If there's one word that has already become synonymous with Roy Hodgson's England tenure, it's “functional”. You might have seen “organised”, “solid” and “wuh-liable” doing the rounds quite a bit as well, but the f-word appears in the writing of almost every fan and journalist who can still be bothered with the international breaks.
It's an understandable go-to because, according to the free online dictionary I've just come across on Google, it's an adjective that refers to something that is “capable of performing as required or expected”. It's not praise and it's not criticism, so you can use it just as well whether you're rolling your eyes at the team or doling out some restrained encouragement.
“I was quite impressed with how functional they seemed as a side the other night,” the optimists among you might say. “Pfffft, England. How predictably functional. Yaaaaaawn,” scoff the rest. But for a team who've not really been around long enough to either succeed or succumb, it's pretty hard to argue with either use of the term.
With that in mind, this weekend's San Marino game was always going to be a curious one, as Hodgson's mantra of rigid tactical discipline works a lot better in games where you're not seeing most of the ball. Against the joint-worst team in world football though, being functional is counter-productive - in theory. England, it was surmised, would have to come out of their shell somewhat if they wanted to get an acceptable margin of victory.
You might have thought, then, looking at the scoreline, that that's precisely what happened. But in truth it was actually England's ability to do the simple thing, rather than the spectacular, that was the biggest factor. Pull up to the halfway line, knock it about a bit, and await the opening. Not once did they have to force a goal with ambitious individualism. (Except for Ashley Young's 20-yard SCUD missile, of course, but for the purpose of this argument I'm going to pay the same attention to it as the goalkeeper did.)
We're now faced with the tantalising prospect of England taking this functionality and all of a sudden becoming effective with it. After spending the last part of a decade looking at some of the greatest individual players this country has produced and scratching our heads at the repeated inability to fit them into a working system, we now have a national team with almost no guaranteed starters.
Without big names to accommodate and work around, England are blessed with a freedom to adapt tactics and rotate personnel without causing a public uproar or putting any powerful noses out of joint. Roy Hodgson can take a long hard look at the opposition, work out a system that gives the team the greatest possible chance of a result, and then put out the 11 players he feels are best suited to doing so. It might have only been San Marino on Friday, but it was only Brazil in February and while the margin of the victory wasn't the same, the method was.
It might not be exciting, and I can understand why a lot of fans clamour for a team of Beckhams, Owens, Lampards and Ferdinands. But where did that get us?
The 2006 World Cup campaign desperately needed a central midfielder who could take the ball from deep positions and begin to dictate the tempo, but dropping one of the so-called golden generation would have seen civilisation as we know it grind to a shuddering halt. Ikeas would have been set alight as Sven's perceived sabotaging of our glorious ascent to riches completely killed off his own career and the Ryvita market in the UK. But the stars, as they were at the time, were all somehow accommodated, and the last word you'd have used to describe the outcome was “functional”.
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