Adaptability in football management is a key component to success. If a manager can adapt, either to a particular opponent or to new formations that are in vogue, it’s likely good results will follow. Staying ahead of your rivals, ultimately, is everything.
Therefore, continually making the same mistake simply won’t do, yet that’s exactly what Roy Hodgson has done as England manager in terms of his midfield selection. He's paid a heavy price, with two early exits from major tournaments in his two years in charge, and he may yet face further punishment if the FA decide to terminate his contract earlier than expected.
Two years ago, he took England to the European Championships in Poland and Ukraine. He was appointed just five weeks before the tournament began after the unexpected resignation of former boss Fabio Capello.
This was the best case scenario for Hodgson. There were no expectations. If things went well, he would be praised, and if England stuttered and exited early, which is exactly what happened, it was hardly his fault given the lack of time he’d had to shape the squad. He had a free pass, essentially; an opportunity to look at his players up close in a major tournament without being judged too harshly.
England’s exit came at the hands of Italy, an aging side but one with the class and intelligence Hodgson’s men were lacking. Their quarter-final finished 0-0 with Italy going through on penalties, but the dominance of Cesare Prandelli’s side during the 90 minutes was obvious.
They outpassed, outnumbered and out-thought England in midfield, which is where much of their superiority stemmed. Hodgson, who had persisted with two central midfielders like so many of his predecessors, surely recognised his side’s failing and would look to rectify it in the two years leading up to the World Cup in Brazil.
Fast-forward two years, though, with Hodgson having been given time to develop his side and make it his own, and still he went into a major tournament with two midfielders. Once again, England were outdone and made to look ordinary, this time exiting at the group stage, the first time that had happened at a World Cup since 1958.
And it wasn’t as if their group was particularly difficult. Italy are one of the most successful nations in the history of the game, but this is one of the poorest Italian teams in living memory. Uruguay, too, are a squad full of average players, with Luis Suarez their only truly world-class star.
And Costa Rica, who topped the group with seven points and conceded just one goal, don’t have a single player Hodgson would exchange for one of his. England finished bottom, taking just one point and scoring two goals. Whichever way you look at it, it was an awful showing.
The biggest problem remains the lack of control England exert in midfield. Too often the opposition have the lion’s share of the ball in the middle, while England look on helpless. How Hodgson didn’t rectify the situation after the Italy game at Euro 2012 is baffling and calls into question his suitability for the role.
The opening game against Italy, the perfect opportunity to exact revenge for the defeat in the Euros, saw England fall foul in midfield again. The Italians lined up with Andrea Pirlo, Daniele De Rossi and Marco Verratti in midfield, and they danced around Steven Gerrard and Jordan Henderson for much of the match. Hodgson hadn't learned his lesson. He failed to adapt.
Surely now England must switch to a midfield three, with one holding player and two with the ability to pass and move just in front. It would give them better balance and security, as well as ensuring they aren’t continually outnumbered and lacking any kind of control.
The problem, of course, is the lack of a holding player, with the last one who really was suitable so injury prone he barely figured. How England could do with a less injury-plagued version of Owen Hargreaves. Henderson is far from perfect for that role, but he could surely do a job given the opportunity.
With Frank Lampard and Gerrard unlikely to figure in tandem again—maybe even individually—it's time for a midfield overhaul if England's woes are to subside. Not only will new faces come in to replace the old guard, a new system must be introduced, too. If not, they can expect more early exits on the big stage.