Quarterfinal Run Shows England Can Transcend Hodgson’s Flawed Approach

Nothing ruins joyous occasion like dour tactics. They can’t overshadow another call for goal line technology, but they obscure Wayne Rooney’s return. They can also put a rousing performance from John Terry on the backburner. Regressing to the approach he employed versus France, Roy Hodgson again proved himself the most important man on the field, even if he never stepped between the lines.

But England weren’t playing France. They were playing a team they were expected to comfortably beat, and while it would be a misnomer to suggest that didn’t control the match, they certainly let Ukraine have too much of it. The co-hosts ended with 71 percent of possession (per UEFA), outshooting England 16 to 7. It’d be nice if those shots were all speculative, but they weren’t. At the end of the match, both Joe Hart and Joleon Lescott had to save England, and that doesn’t even touch on the goal that should have counted. True, Ukraine were offside in the build up, but erroneous offside calls unfortunately happen. It doesn’t absolve your defense from preventing the goal. Thankfully, Terry ultimately did.

But it would be a mistake to place the close call entirely on the defense. When you give the other team too much of the ball, you’re playing with fire. Pure relentlessness will eventually lead to opportunities, if by no other means than chance. While the month Chelsea’s Champions League title has led to too much post hoc justification of these types of tactics, blind revisionism’s overlooking the most important parts of Chelsea’s success: Lionel Messi’s wastefulness; Mario Gómez’s wastefulness; Messi’s missed penalty kick; Arjen Robben’s missed penalty kick. Chelsea’s success is as cautionary tale as much sporting miracle.

Nobody doubts Chelsea were wise to employ their approach. Given their talent, they had better odds winning with a bad bet than the horrendous gamble of playing with Barcelona and Bayern Munich. England, however, haven’t faced anywhere close to that level of competition. If adopting the approach against France seemed like a paranoid mischaracterization of the French threat, cowering to Ukraine came off as a stubborn lack of imagination.

It also may have been a reaction to the Sweden match. When England tried to play with a modicum of ambition, they gave up two goals, finding themselves behind at the hour mark. Was that because England was trying to play with the ball? No. They had regressed to cowering after Andy Carroll gave them a first half lead. As was dissected post-match, one of England’s best spells of possession produced the winning goal. It was only after they went down 2-1 that they started seeking those spells.

Yet against Ukraine, they came out in their shell, which begs the question: What does England have to do to play some football? I don’t mean to imply what Hodgson is doing isn’t football – by context, it is. I’m using football more as a descriptor of style. For the 71 percent of the game England was without the ball, they didn’t do anything that required unique footballing skill. Without the ball, focused more on deterrence and maintaining their shape than balancing play, Hodgson took 10 world class footballers and asked them to do little more than 10 NFL defensive backs could do with minimal training. And that training might not even require a ball.

England had Wayne Rooney back, and they chose passivity. They had a weak opponent, and they chose passivity. Their opponent started its leading scorer (Andriy Shevchenko) and most creative midfielder (Sergey Nazarenko) on the bench, and they chose passivity. And when, for the first half, it looked like Ukraine were in a position to knock England out of the tournament, they persisted with passivity. Perhaps it’s safe to conclude this is Hodgson’s England, with further debate only providing pointless punditry that fills segment minutes and column inches.

And to think, 24 hours ago, we had reason to think things would be so much different. Reports Theo Walcott might start gave us reason to think that the Roy Hodgson we feared would start Stewart Downing opposite James Milner was some cruel figment of our Fulham, West Brom-fueled imaginations. This man gave Alex Oxlade Chamberlain a start, and now he’s ready to start Walcott and Ashley Young on the wings? I don’t know who this Roy Hodgson is, but I think I’m in love!

