A tentative vote for conservatism
Hodgson's naturally guarded instincts may suit demands of Ukraine, writes Paul Wilson
Ever since he unwisely admitted to thoroughly enjoying the dull scoreless draw between Manchester United and Chelsea last month, Roy Hodgson has been castigated for his innate conservatism. The England manager sets his sides up not to be beaten, it has been said, values a draw almost as much as a win and rarely attacks with sufficient aggression to deliver a knockout.
In as much as that criticism is based on his record with club sides in England, it is probably fair enough. There is a way to send clubs like Fulham and West Brom out to play, and that way does not necessarily apply to bigger clubs such as Liverpool, as Hodgson knows to his cost. At international level Hodgson has rarely been in charge of nations with great expectations either. His reputation was forged with the likes of Finland, Switzerland and the UAE.
England are theoretically a step up, though the reason Hodgson's players have yet to convince they are capable of reaching the next one has a lot to do with the points lost in Group H draws with Ukraine, Poland and Montenegro, the first of which was at home. Now England are on top of the group, however, courtesy of Montenegro being held in Warsaw on the same night as a weak Moldova side was overcome 4-0 at Wembley, a slightly different scenario presents itself. Few would argue that a draw would not represent an acceptable outcome in Kiev on Tuesday, especially for an England side with almost all its recognised strikers now sidelined.
Playing away in Ukraine is never easy. Hodgson's side managed a 1-0 win in last summer's European Championship but the last qualifying game in Kiev ended in unforeseen defeat under Fabio Capello. And with Danny Welbeck's suspension adding to a list of unavailable forwards that also includes Wayne Rooney, Daniel Sturridge, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Andy Carroll, these are clearly not the best of times.
In the circumstances, Hodgson could be forgiven for reverting to type. Naturally, a win would be the best outcome of all, virtually guaranteeing English progress with two home games to follow, though should England be caught on the counter while too actively seeking a positive result Hodgson would be accused of tactical naivety, when in reality he is anything but.
It was possible to read into his resting of Michael Carrick and his late introduction of James Milner against Moldova that a few changes might be afoot for Kiev. Whisper it quietly, but England may be about to set themselves up a little more defensively. The difficulty here is that England, like most sides from that country, are not natural stiflers of opponents. That is not to say they cannot defend, it is just that the suppression of attacking instincts is a discipline much harder to master. Hodgson knows this perfectly well.
"We don't really do that," he said, when asked if England might play for a draw. "We try very hard, as naive and simplistic as it sounds, to make certain our defending is spot on against whatever team we play, whether it is Brazil or San Marino. But when we get the ball we try to attack. We don't hold our full-backs back if it is Ukraine when we would be pushing them forward against San Marino. Our style of play, which is well ingrained with the players, is based on both attacking and defending. We don't tend to set out to just defend."
Hodgson is far too canny to come out and say a draw would be a good result – even though it would this time – and neither will he admit that England might be satisfied with anything other than a win. He knows better than to offer such hostages to fortune, but that does not mean he will not make subtle changes.
Frank Lampard may have to wait a little while for his 100th cap if the more defensively minded Carrick is preferred, and even Rickie Lambert could find himself on the bench if Milner is brought into midfield and England go with just Jermain Defoe up front.
Hodgson confirmed that Defoe is back to full fitness, and revealed he might have played against Moldova but for the fact he was already on a yellow card. "When your luck is out to the extent it was with Welbeck, I didn't fancy testing it with someone else," Hodgson said, once he had calmed down after his incandescent touchline reaction to losing a striker to two questionable cautions.
Man of the moment Lambert is still "on cloud nine" after two goals in his first two games, though willing to accept that his involvement in Kiev might be more limited.
"Whatever is planned for me on Tuesday I am confident," the Southampton striker said. "Whether that's starting or coming off the bench I have to believe now. I'm confident that if I get a chance I will put it away."
Hodgson, for his part, spoke warmly of the impact Lambert has made while not concealing his unhappiness at the run of misfortune that has deprived him of so many forward options. "We can't deny that the competition for places at centre-forward has been diminished enormously," he said. "Rickie was selected because he merited it, but Rooney would have been a clear alternative if available, as would Sturridge."
Tuesday's fixture is effectively the game in hand England and Ukraine have over Montenegro, and as a draw would see England stay top by a point and Ukraine climb to second on goal difference, it is hard to see why Hodgson believes Ukraine will only be interested in a win. With only Moldova and San Marino to come, a win would virtually guarantee Ukraine top place and they have the incentive to attack. But a point would not end their hopes and it is not quite the win or bust situation Hodgson is making out.
"I am certain, like us, they will want to win their home games to keep it in their own hands," Hodgson said. "They have to win, there is no guarantee a draw will be suitable for them, and they are not going to win by putting eight players behind the ball. They will have to do it by attacking us."
There is no guarantee a draw will be suitable for England either, but with home games against Montenegro and Poland completing the group, there ought to be no serious complaints should Hodgson and his players go into October still on top. Whatever the margin.
"The only time you want to be top of the group is at the end of October," Hodgson said. A draw on Tuesday would not necessarily deflect England from that course.
Drawing either of the two Wembley games is what they need to be worried about.