Roy Hodgson is a 4-4-2 man in the same way that trees are made of wood. If you cut him open, his internal organs would scurry away from you to form two solid banks of four on the edge of his pancreas. However, during his failed tenure at Liverpool he was also labelled by their fans as a long-ball coach. This is somewhat unfair. His teams do tend to clear their lines quickly, preferably to a big target man, but having won the ball they prefer to build with patience, almost using possession to defend, taking no risks – especially at the back – but frustrating their opponents and preparing for a quick pass out wide or to the target man.
Andy Carroll will be a key player for Hodgson, and I expect to see a team built around the Geordie throwback. It’s easy to see him as a wild haired Angel of the North, as imposing as the Gormley structure, arms spread, holding off the opposition. Both have already famously worn the black and white number 9 shirt.
The key players in his Fulham side were Bobby Zamora, Danny Murphy, Zoltán Gera and Damien Duff. The Zamora/Carroll comparison is obvious; meanwhile, Duff injected some pace and directness, and Gera and Murphy guile. Murphy also possessed the restraint to know whether to be patient or direct. Hodgson’s England squad holds no real surprises in that respect, other than the omission of Carrick, a similar but more skilful version of Murphy. Instead, his captain Steven Gerrard will attempt to fill this role, which means yet another tournament in which England are not putting Gerrard in a position to exhibit the explosive demolition skills he gave Liverpool at his best. Instead, he will be asked to show a combination of discipline and restraint that he’s rarely shown in central midfield for his club.
Off the ball, Hodgson’s teams are oddly secretarial: passive and highly organised. They will not press, they will not harry or hurry, and at their best the two banks of four are like a phalanx of medieval pikemen, daring the enemy to try and force their way through. After all, it’s when the opposition has been bogged down in those massed ranks that Hodgson’s teams are at their most dangerous, with a quick out-ball and breaks into space.
Again, Gerrard is a potential weakness here. He is devastating bursting forward, but lacks the stamina, and perhaps willingness, to get back into the position that he occupied in the early Gérard Houllier years. If Gerrard gets caught upfield, it leaves a big hole in the ranks that opponents can and will exploit. Along with Fernando Torres’ lack of hold up play, this was a major defensive weakness of Hodgson’s Liverpool. This is indicative of one of Hodgson’s major shortcomings. He cannot, and will not, adapt. His huge failure at Liverpoolwas an inability to recognise the strengths of the squad he inherited, instead attempting to turn a side built to press and create opportunities to release Torres’ lethal speed and finishing into a poor copy of his own Fulham side. Hodgson confirmed as much himself, when asked if his methods could translate to the Anfield club:
How many clubs have I had in 35 years? What do you mean, do my methods translate? They translated from Halmstads to Malmo to Örebro to Neuchâtel Xamax to the Swiss national team.
So if things aren’t working for Hodgson, expect two things. More of the same in terms of tactics and a rapidly increasing spikiness with the press as the pressure ramps up. The press, in turn, will respond to this like sharks sensing a wounded seal.
This reluctance to adapt and take risks is also clear from the team and squad selection. The Terry/ Ferdinand dilemma and the captaincy issue were two chances for the new coach to make bold statements about his England side.Roy, true to form, took the predictable and safe options in both cases.
Terry is clearly still an important figure in the England dressing room, though how he will take to being second fiddle to Gerrard remains to be seen. In addition to this, he is vulnerable to pace and players with a deft touch. Luis Suarez made a fool of him in the recent Anfield encounter. However in Hodgson’s system spaces like those Suarez located should be minimal, if Gerrard holds his place. For both of them, this tournament will almost certainly be their last chance to shine in international careers littered with mediocrity.
This might just be the spur required for them to actually follow and stick to the task asked of them. On this will Hodgson’s potential success rest. His is inferiority complex football, and he has to convince a squad of pampered egotists to buy into that lack of self esteem. Of course, he won’t put it that way, and just maybe – sensing that this is the last roll of the dice – they won’t take it that way either.
Belgium will present an interesting test this evening. The Norway game was essentially a 90-minute stalemate between two teams of limited ambition.Belgium, with talents like the new Chelsea duo of Hazard and Lukaku, are unlikely to try and sit: if they play anything like Standard Liege have in Europe in recent years, they could prove difficult opponents for Roy’s England. They are willing to press and harass, and have creative types lurking in the gap between those two banks of four. This, I suspect, may show England picking up the pattern seen everywhere else Hodgson has managed. Unexpected success will come against much-fancied opponents, real difficulties against skilful opponents who defend aggressively.
Posted by Seb Crankshaw