In 2002, England were uninspiring in the group stages but went toe-to-toe with Brazil in the quarter finals, before a David Beckham leap of self preservation and Ronaldinho brilliance swung the tie.
Fast forward another two years and England were playing the best football of my lifetime under Sven; Wayne Rooney was raw, hungry and devastating at EURO 2004 until injury and those blasted penalties did for England again.
In the eight years since, watching England has been an arduous exercise and for all of Roy Hodgson’s skill as a coach, England have only controlled two matches in his fledgling reign; against the European heavyweights of Moldova and San Marino.
It can be no coincidence that in these intervening years the possession based game perfected by Spain and Barcelona, has become the only way to play international football. Failing to keep the ball, and in turn dictate the game, have never been appreciated in the domestic game and this lack of basic technique and movement is evident.
England weren’t better at passing under Sven, but other teams were less fluent in their passing then and England’s supposed high-tempo game was sufficient to see of the majority of opponents. The situation is at a stage now the country which produces the Premier League (best league in the world tm) is unable to keep the ball against sides like Poland, Ukraine or Norway.
The drab draw on Wednesday was reflective of English players appreciation of the game. Sat in rigid banks of four, with Wayne Rooney floundering wherever he operated on the pitch, England were ruthlessly dissected by movement in and around these two flat flanks and in truth were lucky to leave Poland with a point.
Playing a 4-4-2 is inhibitive to fluid movement but England players on Wednesday didn’t have the courage to move into space so they could receive the ball from an opponent. It takes bravery to demand the ball in tight areas of the pitch, and on a soggy and poor pitch the team all collectively shirked responsibility.
As soon as a Barcelona player receives the ball you can see at least two teammates moving away from markers to provide him with options for the pass. For years English players have failed to grasp this concept and Brendan Rodgers is finding just how difficult it is to instil such a philosophy into developed players.
Hodgson went for a 4-2-3-1 formation for the friendly win over Italy over the summer and for a team that is bereft of creativity and lateral movement in midfield his decision to play an incredibly narrow 4-4-2 was startling.
A draw in Poland is not a dire result. But with captain and Poland’s best player, Jakub Błaszczykowski, out injured the onus was on England to go for all three points. Statistics don’t tell the full story but when England’s only shot on target, and goal, was from Wayne Rooney’s shoulder, you know that England will be mightily relieved to take the draw.