Word Cup review: England need a ‘bulldog’

The Rio Report

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The inquest as to why England suffered their first group stage exit from a World Cup since 1958 is already in full swing. Many thought that the team may well struggle after a tough draw but there is still understandable disappointment at falling at the first hurdle.

There were some obvious downfalls in a number of departments, and in all three games, but the outlook is arguably not as bleak as it once was. The wound of an early exit is still sore but it is perhaps one that will take less time to heal than the Three Lions departure from Euro 2012, despite getting further in that tournament.

There's certainly a case to be made that England actually played better at the finals than they did during a thoroughly underwhelming and somewhat unnecessarily troublesome qualifying campaign. Roy Hodgson's side were far more creative in the three group games than they were during their last major tournament showing, of that there is no doubt.

There was a strange air of optimism despite an opening defeat to Italy. England could easily have got something out of an even game having been completely dominated by the same opponent two years ago. Hodgson's side held just 32% of possession over 120 minutes of action against the Azzurri in their Euro 2012 quarter-final and mustered just 9 shots, with only 1 on target. In Manaus they managed twice as many shots at goal in 30 minutes fewer (5 on target), and held a far more respectable 44% possession.

It should have been onwards and upwards from there. England had missed chances but were, at least, creating them. Up next was a wounded Uruguay side and the prospect of keeping Luis Suarez at bay. In short, they failed.

Again guilty of missing good chances, England's defensive errors were exposed by clinical finishing. In his two group appearances Joe Hart conceded 4 goals and made just one save. England didn't give away too many clear-cut scoring opportunities but when they did they were punished.

In what was a dead rubber for the Three Lions, it was a similar story at the business end against Costa Rica. Where Wayne Rooney had squandered chances in the crucial game with Uruguay, Daniel Sturridge was wasteful against the shock group winners. England created the same number of big chances in the group stages of the tournament as the likes of Argentina, Colombia and Chile but were only able to take two of their 5. A 5.3% chance conversion rate is only better than 5 of the 32 sides at the tournament at the time of writing.

A look at the team statistics from Group D from WhoScored.com shows that, despite finishing at the foot of the table, England were far from outplayed. In fact, Hodgson's side had the most shots in the group (38), including the most on target (12), whilst also conceding the fewest shots (25). Going into the final games of groups G and H, only Belgium conceded fewer per game than England (8.3).

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There were, however, a couple of key areas where England fell short in the group. Being caught offside obviously isn't a good thing but what it does show is intent to get in behind the oppositions' defence. England had the pace to do so but didn't look to benefit from it, with Sturridge, Sterling and Welbeck never really looking to peel off the last man. England were caught offside just twice, with Costa Rica on 8, Uruguay 10 and Italy on a remarkable, and rather embarrassing, 21.

A point of contention was Steven Gerrard's role in the side, particularly during the defeat to Uruguay in which his error proved costly. It's left some suggesting that he should retire, with the treatment of one of England's greatest ever players extremely harsh from some. The Liverpool captain had an excellent season at club level in a system that covered his flaws and accentuated his strengths. The utilisation of teammate Jordan Henderson alongside him was supposed to encourage more of the same this summer.

In the game against Oscar Tabarez's side, however, it actually backfired. Henderson was supposed to be the engine, and willing runner that allowed the England skipper to dictate the play. The issue, which must fall at the manager's feet, is that such a tactic requires a 3-man midfield. With Liverpool, Gerrard drops deep, as he did for England, but isn't given the bulk of the defensive burden. He tends to have a play breaker alongside him in the shape of Lucas or Joe Allen and Henderson does the running further forward.

Against Uruguay Gerrard was forced to do the running while Henderson picked the passes, completing 23 more than his experienced midfield partner. Their roles reversed for one reason or another and an ageing Gerrard unsurprisingly tired. It was evident that they lacked a top class defensive midfielder that can read the game. England, with 28, made at least 16 fewer interceptions than any other team in the group.

While questions remain over the credentials of a number of the back four - Gary Cahill arguably the only of England's defenders to come out of the tournament with any credit - the lack of a player that can effectively perform the defensive duties in front of them is the biggest problem. It's one that doesn't seem like being fixed anytime soon, which is the main worry.

The positive is that the Three Lions now boast a crop of players confident in possession and willing to carry the ball further forward - admittedly without a great deal of variety between them. The irony is that England are missing a player with the 'bulldog' spirit for which they are so renowned.

By Martin Laurence - follow on Twitter

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