Hodgson’s dithering, a worry for England

They say you learn more from defeat than victory. England manager Roy Hodgson must hope beyond hope that old adage applies to draws too, writes Frank Malley.

Days after England’s draw in Podgorica the inquest was still in full swing and the same old delusions were being peddled.

“They’re human beings, not robots,” said manager Roy Hodgson, trying to explain away why men in white shirts seem incapable of passing a ball to men in white shirts when they come under the slightest pressure.

“We need to learn how to see out these games better,” said Wayne Rooney as if somewhere there was a textbook on how the nation which gave the world its most popular game should play against Montenegro, a country with fewer people than England have footballers.

Then there was the notion, explored in a myriad of phone-ins and forums, that it would be all right when Arsenal’s Jack Wilshere returned from injury to bring energy and verve to the midfield, just as he had done against Brazil recently. Wilshere is a fine player but let’s not go down that avenue again, the road which identifies a saviour of English football and piles sack after sack of unreasonable expectations on his shoulders. We did that with John Barnes and Paul Gascoigne and Michael Owen and, well, the list is too long to go into here.

The fact is that Wilshere has started one match for England in almost two years, appears to be prone to injury and, while he showed Man-of-the-Match promise in his last outing in combination with Rooney and Tom Cleverley, he is unlikely to radically transform the fortunes of Hodgson’s side.

England’s problems go deeper than the inclusion of one bright playmaker. When England were allowed to play with freedom and in space by a Montenegro side who, by general consensus, failed to turn up in the first-half in Podgorica, Hodgson’s team looked impressive.

When Montenegro actually began playing themselves, harrying and pressing, England looked less than ordinary.

The truly depressing part was that Hodgson stood in the England dugout watching and worrying and doing nothing. It could have been Sven-Goran Eriksson sitting on his hands and whistling while all around him went belly-up in a World Cup quarterfinal. When it truly mattered Eriksson was exposed as a manager who was incapable of influencing the ebb and flow of a football match.

Hodgson is not the sort of man to duck responsibility. He is famed for his organisation and meticulous preparation. Yet, when Montenegro attackers were detonating explosions of concern all over Podgorica and England needed an astute mind and a tactical change to stem the overwhelming tide, Hodgson came up with the square root of diddley squat. He stuck with what he had planned, unable to think on his feet, choosing inertia over courage until finally he introduced Ashley Young too late to salvage more than a point.

The great managers, the Mourinhos, the Fergusons, the Del Bosques, the Joachim Lows, do not dither.

They act swiftly, decisively, backing knowledge and intuition with substitutions given time to make a difference. The lack of any semblance of that when the fabric of England’s game was unravelling with each ticking minute was, in many ways, the most alarming aspect of that night.

England’s World Cup fate, of course, is still in their own hands. If they win their remaining four games they will qualify automatically for Brazil. Yet, three of those matches are against Ukraine away and Poland and Montenegro at Wembley, three sides whom England have failed to overcome in their previous meetings. That is why there is apprehension about England’s central defence, for so long a fortress but which now is populated by inexperience and players such as Manchester City’s Joleon Lescott, Manchester United’s Chris Smalling and Chelsea’s Gary Cahill, who are not guaranteed starting spots at their clubs.

There is reason to worry, too, about the absence of a world-class holding midfielder, such a pre-requisite these days at the top level. Michael Carrick fits the bill when England are on top but a fit and focused Scott Parker is surely the percentage option for matches with dubious outcomes.

There is so much to worry about, not least whenever England are required to break down teams with craft and ingenuity, rather than relying on goals from set-pieces.

Mostly, however, apprehension surrounds England’s apparently genetic inability to treasure the football, such a necessity if a team is to dominate an entire match rather than just 45 minutes.

They say you learn more from defeat than victory. Hodgson must hope beyond hope that old adage applies to draws too.

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Phil Neville insists he would rather turn out in front of one man and a dog than give up playing if he is not offered a new contract at Everton at the age of 36.

“I'm not embarrassed to go down the leagues,” said Neville. How refreshing, endearing even, to find a Premier League footballer with life and football in perspective.

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