I am willing to admit that I raised a surprised eyebrow when the FA opted to appoint Roy Hodgson has England manager just two months ago. I didn’t want Harry Redknapp, but I was sure that the FA were going to bow down to pressure created by the media and give the England job to the then Spurs manager, however, It is also fair to say that whilst I wasn’t thrilled by the appointment of Hodgson, I thought it showed a little bit of initiative by FA top brass, coupled with the fact that he isn’t Swedish or Italian led me to start thinking that maybe, just maybe, it would work out.
The game against Sweden was a total opposite to anything I can remember seeing from England at a major tournament before, take the expectation levels for a start. Nobody expected anything from this tournament, many still don’t. In pretty much every tournament England have played at since Euro 96, or maybe even since reaching the semi finals of Italia 90, the English public have expected to see the team get to the semi finals or the final, something that previous England managers and players have failed to deliver, whether the scapegoat is Gareth Southgate, David Beckham, Kevin Keegan, Phil Neville, David Seaman, Urs Meier, Sven Goran Eriksson, Rob Green – the list goes on.
This is partly down to how the team looks on paper, take the right hand side for example, in place of Gary Neville and David Beckham we now have Glen Johnson and James Milner, upfront there is no Shearer and Owen combination, instead England last night went with Carroll and Welbeck – those complaining about that before the game certainly aren’t now. However, when you look at the England bench during the “Golden Generation” you never thought there were any real options to change the game if things weren’t going well. The options pretty much relied on bringing on Peter Crouch to “see what he could do”. There were always in my opinion, six or seven players in Sven Goran Eriksson’s team that were never going to step across the white line in a competitive game at a time when it mattered.
A stark contrast to Roy Hodgson’s team. This appears to be a squad where there is genuine competition for places, and whilst on paper at least, the starting eleven does not look to have the flamboyance of previous England squads, players who start one game know they need to play well or they might not play the next one. Further to that, I believe that every player in that squad could be brought on to change a game either to protect a lead or, as was the case with Theo Walcott’s stunning impact last night, to turn a game on it’s head.
Criticism seemed to have been fired at Hodgson from every angle over the perceived negative tactics he employed in the two pre tournament friendlies and in the first game against France, there is at least some form of game plan. Ok, so sitting back and inviting pressure on whilst looking to hit on the break is not everybody’s cup of tea as far as tactics are concerned, it at least is some sort of game plan. Can anybody tell me what the plan was under previous England managers? Was it possession football? Was it long ball? I’ve already mentioned how I felt previous England teams did not have a plan B from the bench, but in all honesty there wasn’t even plan A, despite the perceived quality of the players.
England started last night’s game on the front foot and the plan of getting down the side of Sweden’s full backs and whipping in crosses for Andy Carroll and Danny Welbeck to attack looked like it would work, Scott Parker was winning the ball back for England consistently even managing a really decent effort on goal. It looked like only a matter of time before England got the breakthrough and when they did, courtesy of captain Steven Gerrard’s sublime cross on to the head of Liverpool team mate Carroll, I honestly thought that would be game over, purely because up until half time Sweden were not at the races.
Yet, Olof Mellberg of all people had another take on things, putting the Swedes level after a fortunate deflection fell to his feet. Worse was yet to come for Hodgson’s England, as Mellberg struck again soon after with a powerful header. The defending for both of Sweden’s set piece goals will concern Hodgson, but they were lapses in concentration rather than a flaw in the plan. With Sweden a goal to the good I am sure everybody was thinking along the same lines as I was – “Here we go again, same old England.”
The introduction of Theo Walcott at a time when England had nothing to lose and his subsequent impact, scoring with almost his first touch and setting up Danny Welbeck’s winning strike in a topsy turvy encounter, will hopefully be enough to silence the Hodgson critics out there for the team being at least. It would also be further proof that everybody has a job in the squad. Let’s face it, Theo Walcott is great at getting at full backs, carrying the ball forwards on the break and getting in behind defenders, however, tracking back, defending and tackling are not his strong point, showcased by both his blistering run to step up the winner and the way he bounced off Zlatan Ibrahimovic in the closing stages of the match. After his impact, many are calling for him to start the next game however I believe starting him in front of Glen Johnson would be footballing suicide.
James Milner has to continue to start, much of the play in the early stages of the game came through him and he was able to get a number of crosses in from the right hand side whilst not forgetting about his defensive responsibilities, covering the attack minded Glen Johnson and helping to maintain a balance on the right. Starting Walcott and Johnson down the right would be akin to giving the opposition a free run down the right hand side. Some are saying that Glen Johnson was our best defender last night, noting a number of eye catching “recovery tackles” he made, yet to make a recovery tackle you have to be caught out of position in the first place, something that happened against France with Ribery almost getting in behind and again last night. My worry is that with Theo in front of Johnson, Johnson would either find himself restricted to a more defensive role to allow the Arsenal man to push forward or find himself getting having to make these “recovery tackles” more and more often.
Interestingly, when Theo Walcott scored his famous hat trick for England in Croatia, he was playing in front of a right back in the shape of Wes Brown, a player who is significantly more defensive than Johnson, allowing Theo Walcott to freedom to roam forward and not have to worry about covering the full back. To maintain the same system of play that Hodgson has employed with success in his first four games and play Theo Walcott from the start is not as straightforward as some people may think. In the last twenty minutes the game really opened up with both teams searching for a winner, an open game might suit us for for the last twenty minutes against Sweden, but if England were to have such an open game against a top nation like Spain or Germany, the consequences would be dire and I for one hope Hodgson recognises this.
The reason we saw the best from Theo last night was because he could go for it, with 30 minutes to go and England trailing a match they needed to win, he could get forward and not worry about defensive tasks. Playing both him and Johnson from the first whistle would be counter productive in my opinion, leaving England with little balance on the right and neither player getting the best out of one another. Johnson continues to look dangerous when overlapping the winger, but lets face it, Walcott is too fast to keep up with let alone overlap!
Roy Hodgson has always maintained that Walcott would have a part to play in this tournament, and it looks very much like the part he will be playing is England’s go-to guy on the bench for situations where a goal is required.
I was really pleased to see Hodgson make the decisive substitution as early as the sixty minute make, when previous England managers would have waited a lot longer, hoping that the “Golden Generation” would produce something, leaving it until the 75th or 80th minute to change things. Sweden went 2-1 up and Hodgson responded immediately, and im starting to believe in England once again, but for different reasons.
The players might not be as box office as they once were, but Roy Hodgson has a set of tools at his disposal that seemingly he knows how to use. If the France result was a solid start, the result last night shows that England at last have the spirit to turn things around when the game seems to be slipping away, and a manager who for a change has a plan B up his sleeve. It probably won’t be enough to see England win the tournament, but this could be a tournament that see’s Hodgson lay down some solid foundations for the 2014 World Cup in Brazil.