THERE is something wonderful about what happens when Hodgey speaks at length. He thinks he is being intelligent, impressive and occasionally cleverly dissembling. Then he gives something away that indicates why his entire footballing outlook is so fundamentally flawed. In the aftermath of the defeat to the Italians Hodgson has spoken a lot. A discussion has ensued much to Paul Hayward’s delight. And in that discussion was this nugget of Hodgey:
This, here, is Hodgson writ large. The primary reason why Pirlo was able to play the way he did was England’s set-up and the fact that it at no point beyond the first fifteen minutes attempted to solve the problem that Pirlo posed. England sat so deep and made no attempt to consistently pressure Pirlo. The only way in which Pirlo was going to play poorly is by him, himself, playing poorly. On Hodgson’s terms, England could do nothing to stop him. Action was impossible because shape must be maintained.
This was reminiscent of Liverpool vs Blackpool (3rd October 2010) when Ian Holloway’s Blackpool turned up to Anfield with Charlie Adam in a centre midfield three. Adam ran the game as Hodgson’s Liverpool stood off and watched, admired. Adam’s most definitely no Pirlo but that day he looked a world beater, he bestrode midfield playing pass after pass under a minimum of pressure.
I’ve little sympathy with the argument that Hodgson hasn’t had time to imprint his style on this side. This is Hodgson’s England. That shape, those two lines of four moving hypnotically around the pitch like a 90’s screensaver, this is Hodgson. Indeed, Hodgey deserves credit of sorts for the speed with which this side has been built in his image. It’s here though that those who urge time for him to really implement his ideas are erroneous. These are his ideas. You have seen them. If Hodgson sees out his four year contract he will have less time, fewer training sessions, with these players (ever changing players as well, by the way) than he did during his abortive six months at Anfield. For those of you watching in black and white, this is what Roy Hodgson looks like.
It’s easy to conclude that Hodgson was the wrong man at the wrong time at Anfield. But Hodgson is the wrong man at the wrong time for any football team that has an interest in actively hunting down victory in football matches, not waiting for a mistake to bestow victory upon them. Hodgson is a 50 point manager. He gets a side organised, has them follow his principles and if they do so they’ll lose fewer games. There is a place for Roy Hodgsons in all leagues, in all football traditions. Someone has to be a good mid table manager. Someone has to be Hodgey. If a side has pretentions towards genuine victory though, he is, inevitably, the wrong man at the wrong time.
While obviously biased, in my view the most salient point in the nationwide post-Pirlo discussion was made in The Anfield Wrap podcast. It is also one of the most simple. When Sean Rogers says that very few teams win international tournaments, he couldn’t be more correct. Fifteen sides won’t win the Euros. One will. Accepting this means that we can move beyond the notion of win at all costs. Even if we accept the (in my view utterly false) notion that Hodgson and his football were England’s most likely chance of success in this tournament it doesn’t mean that Hodgson and his football should be accepted and adopted. Increasing England’s chances in the short-term from (obviously arbitrary figures) 6% to 7% should mean nothing against increasing England’s chances in tournaments to come of playing the sort of progressive, aggressive football that can challenge for honours by more than hanging on for dear life. England could also play in a manner which says something about the character of this nation’s football at its best, not at its most fearful.
And this is why this article is on a Liverpool supporter’s website. Not because of an irrational hatred of Hodgey (though I possibly do possess one) but because what the national team does, the way the game is played at that level and through its systems and structure does impact across the rest of the country. The way the game is spoken about within this context matters. How we as a nation address our football counts. The BBC coverage has been proudly, loudly brainless. Our nation’s collective suspicion against perceived “cleverness” in football is a massive problem. Every football side attempting to be great now needs to be clever. Spain, for instance, work things out in football matches, they see that things don’t work and they change them.
This isn’t a voguish call to Catalonia. England do not have to adopt the Spanish philosophy in the short, medium or long term other than simply coaching better, smarter footballers. England should look at what has worked historically for England and English sides. But they should first and foremost not engage in football matches with fear and ignorance. The first step towards running a game is wanting to run a game. While Spain are currently impressing hugely in playing in a possession orientated way, it isn’t the only way. You don’t have to make a thousand passes. You don’t have to dominate possession. You can be strong, dominate position, force sides back and seize the initiative. You can demand the game be played on your terms rather than cede possession and territory with the inevitable it is played entirely on the opposition’s. As the game wears on your side can and should respond to regain or maintain control.
That Joe Hart and Andy Carroll managed to complete 15 passes without fault suggests something positive – that the Italians could not cope with Andy Carroll in the air. That this pass combination was England’s most successful is obviously negative. No one got near Carroll and he wasn’t found near the goal. Carroll’s a better player than just a beacon, but as beacon he couldn’t have been more effective. The way he was employed was the short-coming. There is nothing wrong with direct football, there is everything wrong with passive football. There‘s nothing wrong with an aerial route to win, there is everything wrong with any route to draw. Being aerially strong in attack (as England have been for years with both Crouch and now Carroll) isn’t something to be ashamed of, it is something to build on and around. The much loved Czech side that got Greeked (Hodged?) in 2004 built around Jan Koller. They played proactive, aggressive football. They had intelligence. They often changed their approach during games but the central force of their side was Koller. England have had players available in this campaign that are in the vicinity of the class of those Czech players but have shown none of the verve, brio or imagination. There is no room for any of that in Hodgson’s football.
There’s a famous quote (from Helmuth von Moltke the Elder): “No plan of operations extends with any certainty beyond the first contact with the main hostile force.” A Roy Hodgson plan always extends beyond that first contact with total certainty. This has to work. It always has. And when it hasn’t it is because it has been enacted badly, not because it has any faults. It was present against Italy, unchanging despite Pirlo’s control being unyielding. At the very highest level Hodgson’s football is simultaneously cowardly, arrogant and wilfully ignorant. Set-up and hope for the best because this is all we can do – nothing can change once that white line has been crossed. Hodgson should not have been given the job of England manager and certainly not on a four year deal. It was an outrageous decision by the FA. This campaign has shown, across four games and two friendlies, exactly why. Him being relieved of it at the earliest opportunity would be in the short, medium and long-term interests of English football as a whole. Hodgson should never have been in. Now he should be out.