Last night, when writing for NBC Sports, I couldn’t contain myself, thinking of Walcott and Young joining Danny Welbeck and Wayne Rooney:

“This is absolutely amazing. I can’t explain how excited I am about this, which is bad, because I’m a writer (I get paid to explain how I feel). I just spent a good six minutes walking around my kitchen trying to get my head around the feeling. And I don’t even like England that much. Just the idea of watching the game with that constant, gut-hollowing anticipation that something amazing can happen? It’ll be like having Axl Rose back in his prime.”

Then Roy had to break my heart. He started James Milner. If you’re going to hint Walcott and then revert to Milner, go ahead and hit your head on a sink, develop the flux capacitor, use a DeLorean to go back to the mid-eighties and tell young Richard he’s getting a bicycle for Christmas. And when I stop running around the room, give me a box, say it’s clothes, and tell me that’s all I’m getting. Ignore the little boy’s tears, Roy. You know a sweater’s the safer option.

And the worst is yet to come. Over the next four days, the results will lead to a series of defenses. Hodgson is getting results, and you can’t argue with results.

But I’m sure I can, ye of clichéd faith:

Particularly against a team like Ukraine, Hodgson’s approach is far too reactive. It levels a field that should be tilted in England’s direction, leaving the game’s outcomes subject to the game’s phenomenological noise: a random missed assignment on a set piece; a harsh red card; an injury; a goalkeeper’s wobble; a horrible penalty call; or, as we almost saw today, a blown offside ruling or an error in judgment by a goal line official. You never press your advantages, and as a result, you’re less likely to build up the insurance it takes to withstand the blow of the game’s randomness. You wait for their opponent’s errors, and if they never come, you might as well be rolling weighted dice. Sure, you know what the outcome will be most of the time, but it’s ultimately out of your control.

Does this sound like a formula that beats Italy? Probably not, but as he does any time he puts a team on the pitch, Hodgson will give England a chance. It might not be the best chance, but it’s a still a chance.

Richard Farley is a freelance writer and former host of the EPL Talk Podcast. His work is prominently featured in NBC Sports’ soccer coverage. You can follow him on Twitter at @richardfarley.

32 thoughts on “Quarterfinal Run Shows England Can Transcend Hodgson’s Flawed Approach”

  1. Lets all remember that the “goal” never should have happened anyway — it was offsides at the start of the move anyway.

    1. Does it matter whether it was off-side or not ? Two wrongs don’t make right and the fact of the matter is, soccer still resides in dark ages. Because we have no way of telling when a goal has been scored in a professional sport. Thus proving soccer is still an amateur sport run by people who have never played the game on any level in their lives ( i.e. Sepp Blatter)

  2. You sound like one of those idiots they interviewed on Sky Sports News after the game, moaning about how we played. Fact of the matter is we won the group without losing a game. Call it lucky, call it whatever you want. But this England team is well managed (finally), playing to its strengths, and is collectively greater than the sum of its parts. The unity and team spirit is there for all to see and that alone is taking us further than anyone expected, and may even take us to the promised land. We are in this tournament big time. All the criticism and negativity tells me we are going about this the right way. Nobody is really setting this tournament alight with their style of play other than Spain the other night against Ireland.

    1. It’s this sort of attitude that prevents England from achieving anything substantial internationally. They won but what kinda of win was it, because there are varying degrees of winning. Was it a win that shows their strengths and gives you hope about what might be with little luck or a win that mascara their weaknesses as a team. Even though England is still in the tournament but you and I know full well they have no chance of winning the trophy because what they’ve shown so far doesn’t bode well for future successes against tougher opponents.

