Glorious Defeat Tastes Good...For Now

It feels almost okay to lose when England play with energy, confidence and vim, but we probably won't be saying the same on Thursday. Some problems can be fixed...

Last Updated: 15/06/14 at 02:12 Post Comment

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In 2002 England drew 1-1 with Sweden; in 2006 England beat Paraguay 1-0 thanks to an early own goal; in 2010, England drew 1-1 with the United States; in 2014 England lost 2-1 to Italy. And yet it is in 2014 that it feels better to be an England supporter after the opening game of the World Cup. It turns out that losing can be fun.

For all the talk of Roy Hodgson being naturally conservative, pragmatic or whatever other euphemisms are used to replace 'dull', he picked a team full of energy, confidence, vim and intent to show Italy their backs rather than put them flat against the wall. From the opening minutes when Raheem Sterling burst past a flailing Gabriel Paletta and unleashed a shot that fooled the BBC and millions on their feet in celebration, this felt different. And after years of the same old, same old, we needed different.

Sterling was demanded and he was chosen; Liverpool-style lightning-fast counter-attacks were demanded and they were delivered; Ross Barkley's fearlessness was demanded and he was given ample time to make an impact. This was the expansive England - with four genuine attacking players - that was ordered by fans, journalists, former players and pundits. And it felt good even when they failed. It might not feel so good if they fail against Uruguay on Thursday, but right now the rare taste of glorious defeat is oddly pleasing to the palate.

This was far from a perfect performance, but just as Liverpool sacrificed defensive solidity at the altar of entertaining, goal-laden football, so did England. It's bizarrely comforting that almost everything that went wrong for England against Italy was entirely predictable with the personnel available.

Of course Leighton Baines struggled against genuine class - 'On a very basic level, I believe that Cole is a better full-back than Baines. Not a better all-round player, perhaps, but in a one-on-one defensive situation against a world-class winger, I would opt for Cole every time; see Chile's first goal at Wembley in November for evidence of Baines' weaknesses in defence' is what I wrote when the England squad was announced - and Antonio Candreva offered genuine class. Say what you like about him being left exposed, but he attempted to combat the cross for Italy's winner with a skip.

Of course Glen Johnson, despite being England's best right-back, was poor - he's been poor all season despite Liverpool's success.

Of course Wayne Rooney did Baines no favours by coming inside from his starting position on the left wing - he's a striker. There will always be those who argue that Rooney should not be on the pitch, but it would take a far, far braver man than Hodgson to omit England's most prolific goalscorer of recent times. And his cross for Sturridge's goal at least part-justified his selection.

Of course the Italian trio of Daniele De Rossi, Andrea Pirlo and Marco Verratti dominated the ball against the English pairing of Steven Gerrard and Jordan Henderson. That's what happens when you try to frighten the opposition with pace rather than set out to nullify. Hodgson could have added Jack Wilshere - and a year ago we suspect that would have been his preferred option - but instead he sacrificed possession for the chance to counter-attack.

Can any of those things be improved before Thursday? Possibly not. It's too late to sneak in Ashley Cole, it's certainly too late to find the Johnson of two years ago inside the Johnson of 2014 and it's unlikely that a solution to the Rooney problem can be found in five days. Thankfully, Uruguay do not have a central midfield to match Italy's in terms of quality or quantity so that problem solves itself.

What England can improve before Thursday is the only unpredictable part of their failure - their utter uselessness at attacking and defending set-pieces. The stereotype of England as a one-dimensional dead-ball side may have been put aside, but we would take a little bit of that - allied with this new-fangled pace - on Thursday, thank you very much.

Sarah Winterburn

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