Euro 2012 preview: England
Roy Hodgson was the right choice as England coach – at least in the short-term – but realistically, you can’t expect a side to play good football when their coach is appointed a month before the tournament.
Besides, even without considering the managerial situation or England’s terrible record of injuries in the last couple of weeks, England have their weakest set of players for many years. The alleged ‘golden generation’ (though this phrase has been used more frequently in a sarcastic tone than in praise of the players) are now slightly over the hill – Frank Lampard, Steven Gerrard, Ashley Cole, John Terry and Rio Ferdinand are all still doing a good job for their clubs, but their peak was a few years ago, and they never combined to great success then. There is a decent young generation coming through, but for various reasons they haven’t established themselves in the side yet.
Hodgson is left with an uninspiring squad that isn’t really one thing nor the other – it’s not blessed with great technical quality, nor does it have the feel of a settled, organised squad who will be defensively disciplined. Some of Hodgson’s decisions have been questionable – the biggest one might have been taken by the FA, rather than him – but he doesn’t have much to work with.
Organised and counter-attacking
Hodgson, of course, will play a certain style of football. His sides always play with two banks of four sitting deep behind the ball, and then two attackers – either two out-and-out strikers, or a target man in combination with a trickier player just behind – staying upfront. He wants a direct style of football – and ‘direct’ doesn’t mean thumped long balls towards the centre-forward (though that can hardly be ruled out if Andy Carroll starts), but simply passing the ball forward quickly, attacking the opposition defence before they have time to get themselves organised, and before the opposition midfield forms a secure barrier ahead of them.
Just as Hodgson has huge belief in the value of a defensively aware midfield for his own side, he wants to bypass the opposition midfield immediately. In the two friendlies England have played under Hodgson, against Norway and Belgium, they’ve won 1-0 with two very ‘Hodgson’ goals – scored by Young and Danny Welbeck. Young’s goal, in particular, was stereotypical of a Hodgson side – it came after a direct attack with a long accurate pass from defence, then the forwards attacked the defence quickly while they were positionally unbalanced.
This strategy means England won’t be overly concerned with dominating possession, and the first pass out of the defence will often be wayward. There’s a similarity here with the Zambia side that won this year’s African Cup of Nations tournament – two banks of four, two wide players that break directly towards goals from the flanks, one ‘passer’ and one destroyer in the midfield, and two forwards. Zambia recorded the lowest pass completion rate in the tournament, but they didn’t play bad football – it was just that they had such a commitment to get the ball to attackers quickly, that the first pass was often misplaced. If the first pass was accurate, the attacking quartet would break quickly and combine wonderfully.
First bank of four
Hodgson’s priority in training will have been the defence. Unfortunately, with Chelsea players joining up with the England camp late after their Champions League success, and with Gary Cahill now ruled out of the tournament, England haven’t had much time to get settled at the back. Cahill would have formed a solid Chelsea connection along with Terry and Cole (even the right-back, Glen Johnson, used to play for Chelsea) but his place will instead go to Joleon Lescott.
Lescott probably had the best season of any English centre-back, but he disturbs an existing partnership (he personally enjoyed a good partnership with another player in the squad, Phil Jagielka, at Everton) and also wants to play to the left of the two centre-backs, which is where Terry plays. This shouldn’t cause too much of a problem, but Terry always seems oddly disorientated when asked to play on the right – as demonstrated in the 4-1 defeat to Germany two years ago, when Matthew Upson was alongside him. At least the back four will be playing in front of Joe Hart, who has been one of the finest goalkeepers in Europe over the past two seasons.
Second bank of four
Ahead of the defence, Scott Parker will play the most disciplined role in central midfield, with Steven Gerrard having license to push on, and allowed to knock long passes out to the flanks. This is the zone that looked least impressive in the two qualifiers, partly because Parker still doesn’t look 100% fit, following a couple of niggling injuries towards the end of the season. A large part of Parker’s game is about chasing, and if he can’t chase, he’s much less of an asset.
Gerrard’s positional discipline will be questioned in a deep role, and though these concerns are probably slightly exaggerated, a Parker-Gerrard midfield duo isn’t as positionally intelligent as Hodgson would like. The Michael Carrick situation is too complex to go into, but he would have been extremely useful.
The real question marks are on the flanks. Theo Walcott didn’t feature until late in Hodgson’s second friendly, but this can be explained by him returning from a hamstring injury, and he will probably start on the right. Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, James Milner, and Stewart Downing all started in the friendlies, and none were particularly impressive. The most likely player for the left is probably Milner, whose hard work, positional discipline and constant running means he should be perfect for Hodgson’s system. Downing also keeps shape well, but he had a terrible season at Liverpool, while Oxlade-Chamberlain seems ideal as a supersub.
Upfront, there is the issue with Wayne Rooney – suspended for the first two games, but available for the final group game and any knock-out matches. Without him, England will play Young just behind the primary striker – again, his goal in Norway was perfect for this system and his lateral movement into the channels should give England forward passing options.
But who will play as the number nine? It seems a toss-up between Carroll and Welbeck – Carroll is the classic target man, but Welbeck’s fine goal against Belgium might get him the nod. For the France game, Welbeck is the better option – France struggle with balls played in behind the defence, as the centre-backs are poor at covering for each other. There have been suggestions that Downing starting makes Carroll more likely, and vice-versa, but that hardly worked for Liverpool this season.
What will happen when Rooney returns? It seems silly to predict it now, as it depends upon the performances of the four attacking players – but it’s likely that he’ll return to his number ten position, with Young replacing either Walcott or Milner, depending upon their performances. Alternatively, if Young has been disappointing he could be dropped, or if neither striker has done well, then Rooney could play upfront. In theory Rooney might not play – but that’s simply not going to happen, as it would require all of the front four playing so well that they’re undroppable. Jermain Defoe, along with Oxlade-Chamberlain, will be decent impact substitutes.
“I’d refer you to the Danes in 1992 and the Greeks in 2004,” Hodgson said, when asked if England stood a chance of winning the competition. He was probably going for an ‘anything can happen in football’ type comment, but the statement revealed Hodgson’s mindset – the role of underdog, and that will be reflected in England’s tactics.
Coach – Roy Hodgson
Formation – 4-4-2 / 4-4-1-1
Key player – Ashley Young, at least until Rooney’s return
Strength – a fine goalkeeper, and probably a good defensive shape
Weakness – little attacking cohesion because of the lack of time spent playing in this system, plus a lot of injuries leaves them with inadequate back-ups
Key tactical question – how good are England’s transitions from defence to attack? This will determine their level of attacking threat
Key coach quote – “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.”
Betfair odds – 16.0 (15/1)
Recommended bet – England to draw with France at 3.2