It wasn’t quite Rome 1997 or Istanbul 2003, but England emerged with what looks like a decent draw in their crunch tie with Ukraine on Tuesday evening. Despite a rallying call from captain Steven Gerrard that the Three Lions would do everything in their power to win the game, Roy Hodgson’s side seemed pretty happy to settle for a solitary point early on.
It’s a result that will probably see England qualify for Brazil. It’s not done yet of course, but they should have enough to overcome both Poland and Montenegro at Wembley. Despite this, there has been little positivity following the outing in Kiev, mainly due to the fact that the stalemate in Ukraine was a bit of a nothing performance. And unfortunately, it’s not the only showing of this ilk to have punctured England’s qualifying campaign. Yes, they sit top of their group, but on closer inspection, the only two teams they have actually beaten are Moldova and San Marino.
Thinking back to earlier qualifiers, it’s difficult to recall much of note about the draws against Ukraine, Poland and Montenegro. It’s no surprise really, because even though Hodgson has been at the helm for eighteen months now, the side has no identity whatsoever.
How would you describe England’s playing style? Do they pass out from the back? Sometimes. Do they knock it long? Occasionally. Do they press the ball high up the pitch? Every so often.
What about systems? 4-4-2? 4-3-3? 4-2-3-1? 4-5-1? We’ve seen them all under Hodgson but he has yet to settle on one; sending his team out in a different style at almost every turn. He seems torn between implementing his own tried, tested and sometimes old-fashioned philosophies, and that of the continental approach, which has now been adopted by an overwhelming chunk of the top sides in England.
The blend between these two ideologies has oscillated far too frequently. The end result is a performance like we saw in Ukraine on Tuesday night: neither here nor there, solid and dependable, but that’s about it. Probably enough to qualify for a World Cup, but if the words of the FA’s new top man are to be heeded, England have much bigger goals than that.
Granted there is no overnight fix, but at this current juncture – with the ‘golden generation’ being ushered out and young players being blooded in – this imbalance is having a massively detrimental effect on the team. There is enough instability in and around the squad as it is, and it’s very persistence only highlights the need for a familiar nexus that the side can gravitate around. That has to come in the form of an all-encompassing, stylistic identity.
We are, after all, not far off next summer’s showpiece. By now England should be fluent in not only their system, but with how they are going to operate within its confines. You can bet any team with ambitions of winning next summer’s tournament will be at that stage by now.
But England no longer look as though they are befitting of the ‘potential winners’ label. Sure they look solid at the back and remain a tough nut to crack. But throughout Hodgson’s reign – not just on Tuesday in Kiev – the midfield has looked statuesque and the attack shorn of vigour and vibrancy. The former West Brom boss was let off the hook somewhat after EURO 2012, with minimal time in the job and restricted preparation time a pretty valid excuse for the team’s toothless attacking showings. But we’re now well into his reign, and there has been little change since those opening glimpses.
England must find a clear common-ground; an essence by which they can build a team around going into next summer. Just look at the top European sides. The Spanish play a possession-based, technically-demanding style of football mirroring that of their most dominant side in recent years, Barcelona. Whereas in Germany, the national side play in a high intensity fashion, wholly similar to that of their top club sides Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund.
As for England, do they operate in a manner which is oozing with Premier League characteristics and calibre? Not at all. Instead, players have been shoehorned into unfamiliar, uncomfortable roles and their performances have been hampered; manager after manager has essentially been dictated too by the reputation of the ‘golden generation’. The last time England had a manager who had a concise vision and little time for player reputations was Glenn Hoddle. He left his post in 1999.
Fourteen years on, we’ve yet to see a similar visionary at the forefront of the England hierarchy. And it is important, very important, that a clear identity is at the vanguard of an international set-up. Conflicting, ever-changing messages will only cloud what short time the players and managers have together. It’s certainly not comparable to club football, where a manager has all week to work on something and if that fails, another week to put it right.
Time is so precious when it comes to international football. And with less than year to galvanize his side with a soul and an identity, Roy Hodgson and the FA could be about to find that out the hard way.
What do you think? Let me know in the comments section or on Twitter: @MattJFootball