      1. I’d like nothing more than England to play outdoor futsal like Spain but that is a 10-20 year project. So what to do in the meantime? Jack Wilshire is a creative force who can control the ball but he is injured. Instead Hodgson has gone for sound tactics, a professional approach, and created the best spirit in the England camp for many years. Everyone in the squad is singing from the same hymn sheet. This notion that Hodgson is taking us back to the dark ages is unfounded. You clearly do not remember the Graham Taylor era. Now that was a terrible team, all long-ball kick and rush. All Hodgson has done is ask the team to maintain their shape when defending. That is not exactly parking the bus. Its just a sensible approach that gets the most out of the players available. You really cannot ask for much more out of a coach that what Hodgson has done. Just look at the discord in the Dutch camp and also it turns out the French (again). I’ll take a happy well managed squad just quietly going about their business with a purpose. To illustrate, Hart was terrific today in the press conference. A future England captain if ever there was one. Just the right attitude. We might well lose to Italy on Sunday, or the Germans next Thursday but we have turned a corner.

  3. Poor ole’ Roy just can’t win. If he is open and aggresive while only needing a tie, and would happen to lose he is damned.
    If he wins staying conservative and organized, and counter attacks when possibe he’s damned as well….

    1. Makes me wonder if some English fans even deserve England to win. Hodgson has only been at the helm for what… a month or two? Arm chair coaches are a bit annoying.

  4. IMO we have about as much chance of playing great football under Hodgson as Platini not being a goofball crazy man, no matter how long Hodgson has in the job.

    What I’m going to say may sound crazy but I would rather have played Spain than Italy.

    1st of all, we just beat Spain, I know it was a friendly, and boring, add the fact that most of the starting Spanish side are Barcalona players, and after loosing to Chelski and not being able to break them down and get a win (luckily or not) all of those facts would have to play into their minds a bit.

    2nd: Italy have a far better defense than Spain, Spain have looked suspect at the back with both Croatia and Italy blowing chances with lesser players to defeat Spain. I don’t think Torres would cause us problems, Hodgson’s boring bendy bus bus tactics would be effective because Spain without Villa don’t have an incisive attacker that makes piercing runs, oh, wait…they do, but they don’t play them and even if they did, Spain’s inability to make that killer pass for some reason is more prevalent than ever at this tournament. If only they could make a decision in the final third, around the penalty box and take advantage of the quick release and space they make.

    3rd: Aside from the good defense they have, Italy do have a couple of great traditional strikers that will make laughing stocks of our center backs, I like Lescott but Balotelli will make him look like a fool, and as for Terry, it could be a mauling needing the SPCA to step in to avoid cruelty to the animal that is John Terry. This will mean that Parker and Gerrard will have to continue to chaperone them both. How many times has Balotelli beaten Hart in training? He knows his weaknesses. So with Parker and Gerrard occupied the Italian defense will have no problem with our occasional forays past the half way line impersonating attacks. Italy match up well against us we haven’t played team defensively as good as the Italian’s and with Hodgson’s lack of attacking creativity, I hold out little hope.

    Walcot and Young have too many defensive frailties for a Hodgson system, so that pairing is unlikely, in fact, based on what i’ve seen of Hodgson, I would expect Carroll to get the nod to play with Rooney for the Italy game with Welbeck coming on after 60 minutes if we are 1 nil down.

    I don’t think the French can beat the Spanish, Portugal will do that in the semi’s.

    Finally, I have already started to receive texts from my crazy (j/king) italian at home, stating the battle lines are drawn, until at least the few hours after the game on Sunday. My house will now be split in two and turned into a campaign ground as the wife tries to convince the kids to stop supporting England on that day and to now choose between the 2 motherlands and support Italy, with her making statements like, “Italy plays better, more exciting football, with more passion”, “the way your father wishes England would play”. all will be compelling statements that coupled with promised of extra gelato will convince them.

    Unfortunately, IMO, I will agree with her statements, and be unable to look them in the eye and to offer any reasonable rebuttal without one or both of them saying “but dad you say we should pass the ball forward as often as possible, that we should be moving off the ball and making space for our team mates, and manipulate the defense, that the best form of defense is attack,” So I will be unable to convince them they should not flip to their other heritage for this game, the statements she will make are true….thanks a bunch Hodgson!

