Where Did England’s 2004 Squad go Wrong?

38 Years of Pain was meant to conclude that summer

38 years of pain. Come 2004, it had been 38 years since England won the 1966 World Cup, but 2004 looked like the year things would finally change. For once, the Three Lions boasted a squad that was star-studded throughout and players in every area of the pitch up could claim to being one of the world's best.

Qualification for Euro 2004 was promising. England were unbeaten in their eight-game qualifying run, winning six of them. 2001 Balon d'Or winner Michael Owen and superstar David Beckham both featured prominently, scoring five goals each and finishing joint top scorers in their qualifying group.

It wasn’t just England’s attacking threat that was promising, though, as the defence was arguably the continent's best, with players such as Gary Neville, Sol Campbell, Jamie Carragher and John Terry. Then there is the stellar midfield that would rival any team down the international history line, with Steven Gerrard, Frank Lampard and Paul Scholes all at Sven-Goran Eriksson's disposal.

However, at Euro 2004, England finished second in their group and crashed out at the quarter-final stage against Portugal, after yet another failed penalty shootout. There were glimpses of promise at the tournament, such as the 4-2 win over Croatia, which is certainly one for the history books. This day showed the true power of this England side, as a 19-year-old Wayne Rooney bagged a brace and showed Europe he was soon to be one of the greats.

So, where did it all unravel? How can a team so powerful, fail so poorly. Here, we’ll look at four key factors in England’s failure at the 2004 tournament.

ICYMI: Have a look at how the Euro 2021 delay helps the current England side finally get their hands on the European title here.

The problematic gaffer

The first-ever foreign England manager was always going to divide opinion. As results go, the Sven-Goran Eriksson didn’t have the worst run as England boss, with 40 wins and just 10 losses in his 67 games in charge.

In fact, if you forget Sam Allardyce, who won his only game as England boss, Eriksson has the fifth-best win percentage of all-time with only one person above him taking charge of more games - World Cup winner, Sir Alf Ramsey. So, what was the issue? He clearly did alright, yes?

Well, many fans questioned whether having a foreign coach was the right approach for England, especially one from a nation that would be a future opponent in Sweden. The consensus, however, was that if England won things, where the coach came from wasn’t a huge issue. Plenty of nations have a foreign coach, with varying degrees of success, so as long as England were winning, nobody cared. But, of course, they didn't.

Debatable formation choices, such as the old school, yet lacklustre 4-4-2, did not help anybody on the pitch other than Beckham. Plus, forcing a creative genius and athletically inferior Paul Scholes to play on the left, just so he could include Gerrard and Lampard was bizarre; whatever happened to a 4-3-3?

Granted, Eriksson's record wasn't bad, so there can be little heat on his shoulders in this sense. But was it good enough for a coach with this magnitude of players to only reach a quarter-final? Far from it.

Had Eriksson altered his clearly failing formula and ventured into the unknown more, things would have been different. Looking back on it, what was the issue of a Scholes-Gerrard-Lampard midfield trio? This would only force Beckham further up the pitch, and an in-form Rooney out to the left, instead of suffocating a slow-moving Scholes there. At the same time, one of the best in front of goal, Owen, would surely only get more action alongside Beckham and Rooney.

Plus, if the Swede had shown a different personality and range of emotions, perhaps the conversation might be very different. Previous ex-England managers might not have done so well, such as Roy Hodgson, but they are remembered in high regard for changing the environment around a seemingly toxic place. Hodgson is still thanked for the impact his personality is having on the current Gareth Southgate squad - a 'golden generation' that could actually win something now.

Eriksson, on the other hand, only seemed to ramp up the toxicity and cause more harm than good, despite his decent win ratio.

4-4-2 Should have been left in the 90s

Another key factor in England's golden generation failing, was the tactical approach used. The 4-4-2 is widely recognised as a classic and often solid formation, however, it didn't seem to work for the England side and ultimately appeared to be part of their downfall.

When you have three of the world best midfielders in Steven Gerrard, Paul Scholes and Frank Lampard trying to squeeze them into a formation with a two-man midfield, doesn’t seem very clever. This showed when England played against more positive sides like Portugal and France England struggled to get a foothold in the game.

