James Lawton: Roy Hodgson's back-to-basics tactics enough to make Hazard look ordinary
Hodgson is resorting to the cuisine which served him so well at Fulham – Cottage pie
Wouldn't it be funny if England, maybe the least celebrated England since, well, the one in South Africa two years ago, made it all the way to the European mountain top in Kiev on 1 July?
No, probably not. The chances are that it would be extremely short of laughs and flights of fantasy, but if England couldn't come up with a tasty dish for Her Majesty's Diamond Jubilee against much trumpeted little Belgium, as manager Roy Hodgson was pressed into hoping, they could do the next best thing. They could win with a degree of commitment, even a touch of passion that was hardly evident in that terrible World Cup denouement.
Hodgson, let's be honest, accepted the equivalent of a hospital pass when he agreed to take on the challenge of the European Championship at such brutally short notice – something he was reminded of yet again yesterday when Rio Ferdinand was once again bristling with anger over the manager's refusal to call him into a decimated squad.
When Hodgson agreed to the challenge it spoke, more than anything, of an old pro prepared to take his self-belief into a tight situation – and one that offered rehabilitation from the humiliating anti-climax of his stint at Liverpool. Hodgson re-stated his professional nous in turning around West Bromwich but at Anfield he had been reaching for something rather more than routine affirmation of a long and extremely creditable career. He was hoping to inflict himself on a large football affair.
Now he may just be heading off the prospect of another national football humiliation, something that would have demanded a place alongside the debacle which reached its nadir against Germany in Bloemfontein two years ago – and the failure to reach the Euro finals in 2008.
For the moment he is resorting to the cuisine which served him so well at Fulham – Cottage pie. It certainly hasn't had the taste buds jumping but then you have to take a look at the larder – and then the casualty room.
Belgium came to Wembley trailing unconsummated glory and if they did play some of the more engaging football they never suggested they had the will or the bite to beat Hodgson's Harriers. Eden Hazard, whose Twitter announcement that he had selected Chelsea from among all his suitors – at a reported cost to the champions of Europe in transfer fee and contract demands of more than £70m – might have been expected to signal at least some hint of the spectacular, merely managed to look mildly classy.
But were we really looking at a young footballer of the highest destiny? That was hardly the impression after his prospective team-mates Ashley Cole and John Terry introduced themselves in a way that didn't exactly brim with camaraderie.
Hodgson was pleased enough with successive 1-0 victories over nations ranked 25th and 44th in the world – and it was not easy to question his assertion that in all the circumstances things had gone as well as could have reasonably been expected. Despite the serial injuries – the latest on Gary Cahill the result of a piece of gratuitous foul play by Dries Mertens – the manager has certainly explored all of his options.
If Steven Gerrard is still to announce a comfortable ability to live with the demand of the captaincy and play with the freedom that has marked his best work over the years, he improved quite sharply on his performance in Oslo seven days earlier. Beside him Scott Parker was what we have come to expect, which is to say an extremely consistent functionary.
Going into the game, Hodgson was in good form when asked about divisions of labour in midfield. He was, like most of the more knowing football men, suspicious of some of the more rigid stereotyping of holding players. In a moving game, the trick, he suggested, was in an easy transferring of roles.
Not much of what his barely formed team has produced fits into the category of easy finesse, but the fact is his men have produced two clean sheets – albeit against teams not noted for their dynamism around the goal – and scored two goals of impressive quality.
Ashley Young struck with poise against Norway and on Saturday his Manchester United club-mate Danny Welbeck produced one of those goals which announce a potentially serious talent. At one point Welbeck was cast as a near certain victim of the injury epidemic – now he looks favourite to fill in for Wayne Rooney.
Without his goal, England's virtues would surely have shrivelled against worries over a dire creative shortfall going into the opening game against a France armed with the touch of Franck Ribéry, Karim Benzema and Samir Nasri. As it is, England have shown that they can score goals of some accomplishment.
It is a capacity which needs to be enhanced by some considerable improvement in their ability not only to win the ball but keep it for more than a pass or two.
Advocates of young Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain no doubt hoped for a more convincing impact on his first full international but if he failed to exploit one good early opportunity it scarcely touched the sense of someone at home on a big occasion. His combative instincts remain a valuable asset for a team whose manager, necessarily, has made defensive security his main priority.
He has certainly been candid that any true measure of team development will have to await the qualifying campaign for the World Cup in Brazil. Until then, the challenge is to produce some hard professional values, qualities which from time to time are helped considerably by a siege mentality.
So far, England have shown a willingness to meet the most basic demands of the new manager. Hodgson has asked his players to cover the ground, especially in front of their own goal. It is not the most intoxicating game plan you ever heard. But then in football, as in most areas of life, the art of achieving the possible is not a bad starting point.
Certainly no one can can accuse this England of trying to live beyond their means. Who can say it isn't a kind of progress?
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