Sixteen years ago, England traveled to Moldova in a similar situation: It was the first game of a World Cup qualifying campaign, and England fans wanted to see change.
The mood was rather different -- on the back of Euro '96, when England valiantly reached the semifinals on home soil -- there was genuine enthusiasm about the national side. A new coach, Glenn Hoddle, was an interesting thinker who proposed some innovative ideas -- a Christmas tree formation was considered, as was using Jamie Redknapp as a sweeper. England wanted change in order to evolve and improve upon existing core principles.
But the game was mainly about David Beckham's debut. He went on to captain the national side, won more caps than any outfield player in England history and dominated storylines for more than a decade. The Manchester United midfielder was the pinup boy for the new England.
Since then, England has fallen out of love with international soccer, and the desire for change partly originates from the sheer boredom with the existing set of players. It is simply tiring to have the same old debates about the same old faces. Can Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard play together? Can one put aside hatred of John Terry and/or Ashley Cole to support them in national team colors?
The England national side has been more of a soap opera than a soccer team the past year, but at least the writers of East Enders and Coronation Street regularly kill off cast members to keep things fresh. There wasn't such weariness in 1996. No one was particularly tired of Redknapp, say, or the world's most expensive player in Alan Shearer -- although that feeling of boredom is now ubiquitous in their second careers as television pundits.
So who can current manager Roy Hodgson turn to for this much-needed change? There isn't a significant generation of talent ready to take the place of the old guard -- it would be foolish to cast aside seasoned internationals Gerrard and Lampard in favor of players struggling to assert themselves at club level. A year ago, it seemed likely that Jack Wilshere and Tom Cleverley would feature in England's Euro 2012 squad, possibly on the same team alongside a more defensive player. Those two are England's most promising young creative midfielders -- yet in the past 12 months, Cleverley has completed 90 Premier League minutes just once, and Wilshere hasn't played a single game.
But does Hodgson intend to structure his side around this type of player? After all, he doesn't care about the “modern guff” of possession statistics. Instead, his sides are told to withstand pressure before breaking quickly and purposefully with the ball. Hodgson might be more interested in possession statistics when compared to total shots -- take these figures for the 20 Premier League teams last season, knock up a simple scattergraph, and Hodgson's West Brom side was one of the most efficient sides in possession. It had significantly more shots than you'd expect for its time with the ball.
That's not necessarily good or bad, but it's what Hodgson wants.
For a man reluctant to make bold statements through tactics or personnel, he has shown significant interest in Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain. First impressed by the Arsenal youngster against Milan in the Champions League, it was a surprise that Hodgson included him in his 23-man Euro squad, even more so when Oxlade-Chamberlain started the tournament against France.
Oxlade-Chamberlain played OK in Donetsk, and was unfortunate to be dropped for the next game against Sweden. But the problem for England's attackers throughout the tournament was that they didn't receive the ball in dangerous positions. England were never going to dominate possession (the formation didn't help, but when your third-choice midfielder is Jordan Henderson, you can understand why Hodgson went with a midfield duo). The greater issue was the poor transitions from defense to attack, a key part of Hodgson's game plan. The ball was used poorly and slowly when it was won in the defensive third, so the quick attacking players never had the opportunity to run at the opposition.
Hodgson would have been delighted to see Oxlade-Chamberlain's performance for Arsenal in its 2-0 win Sunday at Anfield. Arsenal's new-look defensive shape (widely credited to new assistant manager Steve Bould) was disciplined, narrow and compact, with two banks of four behind the ball. Throughout the first half, in particular, it won the ball in deep positions, then broke purposefully down the flanks. Lukas Podolski's first goal arrived in this manner, and Oxlade-Chamberlain did the same job on the other flank.
The former Southampton player is a tactically complex player, but he suits Hodgson's style. He's a wide midfielder rather than a winger, and despite the similar journey of Theo Walcott, the two are very different. Walcott stays wide, and is effective only in central positions when exploiting the opposition's high defensive line, whereas Oxlade-Chamberlain likes to compete in the middle of the pitch, having grown up as an attack-minded central midfielder.
Hodgson's Fulham side reached the final of the Europa League in 2010 with two inverted wingers, fielded on the "wrong" side according to their natural foot, encouraged to break narrowly toward goal rather than hug the touchlines. Damien Duff and Simon Davies hit the opposition defense directly while they were unbalanced and lacking protection from midfield, but for Oxlade-Chamberlain, it doesn't matter which flank he plays on -- he'll do that anyway. "I like to come inside and link the play," he says. "If I'm successful out on the wing then that's fine, but I think there's more to my game."
Hodgson encourages dribbling, although does so with caution. "He gives you the license to take people on, but so long as it's in the right area," Oxlade-Chamberlain said. "You don't want to lose the ball in an area where a counterattack [for the opposition] could be on."
With Adam Johnson and Young injured and Stewart Downing omitted, Oxlade-Chamberlain should get another chance. As with Beckham in 1996, the desire for change and the tactical demands of the manager gives Oxlade-Chamberlain a great opportunity to become one of England's key players.