England appoint Roy Hodgson
If the decision was between Harry Redknapp and Roy Hodgson, England were choosing between two very different coaches.
The debate should not have been about ‘experience at big clubs’ or ‘how much the players like him’, but about the style of coach required: in Redknapp and Hodgson, the FA were choosing between two men at complete opposite ends of the football coach’s ideological spectrum, the most stark contrast of managerial philosophies you can find.
Redknapp is all about individuals. He denies he’s a ‘wheeler-dealer’, and to imply that he is only a transfer specialist would be unfair; he clearly gets on with people (summed up by his relationships with both players and journalists) and is regarded as a good man-manager and motivator. Whether it is bringing them in or firing them up, Redknapp’s skill is that he gets the best from individuals.
His tactical ineptitude can be overstated – Redknapp is generally very good at making substitutions midway through a game, as he showed, for example, with a fantastic turnaround at Arsenal eighteen months ago – followed by a perfectly reasonable and rational explanation about why he made the changes.
Yet Redknapp’s sides retain a certain anarchy, epitomised by Tottenham’s win away at Norwich late last year, when Redknapp told Gareth Bale and Rafael van der Vaart they could “play where they wanted to”. In that game it worked, as Bale scored two fine goals in a man-of-the-match performance. “He gets in those holes, and when he gets the ball and runs at you, he’s unplayable,” Redknapp marvelled. Yet in recent weeks, Bale’s desire to roam has been indulged at the expense of shape and structure, and Tottenham have been in terrible form.
Van der Vaart is another who has enjoyed that freedom at Tottenham. “There are no long and boring speeches about tactics, like I was used to at Real Madrid,” he says. “There is a board in our dressing room but Harry doesn’t write anything on it. It’s not that we do nothing – but it’s close to that.”
How much does Redknapp value the system? He’s perfectly honest about it. “Whether it’s 4-4-2, 4-2-3-1, 4-3-3 – the numbers game is no the beautiful game in my opinion,” Redknapp once said. “It is 10% about the formation and 90% about the players.”
Hodgson is the complete opposite, the ultimate ‘system’ manager. His teams are very simple – they defend the same way, with two banks of four supplemented with two outright attackers – either two forwards or a lone striker supported by a number ten. Whereas Redknapp employs an army of coaches to do his work on the training ground, Hodgson personally drills his players relentlessly in training so they’re completely at home with the zonal defensive system, going through the same exercises again and again.
“We work on it every day,” Simon Davies, who played under Hodgson at Fulham, told Jonathan Wilson. “Every day in training is geared towards team shape on the match-day coming up. I’ve been working with the manager three years now and every day is team shape, and it shows… I don’t want to give any secrets away, but he gets the 11 that he wants on a match-day and he drills everything in that he wants. It’s certain drills defensive, certain drills attacking, and we work very hard at it. There are no diagrams. It’s all on the pitch with the ball, nothing unopposed.”
Whereas Redknapp doesn’t care for formations, Hodgson is a member of UEFA’s technical study group and will tell you about 4-4-2 all day long:
“The back four gives you the best possibilities of covering the width of the pitch defensively, and it also gives you great options, in my opinion, to get the the full-backs forward…one can go forward and the other three can shuttle across and you’re still playing with three defenders. When you play with three defenders, you lose that possibility.
The other six players? One could discuss. There’s no doubt you need one forward…you need a point of reference…if you play with two of them, you have the added advantage that whoever receives the ball has someone in close support at all times, and if balls are going to be played forward, you’ve got someone to threat the back of the defence. If you take him (the second striker) out, the threat to the back of the defence has to come from the midfield, you need midfield players bursting forward. It’s interesting to play with two – though these days many teams are playing with them vertically, rather than alongside each other.
The central midfielders do an important job for you, they’re going to protect the back four, and they’re also going to be the catalysts for attacks. The wide players are the ones you’re looking for to use spaces.
With 4-4-2, you’ve got ‘twos’ all over the field. I would always be looking to find a team that can play with a back four. Amongst the front six there a lot more options.”
