World Cup 2014: England’s Defence the Problem in Uruguay Defeat

He may have been largely terrible on the pitch, but at least Steven Gerrard can cling to his ability to foretell the future.

Before the 2-1 defeat to Uruguay that left England teetering on the edge of elimination from the 2014 World Cup, Gerrard predicted that the game would be won at the back.

He said, as quoted by the Independent:

For me, the key in this game is how we defend because Uruguay’s strengths are their front players. Edinson Cavani, Luis Suarez, Diego Forlan, Gaston Ramirez. They are the key players who can hurt this England team.

I know what is going to happen [for England] going forward. That for me is a gimme with the attacking talent we have in this group. I believe the confidence from our attacking play against Italy will cause our next two opponents endless problems. But it is no good us being really good going forward on the break if we can’t defend properly.

And so it came to pass. While nobody in the England team could confidently say with a straight face they had a good game, the defence in particular verged on the shambolic.

A generous appraisal of Uruguay’s two goals might be that they were the work of an opportunistic genius, a brilliant forward who took advantage of a lucky break here, a few yards of space there to produce two exceptional finishes.

A less generous, and to be frank more realistic way of looking at it was that England’s defending was so bad that they allowed Suarez to have enough space in which to bury them.

For his first, Cavani was allowed as much time as he pleased to measure his (admittedly excellent) cross, with Glen Johnson particularly culpable in allowing him space to manoeuvre, while Phil Jagielka was fooled too easily by a Suarez shift before the superbly judged header evaded Hart.

And for the second, Gerrard capped an anonymous display by flicking a long punt straight into Suarez’s path, then Hart actively moved out of the way of the powerful finish. While of course it was hit with some force, if Hart had merely stayed where he was, the ball would have hit him square in the chest.

Roy Hodgson‘s response to questions about Suarez verged on the comical. The England manager claimed England dealt with the threat of Uruguay’s best player well, as quoted by Football365/Sky Sports correspondent Matthew Stanger in Sao Paulo:

It brings to mind those missile tests when it is reported that the exercise successfully achieved nine out of the 10 stated goals, the errant one goal of course actually hitting the target.

In addition, Leighton Baines has so far confirmed the fears about his defensive frailties and hasn’t even come close to making up for it going forward. He delivered just two accurate crosses against Uruguay and spurned chances to attempt more through dithering and poor control.

Gary Cahill was the only defender who performed competently, and even he had his moments of uncertainty.

Hodgson’s problem is that this defence is not of the required standard, but it can’t really be improved by anyone else in his squad. All of the talk in advance of the game was about the attack, but that’s largely because there is some debate to be had about the personnel there.

Hodgson has alternatives up front and on either wing, even in midfield, but not in defence. The only other options available to him are Chris Smalling and Phil Jones, who both had poor/injury-hit seasons with Manchester United, and Luke Shaw. The really depressing thing from an English perspective is that, Ashley Cole aside, there aren’t a huge amount of spare defenders left at home whom he might be able to call upon in the near future.

In general play against Uruguay, England were not good but equally not calamitous. Oscar Tabarez’s tactics of dropping his defence deep so as to prevent the likes of Raheem Sterling running behind, while simultaneously pressing with pace and aggression in midfield, worked perfectly.

However, if a team defends in such a negligent manner, it’s hardly a surprise if they fall at the first hurdle.

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