Reda Maher

Brazil 360: Making the case for pace in the England defence

Reda Maher

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Before England’s heartbreaking defeat to Uruguay, around 15 local football hooligans were arrested for attempting to petrol-bomb a bar which had been taken over by English supporters.

Armed and dangerous, they were quickly subdued and arrested by Sao Paulo’s police force. Anyone who is in Brazil will have noticed the presence of countless armed Old Bill, built like MMA fighters but able to switch to hospitality mode when visitors ask for directions.

Sao Paulo’s police have a reputation for brutality, but England’s fans were on the receiving end of a different kind of beating at the Arena Corinthians on Thursday, than that of having your wallet and iPhone lifted after a few too many Brahmas in Sao Paulo’s Vila Madalena.

Strangely enough, the conditions were perfect for England, yet Raheem Sterling and co. were more subdued than against Italy in the sweltering heat of Manaus.

But Uruguay are also accustomed to the cold, and what was ultimately a scrappy match was settled by two pieces of individual brilliance, moments of genius which were afforded to Suarez by Jagielka’s inability to cover basic ground.

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England’s story was about 'might have beens': Wayne Rooney should have scored three times before he finally did, Diego Godin should have been sent off in the first half, and Luis Suarez should never have been allowed to wriggle away from Phil Jagielka for both of his brilliantly taken goals.

“Two chances came his way, and he took them,” England boss Roy Hodgson said of Suarez afterwards.

But he should never had been afforded those chances.

Before the World Cup, I expressed serious reservations about the partnership between Gary Cahill and Jagielka after watching the friendly win over Peru at Wembley. Not because they are poor players – Cahill is an excellent user of the ball as well as a finer header and tackler, and Jagielka is an experienced stopper - but because of one commonly-lacked attribute.

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My issue was, and remains, that they are not blessed with any pace to speak of and, with England’s full-backs of the attacking variety, these centre-halves are vulnerable to players like Suarez, particularly given the defensive midfielder who would ordinarily shield that type of back four is Steven Gerrard, who had a poor game and is more of a playmaker than an anchor.

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There is still a belief among coaches, fans and pundits that centre-backs do not need to be fleet of foot if they are sharp of mind. That can be the case, but a well-placed stopper must be accompanied by a partner quick enough to cover the spare yards when faced by a rapid counter attack. Or at least have a driven maniac of a full-back like Cole in his pomp, able to race from flank to flank like an amphetamine-fuelled whippet.

England did not play brilliantly, but they were not awful, whatever the trolls on Twitter will say. Certainly, Suarez and Edinson Cavani aside, Uruguay showed nothing more than competence on the break. This was a game England should have at least drawn.

Suarez’s opener – a fine header from Cavani’s superb cross – was against the run of play. Rooney’s narrowly wide free-kick and unfortunate header on to the post, Daniel Sturridge’s shot that stung Fernando Muslera’s palms, several goalmouth scrambles in the second half, a couple of penalty appeals and another Rooney miss… England were creating but not taking chances, and their defence is a good level below the rest of the XI, particularly with Leighton Baines a shadow of his usual self once more.

Finally England cancelled out Suarez’s opener as Rooney rolled the ball home from a Glen Johnson cross, his first World Cup goal, if you can believe that.

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England went for the win, but in doing so left their leaden-footed defence exposed to Suarez, who had no right to latch on to a loose ball with Jagielka gasping for air: the finish was exquisite, but a Chris Smalling or – gulp – Ashley Cole probably would have covered.

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England need a miracle to qualify for the second round. Hodgson will be pilloried, for that’s what we English do, but he has clearly been planning to blood his youngsters for future tournaments. He also lacks the resources in central defence, a bizarre turn of events given it is usually England’s strength. And no, John Terry is not the solution – his inability to run is even more pronounced than Jagielka’s.

Despite a poor club season – through fault of management – Chris Smalling should probably have been involved. Cahill is superb on the ball, and knows where to put himself, and the Manchester United defender is fast and alert. He would not have lost Suarez for the first, and would likely have made his interception for the second.

But what’s done is done. England will probably go out, and Hodgson will probably be sacked as the press and fans round on him like favela cops on a pickpocket.

An easy scapegoat. But this was an incredibly tough group – almost as tough as Spain’s – and England have lost two matches against fine teams by the narrowest of margins.

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They were unbearable to watch in 2010, and with more experienced personnel. There has been some progress, and provided the English heed the cheesy t-shirt’s advice by keeping calm, Euro 2016 could feature an exciting young England side that at least has experience of a major international tournament.

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Maybe Roy isn’t the right man. Maybe he is too naturally cautious, headmasterly, bookish for the PlayStation generation.

Costa Rica come next and it is likely to be England’s last World Cup match. A good performance and a win would do something to justify retaining Hodgson; if results go their way on Friday and next week, they could still qualify.

But whatever happens moving forward, it is simply not feasible to continue with the Cahill-Jagielka partnership. Starting from Tuesday in Belo Horizonte.

Eurosport’s Reda Maher is on location in Brazil for the duration of the 2014 World Cup - follow him on Twitter @Reda_Eurosport

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