After a relative high, a relative low. Anyone sensible should not have got too carried away after England’s victory against Germany over the weekend, just as they should not descend to the pits of despair after the 2-1 defeat to the Netherlands at Wembley on Tuesday.
The edge was certainly taken off the English optimism that the previous victory had built, and Roy Hodgson emerged after the game looking perhaps disproportionately disappointed with the result and performance.
“I suppose whenever you have two very good victories and then lose, momentum is lost,” Hodgson said after the game, disconsolate and even a little irritated. “I don’t know quite what I can say to change that pretty obvious fact.”
In the end though, it might not be the worst thing that a second-string England team lost to the Dutch, if only to temper expectations a little.
So what can be gleaned from the game Tuesday? The prevailing sense following the Germany win was that England looked threatening in attack but troublingly brittle in defence, and little that occurred at Wembley will have changed that impression. Perhaps the most significant team selection, among the nine changes made from the weekend, was the inclusion of John Stones in central defence: this was an audition, a chance for the Everton defender to answer questions that have inevitably risen after a difficult few months with his club.
However, if Hodgson thought Stones would answer those questions definitively, he would have been disappointed. This was a performance that simply confirmed everything most people thought of the young Everton defender, be those thoughts good or bad.
Those who thought Stones was the a great talent, the sort of skilful, top-class ball-playing defender that England very rarely produce, would have plenty of evidence to support their case. But equally, anyone who viewed him as error-prone, a borderline liability who makes too many mistakes to be trusted in the England side will have their own “proof” to show the nation. In short, we don’t know a great deal about Stones that we didn’t before.
On the good side, Stones brought the ball out of defence on a number of occasions with a confidence that very much fitted with how England’s first-choice attack (if not the one that started Tuesday) can play. Jamie Vardy’s opening goal was superbly worked inside the Dutch penalty area, but it was a pass from Stones that started the move, and in the second half he played an even better ball, advancing to around 30 yards out before picking out Theo Walcott with laser-guided precision, and it was hardly Stones’ fault the final shot was weak. The Everton man even showed a few moments of muscular defending, the sort he isn’t not usually known for and the kind that some people would like to see more of.
And then there was the bad, slipping over in the build-up to the Dutch goal, under a small amount of pressure that ultimately led to the penalty that drew the Dutch level. Perhaps we should not be too harsh based on a slip: it is, after all, the sort of thing that could happen to anyone — just ask Steven Gerrard — and is not necessarily an indication of his bad side. The problem is things like that do keep happening to Stones, and are at least partly a consequence of him holding the ball a little too long, a little too close to his own goal.
Again, what you call this depends on your point of view: it’s either dithering and creating needless danger, or coolly looking for the right pass to sensibly build an attack. Perhaps a more significant error came in the first half, when Stones was pressed into conceding an avoidable throw-in that in the end came to nothing but could have been more serious.
Hodgson certainly wasn’t placing too much stock in the error. “I don’t think I’ll be selecting or not selecting him on the basis that he slipped over,” he said. “I thought apart from that he showed quite a lot of assurance. I thought he looked and comfortable, and I didn’t honestly feel there were many occasions I was frightened the Dutch were going to score against us.”
This is his game: Stones is not, and will never be a no-nonsense John Terry type, an old-fashioned centre-half who boots the ball clear at the first sign of trouble. But simply being a ball-playing defender does not necessarily mean he will inevitably make mistakes — that is a weakness in his game that needs to be eradicated as quickly as possible.
After the exhilarating but defensively suspect performance in Germany, Hodgson spoke of a desire for England to play the ball out of defence even more, and even to not be afraid of making mistakes in doing so. He might as well have spoken while wearing a sandwich board with “John Stones” daubed on it in foot-high letters: of all the defenders available to England, Stones is the model for that approach.
Yet Hodgson also said at the weekend that it would be up to the players selected against the Dutch — quite obviously his second string — to put pressure on those more established men, in this case Gary Cahill and Chris Smalling. If they are the incumbents, there for Stones to dislodge, he didn’t do a huge amount of dislodging Tuesday. Hodgson might not think about dropping him based on the slip, but he probably won’t think too much about picking him based on the other 89 minutes either.
That all said, there is a slightly needless sense of short-term “all or nothing” about Stones, perhaps because he is so precociously talented and also because England’s strengths do not lie at the back. He is still only 21; he will have plenty more tournaments ahead of him, so perhaps there shouldn’t even be such a feverish debate over whether he will start against Russia in June. Perhaps being the third-choice centre-back and a squad member will be fine.
Phil Jagielka should probably be more concerned than Stones. Smalling was the only player left in from the weekend not out of necessity: Danny Rose started because there wasn’t another left-back in the squad, and Kieran Gibbs apparently couldn’t be persuaded to return from his holiday to fill in. One would think this would provide a good chance to take a look at Jagielka, but Hodgson stuck with the Manchester United man, so whereas Stones was at least given a chance to challenge for a starting spot, his club colleague Jagielka is very much the fourth centre-back of four, at best.
On an evening that Hodgson perhaps thought he might learn a few things about his squad, in the end he probably didn’t come up with a great deal, beyond a hope that his first-choice players steer clear of trip wires and pot holes between now and June. The edge might have been taken off their optimism, but this defeat shouldn’t erode it excessively.