Euro 2012 focus on England: Can Three Lions use low expectations to their advantage this summer?
Here we preview England‘s chances, under the guidance of the newly-appointed Roy Hodgson.
The rate at which injuries continue to plague Hodgson’s squad, the former West Brom manager may just have to field one of the three fierce lions proudly etched in the crest of England’s kit in his starting line-up. Not too many opposition defenders would dare enter a 50/50 challenge with a giant puma.
Expectations of the Three Lions this summer are so tepid, so restrained – tabloids across the country are more likely to mobilise a nationwide editorial campaign to install The Right Honourable Sir Brian Henry Leveson as King, than they are to run sensationalised spreads grieving over the losses of Frank Lampard and Gareth Barry to injury; a la the David Beckham metatarsal kerfuffle of Japan 2002.
From London to Manchester and Liverpool to Blackpool, the pre-tournament practices and cultures around the country really are no different to the preamble of competitions past. The flags are being unfurled, the jerseys donned, the beer guzzled, press excitable and pundits opinionated; everything being very much the same. Except, no one expects or believes Roy Hodgson’s men will return triumphant.
The usual heady mixture of hope and anticipation hasn’t so much been replaced by pessimism as it has been overtaken by caution. Confident proclamations of impending victory are no longer the orders of the day.
Pre-Poland/Ukraine, whole cross sections of England’s loudest, most confident and assured fans are measured and philosophical. Even the most jingoistic of supporters could be accused of objectivity. There are reasons for this. The country didn’t just pull out its hair and freak itself out into a grand, neurotic identity crisis.
Recent history plays a part; the ghost of South Africa 2010 still haunting the home team’s dressing room at Wembley. The rose tinted glasses with which English players are viewed are no longer as rosy or tinted, and foreign sides and players of superior quality are being increasingly recognised as just that.
As a result, English morale is not as high as it once was. Analysing the appointment of Roy Hodgson and the subsequent reactions to the FA’s decision to hire the former Internazionale coach, as well as evaluating the weaknesses and strengths of the experienced manager’s squad for Poland/Ukraine, this could be explained even further, all the while offering reasons for hope and optimism.
Manager: Roy Hodgson
A highly respected coach; a manager’s manager. With a deep knowledge of the game, an astute, tactical mind, a perceptive eye and a practical approach to management, not to mention a flair for a bargain, the 64-year-old has had his fair share of admirers and allies within the footballing world.
Despite being lazily branded as a capable organiser of functional teams, Hodgson is much more than that. The former defender creates dynamic sides built on a bedrock of a strong defence and disciplined midfield; a well oiled machine tirelessly trained and drilled to press and counterattack with pace, while being compact and difficult to break down, often varying between 4-5-1, 4-4-2 and 4-3-3 formations.
Hodgson mixes hardworking but intelligent and industrious players, with highly skilled, technical and pacy footballers. Consequently, his sides often boast a variety of qualities, proving useful against diverse sides with a range of different styles, skill sets and tactics.
Having enjoyed an impressive managerial career stretching 36 years, Hodgson’s ability to develop sides capable of employing his diligent, disciplined tactics has no doubt been aided by his many years spent honing teams across the country. The England boss has been head coach at Bristol City, Blackburn Rovers, Fulham, Liverpool, and most recently, West Bromwich Albion.
What makes Hodgson such a good coach and what separates him from most British managers, is the fact that the 64-year-old has worked abroad, managing a number of high profile sides. The ex-Crystal Palace player has worked in Sweden, coaching Halmstads BK, IK Oddevold, Örebro SK, Malmö FF and Neuchâtel Xamax, before going on to take over the Swiss national side.
The well travelled coach also enjoyed two stints as Inter Milan manager and spent time in the Grasshopper Club Zürich, F.C. Copenhagen, Udinese and Viking FK hotseats. These jobs, undoubtedly, had an indelible effect on the Englishman’s management style, informing his approach to football.
It is also safe to say that during their extensive vetting process, the FA would have been impressed by Hodgson’s international experience, encouraged by the globetrotting coach’s credentials at the very highest level, noting his time as the head coach of the United Arab Emirates and Finland.
Widely, and perhaps unfairly, criticised for Liverpool’s poor performances under his stewardship, Hodgson is incorrectly viewed as a manager incapable of coaching big players at a big club. In spite of his critics, his record speaks for itself – his time as Fulham boss should be regarded as a vindication of his qualities, having guided the London club to their first ever European final at the expense of giants like Juventus.
