As the nation celebrates the Queen's Diamond Jubilee, a reign of sixty years, a new tenure is taking place in England's national football team. Roy Hodgson's rule is only in its infancy - he hasn't even reached sixty days yet, but already the experienced manager has had to make a host of key decisions. With the European Championships less than a week away, it seems a good time to evaluate Hodgson's judgements and predict England's fate in the forthcoming tournament.
Hodgson's first task was to assemble his backroom staff. In came Ray Lewington, who had worked with Roy at Fulham. Dave Watson was then appointed as a Goalkeeping Coach, a logical decision given that Watson had worked with Joe Hart in the past, plus Jack Butland who went on to replace the injured John Ruddy in the final squad. Then, most notably, Gary Neville joined the team - experienced (85 caps), knowledgeable, knows the players and had demonstrated his tactical nous in his role with Sky Sports. Even Neville's most fierce detractors, of which there are many, appeared to be behind the move.
'Stop making these logical decisions, Roy - you're starting to get my hopes up', I thought at the time. He duly obliged when he announced his original 23-man squad for the Championships. I disagreed with a few of the inclusions and exclusions, notably Stewart Downing, Andy Carroll, Daniel Sturridge, Michael Carrick and Micah Richards. But these weren't major issues - supporters rate certain players and don't rate others and it's the manager's decision to pick his best 23. However, his insistence that Rio Ferdinand's omission was purely down to "footballing reasons" irked me. At the time, it could have been a case of Hodgson believing other defenders to be better - unlikely but feasible. But now, having seen Phil Jagielka and Martin Kelly drafted in to the squad, there can be no doubt. Rio Ferdinand was left out of the squad because his brother claimed to have been racially abused by John Terry, who of course was named in the squad. Some may point to comments made by Sir Alex Ferguson over Ferdinand's fitness, but that is just a case of Ferguson looking after his own interests. If Hodgson wanted Ferdinand, he would have picked him.
Anyway, here we are. The 23-man squad has been named, whether you rate it or not, and England kick off Group D a week on Monday against France. Forget squad selection and backroom staff, Hodgson's biggest task is simply to win games of football. He has managed it twice already, albeit in underwhelming fashion in friendlies against Norway and Belgium. On a positive note, England have looked organised - as every Hodgson side tends to be. Two clean sheets were a huge bonus, and with few chances created in either game, the clinical nature of the finishes from Ashley Young and Danny Welbeck provide some optimism, especially given Wayne Rooney's absence in the first two group games. It is an achievement in itself considering the short period of time the FA have given him to prepare. It is difficult to believe though, that similar performances will suffice against France.
For a start, we can't keep possession of the ball. I don't expect us to magically turn into Barcelona, but ball retention in the international game is key. Against Belgium in particular, England were happy for the opposition to have the ball, and then looked to counter. It is a tactic that can work, as it did on Saturday. But against better opposition, you'll get punished more often than not. One of the biggest concerns is that in both games, England played with just two players in central midfield. Ashley Young was given a free role but very rarely turned that two into a three. There is a lack of options for the player on the ball, which leads to said player opting for a killer pass or a long ball, rather than making the opposition chase.
The temptation to play the long ball would be far greater should Andy Carroll start the first two games. Danny Welbeck is far more mobile. He's quicker, more skillful and leads the line well. One area of his game which perhaps does need improvement is his finishing, but if Saturday is anything to go by, he should have no problems. Also, Hodgson should consider bringing Theo Walcott in to replace James Milner on the right. It would mean sacrificing hard work and organisation but while Walcott can frustrate, he is far more likely to create something if only by the means of raw pace. Milner could even move centrally alongside Scott Parker and Steven Gerrard, giving the latter more opportunities to drive forward.
England should qualify from Group D, even if France prove to be too good. Not to be complacent, but Ukraine and Sweden are on a similar level to Norway and Belgium, and England have enough in their armory to beat them. If Hodgson has ambitions of winning the tournament, or at least reaching the semi-finals, there has to be a greater emphasis on keeping possession, being patient and winning the ball back quickly. Before being offered a coaching role, Neville, who called his international playing career "a waste of time" put forward a very convincing argument for how England should play, moving away from the 4-4-2 system and instead playing between the lines. We must move on from 4-4-2, otherwise it won't just be Gary Neville whose England career was wasted.
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