So what’s behind the change in approach? There are probably a number of reasons, but chief among them is the appointment and subsequent leadership of Roy Hodgson, a well-respected and quintessentially English gentleman who has tested international management pedigree, eschews outrageous comments, and is highly unlikely to be cavorting around the nightclubs of Piccadilly with women that are not his wife. In the eyes of some, Hodgson may be a safe and unadventurous choice to lead England, but he is admired world-wide for his ability to teach, organize, and help average teams punch well above their weight. In many ways it is a sensible hire because, even to the most zealous England fan among us, in the sphere of world football we are little more than an average team.
There is a sense of defensive discipline and solidity about all Hodgson teams and having Joe Hart, England’s best goalkeeper for many years, behind a likely back four of Ashley Cole, John Terry, Gary Cahill, and Glen Johnson should make them hard to score against. The striking options of Andy Carroll, Danny Welbeck, Jermain Defoe and eventually, Wayne Rooney offer a combination of size and mobility, but how best to configure them before Rooney returns for the third game will be a tricky decision. Hodgson has the option of attacking wide with pace through Theo Walcott, Ashley Young, and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and while the thought of them running at defenders may quicken the pulse, the anticipated sight of hopelessly out-of form Stewart Downing does not.
England’s fortunes will probably turn on the performance of a fragile and somewhat under-manned midfield. Scott Parker and Steven Gerrard seem obvious choices to start, but both have been injury-prone and Hodgson must now also compensate for the losses of Gareth Barry and Frank Lampard which could mean a deeper-lying role for Gerrard. If Hodgson employs a 4-4-1-1 system it is conceivable that Young would be deployed as the withdrawn striker but given Gerrard’s penchant for running all over the place (a euphemistically nice way of saying “lack of tactical discipline”) it could leave Parker with a lot of work to do in a holding role. If Gerrard gets the second striker role it may create an opportunity for Phil Jones or James Milner. Hodgson is a big believer in team shape so finding a way to play Gerrard within a strict framework will be critical.
Next up will be Sweden and if past experience is anything to go by England will find a way to grind out a win against a team that can be good on its day, but lacks sufficient quality to go far. Likely result: England 2-1
The final group game will see the introduction of Wayne Rooney to the competition and it will be a welcome boost for England against the hosts who, although they don’t have a great team, will be energized and tough to beat. This could be a wide open game and although I’d like to see an England win I anticipate a tie. Likely result: 2-2
A win and two ties should see them through to the knockout stages and that is where the trip through the rabbit hole typically begins for England. If they can pick up momentum from the return of Rooney and can keep their key midfielders healthy, they can possibly fight their way to the semi-finals, but even the most die-hard England fan wouldn’t dare hope for much more.
It would be a wonderful irony if, after years of bullish flag-waving and unfulfilled dreams in previous tournaments, this understated group, damned by faint expectations, were to finally shock the world and actually live up to their potential.
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