by Richard Brook

Following England’s ignominious exit from this summer’s European Championships, England manager Roy Hodgson received a degree of unwarranted criticism from some quarters.

England’s display at Euro 2012 provided absolutely no surprises at all and to criticise Hodgson for meeting all the objectives set for his England charges appears churlish in the extreme. Before the tournament, the consensus of opinion was that England could expect to get to the quarter finals at best. England got to the quarter finals. The pre-tournament friendlies saw England performances where they made themselves difficult to beat, getting two banks of four behind the ball when out of possession, struggling to retain the ball in possession and utilising quick, counter attacking football to pose a threat to the opposition. Needless to say this style of play and the limitations of the side carried into the championships themselves. What else could be expected given that Hodgson was finally appointed mere weeks before the tournament kicked off?

Some of the recurring themes that have appeared since England went out to, eventual finalists, Italy on penalties have been tactics, line up and persisting with certain players to the point of stubbornness. All of these points are debatable at best.

In terms of selection Hodgson has come under fire for asking Parker and Gerrard, as players in their thirties, to play so many games in such close proximity, and that the only cover for them in central midfield was Jordan Henderson. These two separate criticisms answer each other. Henderson’s inclusion in the squad at all, from the standby list, was greeted with derision, as he was almost universally regarded as being not ready for the rigours of international football. As such the England boss had no real option but to ask Gerrard and Parker, who himself travelled with big question marks over his fitness, to play virtually every minute of every game. England were very unfortunate with injuries in the run up to the championships and there is no way that these two would have been relied upon so fully had the likes of Jack Wilshere, Frank Lampard and Gareth Barry been available. Hodgson cannot be faulted for the injuries and could hardly play Henderson due to the immense pressure the youngster would have found himself under due to the public reaction that met his initial selection.

There was also the well publicised decision to leave Rio Ferdinand at home, especially in the light of Gary Cahill being ruled out through injury after the friendly match against Belgium. Ferdinand, it is argued, would have provided a better link between defence and midfield offering, as he unquestionably does, a different option in terms of Terry and Lescott by way of distribution. Ferdinand’s ability to step forward out of defence with ball, might have gone some way towards answering the problem of England’s poor retention of possession. I do have some sympathy with this point and made no secret that I would have included Ferdinand in my 23, however I can see the other side of the argument. Hodgson is not responsible for the race row between Terry and Ferdinand’s brother Anton, and it is easy to see why it might be felt that the best way to handle the matter was to leave either Terry or Ferdinand behind. It is difficult to question the decision when the press widely reported that the England camp had the best team spirit witnessed since Euro ’96, and for once the tournament passed off with no reported issues in terms of player behaviour. When all seems to have been rosy, in terms of morale, in the England camp, why should Hodgson have been expected to throw a very obvious spanner in the works?

During the tournament, the involvement of James Milner was often called into question. However Milner was playing a vital role for the team. It is appreciable that the reason for the frustration is that fans want to watch free flowing, attacking football with two genuine wingers, as opposed to Milner’s wide midfield position. It looked to me however that Hodgson had set England up to get the fullbacks forward as often as possible when, all too rarely, in possession. Playing two out and out wingers along with two attacking fullbacks would have left England very vulnerable. This style is the ultimate proof that the best form of defence is attack. The idea being that the attacking fullbacks will force the opposing winger to track back, to avoid leaving his own defenders out-numbered. The net result being that when the opposition attack the winger finds himself in a much deeper starting position that he would ideally like, leaving the forward or forwards isolated.

The England boss drew further criticism for “defensive football”. There is a good case for the fact that Hodgson did not play defensive football. We will never really know quite how adventurous England intended to be, as the retention of possession by the players was so poor throughout the friendlies and the tournament. Regardless of any tactical input from the coach, if a team do not keep the ball they will find themselves on the back foot.

England’s game without the ball was Hodgson’s great triumph. The wins against Norway and Belgium and the three tournament performances were typified by the two banks of four racing to put themselves between the ball and the England goal, whenever possession was surrendered. Often it worked, for example when playing France, a team on a long unbeaten run. The French found themselves restricted to long range shots and despite racking up 15 attempts during the game could convert only one. England on the other hand scored with, more or less, their only chance as the game ended in a draw.
As already touched upon, the manager, set England up well with one winger, one wide midfielder, attacking fullbacks to tie up opposing wingers, and a solid defensive work ethic. He was let down with failures in the basics of the game – completed passes. It is not the role of England manager to improve his players. They ought to be at the peak of their game in any case and even a seasoned England boss does not spend sufficient time with his squads to work on technique to any great extent. Add to this the time frame Hodgson had between his appointment and Euro 2012 and it is plain that he could not be held responsible for the failure of professional footballers at the  top of their careers, to hold on to the ball.

There has been much talk of the opinion that England played better without Wayne Rooney, and this I do have some time for. Ahead of the game against Ukraine, while speaking with friends I said openly that I would leave Rooney on the bench, but that there was no way Hodgson would. England were coming into that game off the back of a terrific second half against Sweden in which Andy Carroll and Danny Welbeck had looked very effective, individually and collectively, and scored two marvellous goals. I would not drop form for reputation. It is a much harder call for the England  manager, who knows the poison in the chalice will take effect very suddenly, if his side fail to make the knock out stages with England’s star player not having started the match.

The decision to keep deploying Ashley Young on the left wing also caused consternation. Again there are arguments for and against. Young is one of the few England players who has genuine pace and is capable of a moment of magic. The Manchester United forward went into the competition as England’s form player, playing more in the hole than out wide, and to good effect in the enforced counter-attacking style, brought about by poor retention of possession. In the tournament when played on the left, he looked a constant weak link defensively. All too often his defensive positioning left Ashley Cole exposed. Most commonly by failing to track all the way back, wide of Cole. This forced Cole to go wide to meet the winger leaving a big gap between fullback and centre back.

When Roy Hodgson took the job of England manager people expected a revolution that there simply wasn’t time to effect. Fans should fully expect younger players to be slowly integrated into the England set up during the up-coming friendlies and during World Cup qualifying. His Euro 2012 was a safe one, and he set them up well to give them the best possible chance.

In reaching the quarter finals the squad achieved the upper limit of what could reasonably have been expected. There are few managers in the world with the tactical reputation or CV to match Roy Hodgson, fewer still that can match him on both counts. The English public should judge him on the next couple of years not the last couple of weeks. Hodgson saw the same England games as the rest of us during Euro 2012. He is not accountable for the failings he has inherited, only for how he goes about addressing them. England should have confidence in Hodgson to improve matters. England should keep the faith.