There are two ways you could see tonight’s starting line-up against Ukraine. One is to give Hodgson the benefit of the doubt. To praise him for sticking with youth in the form of Welbeck, and picking an apparently very mobile and versatile frontline with the potential for great movement and interchange of position, with the possibility of a Gerrard run from deep an ever-lurking threat. The other is to suggest it’s another example of Hodgson, and England’s previously mentioned inferiority complex. It pandered to the star player mentality that has long plagued the national side. Welbeck was given the nod to benefit Rooney, a player who long hasn’t played more than sporadically well for England, in a position where Gerrard is arguably the finest England have produced in many years.
In that earlier article I argued that Carroll would be Hodgson’s centre-piece. In that I’ve perhaps been proven wrong, but it’s intriguing that, just like at Liverpool, Hodgson’s tactics still involved playing to a target man’s strengths, even though we had none on the pitch until the 80th minute. Feeding off scraps from clearances, set-pieces and an emphasis on early, deep crosses are Carroll territory. This is not the diet that Rooney and Welbeck thrive on at club level. This means I’m inclined towards the latter view – it was not boldness that guided Hodgson’s hand tonight, but conservatism.
Ukraine were superior on the night, and would have gone through comfortably but for poor finishing. England struggled to regain possession – as predicted there was little to no pressing and Gerrard left gaps in midfield that Ukraine exploited with monotonous regularity. Hodgson did nothing to alter this, instead doing what he always does – entirely predictable like-for-like substitutions. At least Walcott’s made sense in terms of bringing on sheer pace against a tiring defence for a team needing to attack, but ultimately neither sub did much to alter the dynamic of the game. England were better after a woeful first half but Ukraine still had the better of the play.
What is encouraging for Hodgson and England is that whatever god(s) deserted him at Liverpool appear to be smiling on him again with a sunny benevolence, at least for the time-being. A colossal stroke of luck came with the disallowed Ukraine goal after a shocking piece of officiating to miss the ball clearly going over the line – what exactly is it that the new touchline officials do? This was preceded by the two deflections that saw Rooney finish an unmissable chance, thereby justifying the inclusion of a player who did little else of note on the night, scoring from the pass of another player who was involved in most of our play going forward but also the source of many of our problems in midfield. England fans must hope for a kick-start in confidence to the both of them, because tactically neither will be used any differently, and any problems they cause are highly unlikely to be addressed. Carroll for Welbeck is the only likely change for the quarter–final against Italy.
Underestimating the Italians due to relief at avoiding Spain would be a fatal mistake. Italy are capable of sustaining better possession and creating more dangerous pressure than Ukraine did tonight. Italy have formidable players in almost every position – it’s hard to imagine their defence leaking the kind of goal Ukraine did tonight, nor is it likely that their forwards will be so forgiving when it comes to pulling the trigger. Undoubtedly no country would rather face Spain than Italy at the moment, but Italy will still be a huge test of Hodgson’s England. I do not expect to outplay them, but if you can’t be good, be lucky – and Hodgson will be hoping that the Ukraine match didn’t use up whatever he has left.
Posted by Seb Crankshaw