The key moment in Roy Hodgson’s time as manager of England so far probably came in Kiev in September last year. His side had ground out a thoroughly tedious 0-0 draw and, as a result, sat comfortably on top of their World Cup qualifying group.
Hodgson almost bounded into the press conference, clearly expecting to be congratulated on a job well done. Instead, he faced a series of questions about why England had been so dull.
It wasn’t just "the media"—whatever that strangely nebulous term means. A glance on Twitter or a conversation in a bar told the same story; a widespread belief that England had been too negative.
That England had achieved what they had set out to achieve—securing a point against an awkward opponent, leaving them well-placed to qualify for the World Cup—was all but ignored. And this is why England so habitually underperform.
Something changed in Hodgson in the Ukraine capital. He began to doubt his principles. England were solid, if a little stodgy, in beating Denmark in a friendly in March, when he played a 4-3-3.
The theory was good—the Steven Gerrard and Jordan Henderson partnership bolstered by Jack Wilshere, with Daniel Sturridge, Wayne Rooney and Raheem Sterling as a flexible front three—but the execution had been a little stilted.
Hodgson was criticised and Hodgson changed, adopting a 4-2-3-1 that left England horribly exposed at he World Cup. It’s forgotten now, amid the general gloom of such an early exit, but England had more possession and more chances against both Italy and Uruguay.
What undid them was defensive laxity. And the reason they were defensively shaky was because Hodgson, seemingly worried about being dismissed as Boring Old Roy, had acceded to the general demand to be more attacking.
With the 4-4-2 in the friendly against Norway on Wednesday, he has gone back to basics. He has said, away to Switzerland in the first Euro 2016 qualifier on Monday, he will look to contain.
Hodgson will almost certainly play 4-4-2 in Basel, looking to use two compact banks of four to thwart Switzerland’s array of neat technical forwards.
England may be dull. The game may be almost unwatchable. But if Hodgson's team draw 0-0, that is a good result, particularly with the top two in the group qualifying.
If this were a club team, people would accept that. If Arsenal, Chelsea, Manchester City or Liverpool go away to the best other team in their Champions League group, play defensively (unlikely in Liverpool’s case, admittedly) and come away with a scruffy 0-0 draw, it would probably be regarded as laudable pragmatism.
But England, for some reason, play always in ideals. Even when Fabio Capello—in his penultimate game in charge—masterminded a 1-0 victory over Spain by playing Phil Jones in midfield for the world and European champions, there was carping.
There are constant demands for the best players to play, with little thought to team shape. A defensive outlook is seen as somehow a betrayal of England’s role as the progenitor of football.
England are always flirting vainly with an absolute: Very rarely is the manager allowed to do what a club manager would do, which is to approach a game thinking, “With these players, what do I do to get the best possible result?”
Was Nobby Stiles one of the best 11 players in England in 1966? Was Jack Charlton? Of course they weren’t.
Yet they were vital to England winning the World Cup because they performed necessary, if unglamorous, functions in Alf Ramsey’s plans. Ramsey, of course, was widely criticised for his negativity before that tournament.
Hodgson may not be a Ramsey, but he is the England manager. He may not even be the England manager many people want, but still, if he is to fail, it’s better for him to fail on his own terms—doing what he believes is right rather than trying to placate a culture that ignores the reality to focus on grand and distant visions.
English football probably does require change, there probably does need to be more emphasis on technique and possession at an earlier age, and that is something that should be worked upon.
But that’s for the future.
Right now, Hodgson just has to get the best results he can with the players he has in a style with which he feels comfortable. And if that means using a solid 4-4-2 to grind out a point in Switzerland, so be it.