England look as dull as ever
This was the start of a new era. A golden new dawn, if you will. After the drudgery and disappointment of Brazil, here was the future. Well, if that's the case, England are in trouble. On Wednesday night at Wembley, they were, for the most part at least, as dull as ever.
In 90 minutes against a limited Norwegian side, they put just two shots on target all night. They lined up in an old-fashioned 4-4-2 with newly anointed captain Wayne Rooney plodding ineffectually around in the final third. The only glimpse of promise came after Rooney's withdrawal, when Raheem Sterling was pushed into the middle with Danny Welbeck and Daniel Sturridge ahead of him. There, for a short time, England's rockets finally fired. But for all of Roy Hodgson's claims last week that he had the courage to drop his captain if required, he's hardly going to sit him on the bench for his first competitive game. England look firmly locked into their lethargy.
Wednesday was, of course, just a friendly, and friendlies are not always the most accurate barometers. It may well be that Hodgson's side rouse themselves for the clash with Switzerland on Monday in Euro 2016 qualifying. It may be that like an unlabelled firework, Rooney sits dormant for so long that you think he's defective, but then suddenly explodes in a multi-coloured blast that lights up his nation. However, it's fair to say that there has been little evidence on which to base any of these conclusions.
To make matters worse, there is no challenge ahead of them. Switzerland, who took eventual finalists Argentina to the brink of penalties in the World Cup, are a better side than them and have every chance of beating them on Monday. Slovenia, Lithuania, Estonia and San Marino, on the other hand, are unlikely to cause too many problems. Even if Slovenia do manage to pip England to second, Hodgson can still qualify through a third-place playoff.
When they do -- and they will -- qualify for Euro 2016, they will find the tournament a far tamer beast than it has been in the past. Expanded to fit 24 teams, England could now make it to the knockout stages without winning a single game. Necessity is the mother of invention, but there will be no necessity for inventive football for at least two years. This is how it is. This is how it will stay.
There will be some who are quite content with this state of affairs -- the same people who barely blinked when England were dumped out of the World Cup inside a week, who barely blinked when Hodgson said that the meaningless 0-0 draw with an already-qualified Costa Rica was "evidence of what a good team we can be."
England deserved credit for the way they approached their first World Cup game against Italy. For the first hour before the conditions overwhelmed them in Manaus, they were ambitious and attacking. But the omens of what was to come were soon evident. Sterling, whose performance attracted the praise of Andrea Pirlo, was shunted out wide to accommodate Rooney. England's performance dropped, errors were made, Uruguay took advantage.
Hodgson and his assistant Gary Neville have made the point on several occasions that the pool of English talent is barely deep enough in which to float a rubber duck, and they're right. There are well-established issues in the national infrastructure that have left Hodgson short-handed, but he's not so short-handed that the team should look this miserable.
These are Champions League players; latter-stage Champions League players. On occasion, in fleeting glimpses, they look it as well. But with tactics, selection and instruction, they are being made to look so ordinary that they'd struggle in the group stages of the Europa League.
Hodgson said after the game that he didn't want to be in a position where one bad performance meant that he had to castigate a player, or that one good performance meant he had to praise him to the roof, and he's right. Football is hysterical and sometimes it seems that there can be no grey between the black and the white.
But England, against Italy and against Norway, have looked a far better team with Sterling in the centre. They look a far better team with Rooney on the bench. They look a far better team when they are being brave. Unfortunately, there is nothing scheduled in the next two years that will necessitate anything more than basic competence. Welcome to the future.