There was nothing new or unexpected about England’s second half performance on Tuesday night. Those of us who are unfortunate enough to have them as our national team were hoping for a halftime downpour or maybe even a riot that could have prevented the inevitable second half collapse.
Apart from a brief flicker in the early nineties, in the last forty years England have never looked a team of world-beaters. The media hype; the memories of ’66 (in which, despite winning the tournament, England struggled through the group stage); the “golden generation”; Steven Gerrard and Wayne Rooney, and now Jack Wilshere; the self-delusion continues.
We were all prepared to be level at the final whistle, and when it came we found ourselves relieved that it wasn’t any worse. Naturally the finger-pointing began, mainly in the direction of Roy Hodgson and the apparent lack of tactical changes being made.
True, for much of the game Hodgson seemed in suspended animation – not on the outside, but mentally. When Montenegro finally rediscovered the form that has put them top of the group after six games, it was blindingly obvious that Carrick and Gerrard could not cope with Vukcevic and Damjanovic (introduced at halftime). Meanwhile, Tom Cleverley, who had been instructed to occupy the ‘hole’ position, fell absent for the second period despite an encouraging first half.
After the match, Hodgson revealed that he only made one late substitution (Young replacing Cleverley at 78 minutes) as he and his staff didn’t feel “there was a change to make a vast difference to what was going on on the field.”
For all the criticism from pundits and the media, Hodgson is basically implying that he didn’t have the players he needed to make a positive impact. Sadly, he’s right.
If England beat Montenegro at Wembley they will probably qualify, if not before summer, then in the play-off in November should they get lucky and not meet someone like France. But, if and when they do, it will only give us three weeks of agony before we get knocked out on penalties after a backs-to-the-wall 120 minutes.
For one of the supposed “founding nations” if not the “founding nation” of the game, and one that has a population of 53 million as opposed to Montenegro’s 630,000, shouldn’t we be knocking small fry like these for six, and at least giving Spain and the like a run for their money? And don’t say “well, we beat Spain in a friendly not long ago.”
Because it is only in friendlies that we ever get results against the top national teams. There is something in the heads of the players that blocks them from pulling it out when it matters.
Whether it’s the tactical change from 4-4-2 to a more “modern” 4-2-3-1, or the fact that despite cutting long balls all but out we are still woeful when it comes to retaining possession, there is no denying that there are innate flaws in English football. We only ever looked “good” against Montenegro because they were stepping off and letting us; once they realised how tame their opponents actually were it was back to international business as usual.
It feels inane discussing whether or not Hodgson is the right man for the job; after all, is any manager the right one for the job? The closest since Alf Ramsey went by the name of Bobby Robson and he left 23 years ago.
Hodgson has proved his worth at club level, the high point being when he took Fulham to the Europa League final in 2010, and his short time with England has not been fraught with bad results. In fact, the dismal display against the far superior Italians at Euro 2012 was about the lowest point, and conversely to what some are saying, still is.
Drawing away to Montenegro isn’t the end of the world. Sure, there’s the population difference and the quality of the football league to cite, but they are undefeated so far in this tournament and leading a group which includes tough opposition such as Poland and Ukraine. Oh, and England. Perhaps, were the Montenegrins not enjoying such a stellar patch of form, England might be in pole position with either Ukraine or Poland snapping at their heels. Then again, had Montenegro not held off those two it’s possible that we may not even be sitting in the play-off place.
Too much has been made of the lack of changes made by Hodgson on Tuesday. In another game he would have made those changes, and England would still be no more likely to emerge victorious. It is not about having the right players on the pitch, or bringing the right ones in when you realise you’ve started with Cleverley in the number 10 role. Talented as he is, the Manchester United is far better suited to a box-to-box role than where he found himself in Podgorica.
For me, Hodgson is unmistakeably English, both on and off the field, but he will never be England's manager. That’s not saying he is not a good manager, which he undoubtedly is, but he doesn’t have the character to turn individual talents into a cohesive unit on the international stage.
His domain is small provincial clubs such as Malmo, Fulham, West Bromich Albion, not the soviet graveyards of eastern Europe. He is (mostly) a cool head and clear thinking tactician; a far cry from the gutsy manager who is confident enough to shake his team up away from home when fighting for a World Cup place. A sheer lack of inspiration is his downfall.
England has long been a team of bright individuals who frustrate with their inability to connect with their countrymen as they do with their club-mates. They need a manager who will make them feel as though they are part of a club; the problem with having an English manager is that it reminds them that they are playing for England, which is where the issues arise.
As everyone already knows, there needs to be a huge overhaul in approach, development and structure in English football. The rebuilding work has begun, most notably with the completion of St. George’s Park, the ultra-modern training facilities. The first of the two points I would put forward is slightly Blackburn-esque: appoint a younger, more dynamic manager in the vein of Andre Villas-Boas or Diego Simeone; and the other being to forge tactics that deal with how other international teams play, rather than sticking to a set plan. In other words, be prepared to play international football, a game far removed from its domestic counterpart.
Whether or not England make it to Brazil is, in the long term, neither here nor there. I could say that yes, they will definitely qualify, but what is the significance if a round-of-16 or quarter-final exit is the inevitable conclusion, as it has been for the past 16 years? There is the nobility of taking part, I guess.
I personally don’t know what the problem is. As someone who claims dual heritage from England and Scotland, I know how much worse it could actually be. As they say in Glasgow, could be worse, we could be San Marino.
I suppose you are expecting a solid prediction either way though, so I’ll stick by what I said earlier. England have a chance of finishing top if they disrupt Montenegro’s streak at Wembley. If not, they still have a good chance to make it to the play-offs, but depending on who they meet could still struggle. If England fails to step it up when it matters as they have so often done, even a minnow is capable of landing this tired old trout.