. Ashley Young, when he stays on his feet, is creative, technically gifted and lethal on the counter attack. Milner and the oft-maligned Stewart Downing are positionally aware players who should fit into Hodgson’s designs. England has a lot of speed on the bench with Arsenal’s Theo Walcott and Alex Oxlaide-Chamberlain.
Defensive midfield is a concern. Gareth Barry and Frank Lampard are injured. Michael Carrick withdrew himself from consideration. That leaves England with Steven Gerrard and Scott Parker. Both are aging. Neither are fit. Gerrard has made just 32 league starts for Liverpool the past two seasons. Parker was getting torched for Tottenham toward the season’s end. Both making it through an entire tournament may be an optimistic projection. Behind them is Liverpool youngster Jordan Henderson and not much else.
Central defense is also a concern. England lost Gary Cahill to a broken jaw. John Terry is struggling to get fit. Even if he does, the Lescott/Terry partnership is between two players who won’t be first choice at their clubs next season. England are very strong at left back, with Ashley Cole being one of the sport’s finest defenders at his position. Glen Johnson is not the ideal right back for a disciplined system, but can cause opponents issues going forward.
Goalkeeper, for once, is no question for England. Manchester City’s Joe Hart is one of the Premier League’s best goalkeepers, having led the league in clean sheets the past two seasons.
Rio Ferdinand knows Roy got his last two letters. He wrote the addresses on em perfect.
Tactics: England play a 4-2-3-1. Hodgson’s career has been atypical for an Englishman and so are his tactics. He relies not on pluck, talent or motivation but on rigid and disciplined tactical system rooted in sound, organized defense. It’s a system and one that seemingly could work well in a tournament. The trouble is it’s not that easy to implement, involving extensive, repetitive training. Liverpool players rejected Hodgson outright. Even where it was successful at Fulham and West Brom it took time for players to adjust. They aren’t built to construct plays through midfield. Look for them to get the ball out quickly and try to exploit teams down the wings on counterattacks.
Racism: The English were so concerned about potential racism in the Ukraine they set up England-only safe havens for fans traveling to their matches. How they plan to protect players and spectators from being abused by John Terry remains to be seen.
Prognosis: England gets its two hardest matches first, which will also be the two matches it won’t have Wayne Rooney. The Three Lions probably need two points from the first two matches and a win over Ukraine to secure advancement. That should be doable. How far they go beyond that depends on whether they finish first or second. FIrst-place gets then a quarterfinal matchup with Italy or Croatia. Second-place secures them a date with Spain.
Fun Fact: Sparkling wine, later termed Champagne, was invented by scientist Christopher Merret in the 17th century, in England.
[Photos via Getty]