Matt Traub

Why England flatters to deceive and other Saturday thoughts ...

Created on Jun. 14, 2014 7:57 PM EST

Food for thought: While Brazil is practically demanded to win the World Cup at home, and signs in Argentina already proclaim their country as champions. And with all that, the country that has the most outsized expectations compared to realistic chances is England. That’s what happens when all but one player comes from the richest, most exposed league in the world, the England Premiership.
England is not winning the World Cup. End of discussion. After Sunday’s 2-1 loss to Italy, you could say that the Three Lions’ next game against Uruguay is as close as you’ll come to an elimination game.
In a matter of hours, the anticipation of “We can win the group” after Uruguay’s shock loss to Costa Rica turned into a ritual examination of the tactics, defensive strength and Wayne Rooney’s fit into the setup.
(A quick word about Italy: it was not exactly scintillating on defense either, and Salvatore Sirigu did nothing to stop people from wishing Gianluigi Buffon’s ankle heals quickly. That said, there’s a boatload of quality and Andrea Pirlo is just magical to watch. Nothing less than quarterfinals should be a disappointment, and this blog has predicted it will reach the finals).
Rooney is where the focus will start here. Nominally setup on the left side of the attacking trident in midfield, Rooney did not seem to understand tactically what he needed to do tracking back, as Italy repeatedly came after Leighton Baines on the left, in part because of all the open space but also to nullify Baines’ instinct to go forward on the overlap.
Rooney also missed a solid chance when England was trailing, pulling a shot wide of the post with Italy’s Sirigu diving far post and leaving the near post open. No, Rooney’s tremendous cross on England’s goal by Daniel Sturridge is not forgotten here, but let’s face it, Rooney’s job is not to be a crosser, it’s to score goals. Aside from an enlightening turn in Euro 2004, Rooney has not been able to replicate his club form on the international level. Sometimes that happens to players, but it’s not supposed to happen to a guy who stars for Manchester United and is English, a combination that is commercially valuable but comes with a cost, pressure-wise.
There were plenty of things that can be looked at nicely from Sunday. Sterling was dangerous when given space, Barkley does look like in the future he can be better than even Gerrard or Lampard was for England as a box-to-box midfielder -- not least because Henderson is better as a complement instead of the years for which Gerrard and Lampard could not get out of each other’s way internationally.
But while the midfield contains promise, and Sturridge may be coming into his own as a striker, the question going forward may be defensively in the centre pairing. Gary Cahill completely lost Mario Balotelli on the game-winning goal, and if you already look toward the future, Phil Jones and Chris Smalling will bring to mind the on-field quality of John Terry (forget the off-field stuff for once).
If you’re pleased with the Young Lions, that’s understandable. But they’re not called the Present Lions, and you cannot expect England to make a lot of noise in this tournament. Saturday’s game showed that.
Some other impressions from Saturday;
1. CONCACAF is loving life. Yeah, Cameroon was really poor against Mexico. But Costa Rica’s 2-1 victory against Uruguay, a smash-and-grab in the second half, was great news for the region. Joel Campbell showed some of the potential seen years ago by Arsenal, and Uruguay showed a tendency to fall asleep at the far post on corners and free kicks, which is how the game-winner was scored before an insurance goal made it 3-1. Don’t kid yourself, the various Confederations are keeping track on how they do compared to other regions. The CONCACAF boosters have always been extremely sensitive when jabbed at by Euro-snobs, telling them “try to get three points in San Sula, or Azteca, when you’re up against it.” Results like this, with a decided underdog being a South American team in its home continent, is a boost. 
2. Colombia showed why it will entertain but not as a title contender. It was written on this blog earlier that Colombia was a darkhorse pick, and going forward it shows why; even without Falcao, the play of James Rodriguez and Juan Cuadrado is explosive. But Greece’s game plan is not foreign to its opponents; make it ugly, slow and try to score a goal. It’s worrying that Colombia was unable to impose its tempo on Greece until the second half. That could be its downfall in the knockout rounds, should it advance. They will electrify neutrals with the speed of the attack, but they may be best suited to be Copa America champions in two years.
3. American shines on Saturday. No, not the U.S. national team, but referee Mark Geiger from the Colombia-Greece contest. Geiger let teams play without letting things turn into a wrestling match, and did not fall for any of the penalty box tricks that players try to pull. It was a composed performance that stands in contrast to the mess of poor decisions previously, and had to be a breath of relief for FIFA given the controversies of the first two days.
4. Stylistically, this is setting up to be special. Colombia’s victory against Greece was a good harbinger of things to come in that a team that came in dedicated to playing forward, playing to score and attack, came out winners against a team that tried to play with 10 behind the ball and win 1-0. To a lesser degree, it was good to Australia try and get on the offensive the night before trailing 2-0 to Chile and scoring a goal rather than playing 11 behind the ball and trying to keep the goal differential at a minimum. Costa Rica’s win culminated in a terrific counterattack goal. England and Italy both had plenty of flowing offensive moves. Few games from 2010 South Africa are the type that demand to be rewatched on YouTube. The possibility of that happening in this tournament is increasing the more games are played with this type of attacking mentality.

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