By Martyn Herman
Successive defeats at Wembley for the first time since 1977 would have provoked an avalanche of criticism in the more deluded days of old but reaction to a humbling few days for England was relatively muted on Wednesday.
The fact that manager Roy Hodgson has not been lampooned as a vegetable, tabloid treatment once dished out to the likes of Bobby Robson and Graham Taylor, highlights just how far expectations have fallen.
After Tuesday’s 1-0 defeat by Germany, four days after a 2-0 loss to Chile, Hodgson was quick to talk up England’s year, even though it has ended with two defeats against high-calibre opposition.
“We achieved our goal of qualification,” he said of securing a slot in the World Cup, but he did admit that he was disappointed by his team’s lack of quality.
The Daily Mail’s back page said England were ‘second rate’ while talking of the ‘gulf in quality’ between Hodgson’s side and the experimental one fielded by German coach Joachim Loew.
The Times said Hodgson had been given ‘cold comfort’ while The Independent at least talked up the contribution of captain Steven Gerrard, described as a ‘relic of a bygone England era’.
Unfortunately, the present era looks bleak, with England paying the price for failing to begin a brave new world with fresh blood following the 2010 World Cup exit at the hands of Germany.
That is not Hodgson’s fault as he has inherited an ageing squad, too many mediocre players and little time to fast-track younger players into the fold.
Simply reaching next year’s World Cup finals in Brazil, having picked their way through a none-too-imposing qualifying group, appears to be reason for Hodgson to be satisfied.
There was nothing in the displays against Chile or Germany, however, to suggest that England will make an impact in Brazil.
With France and Portugal coming through their playoffs on Tuesday, at least five other European nations will head to South America next year with more probable chance of success.
On the evidence of the friendlies against Chile and Germany, England have shortcomings all over the pitch.
Without John Terry and Rio Ferdinand to call on these days, they look timid and disorganised at the back with centre backs Gary Cahill, Phil Jagielka, Chris Smalling and Phil Jones, whichever combination Hodgson chooses, prone to errors and vulnerable to the kind of fast, incisive passing the top nations excel at.
The midfield area has plenty of experience with the likes of skipper Steven Gerrard, Frank Lampard and James Milner but lacks pace and flair with a huge amount of expectation lumped on the shoulders of Arsenal’s Jack Wilshere.
Andros Townsend showed fleeting glimpses of his talent and struck a post with England’s only noteworthy effort on goal as they failed to test Germany’s 33-year-old debutant goalkeeper Roman Weidenfeller.
Wayne Rooney is England’s one truly world class offensive player (Hodgson would probably like to wrap him in cotton wool for the next six months) but the Manchester United man often looks frustrated in a traditional striking role.
The sight of him reduced to chasing down Chilean defenders last week and dropping ever deeper in a desperate search for possession against Germany was a dispiriting one.
Daniel Sturridge, in such rich form for Liverpool, has yet to impose himself on the international stage but Hodgson has few top-class options having chosen to discard Peter Crouch, England’s most consistently scoring striker in recent years.
At Euro 2012 Hodgson adopted a safety-first policy, packing his side with the tried and trusted with predictably unspectacular results, but he will be under pressure to freshen things up in Brazil with the likes of Townsend, Southampton’s Adam Lallana and Everton youngster Ross Barkley in the frame.
However, all three are new to the international scene and with only one friendly against Denmark in March for a final look at his troops, Hodgson has more questions than answers as he ponders his best side for Brazil.
By Martyn Herman