Hodgson’s appointment as England manager prompted a number of disparaging headlines, leading many to question, “Roy Who?” Considering journalists also asked an all too similar question when Arsene Wenger arrived at Highbury, it’s safe to say Mr Hodgson sits among esteemed company. The England job is in safe hands – more than that, in excellent hands.
Star Player: Joe Hart
There has been much debate about the quality of Hodgson’s England squad. Many have questioned his choices, criticising his decision to select certain players, while leaving others out.
Over the years, the English national side has suffered from two major problems: a bias towards bigger names and a lack of technical, skilful ball players. Roy Hodgson’s England is beset by the same issues.
All too often, certain laudatory footballing buzzwords are bandied about, bestowing them on undeserving players. Too many footballers are inaccurately praised as world class, even when their performances suggest otherwise. There are limited, decent, good, very good, excellent and world-class footballers. There are relatively very few world-class players.
It is true, however, that there is a certain mobility at work when gauging a player’s standing (ranging from limited to world class), as footballers grow and develop, decline and devolve. It is then fair to say that there are players of world-class potential – footballer’s who aren’t quite there yet, but exhibit all the skills and talent to reach the highest level. Still, the fact remains – there are relatively very few world-class players.
It is debatable how many world-class players England has had over the last two decades and it is even more polarising to evaluate how many truly world-class players Roy Hodgson currently has at his disposal. Footballers such as Wayne Rooney, Ashley Cole and Steven Gerrard could be viewed as some of the world’s very best, and yet, none of the three stars will be Hodgson’s key man in Poland/Ukraine. That role belongs to Joe Hart.
The Premiership’s best “keeper”, Hart has grown into a talismanic figure, sweeping away all the unsteadiness and insecurity of goalkeepers before him (post-Seaman). A giant of a man, Hart is blessed with incredible cat-like agility, good feet, sharp reflexes, and admirable speed (off his line).
The Manchester City stopper leads from the back and is a very good communicator, demanding respect and commanding his box. His kicking is spot on; his distribution excellent. Bearing the quality of England’s opposition in mind, Hart will no doubt be tested and will need to be at the top of his game. Luckily, he is coming off a very successful season at the Etihad, flying to Poland and Ukraine as a Premier League winner.
Though Rooney will be viewed as England’s most crucial performer, the Manchester United man’s international ban may effectively render the forward’s contributions irrelevant. In Hart, however, England have a world-class talent who will prove seminal to the nation’s hopes from the get go.
Rising Star: Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain
Oxlade-Chamberlain is another player with the potential to take the world by storm. With a few appearances here and there, he may do just that this summer, starting with Europe.
A player of explosive pace, Chamberlain accelerates like a motivated cheetah, tearing at defences with the force of a speeding train.
Skilful, technical and creative, the young Arsenal man is precisely the type of player the country has been calling out for, for years. The former Southampton prodigy represents the new look British footballer, standing alongside the likes of Jack Wilshere and Nick Powell (Crewe Alexandra’s wonder-kid) as extravagantly gifted players more than capable of paragoning their European counterparts.
Chamberlain has the potential to be England’s secret weapon, infusing even more pace into a side that already boasts the speed and trickery of Theo Walcott and Ashley Young. Used properly, the young midfielder could make some real headway in Poland and Ukraine.
Caution is justified. Considering the number of injuries to hit Roy Hodgson’s side, it is fair to say England will be missing some of its more important players, while others might not be match-fit.
Placed in a tough group that includes perennial highflyers France, bogey side Sweden and championship co-host Ukraine, the Three Lions face a very difficult task of qualifying from the group, let alone defeating top sides like Germany and Spain.
Nevertheless, this is an England side filled with some good and very good players with significant experience. Despite the protestations of fans, this is a team of high quality footballers; perhaps not the highest quality, but high nonetheless.
Of course, England can qualify from the group. Hart and co could very well do much more than that, even topping the group and reaching the latter stages. The final even! It is possible. Unfortunately, not probable.
Much has been said, disparaging Hodgson’s men and a lot has been said, extolling the opposition. One of the favourites to win the competition, being one of the best and most gifted sides in the world, France represent formidable opponents.
The stuttering form of Laurent Blanc’s troops, however, in the lead up to the Championships may just result in England getting a favourable result against the French in the important group opener; a draw most likely.
England fans have plenty to be wary of, but also have reason for optimism. Hodgson’s players should perform admirably and will do better than expected. Even then, one expects Steven Gerrard and his teammates to come home much sooner than many would like.
Each Group D game will be a barn stormer. England will battle, surprise and play with more freedom than witnessed in recent years. If we all believe, you just never know.
We only need to think back to Chelsea’s Champions League Final victory three weeks ago, to remember that it’s a funny ol’ game is football.