    I know a lot of coaches outside of myself and not one of them would advise or encourage their teams to play the Hodgson way, which being english, makes me sad…

    1. I agree Dust. I would have fancied England’s chances of beating Spain more easily than Italy for many of the reasons you shared above. Spain is a known entity that England knows how to beat. Italy is more of an unknown entity with surprise factors such as Balotelli and Cassano who can pull off something out of nowhere.

      The Gaffer

      1. I just hope that Hodgson realizes he has to allow Gerrard the license to attack through the middle and leave just Scotty back there to assist Terry and Lescott.

  5. Why is anyone surprised with Hodgson’s tactics. He ALWAYS sends his teams to play this way. Why would he change now. Yes, it’s boring and for some “not real football” but these defensive tactics do win you matches especially in tournament play.

    It’s how Italy used to win in the past. Very hard to break down and they were always dangerous on the counter attack and used to grind out 1-0 wins all the time. It’s interesting that Italy now play more creatively and with two strikers and England are now like the old Italy.

    We will find out on Sunday whether the new Italy or the old Italy will prevail.

    1. I agree. My only problem is that England did not appear particularly hard to break down against a less than stellar line-up. I’m afraid Hart may need to be dressed in kevlar on Sunday.

  6. Well England aren’t pretty, even I’ll admit that but I’m liking the team spirit, they seem to want to work for each other and they also look a lot more organised than usual.
    When Germany suck but the get the job done, huge praise is showered upon them for being typically German, organised, clinical, efficient, being able to win without playing well.
    England do that and it’s boring and their lucky, seems like haters are going to hate.
    Still, if they carry on hating and England keep winning, I’ll be happy

  7. Its frustrating watching England. Can’t count how many times I saw Welbeck move into space and demand for the ball and never receiving it. In fact, if i’m not wrong Rooney and Welbeck were the only two england players who tried a forward pass to a player in Ukraine’s box.
    I don’t understand this whole Bombing forward without a plan and taking a shot at goal from long range that so many england midfielders seem to do. I mean once in the game is okay but to do it everytime when there are better options in the attacking third? I just dont’ understand it.
    So yes Maybe Carroll should play because it allows the defense to bypass the midfield with more chance of success. Then again, playing Carroll would be an admission that the players aren’t tactically advanced as some of their counterparts.

    1. “if i’m not wrong Rooney and Welbeck were the only two england players who tried a forward pass to a player in Ukraine’s box.”

      let me guess, you’re a United fan?

  8. There is a difference between having a strong defense and parking the bus. The Germans haven’t parked the bus, and neither have the Italians, it’s frustrating when people try and lump the 2 different approaches together because they are “defensive”. What Hodgson does is nothing like what the Germans have ever done, or the Italians or even capello for that matter. Parking the bus as Chelski did and as England now do is just not the same.

    Germany and Italy have just had strong defenses with talented players pulling the strings in defense and midfield abd then great forwards Maldini, Bertoli, Acelotti, Donadoni, Mancini, Vialli, Schillachi, Mattheus, Möller, Ballack, Voller, the list goes on, and on, these teams from 86 onwards were not parking the bus, unless they took turns literally driving the team bus to the stadia.

    This newer incarnation of leeds united 1960’s football and parking the bus is a reaction by teams and managers with limited talent at their disposal and limited tactical ability to counter the modern game. Sorry, but that is the reality. Look at “the special on”e, he has a defensively strong team but Real don’t park the bus, and neither did his Chelski teams.

    1. i dont think it is limited talent as much as bad midfield selection. In intl game, you need tactically advanced and technically sound players. England’s midfield is 1 dimensional.

    2. Maybe you are more impressed with Germany than I am, I don’t see them as a great team, I see them as decent players that are well organised. Although they play a little better nowadays they often played bunker style in recent times and tried to hit teams on the counter, they did it all day against England in the last world cup.

      England need to play Walcott, we need to give the opposition something to worry about on the right side

  9. England don’t have the players with the skills of other European teams. Until that changes we should continue to see an England team play with lots of men behind the ball and attack on the counter. That is their only way towards success given their skill level.

