Roy Hodgson also a target but issues go deeper
2 July ~ Just as every winning campaign must have its symbolic hero, so every losing one must have its villain. Or at least a scapegoat. So it proved with England, whose World Cup defeat to Uruguay found an immediate fall guy in the shape of Steven Gerrard. The defining memory of the captain's performance, and ultimately of the team, was that erroneous back header that sent Luis Suárez through for the winner while the England defence dozed. Given that Gerrard had otherwise been largely anonymous throughout, save for being guilty of a similar lapse leading to Uruguay's first goal, he became the easy target for fans' frustration.
England supporters found a ready valve for their displeasure on social media. Twitter hashtag #CaptainsbetterthanGerrard, for example, elicited a raft of droll cultural candidates, from Captains Scarlet and Pugwash to Mainwaring and Birdseye.
Once the group stage was over, Italian newspaper Gazzetta dello Sport even weighed in by publishing their "Worst XI" from those involved. Lining up alongside Pepe, Gerard Piqué, Antonio Cassano and others was Gerrard. The fact that his inclusion came with a wistful, almost apologetic, note from La Gazzetta only compounded the insult: "Unfortunately, there is also room for the great Gerrard: the tired captain, forced to act as a lightning rod for the English failure." Roy Hodgson, meanwhile, was appointed the flops' manager. It's worth noting too that the paper's selections, mostly all big names, were based on levels of expectation heading into the tournament.
Never mind Hodgson's tactics or Wayne Rooney's ineffectiveness. The shocking lapses in concentration from Gary Cahill and Phil Jagielka. The lack of penetration from Leighton Baines or Glen Johnson. Or the baffling inclusion of Danny Welbeck. It was the "hurt and broken" Gerrard who bore much of the brunt. Yes, he may have been poor in São Paulo, but blaming Gerrard for England's dismal World Cup is merely the easy and convenient option. The truth, as ever, runs deeper.
Much like Italy, their opponents in Manaus, England left the competition with a whimper after an encouraging start. And despite his winning goal in that first game, it was Mario Balotelli who ultimately became the scapegoat among Italian fans and the national media. Here the parallels with England become undeniable. Balotelli and Gerrard were both high-profile targets whose visibility went some way to masking the inadequacies of those around them.
It's much less painful to blame one individual than admit that the younger generation of players in both camps are either not yet ready for the highest level of international football or, more depressingly, never will be. England, as a team, just aren't precise or confident enough in their play to mix it up with the best at this level. Like a club side that yo-yos between the top of the Championship and the depths of the Premier League, England occupy a no-man's realm in international terms.
The growing consensus over the past few seasons is that Gerrard is past his best anyway. And robbed of the energy and explosive power that once made him so dynamic, the role of deep-lying midfielder feels more like an uneasy compromise. Brendan Rodgers may claim that it's given the player a fresh lease of life, but there's no denying it's made Gerrard far less effective. The role requires an assuredness, touch and appreciation of others that Gerrard, for all his vision, has never really been suited to. He's certainly not the kind of player capable of dictating matches in the manner of the similarly aged Andrea Pirlo.
But what were England's options? After his anaemic season with Manchester United, Michael Carrick was never likely to flourish in Brazil. Neither were others whose names were mooted, at one time or another last season, to fill the central midfield role – James Milner, Tom Cleverley, Scott Parker and Gareth Barry included. Frank Lampard is at the fag end of his international career. The only viable alternative, with major question marks still hovering over his ability to stay fit, was Jack Wilshere.
Had there been better and more technically gifted players coming through these past few seasons, Gerrard would have been gradually shifted into a freer and less exacting role within the England set-up. As it is though, the lack of successors has only exposed his limitations given his advancing years.
As with the fallout from the 2010 World Cup, when England were embarrassed by Germany, there's lots of punditry talk about lack of infrastructure in the national game, the amount of foreign players in the Premier League, the limited opportunities for homegrown talent and all the usual guff. Yet, just like four years ago, it's odds-on that little will change between now and the next global bash in Russia.
Who knows? England's new generation – Wilshere, Ross Barkley, Luke Shaw, Raheem Sterling et al – may have matured into world-beaters by then. But one thing's for certain. If we fail in 2018, there'll be a unwitting scapegoat forced to shoulder the blame. Rob Hughes