Roy Hodgson is an unlikely anarchist. The England manager has spent 36 years in coaching rigorously repeating training drills – as Jamie Carragher pointed out, players don’t have ten training sessions under him; they have the same one ten times – not presiding over such absurd, enthralling games. A 3-2 win over Sweden was illogical in the extreme and Hodgson an odd candidate to embrace chaos theory. In the end, however, bedlam contained a beauty for him.
On a night when the manager had something of a Midas touch – the player he brought into the side scored the opener; the man he brought off the bench delivered the second and created the third; while the comeback was attributable to his substitution – the crucial contribution came from a footballer who is not Hodgson’s idea of a winger.
James Milner is, but Milner’s 28 caps have not produced a goal. Theo Walcott lacks Milner’s defensive discipline but added pace and incision. He struck within three minutes and supplied the cross for Danny Welbeck’s lovely winner. Thus far, he has not been trusted to start a friendly by Hodgson, let alone a competitive game.
It is a microcosm of a wider issue. After their rigid reliability against France, England needed to play with more freedom to win a game. Yet when they took the handbrake off, it was not clear in which direction they were going. Forward, it seemed, when Andy Carroll headed them into the lead. Backwards, it looked, when Olof Mellberg emerged as their unexpected nemesis. Into the quarter-finals, the eventual result suggested. That requires a point against Ukraine. Having successfully played for the draw against France, England may seem suited to that task. Having an outbreak of defensive jitters against a Sweden side who were the second team eliminated from Euro 2012 bodes rather less well. This is England, trapped between optimism and pessimism.
The positive element was that their forward planning paid off. Carroll’s inclusion was justified as he tormented the Swedes in the first half. There was an element of pragmatism, in exposing the Scandinavians’ weakness against the crossed ball, and a hint of recidivism, in aiming at the big lad. On a pitch populated by some giant figures, it was Jurassic Park meets Gulliver’s Travels.
It was an old-fashioned English approach and, delightful as Welbeck’s decisive finish was, old-fashioned English qualities saved them. Heart and commitment, the phrase Scott Parker used to describe the display against France, and character, his choice of words this time, were evident again. The immediate response to Sweden’s second goal was an attack where John Terry almost scored and then Walcott did.
Yet a calamitous start to the second half showed traditional frailties, too. There was the typical inability to hold on to a lead, something that both Sven-Goran Eriksson and Fabio Capello have experienced, and the sense that the players were sedated, rather than stimulated, by the half-time team talk. And, most predictably of all, there was the age-old inability to keep the ball.
“I don’t believe in possession statistics,” Hodgson said earlier in the week. For those who do, this game produced one welcome fact – for the first time in his reign, England at least had an equal share of possession – but they are not a team who can close a game down with safe, simple passes. Tactically and temperamentally, it is beyond them. A better side than Sweden would have exploited it.
As it was, the Swedes took advantage of an uncharacteristic failing, a difficulty defending set-pieces. They also, as most opponents do against England, managed to out-number them in the centre of the pitch in the second half. The terrific Steven Gerrard and the valiant but tiring Parker find themselves battling against the odds, game in, game out. It is a problem that is compounded by the lack of alternatives.
At least England have one compelling option available again. They have negotiated Wayne Rooney’s two-match suspension well; a return of four points without their premier talent is impressive. It also gives Hodgson a dilemma: which of his scoring strikers does he drop? The certainty is that Rooney starts. “If I did make the decision to leave him out all hell would break loose in the dressing room,” Hodgson said. So either Welbeck or Carroll makes way. The manager is too rooted in 4-4-2 to consider anything else, even if the left wing is rapidly shaping up as England’s problem position.
After Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain was demoted to the bench, Ashley Young, his replacement on the flank, endured another uninspired outing. With Ashley Cole also below par, England were weak on the left.
They were, though, a threat on the right, after Walcott’s introduction, and alright on the night, at least by the end of an extraordinary game. It was much the best result of Hodgson’s brief reign – indeed, arguably England’s best win in a major tournament since defeating Croatia eight years ago – but it was not the Hodgson way. England should savour the excitement, but they require a way to balance the extra incision they displayed in Kiev with more of the organisation and order the manager prizes.
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