Comprehensively outplayed by Italy as they exited Euro 2012, England’s players are returning home with captain Steven Gerrard conceding that they must start to improve their ball skills.
England were fortunate to take Sunday’s quarter-final to a penalty shootout, which they lost, after being outclassed in Kiev.
It wasn’t an isolated incident.
Despite holding France and beating Sweden and Ukraine, England spent a great deal of time on the back foot at Euro 2012.
“At times the football hasn’t been fantastic, we haven’t blown people away,” Gerrard said on Monday. “We stuck together. We fought hard. We gave every inch of effort we can give. At times we have found it difficult to keep the ball.”
Italy had 64 percent of possession over the 120 minutes and a pass completion rate of 81 percent, compared with England’s 61 percent.
“The possession stats speak for themselves,” Gerrard said. “It tells you that moving forward as a nation, we do need to try and improve with the ball.”
That inability to keep possession was in part due to tiredness as England were left chasing the ball and relying on Scott Parker and Gerrard in the heart of midfield to soak up the pressure, coach Roy Hodgson said.
It didn’t help that striker Wayne Rooney was suspended for the first two games and then lacked sharpness when he returned.
“If you are saying: ‘Could we have kept the ball better at times and could we have made more use of the good situations we got into?’ I would have to agree with that,” Hodgson said before the team flew home. “The players realize that too. That is an area of the game where we need to keep working and improving.”
A problem, though, continues to be the number of foreign players that keep pushing English talent out of Premier League teams.
However, Hodgson said the squad is moving in the right direction before World Cup qualifying begins in September.
While Danny Welbeck, Andy Carroll, Jordan Henderson and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain gained valuable tournament experience in Poland and Ukraine, young defenders Kyle Walker and Chris Smalling only missed out through injury and England sorely missed the creativity midfielder Jack Wilshere would have provided at the heart of the team had he not missed last season for Arsenal with an ankle injury.
“There is good reason for optimism,” Hodgson said. “We have some players coming through ... we have to see the positives where we can, and try and ignore the fact that, yes, it is another failure on paper because we have not got past the quarter-final stage. I don’t believe there is as much negativity as perhaps there was, but the only way we can build upon what we have done here is by qualifying for Brazil and, when that tournament comes around, trying to better our previous record.”
Matching more illustrious sides might not come in time for the World Cup in Brazil in 2014.
“If we accept, at the moment, people like Germany and Spain are better than us, let’s work hard to try and narrow that gap,” Hodgson said.
Key to the development of more technically proficient players will be the opening later this year of a new national soccer center, which is emulating France’s Clairefontaine complex.
“In the youth development scheme the emphasis now is on small-sided football, skill-based football, passing the ball, less emphasis on physicality, all those things which are on our agenda already,” FA chairman David Bernstein told the BBC. “This is not coming from last night. We’ve worked on this for years, but I think these things are coming to fruition now, so I do expect to see improvements.”