Tuesday 23 January 2018

Hodgson reading between the lines


England's Steven Gerrard (L) speaks to coach Roy Hodgson during their international friendly soccer match against Norway at the Ullevaal Stadium in Oslo.
England's Steven Gerrard (L) speaks to coach Roy Hodgson during their international friendly soccer match against Norway at the Ullevaal Stadium in Oslo.

Ian Herbert in Oslo

Gary Neville posts a song of the day to his social network followers each morning and on Saturday it was Paul Weller's 'Brand New Start'.

It is beginning to feel as if this is just such a thing for England, even though it felt faintly Engelbert Humperdinck to be taking a very flat 4-4-2 into Europe on the night.

The most welcome new beginning is that Roy Hodgson seems to have taken the swagger out of England. Liverpool fans will smirk at that kind of observation, but it will be welcomed elsewhere. England have been heading out across the world forever as if they owned it.

When Fabio Capello's squad descended on Rustenburg, South Africa, the vast images of them which filled the walls of the media facility built up each as a colossus. It was all hubris.

The sight of Hodgson asking each of his players to acknowledge England's supporters late on Saturday night felt very different.

"Can I drink this with the cameras around?" the manager inquired at his press conference a little later, when he arrived clutching a Coca-Cola bottle. "I have to ask these questions. I could do what I wanted at West Brom."

The simplest things sometimes speak of humility. The worry is that the simple things seen in his team on Saturday night will bring a vulnerability when the big bad world starts crowding in on June 11.

Hodgson's serried columns of men looked flat and flaccid at times against Norway. No one ran between the lines.

Scott Parker seemed frustrated by the absence of someone willing to break the confines of the grid and give him a passing option. Time and again, the Tottenham player was forced to swivel round and propel the ball back.


There was only one full-back's overlap to speak of all night -- that honour belonged to Leighton Baines -- and a solitary whipped cross from Stewart Downing, a player still looking for the old-fashioned art of the winger which he put down somewhere months ago and forgot to pick up again.

As a target man, Andy Carroll will need better than this against France. He is looking for players to get beyond him and in behind defences, creating space for him.

Gary Lineker only needed 140 characters to tell it. "Stuck in 3 lines with no depth. Fine against inferior opposition but..."

And: "Not enough passing options. All straight lines."

Hodgson acknowledged there was need for more lateral thinking. "We have to get in between the lines a little bit better," he said.

"We have to be more positive when we get a chance to play the ball in between those lines, when we break that midfield line when the other team are pressing. That's a work in progress."

But Saturday actually shone a light on the ascetic form this summer will probably take for England's football. There will be all the usual pre-match fervour and little to set the pulses racing.

There are perils in that, for Hodgson. He lacks the line of credit which a more populist appointee would command and he admitted that winning on Saturday was more important to him than he had been prepared to admit beforehand.

"Of course, it's about winning," he said. "You can't be a good coach if you have a losing team. That's the bottom line. It's an obvious truism.

"You can get an unfortunate couple of goals you don't deserve, you end up losing 2-1, and make a big, big fuss about the result."

Neither do we know how his players will take to this journey back to the rudiments of a team shape, when the novelty of a new manager has worn off. He failed at Liverpool because some of the star names wanted something more exciting than endless drills.

Neville's involvement is critical, as the bridge between Hodgson and the team, though the new coach has himself argued ardently from his television studio seat in the past two months that 4-4-2 is an outdated system now. But after the empty promises of what has gone before with England, there has been a rich substance to the discussions with Hodgson in Norway.

Two years ago, before England's last tournament, the media were discussing Capello's contract exit clause.

Now here was the new manager revealing that he views the European Championship as a staging post -- with his real focus being on the World Cup beyond.

"I am looking beyond the Euros," he said. "The fact is I signed a contract to do this job over the coming years, so I have my sights firmly fixed on the future.

"I also want to do well in the Euros with the team and I will try to get them as well organised and well prepared as I can.

"But I am not prepared to make the Euros the be-all and end-all in terms of the way I want to hopefully make a mark on the team and hopefully play in the future."

Amid the clamour for instant success, this was a brave contention.

With the Chelsea contingent and Wayne Rooney only joining the ranks tomorrow, you feel Hodgson has not had to handle the full, complex England dynamic just yet. But his grasp of what his players can do has been impressive, in such a short time -- especially the discovery of the forward partnership of Carroll and Ashley Young in Rooney's absence, which delivered Saturday's goal.

He has a very clear idea of Rooney as his future No 10. His hope is that he can bring out the world-class in other England players -- Young, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Jack Wilshere, Phil Jones -- if he only gets the time. Then England can marry pragmatism and pizzazz. (© Independent News Service)

Irish Independent

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