After four years of planning, all that emotional commitment and anticipation, England’s World Cup has unravelled in the space of five days and the defining image will be of Luis Suárez, on the floor, weeping with joy after the goals that had opened the door to show Roy Hodgson’s team the way out. It is the first time England have lost their first two games and if, or rather when, everything is confirmed it will be an ignominious way to go.
Hodgson’s team attracted a certain amount of sympathy and understanding after the Italy defeat but it was beyond them to play with the same attacking panache and, if there is to be a feat of escapology, it will need an almost implausible combination of results and handouts in the final games of Group D. More realistically, they have blown it in their first week. It has been another unsatisfactory tournament and Hodgson, facing questions about his suitability to continue as manager and saying he will not resign, will be acutely aware the inquest will not be kind.
His team were not outclassed but, once again, England have reminded us of their habit of being shown up as soon as they face half-decent opposition and one or two authentic category-A footballers. Suárez played as through affronted by the suggestion he might have fitness issues, tormenting England’s defence on a night that finished as a personal ordeal for Steven Gerrard. England’s captain has worn the armband with distinction in many ways here in Brazil, but he played an unwitting part in both goals and it would be no way to end his international career.
Uruguay were quick to the ball, strong in the tackle and seemed intent on showing they were a better team than had been apparent in their defeat to Costa Rica. Yet the most galling part for England is that they helped them on their way. A team cannot defend this obligingly and expect to get away with it and, unfortunately for Hodgson, England were even more vulnerable under the slate-grey skies of Sáo Paulo than they had been in the searing heat of Manaus.
Briefly, they had threatened to turn the game upside-down after Wayne Rooney’s first-ever World Cup goal made it 1-1 after 75 minutes. If nothing else, England had shown perseverance but, then again England always show qualities of endurance. It is the other part of the game they need to improve. With six minutes to go, the Uruguayan goalkeeper, Fernando Muslera, punted a long kick forward. The ball skimmed off Gerrard and the centre-halves, Phil Jagielka and Gary Cahill, had not dropped off in anticipation. Suddenly Suárez was clear, and anyone with an understanding of the sport would know that a player with his gifts cannot be left with such space. What a dreadful goal – the long up-and-under – to leave England on their knees.
Rooney’s goal was his 40th in England’s colours, pulling him level with Michael Owen as fourth in the all-time list, and he will also reflect on that moment, at 0-0, when he headed Gerrard’s free-kick against the crossbar. Hodgson was also entitled to feel aggrieved that Diego Godín, the Uruguayan captain, was not sent off in the first half for two bookable challenges, but that still does not explain what followed.
Óscar Tabárez’s side pressed their opponents high up the pitch and that succeeded for long spells in preventing England from passing the ball out of defence. It was alarming to see how often England’s players lost the ball inside their own half and, ultimately, this was a night that confirmed the suspicions about England’s defence. Cahill and Jagielka made too many lapses and it was a difficult night, too, for both full-backs. Glen Johnson set up Rooney’s goal with a driving run and cross but he and Leighton Baines formed part of a quartet that always encouraged their opponents.
Suárez’s first goal was a case in point bearing in mind England had half a dozen players in their own half but still could not prevent that brilliant piece of link-up play between Edinson Cavani and the Liverpool striker. Cavani’s cross was exquisite and Suárez showed all his expertise in the way he peeled away from Jagielka and headed the ball across Joe Hart. Yet the marking was dreadfully poor once Nicolás Lodeiro had started the move by evading Gerrard in the centre circle. As soon as the ricochet went against Gerrard, England were in trouble. Yet they still had enough bodies in position to have done significantly better.
A better team might also have done more to expose Uruguay’s occasionally brittle defence, but England’s speed of thought and movement in their attacking positions was a good notch or two down from the Italy game. Suárez had created problems from the opening exchanges. Cavani was full of hard running but, more than anything, it was the way Uruguay’s midfielders and attackers hunted down the ball that caused problems.
Uruguay might have made it a more comfortable victory if Suárez and Cavani had been clinical with two chances in the first five minutes of the second half. Rooney, back in his central role, had a good opportunity soon afterwards but his left foot has never been a great weapon and Suárez was the only attacker here capable of grabbing the game by its lapels. Danny Welbeck did not contribute enough and Raheem Sterling drifted to the edges after a promising start, to be substituted in the second half. Against Italy, Sterling had used his raw pace and directness to harass the opposition. Here, his final act before Ross Barkley replaced him was to try to win a penalty with a dive. Suárez was clinical and the outpouring of emotion suggested he had enjoyed the moment.