Even Roy Hodgson had to admit that this week feels like the biggest of his managerial career, one that stretches back more than three decades and 20 jobs. It will not be much of a party at the Grand Connaught Rooms, where the Football Association marks its 150th anniversary on 26 October, if the national team are contemplating a summer watching the World Cup finals from afar.
There can be no more promise of jam tomorrow, of delaying victory for another day. England’s World Cup qualification hopes rest on the performances of his side against Montenegro on Friday and Poland four days later. Win them both, and Hodgson can spend time looking through the Rio de Janeiro training camp options or, if he so chooses, triumphantly tweeting Gary Lineker.
Anything less than two victories could leave him contemplating a cliff-hanger of a play-off in November, or worse. Hodgson’s new boss, Greg Dyke, the FA chairman, has intimated that he would stand by his manager in the event of the team failing to make the 2014 World Cup finals in Brazil, but even his resolve might be tested.
It would not be international week without Hodgson having to face up to the usual injuries to key players and assorted other issues that are thrown the way of the England manager. In no particular order they have been Ashley Cole (rib), Jack Wilshere (lungs), Joe Hart (confidence) and Harry Redknapp’s autobiography (provocative, bordering on the dismissive).
In the serialisation of his book, Redknapp is at great pains to say that his criticism of the FA for overlooking him is not a potshot at Hodgson himself, although it is hard not to read it that way. “I wouldn’t trust the FA to show me a good manager if their lives depended on it,” is his opening salvo, later adding, “No disrespect to Roy, but I think we can all see that he is more of an FA man.”
This is the danger for Hodgson this week, that the narrative which has begun with Redknapp’s book blooms into something altogether more damaging. That Hodgson comes to be regarded as the risk-averse England manager when his team most needed to go for the win, “the disciple of Charles Hughes” as Redknapp calls him, “the type that fits the bill”. There are some big calls to be made:
1) Where should he play Jack Wilshere?
Wilshere started both the qualifiers last month against Moldova and Ukraine, albeit in different roles. He was part of a tight midfield three with Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard against Moldova. For the 0-0 draw against Ukraine, with Danny Welbeck suspended, his role was changed, to that of the No 10 behind Rickie Lambert, and he struggled.
Hodgson might be tempted to go back to the original plan of Gerrard, Lampard and Wilshere. That would then require him to perm three from Wayne Rooney, Daniel Sturridge, Welbeck and James Milner. Wilshere’s form has suffered from him being relocated to a wide position by Arsenal manager Arsène Wenger in recent games. Nevertheless, at least Hodgson has these options.
2) Just where does Daniel Sturridge fit in?
The in-form English striker, it feels like he has to play both games. His goal for Liverpool against Crystal Palace on Saturday was indicative of that. One could see Hodgson playing Sturridge as the centre-forward with Rooney just behind in a No 10 role. The Manchester United striker last played that position for Hodgson in the 1-1 draw with Poland last October. Since then, when Rooney has been available, he has been used as a lone striker or as part of a partnership.
Sturridge has not played since he injured his ankle against the Republic of Ireland in May, his only start for England in six caps. There is the option to play him wide, his less favoured position, but it has become clear since he joined Liverpool that you get the most out of Sturridge when he is deployed as an orthodox striker.
3) The Joe Hart question
Hodgson does not need a goalkeeper who is low on confidence and prone to errors at the moment, but that is what he is faced with and there will be no danger of him dropping the player, despite the criticism. Hart has had a rough time of it, but Hodgson is right to focus on the best his goalkeeper has to offer. Hart was exceptional against Brazil in the Maracana in June, especially the first half, and he has earned his manager’s loyalty.
Steve McClaren made the decision to drop Paul Robinson for that fateful game against Croatia in November 2007 after a mistake for the second Russian goal in England’s defeat in Moscow the previous month. Even then, Scott Carson had a friendly against Austria to prepare for what turned out to be that dreadful performance at Wembley five days’ later. If Hodgson wanted to change, there is no scope to ease in Fraser Forster or John Ruddy.
4) The Baines effect
With Ashley Cole out the squad, and Kieran Gibbs called up as an understudy, this is the big chance for Leighton Baines. In many respects it takes a difficult decision out of the England manager’s hands. Baines’ early-season form has been excellent and there is the argument that he offers a greater attacking threat than Cole. England need to win these games.
In the absence of Glen Johnson and Theo Walcott, both injured, Hodgson will feel that his right side lacks experience. Kyle Walker stood in for Johnson in the previous two World Cup qualifiers last month, and Walcott started both those games. Again the balance is between keeping the game safe and chasing a victory.
5) How much can he risk?
Gary Neville’s Mail on Sunday column is always a good insight into the principles that Hodgson preaches to his players. Neville extolled the virtues of Bayern Munich’s hard work in closing down and squeezing their opposition, a tactic he said that was once a hallmark of the English game and has now been partly lost by an obsession with Barcelona-style levels of possession.
“What it is, is footballers with an intent to work their backsides off,” Neville wrote. Later he added: “If we think our identity is one of trying to keep 70 per cent possession in the game, that’s nonsense”. It made you wonder if Hodgson will opt for that fast, direct approach to keep Montenegro and Poland pinned back, possibly with Milner involved. How his team plays in these two games, as he will already know, will go a long way to defining the kind of manager he is.