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Dublin: 9 °C Saturday 1 November, 2014

5 ways England can improve their fortunes at major tournaments

Implementing a winter break and other ideas for Roy Hodgson’s side.

England were knocked out of this year's World Cup after just two matches.
England were knocked out of this year's World Cup after just two matches.

1. Implement a Premier League winter break

THE PREMIER LEAGUE apart, nearly every other country’s domestic competition has a winter break. Everyone from Sol Campbell to Arsene Wenger to Alex Ferguson has backed this idea, yet the clamour for change continually seems to fall on deaf ears at the the Football Association’s headquarters.

No one is saying it would promptly enable England to win the World Cup, but ensuring the Three Lions are on a level playing field with their rivals in terms of rest and recuperation would definitely go some way towards improving their fortunes.

Even psychologically, when players feel their opponents are in an advantageous position, the consequences can be damaging. A winter break may only enhance the team’s performance by 1%, but it is undoubtedly a measure worth taking, especially as studies have indicated that players in England are far more likely to pick up significant injuries because they aren’t given a mid-season rest.

Of course, critics will complain about the removal of the traditional Christmas time fixtures, but such sentiments cannot be acknowledged if long-term success is to be achieved at international level.

2. Continue to re-jig underage structure

As is the case in Ireland, coaching methods at youth level in England are regarded by many as hopelessly outdated and generally inept.

However, changes are already seemingly being implemented and will ostensibly have a positive effect in years to come. 11 versus 11 games are now no longer de rigueur for youngsters, with the idea of smaller pitches and less players being encouraged.

Therefore, there is inevitably more of an emphasis on technical ability — a quality that the English have been conspicuously lacking on the big occasions over the years, notwithstanding their dogged determination and uncanny ability (up until this tournament anyway) to at least produce another glorious failure in the form of a penalty shoot-out loss.

While they have endured their worst performance at a World Cup since 1958 in terms of results, Roy Hodgson’s side have ironically been marginally better in the technical aspects of their play in comparison to previous recent tournaments, with younger players such as Ross Barkley and Raheem Sterling often showing a more assured touch in possession than many of their older counterparts.

Accordingly, this shift in style is conceivably being implemented gradually, yet the Italy game in particular, in which they were out-passed for long periods of the match, was a stark remainder of just how far they still need to go to compete on a technical level with top teams.

3. Cast off veterans

Soccer - FIFA World Cup 2014 - Group D - Costa Rica v England - Estadio Mineirao

Source: PA Wire/Press Association Images

(Steven Gerrard, pictured, is expected to announce his retirement from international football imminently)

The much-debated Frank Lampard-Steven Gerrard midfield pairing finished the game against Costa Rica, and fans of the side would be forgiven for hoping that it’s the last they see of the duo in England jerseys — both are expected to confirm their retirements from international football, but whatever happens, neither can be relied upon at this level any more.

As talented as these players are individually, they have never struck up a convincing midfield partnership. In their prime, neither were especially comfortable playing in the holding role and allowing the other to get forward — in effect, they were too similar, and as a consequence, rarely performed to their maximum abilities at international level.

Ultimately, whether it was Sven-Goran Eriksson, Steve McClaren or Fabio Capello, too many managers were intent on indulging both players when they clearly weren’t working efficiently in tandem.

Granted, the alternatives may not have been much better, but for too long, Lampard and Gerrard were automatic choices in central midfield, while others such as Paul Scholes were pushed out to the flanks or not used at all.

Surely now that the English team have failed for the umpteenth occasion at a major tournament, it is time to wave goodbye to these consummate-yet-flawed professionals, who were seldom if ever effectively used by England.

4. Learn from other countries’ successes

As has been well documented in recent days, unfancied countries such as Chile and Costa Rica have improbably managed to advance in this World Cup at the expense of supposedly ‘bigger’ footballing nations.

England must pay close attention to what made these tactically sophisticated teams’ strategies so successful and adapt elements of their game accordingly.

Costa Rica illustrated the way against Italy, relentlessly pressing their considerably more feted opponents into submission.

Similarly, Uruguay demonstrated the kind of spirit and energy that the English are often renowned for, yet these virtues were noticeably absent from the latter’s play when the two sides met in Sao Paulo. So while England’s increasing emphasis on technical ability is to be encouraged, they must simultaneously ensure they are not sacrificing the positive factors that have been ingrained in their identity from previous tournaments.

5. Trust in youngsters/passers

It was telling that England’s most creative central midfield player, Jack Wilshere, was only granted game time against Costa Rica when their campaign was all but over, as well as a cameo appearance in the dying stages of the Italy game.

Manager Roy Hodgson was praised for giving youngsters a chance and for adopting a supposedly bold philosophy.

Yet such praise was exaggerated — the selection of teenager Raheem Sterling aside, a midfield of Steven Gerrard, Jordan Henderson and Danny Welbeck is hardly one that is going to win a team the game at the highest level.

Starting with Wilshere, Ross Barkley and Adam Lallana would have been genuinely brave, and would surely have yielded more than the paltry two goals that England managed over the duration of the entire tournament.

However, Hodgson, an innately conservative coach, was never likely to adopt such an overtly adventurous approach, in spite of his supporters’ suggestions to the contrary.

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