With the success of the Olympics and the excitement of another Premier League season, England’s upcoming international friendly with Italy has gone largely unnoticed. It’s unnecessary sport, crammed into the middle of better sport, like serving someone a greasy cheeseburger immediately after a fillet steak, and just before the ice cream turns up. And yet, this game is actually worth watching. This week, we might find out what Roy Hodgson has got lined up for us over the next two years.
Hodgson won plaudits over the summer, and deservedly so. While he wasn’t able to provide us with even a moment of soaring national pride, like Mo Farah and his friends, he did at least ensure that we kept our dignity. In a short space of time, under unimaginable pressure and without a number of key players, he made England extremely average. There are football supporters in France who dream of following an extremely average national team. There is absolutely nothing wrong with two deep trenches of four when there isn’t the time to prepare anything else. England trudged through to the group stages like a postman on a wet Wednesday morning, head bowed and drenched to the bone, but defiantly getting the job done. But the summer has passed now, and more is expected.
Hodgson has a choice now. Does he plough on through those wet streets delivering letters, or does he reach for something better? We can only pray that it’s the latter. Hodgson cannot go into the World Cup campaign playing the football of the summer. To do so wouldn’t just be an embarrassing reinforcement of our mental limitations, it would be a fundamental waste of everybody’s time. This summer, England were too scared to pass and too timid to move. They built up their walls and hid behind them, breaking out only to crash a long ball into the channels in the hope that it would either land on Andy Carroll’s head or that someone would scamper onto it. This is not good enough.
There were signs in the Team GB performances, if you looked closely enough, of players who were prepared to pass the ball swiftly and intelligently. Granted, some of them were Welsh, but in Tom Cleverley, Scott Sinclair and Daniel Sturridge, England has men of technical ability and pace. Hodgson needs to harness that talent, by all means protecting it with a tight-fisted defence, but allowing it to flourish at the other end of the pitch. He’s going to have to drop the reliance on 4-4-2/4-4-1-1 and move to something a little more frisky. In short, he’s going have to turn his back on everything he knows and believes in.
With the greatest of respect to both clubs, this is not Fulham and this is not West Bromwich Albion. England are not playing primarily to avoid relegation, deeming mid-table to be a success. There is enough dormant potential to build something far more ambitious. This isn’t another call to ‘be more like Spain’ or to ‘imitate Germany’, it’s simply a desire to be brave. If England go out against Italy tomorrow with the intention of moving the ball around, using it with a degree of intelligence that we haven’t seen in a white shirt for many years, then the result, whichever way it goes, will be irrelevant. It will be enough to know that Hodgson is trying to create something better, and I will fight to defend him until the waves cease to crash upon the beaches and the mountains tumble to the ground. By which I mean that I’ll be nice about him on Twitter.
But, by thunder, if England take to the pitch on Wednesday night and play a series of empty-skulled long balls to Carroll, desperately clearing their lines in the absence of inspiration or strategy, then we may as well write the next two years off and focus on our clubs. I am not signing up for that.
Read more comment from Iain Macintosh HERE.