World Cup 2014: Preference for team formation over individual flair and fireworks looks like going up in smoke for Roy Hodgson
The supremacy of team shape over individual skill is perhaps too deeply embedded in Roy Hodgson’s football psyche to let him begin letting it go now. It was engrained in there over 40 years ago when he arrived at the Halmstad club in Sweden, at a time when the national team’s failure to qualify for the 1970 World Cup had led the country’s football association to introduce a unified playing style – a German-style libero – throughout the Swedish game.
A very topical section of Jonathan Wilson’s excellent history of football tactics, Inverting the Pyramid, relates how Hodgson and Bobby Houghton – the friend who brought him into Swedish football – had no time for the association’s top-down philosophy. They were only interested in their own concepts: the shape and distribution of players on the pitch, a zonal defence, high offside line and counter-attacking through long passes played in behind the opposition defence.
Wilson quotes a Swedish academic, Tomas Peterson, describing how Houghton and Hodgson “threaded together a number of principles, which could be used in a series of combinations and compositions, and moulded them into an organic totality”. It doesn’t sound like razzmatazz but the system won through, seeing Houghton and Hodgson to five out of six Swedish league titles while Houghton took Malmo to the 1979 European Cup final.
Some players have loved these Hodgson powers of organisation. Jimmy Bullard, who worked with him at Fulham, described him as “the most boring manager I’ve worked with but the best organised”. But maybe it is an awareness that the modernity has gone from these kinds of football precepts that make Hodgson so unwilling to define what his playing style actually is these days. “You can do the defining; we work on attacking and defending,” the England manager said five days ago in response to the question.
That answer seemed to run against the grain of what the Football Association, under director of elite performance Dan Ashworth, is currently attempting to introduce: a consistent English football philosophy, running through all the age groups. Ashworth and his team want to develop individuals who play with fearlessness and technical excellence and they are already establishing a rigorous method of identifying the players who are best equipped to deliver it, by scouting the length and breadth of Britain and the professional pyramid, week-in, week-out. You imagine that Hodgson, who fought off one national association’s attempts to impose a style of play all those years ago, is sceptical about the FA’s current attempts to instigate what the Swedes once did.
But whatever his views, the incontrovertible truth is that “organic totality” will just not do for England in the weeks up ahead. Hodgson’s English conservatism and defensiveness has served him well but now he is entering a cup competition in which those qualities cannot take him and his team as far as they need to go. “You have to go for it from the first whistle,” one former England international says of what lies ahead. “It’s cup football now and when you’re on the plane home there can’t be any ‘if onlys.’ He has to use the players who can get him through and abandon his natural conservatism.”
The evidence suggests that Hodgson may not be willing to do that. His game changers include Liverpool’s Raheem Sterling, who delivered more in 24 minutes than most did in 90 against Peru last Friday and yet whose part against the Italians in Manaus 11 days from now still seems uncertain, judging by Hodgson’s apparent irritation with the focus lavished on him in Friday night’s post-match inquisition. It was “infuriating” to see players who come on in the last 10 minutes be compared to those who had played from the start, Hodgson said of someone who has done enough to start against the Italians.
If the starting XI against Peru was – as seems to have been the case – a prototype for how Hodgson will play things in Brazil, then Ross Barkley is another who has reason to have doubts. He probably isn’t the right individual to start against the Italians. The midfielder is not at his most potent when playing against sides who sit deep, as the Italians will. But it doesn’t feel as if Hodgson is ready to unleash him on the world, either.
Events in Miami against Ecuador tomorrow night might tell Hodgson more about what these players can contribute and perhaps also more about why Daniel Sturridge should not be sacrificed to make a five-man midfield behind Wayne Rooney in Manaus. But a view of the history books can also offer an education to England’s most learned manager.
Wilson’s book on the national football team, The Anatomy of England, which is recommended reading for the fast encroaching weeks, tells the story of how England faced Italy in searing heat of Turin’s Stadio Comunale in May 1948, preparations for which included intense stamina training at Stresa, on Lake Maggiore – such were manager Walter Winterbottom’s concerns about his side not wilting.
Their 4-0 win was one of the high points of this nation’s game, achieved amid electric tension and insufferable heat, and was a triumph of the counter-attacking style which Hodgson subscribes to. Of deepest significance was the presence of individualists – Tom Finney, Stanley Matthews and Stan Mortensen, Billy Wright and Neil Franklin – with the individual flair to seize the ball and carry England home.
What’s to lose by giving brilliant Buttler a chance?
There are no signs that the changing of the guard is about to inspire England to new heights on a cricket field this summer and banish the desultory memory of that horrendous winter in Australia. And so it was that while the captain Alastair Cook spoke an eminent common sense by declaring that Jos Buttler’s fastest one-day international century was not enough to make him “quite ready for Test cricket yet,” the heart did sink at the prospect of the West Countryman returning to Lancashire when cricket in its long form resumes against the Sri Lankans next week.
Buttler spoke of the “fun” of his 133-run stand with Ravi Bopara, in Saturday’s narrow defeat, and that is certainly a commodity which has gone out of England’s game, with Alex Hales’ omission from the one-day side just as baffling. Buttler’s wicketkeeping is certainly raw but England need players who can do what the Australians did last winter – deliver free-spirited aggression with bat and ball and shake off the shackles.
Hang all the common sense. Let the boy play.
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