Friday 23 February 2018

Hodgson's gambles paying off

England manager Roy Hodgson. Photo: Owen Humphreys/PA
England manager Roy Hodgson. Photo: Owen Humphreys/PA

Sam Wallace

Forty years of management, 20 jobs, 15 clubs, four national teams, and yet Roy Hodgson will be in no doubt as he closes the door of his Chantilly hotel room tonight and settles down with a novel, as he tends to do at the end of each day, that these are the defining days of his career.

The England manager is comfortable with that, or he was when he walked out of the changing room after the win over Wales on Thursday, a very different man to the hollowed-out individual who emerged to speak after defeat by Uruguay in the second World Cup defeat two years ago today. England are up and running at Euro 2016 and Hodgson feels now that, at last, he has the team who can take him past Slovakia tomorrow and into the knockout stages.

The half-time double substitution of Jamie Vardy and Daniel Sturridge rewarded Hodgson's decisiveness, with both scoring in the 2-1 win in Lens, and, with Harry Kane looking tired for a second England summer in a row, and Raheem Sterling plainly out of sorts, the two goalscorers in a diamond formation looks the way forward.

Yet, for Hodgson, there remains one man above all who stands out in this summer transformation of his England team, his captain, Wayne Rooney, who has adapted to play midfield amid a wealth of striking options. "The one who really deserves a pat on the back is Wayne Rooney, because we thought if we could get him being Wayne Rooney doing this job here, we'll get a lot out of it," Hodgson said. "We'll get a goalscorer from distance, we'll get a passer and we'll get the benefit of his experience and his captaincy.

"Eric Dier and Dele Alli, I'm half expecting [to adapt], Wayne was one where I had to wait and see what he would be like. Although I did see him play there for Manchester United and knew he could do it.

"I had it in mind more recently but, like everything, Wayne has been playing for England for over 12 years and he is still playing at 30, with over 100 caps. There is always going to be a time, especially as these young bucks come on the scene who run like gazelles and sprint like the wind, there will always be a time when players are thinking, 'Maybe it is time for me to move back a little bit'.

"It is not a surprise that the situation has occurred but, with that said, we would always be prepared to use him as a front player. There is more competition for places at the front with what we've got but I wouldn't hesitate. At periods during the game against Wales, we thought about swapping him and Adam Lallana over, which we could easily do."

Not that a switch with Lallana would mean Rooney moving into the striking position but, instead, to the left of the diamond. If the England captain is to venture into the advanced positions again in this tournament, the likelihood is that it will only be mid-crisis when England are chasing a goal to prevent elimination and throw everything at it.

The expectation in many quarters was that Hodgson would doggedly accommodate Rooney until such point as he either scored goals or bottomed out - at which time there would have to be an awkward reckoning. Instead, the manager has adapted England's all-time record goalscorer into a midfielder having first invited him to accept the restrictions of age and the competition of a new generation.

Not a bad trick to pull and it has been done on the foundation of a very good relationship between manager and captain, based on a public loyalty to Rooney that is unwavering.

"I'm not trying to be arrogant here but we don't actually pay attention to it being said, 'Wayne Rooney is fantastic' or, 'Wayne Rooney should be dropped'," Hodgson said. "We ask questions but we never get swept along in that tide of, 'Rooney the King' or, 'Rooney shouldn't be in the 23'."

It might be argued that the biggest question facing Hodgson when he looks at the details of Thursday's performance was, what on earth was Joe Hart was doing for Gareth Bale's successful free-kick? But abandoning senior players is not Hodgson's style. He will, as is his way, only ask questions in private.

That said, he has brought in Danny Rose at left-back and reinstated Kyle Walker over Nathaniel Clyne. Come tomorrow in Saint-Étienne, the expectation is that Vardy and Sturridge will start as England go for seven points and first place in Group B, which would give them a round-of-16 game in Paris on Saturday against a third-placed team, potentially including Romania, Northern Ireland or the Czech Republic.

His rationale for the double half-time substitution against Wales, the first by an England manager in tournament history, was straightforward. "We didn't think we had been put under any great pressure and we were controlling the game. We didn't think we had the tempo that we really would have liked or the aggression in the final third. Individually, players having the confidence and the courage to take people on . . . so, we made up our mind to do that and when you go a goal down, what, to us, was pretty obvious became blatantly obvious."

Vardy and Sturridge are contrasting players. The former lurks on the shoulder of the final defender waiting for the starter's pistol of the ball over the top. The other wants it into his feet around the box and then demands the return ball into his path. They are an odd couple even by the standards of some of the strike partnerships that have sustained England over the years.

So far for Hodgson, the gamble on an attacking squad has paid off, with good form and no injuries among his defence. As for himself, he says he does not think about the future on the touchline. "Once you allow yourself to get caught up in, 'Blimey, if this doesn't go our way, this will be said', you don't do your job as well as you would like to do it."

You only have to watch Hodgson in the aftermath of Sturridge's winner to know he is telling the truth: here was a man celebrating a win as he might have done in the privacy of his own front room.

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