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Damned by forward thinking, how Hodgson's choice came unstuck

It wasn't a horrible plan.

Strikers Danny Welbeck, Wayne Rooney and Daniel Sturridge were denied the kind of service needed to carry a genuine threat up front Photograph: Getty
Strikers Danny Welbeck, Wayne Rooney and Daniel Sturridge were denied the kind of service needed to carry a genuine threat up front Photograph: Getty

It really wasn't. At a World Cup which, so far, has been marked by shaky defences and a record number of goals, Roy Hodgson decided to play to what he thought were England's strengths: attacking players. You can debate whether their attacking quartet - Wayne Rooney, Daniel Sturridge, Raheem Sterling and Danny Welbeck - were good enough for such a task. But it's hard to argue that this was England's strongest department.

The Golden Generation may have been replete with midfielders, this group is not, so why not go and try to outslug opponents? The answer came in the opening match against Italy: having lots of forwards becomes rather meaningless if you don't have the personnel to get the ball to them in threatening positions. Lose the midfield and your service will suffer. Your front men will have to run themselves into the ground by tracking back and will be less efficient when they do get the ball.

Still, the national mood was frighteningly upbeat even after that 2-1 defeat (which also saw the opposition hit the woodwork twice). The combination of low expectations and an England side committing men forward had a kind of exhilarating effect: they were entertaining; they were doing the right thing; surely they would be rewarded?

Against Uruguay, reality set in. The midfield not only failed to provide service, they gave the ball away in dangerous positions. With a top-notch defence, they might have got away with it: with Gary Cahill and Phil Jagielka, they weren't going to.

The harsh reality is that these players aren't that good. In the Premier League goldfish bowl, you can tell yourself all sorts of lies. And then you go to a tournament and a guy named Egidio Arevalo Rios, a 32-year-old journeyman who flopped in places like Palermo and Major League Soccer, goes out and bullies Jordan Henderson and Steven Gerrard into submission.

And the whole veneer of positivity, the notion that people were just happy to see England "have a go", came tumbling down. Have a go? No, they wanted England in the knockout rounds to at least stretch out the tournament for another week.

And now they must confront the reality: that for all the talk of this team playing "good football" they underperformed every single England side since 1958 (excluding those that were so awful they didn't even qualify, as happened in 1974, 1978 and 1994).

FA chairman Greg Dyke has already said Hodgson is sticking around. So what next? Another root-and-branch review? More silly talk of B-sides and League 3?

No. A bit of reflection would suffice. And perhaps a solid performance against Costa Rica in the third and final game, just to show that the bright spots in the other group matches weren't an illusion.

Spain, of course, also find themselves out after two games and in their case the shock is greater. These were the reigning world champions and winners of the past two European Championships and they crashed out in the most emphatic manner.

"The End" screamed one Spanish newspaper over a photo of a lonely and grim-looking Andres Iniesta.

Except, of course, unlike England, it's not really The End. There will be a generational change. Xavi, David Villa, Xabi Alonso will be gone. Fernando Torres and Iker Casillas - whose wretched displays earned him a fair chunk of the blame - may also exit stage left.

But the spine is there. The bulk of the squad can set their sights on 2016 or even 2018. And, behind them, there's a host of talent ready to break in, from Koke to David De Gea, from Isco to Jese, from Inigo Martinez to Fernando Llorente and from Jesus Navas to Thiago Alcantara.

We're talking tweaks and fine- tuning in terms of personnel. Tactically, it may take a bit more, but that's why manager Vicente Del Bosque, most likely, will also be on his way. It's easy to speak of complacency, of a lack of hunger. Del Bosque himself hinted at it before the World Cup only to come out and defend his troops to the hilt after the Chile defeat: "Our preparation was exceptional, our unity and motivation were great, I can honestly say I don't know why this happened, other than the opponents playing well."

The fact is Spain's problems were more self-inflicted. For 40-odd minutes, they were firmly in command against Holland and should have been 2-0 up.

Then individual errors and the counter-attack did the rest. Much in the same way as mistakes by Casillas and Alonso cost them the two goals in the second game.

Errors happen, bad players tend to make more of them than good ones, true, but this doesn't mean this generation is done.

If Spain remember this, they can bounce back straight away and be competitive in 2016. If not, they may re-enter the vicious cycle of futility they were in for years before 2008.

Goals are flying in at a clip not seen in decades. By Friday, this World Cup had seen an increase in scoring of nearly 70% compared with 2010. And we've had eight comeback victories. Not only is this more than twice as many as in the entire 2010 tournament, it's also one less than the all-time mark and we're not even halfway done.

For the neutral, it's been quite a ride. And for the purist?

Well, while it's true that a lot of teams are more attacking than in past competitions, it's equally true that we've witnessed some enormous defensive blunders. And that, in general, perhaps the game doesn't have as many outstanding defenders, particularly in the centre-back role, as it once did.

Faced with that situation, you ordinarily have two options. You stiffen up the defence by adding another centre-back (as Argentina and Holland have done) or you simply play to your strengths, pushing forward even more to compensate for weakness at the back.

When enough teams do this, you end up where we are now, with teams gambling on being able to outscore the opponents and in so doing offering more space to the other team. It's not a bad thing, it may be natural evolution. After all, it isn't written in stone that football matches must average between two and a half and three goals a game.

More likely, we're simply seeing more mistakes. And more teams realising that the difference between one point and three in the group stage is huge.

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