    1. Yes they do. They have them in all positions except the midfield which is crucial in linking defense and attack.

  10. Perhaps Walcott wasn’t fully fit enough to start. I thought Milner had a decent match. England’s lack of tempo at in the first half was shocking.

  11. Remove “England” from your piece and insert “Greece” and you’ve just described how they won the lot in 2004.

    And please reread your title “Quarterfinal run shows England can transcend Hodgson’s flawed approach” England won the group and reached the quarterfinal using Hodgson’s approach. How can they transcend something that’s already occured?

    And I wouldn’t say England were expected to “comfortably” beat Ukraine.

  12. I’m not sure if England are parking the bus as much as they just can’t get the ball and hold it so are forced to constantly defend. They aren’t pressuring the other team and the midfield is like a sieve. They also don’t have many who can hold the ball under pressure and distribute accurate forward passes. Maybe things would be different if Wilshere were in there.

    I’m not sure if Walcott as a starter will improve England too much. He can certainly cause more problems in the final third but would leave Glen Johnson unprotected. I think he’s great as an impact sub. I think Milner can do a job for England but he’s been in poor form. I thought he was awful against Ukraine. Oxlade-Chamberlain can be exciting for a few seconds until he reaches the back line and actually has to make a decision. He’s had so many runs that fizzled out when he couldn’t figure out what to do next. Downing has some skills but his lack of confidence and experience says to me he probably isn’t ready.

    Bottom line, this England squad has been built to defend and counter-attack because they’re weak in other areas. I’m not sure if they CAN do anything else.

  13. When reading “pundits'” analyses of Hodgson’s “style,” I often wonder how many of them have ever watched the teams that he has coached, e.g., West Brom and Fulham, on a regular basis, or whether their view of Hodgson is framed by the occasional match against Man U or Chelsea. As a Fulham fan, I had the opportunity to watch every game that Hodgson coached at that team, I suggest his “style” is neither as direct nor as defensive as the “pundits” suggest (you want direct, see Lawrie Sanchez).

    To be sure, Hodgson builds from the back, Everything is dependent upon a solid, disciplined defense, and he does not allow his players to open up until he is confident that the back is secure. Fulham fans, at the beginning of Hodgson’s tenure there, were bemoaning his lack of adventure, initially playing a lone striker, and seemingly playing for draws. As the season wore on, the team was allowed more freedom to get forward. By the end of his tenure, Fulham was playing some of the most attractive soccer in the league. As Jimmy Bullard put it after he was exiled to Hull, Roy took basically the same team that was half a game from relegation to the final of the Europa League. The guy knows what he is doing.

    Look at the current team. Does it really make sense to leave Terry and Lescott exposed for aesthetic reasons, or does it make more sense to give them as much cover as possible? Similarly, does anyone think Scott Parker would have improved the purportedly “weak” Ukranian midfield? Roy is playing the hand he was dealt. He always prefers to be safe than sorry, but, unfortunately, his margin for safety with this team is not big.

    Finally, what is it with the English fascination with Walcott? The guy is either feast or famine, whether for England or for Arsenal, with the latter more likely than the former. Before Sweden, he had only scored in one game. You never know what you are going to get, which, I suspect, is anathema to a coach who likes to plan for all contingencies.

    1. I don’t have any great love for Walcott, I promote himbeing in the team because Milner has been so bad. If it’s Walcott or Milner I have to for Walcott
      To be honest he could play Ashley Young on the right side and play Downing/Ox on the left, that might be better

      1. My point was that imo Ukraine’s midfield was far more creative on the ball, and as a holding midfielder, Tymoschuk was more effective than Parker. I was merely posing the question, to those arguing that Ukraine was a “weak” team, whether England players, such as Parker, were really a step above.

  14. When it’s all said and done, Oakland Raiders (American Football) late owner Al Davis said it best.
    ” Just win baby”

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