They constantly got pushed further back towards their own game as they struggled to take control in the middle of the park. The 4-4-2 can work when you have a striker capable of dropping into midfield, but when you have two young strikers like Owen and Rooney - both eager to get forward - this can break down and leave the midfield stranded. Pair this with Scholes being put onto the left flank and you are left with a rather lopsided team, not a winning formula.

This is something in today's game that looks truer than ever and comparing the tactics of now to then, show just how abysmal Eriksson's tactics were. Even within the England squad these days, we are seeing a front three plenty of times, whilst a midfield trio, with one man pushing further up, is working a treat.

If only we had Southgate back in 2004...

ICYMI: Have a look at how the Euro 2021 delay helps the current England side finally get their hands on the European title here.

The Scholes Saga

Trying to put square pegs in round holes. To translate that into football terms: trying to put Scholes on the left.

You don’t often expect to see one of the greatest English central midfielders deployed on the left side, but that’s exactly what you got at Euro 2004. When you think of the perfect left midfielder in a 4-4-2, you think of someone who is a great athlete, possesses great speed and an even better left foot - like Scholes' Manchester United teammate, Ryan Giggs.

So, when you see the Englishman - a right-footed central player not renowned for his athleticism -occupying this position, you’re asking for trouble. Scholes is one of the midfielders of his generation, receiving such praise as one of the best midfielders ever from legends such as Xavi, Zinedine Zidane and Thierry Henry.

In truth, it was clear to see for all of us that this would not work out well at all, and it was the most unsurprising act of the whole tournament to see complete failure down this side of the pitch.

In a two-man midfield of Gerrard and Lampard, as soon as there is a breakdown between who goes forward and who holds position, you are instantly vulnerable, and this was the issue with this paring. We don’t know for sure if having Scholes in the middle of the pitch would have guaranteed success, but what is certain is that he would have made much more impact than he did from the left.

Retiring from international football immediately after the 2004 tournament was a sign of Scholes frustration and how Eriksson ruined one of England's greatest ever on the international stage. Jose Mourinho would later say England's worst-ever result, was allowing Scholes to retire so early.

Deploying the United legend on the left may just go down as one of the biggest mistakes in English football history, perhaps within international football in general.

David James' disastrous campaign

The final piece of a failed jigsaw is the man who sees it all unfold in front of him, the goalkeeper. In this instance, it was Manchester City's David James.

James was making his first-ever tournament appearance for England, as David Seaman was dropped for the 33-year-old, following poor performances during the qualifiers. At the same time, Paul Robinson was just 24 and was not quite ready. This forced in an out-of-form James, who had conceded the eighth-highest amount of Premier League goals that season and narrowly avoided relegation with City.

Still, the keeper was approaching his 30th England cap and could boast of a decent record thus far in his Three Lions career. However, fast forward to the opening game and things got bleak very quickly. England were 1-0 up in the 90th minute against France and it looked like a winning start and a clean sheet against one of the world's best for James.

Unfortunately, that’s not how it ended. Two stoppage-time goals from Zinedine Zidane - a free-kick and a penalty - meant that England went from having a fantastic win to an embarrassing defeat in a matter of seconds, and James was in the middle of it all.

Zidane's first goal, a free-kick from just under 30 yards out, was incredible, no doubt. But the Three Lions keeper was rooted to the spot and looked like a lost man as the Frenchman whipped home.

On the other hand, the second goal was where it all went wrong for James. Granted, the back pass from Gerrard was poor, but without hesitation, the shot-stopper completely took out Thierry Henry and never even looked like he could get the ball.

Of course, you can never expect your goalkeeper to save a penalty, however, the manner in which James conceded the spot-kick, was dreadful. After the game, James admitted that he and his team had never studied any footage of Zidane's free kicks or penalties, a very damning statement to make.

Fast forward to the penalty shootout against Portugal and James was once again made to look silly. The England man didn’t save a single penalty in the shootout, as Helder Postiga chipped the ball down the centre, with James too quick to commit to diving.

Whether lack of preparation from James was the key to shootout defeat remains unclear, but juxtaposed with Portugal's goalkeeper Ricardo, who used mind games excellently when removing his gloves before saving Darius Vassell’s penalty created and interesting dynamic.

James wasn’t the root cause for England’s failure in 2004, but what he said highlighted everything. England didn’t prepare effectively, and it seems that they thought having good players would be enough to win them a tournament. It was a missed opportunity for England’s golden generation and a missed chance everyone involved will rue for a lifetime.

By Jak Richardson


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