Roy Hodgson has always been a conservative manager. A strict adherence to a rough 4-4-2 shape, sat deep and focussed on positioning rather than hassling the opposition, has come to be expected from a manager who claims “I don’t believe in innovation”. Nevertheless, England have strayed from the typical Hodgson side, showing far more flexibility than they did at Euro 2012.
It was the game against Italy that showed the weakness of Hodgson’s rigid thinking. They managed to bore their way to a penalty shoot-out, yet their play was pitiful. Cowering away from a real contest with a solid Italian side, they gave Andrea Pirlo free rein to control the match, not even attempting to shut him down, instead depending on defensive numbers. England grinded their way through a thoroughly mediocre group, but the match against Italy left a sour taste despite the low expectations – passive at best, pathetic at worst.
The most obvious change Hodgson has made from that dreary summer is a switch of formation. With 4-4-2 out of fashion, England found themselves getting frequently outmanoeuvred in midfield simply because they were outnumbered. Pirlo’s heavily-applauded performance was the most obvious example of this, but it was an issue before then, with lesser teams able to keep control and force England into a passive state that any team aspiring to be among the best should not be in.
Simply throwing in an extra midfielder puts England on a more even keel, and, given their players are typically better quality than most other countries’, can see them become the more dominant side. England played with a fairly counter-attacking style against Brazil, yet still managed to hold more control over the game than their South American counterparts – The Brazilians struggled to get it past England’s midfield and Jack Wilshere’s quality meant the home side didn’t have the same issue.
A willingness to actually annoy the opposition when out of possession rather than sitting back and waiting for a mistake has been a rarity among teams coached by Hodgson. Once again, the fallout of the Italy game showed such passivity won’t cut it for teams looking to become a dominant force in world football.
England have now started to make use of the physical abilities and energy most of the side possess – far greater than their positional sense – pressing on a man-to-man basis. All this really does is give the opposition less time and space to work with the ball, making it more difficult to create a rhythm albeit also leaving more gaps.
This hasn’t fully worked as the defensive line still sits deep. Although they struggled to get it past the midfield line, when they were able to Brazil found themselves with huge amounts of space and spare men between the line, letting them attack the heart of the English defence with ease. Still, England have been showing far greater control than they had been previously, showing how taking the game to the opposition has had a positive effect on them.
More pragmatic thinking
The changes Hodgson has made for England certainly aren’t innovative, but they suggest growth from a manager who has barely changed his strategy since reading Allen Wade’s 1967 work The FA Guide to Training and Coaching. The lack of time he has with his players at international level is a decent bet for Hodgson’s reasoning for the change, realising he won’t be able to make use of his “positive brainwashing” techniques that have been so key to his organised style.
“There are those people who think that training sessions is having lots of different practices that change every five or 10 minutes. This is the last place to come for that.
“Strangely, football is a sport in which some don’t expect to rehearse or practise. The important thing is that what you are coaching the players to do has direct relevance to what will happen in a match situation.”
If England’s players don’t have the time to develop a mutual understanding, then Hodgson’s side isn’t organised enough for the style to work. Instead he’s been more pragmatic, working to make use of England’s strengths in a way he has rarely done during the long career he’s so eager to talk about.
Gameplans making use of Theo Walcott’s pace to get behind the opposition, moving from outside to in, or simply making use of the wealth of attacking full-backs England possess aren’t typical for Hodgson. They haven’t always worked – Montenegro earning a draw simply by throwing more attackers on while Hodgson didn’t attempt to adapt doesn’t speak wonders for his coaching – but it does show he is stepping out of his comfort zone to get England functioning as a cohesive unit, which is better than the stubborn devotion to failure he showed when under pressure at Liverpool.
This post first appeared on Betting Expert.