So which type of coach is needed? England are in a state of complete confusion. Going into a major tournament having appointed your coach a month beforehand is embarrassing enough. Then there is the problem that Wayne Rooney, the star attacking player, is suspended from the first two games. Jack Wilshere, assumed to be one of England’s key midfielders a year ago, will miss out through injury. A generation of very good individuals (though never remotely a cohesive unit) are now past their peak, while the next crop are not established enough to base a successful team around.
This complete failure to have any long-term project in place deserves first round elimination – an outcome that would have been regarded as ‘best for England in the long-run’, had they not consistently failed to learn lessons from previous failures.
All this should make even the most ardent England supporter realise that the team is currently a rank outsider. And the only way outsiders have overachieved in recent major international tournaments is by being defensive and functional. Uruguay won the 2011 Copa America in this fashion, and Zambia triumphed at this year’s Africa Cup of Nations with the lowest pass completion rate in the tournament, something also achieved by Greece in Euro 2004. Uruguay (again) and Ghana were the surprise performers at the 2010 World Cup, both being inherently reactive, defensive sides. It’s difficult to name a recent underdog that has overachieved by playing attractive football.
Only the best sides can contest international tournaments in an open, attractive style and succeed. For the Euros, this is probably limited to Spain, Germany and Holland. (Even they are more cautious than one might expect – this is a Spain side that won the World Cup scoring eight goals in seven games, while Germany who were thrilling in South Africa, but mainly on the counter-attack, and a Holland are considered one of the least ‘Dutch’ sides in history.) Those three can at least hope to play beautiful football. Everyone else must focus upon being well-drilled and rigid.
If a disciplined, organised style of play is perfect for leading an underdog into a major international tournament, there is only one choice. Hodgson’s successes have generally been with underdogs; the only problem anyone can have with his style of management suiting England’s situation this summer is if (a) they refuse to accept England are underdogs, or (b) they are frustrated at the confirmation of England’s status as underdogs.
(All this ignores long-term goals: granted, this is a major reason why England are currently in their current situation, but it’s difficult to see what long-term planning England can do between now and the Euros – regrouping after the summer is more logical. Talk of abandoning any attempt to compete at Euro 2012, in favour of a long-term approach looking forward to World Cup 2014, is a nice idea but assumes qualification and a reasonable idea of who would be in the side in two years’ time. Future international XIs are notoriously difficult to predict – predicting this year’s XI is difficult enough. In 2006 England took Theo Walcott to the World Cup, and though he didn’t play, he picked up ‘good tournament experience’, supposedly. This was totally useless when England didn’t qualify for Euro 2008 or when Walcott wasn’t deemed worthy of a place at World Cup 2010, and it was a wasted place in the 2006 tournament. To ‘do a Walcott’ with an entire squad would be suicidal.)
There are two questions about Hodgson’s suitability. The first involves whether he’ll have enough time at international level implement his strict positioning correctly. This is a genuine issue – coaches who have had two years to prepare find it difficult, Hodgson only has a month. It will mean Hodgson’s style of football is probably even more boring than usual, as he would focus on defensive drills before planning any attacking moves. In that Davies interview quoted earlier, the Welshman finishes by saying, “We’re two-and-a-half years down the line now, so we’re all converted.” Hodgson does need time – when he arrived at Fulham, the team started poorly before a sharp recovery.
The second question is whether England’s players would respect Hodgson and be willing to follow his instructions. This is a problem for any England coach, though: Fabio Capello was ‘too distant’, Steve McClaren was ‘too chummy’. Hodgson isn’t stupid, and will be able to work out which type of players will be on board – he must be brave enough not to select anyone he believes will be a significant problem.
The point here is not that England have no chance of winning the tournament – it’s that they had no chance of winning the tournament by playing the anarchic football favoured by Redknapp. The type of football Hodgson offers is, in theory, the type of football that will maximise England’s chances of getting out of the group. In the current state of confusion, that must be regarded as a sensible target - although if Hodgson states this or voices satisfaction when this target is reached, he will be slaughtered for lowering expectations.
England must attempt to win the tournament; the chances are extremely slim, but have marginally increased with this appointment. England don’t have good enough players to be open and indulge individuals, and therefore Hodgson’s system-first approach makes sense.