Gerrard's exit could bring change
Steven Gerrard's decision to retire from international football, announced on Monday, brought the England national team back into the consciousness of the media and public. Until now, it seemed that everyone had decided to overlook the disappointing World Cup experience altogether -- there had been no outcry and no great fervent discussion about what went wrong in Brazil, where Roy Hodgson's side claimed one point from three games.
There was good reason for that: it was a peculiar, drip-by-drip elimination from the competition. Usually, there is a defining moment -- a penalty miss, a red card -- which summarizes England's exit. Instead, elimination looked probable from the moment they were defeated by Uruguay, and it was confirmed when Costa Rica beat Italy, which meant that England played a final, meaningless group match against los Ticos, which finished in an unmemorable 0-0 draw.
That wasn't even the main story June 24, though, because the game clashed with Uruguay's victory over Italy, which was overshadowed by Luis Suarez's bite on Giorgio Chiellini. As a result, the English back pages were about that incident, and the saga rumbled on until after England had arrived home.
Waiting until now, after the dust has settled and after we have witnessed the quality of the best in the competition, is actually a decent way to judge the performance of England. As always, there's a tendency to reach for the extremes: They are always either "heroic" or "shambolic." But this time around, they were neither which was part of the problem. It was in between and England have learned very little.
In between, you ask? Well, yes. One point and a group stage exit is a huge disappointment, but look at the manner of England's two defeats: They were by fine margins. The narrow defeats were probably deserved, but England were not unlucky or outclassed.
Look through the side, and everything was disappointing rather than disastrous. At the back, England conceded too many goals, but they allowed the opposition fewer shots per game than any other side in the competition: Joe Hart was only tested eight times in the three games.
In midfield their passing was occasionally impressive, although they were overrun and outnumbered. Hodgson's bravery in the wide positions backfired in the opener against Italy when left-back Leighton Baines was repeatedly overloaded.
Going forward, there was purpose but a lack of penetration. The two goals England did score both came from low crosses. Daniel Sturridge and Wayne Rooney both got on the scoresheet but were rather wasteful overall.
The sensible summary is that England had the right idea and played more positive football this time around than in the World Cups of 2002, 2006 or 2010 but weren't good enough. While words like "disgraceful" and "embarrassing" have been used to describe the performance, that is untrue. The defeats were 1-2 and 1-2, not 0-5 and 0-5.
If you get two 0-5 losses, though, you know how to proceed. You tear up the plans, sack the manager, change the side's core players and start from scratch.
England's World Cup campaign was in between because they haven't found out anything they didn't previously know. No part of their game plan worked excellently, but none of it was disastrous either. Individually, there were no outstanding performances or absolute horror shows. For example, when the BBC rated the players' World Cup efforts, each player received a mark of between 5 and 7. No 4s and no 8s: nothing good and nothing bad.
Regardless of whether you think Hodgson is a genius or a buffoon, or whether you think Rooney is a misunderstood superstar or the reason England keep failing, have you learned a single thing about the England side from the World Cup? Has your opinion on any individual changed? Has your belief about the shape of the side altered? Of course not. That's because there's nothing to react to and few lessons to be learned. In this instance, Hodgson is no different from you and I.
Arguably England's most disappointing performer, if not their worst performer, was Gerrard. He failed to recreate his fine Liverpool form and, in the fatal defeat to Uruguay, made errors for both goals -- missing a tackle in midfield in the buildup to Suarez's first goal and then providing the inadvertent flick-on for his then teammate's second.
His decision to retire leaves England without one of their best central midfielders, and there aren't a host of contenders ready to step up. The other midfielders in the squad (including Jordan Henderson, Jack Wilshere and Ross Barkley) are all talented but have only enjoyed a single outstanding domestic campaign. Others are promising but remain short of Gerrard's current level.
Nevertheless, maybe the departure of England's captain is a good thing, because it forces England to do something new. With Hodgson's worrying tendency to look positively upon disappointing results, there was a danger he'd name exactly the same starting XI for upcoming games.
Gerrard's retirement forces England -- and their manager -- to evolve. For a footballing nation that always appears frustratingly conservative and a step behind everybody else, evolution for evolution's sake is always alluring.