Roy Hodgson: New Broom, Same Old Approach?

If managing West Brom brought this reaction, imagine what managing England will make Hodgson do

So this was it. In front of a gathering of the national media accompanied with a frenzied flashing of bulbs, Roy Hodgson was unveiled as the new permanent manager of England, with the head of the selection panel, David Bernstein, advising that this son of Croydon and former Crystal Palace trainee had signed a four year contract taking him up to his sixty-eighth birthday. At an age which would surely prove to be a prohibitive barrier for presenting Countryfile, Hodgson will still be a spring chicken in international management terms at his contract’s end given that one of his former contemporaries from his Serie A management days, Giovanni Trappatoni will be leading the Republic of Ireland to this summer’s European Championships at the tender age of 73. And with Hodgson’s relatively short introduction to his potential future executioners, there ended this spring’s blockbuster of epic proportions. The Never Ending Story 4: How Not to Win Friends and How to Alienate People in North London is unlikely to be on sale in either Tottenham Hotspur or West Bromwich Albion’s club stores.

At the conclusion of what at least in Bernstein’s eyes was a substantive and thorough recruitment and selection process in order to recruit to the FA’s most well remunerated position, Roy Hodgson finds himself the thirteenth permanent holder of the post so often alternatively named as the poisoned chalice, the second most thankless job in the country, at least as far as the public domain is concerned, behind that of the Prime Minister. A little perspective is of course needed at moments like this and Hodgson of course will not have to make any decisions with critical life-lasting implications such as deciding to go to war, nor do any of his selection dilemmas have the level of complexity to compare with the conundrum of how to kickstart the world economy. Nonetheless, Hodgson does have a full in-tray to greet him upon his arrival at Soho Square once he has cleared his desk at The Hawthorns given that the European Championships start in just over a month’s time and he is expected to name a squad later in the week which with the exception of two players he will never previously have spoken to meaningfully before.

The underwhelming manner in which Hodgson was welcomed into the role by the sports media suggests that he can expect a very short honeymoon period if results do not go well for England in the backwaters of Ukraine this June. There is no doubt Hodgson is in for a tough initiation and you kind of wonder whether his new employers have unwittingly set Hodgson up for a fall by bringing their chosen candidate in to his new post with there being so little time between now and when he has to name his final 23 man squad for the tournament, added to which Hodgson is still required to take charge of West Bromwich Albion for their remaining two matches of the season. As West Brom fans ponder who might be the man to replace a manager who has led them to the brink of a top half finish (I hear there is a good up-and-coming manager in the SW6 area who might be looking for alternative work in a few weeks time…), England supporters will question whether a failure to prepare will again result in preparing to fail, thereby extending the hurt period to within two years of raising its bat to the pavilion to the accompaniment of muted applause. If nothing else, the absurd folly of the England manager’s position potentially being one for a part-timer has been shown up for the crass stupidity of the very notion over these past three months as Stuart Pearce has worked overtime performing the scouting duties that a new manager and his backroom team could have been sharing if only an appointment had been made sooner.

The way in which Hodgson was welcomed into his new hotseat with the press corps choosing not to erect the bunting or inflate the balloons should perhaps not come as a surprise for the simple reason that Hodgson was not the favourite and therefore did not meet with their individual agendas. The custodians of the sports desks like to back a winner and they like to take the credit for the winner’s coronation, as though their carefully considered prose had in some way influenced the recruitment decision. However, RH’s appointment deprived the hacks of the dream story they had waited weeks for, that of HR getting the job he had always coveted, however much he denied otherwise. Redknapp getting the gig would have been a delight for the seagulls following the trawler before and after an England match given that he would have thrown his scavenging acquaintances in the press a bountiful metaphoric supply of sardines in the form of quotes every time. No previous England manager has, to the knowledge of the writers of football’s annals, been the owner of a dog with a bank balance while even the last England manager will have had some knowledge of sending a text message. Like many professions, journalists like it when opportunities arise where the work is done for them and having a gifted raconteur like their darling ‘Arry at the helm would have resulted in the keepers of the well rarely needing to issue a drought warning. Somewhat inconveniently, however, the FA decided that telling stories that make journalists laugh was not an essential requirement on the person specification and tended to weight such minutiae as previous experience in international management and managing in different countries and against different styles of football as more important aspects in ticking their boxes.

Hodgson does bring obvious qualities that are patently conducive to the requirements of the England role. Hodgson has always been a tracksuit manager, a man that regards himself as more of a coach than as a manager. In many ways this is perfect for managing at international level where the time spent with the squad of players is restricted outside of tournament time and where it is the quality of the training ground sessions that count far more than the quantity of them. Hodgson is renowned for his keen attention to detail within training sessions, ensuring that his charges are fully drilled and organised ahead of match day. Hodgson’s first-hand knowledge of various footballing cultures and philosophies will prove useful in preparing the team on a match-to-match basis. In particular, Hodgson’s past employment in Scandinavia should be a handy asset in preparing England against Sweden in their second group game of the campaign, a country against whom England have failed to win a single competitive match this side of Neil Armstrong setting foot on the moon. It was in Sweden with Halmstad where Hodgson first cut his managerial molars back in the mid-1970s before he had even reached his thirtieth birthday.

While Hodgson’s thorough approach to organising his teams and preparing them for matches is his strong suit, his detractors need not trawl their memory bank very far in order to identify his weaknesses. Hodgson’s short tenure at Liverpool was a disappointing one although it does require some mitigation. Hodgson took over at a time when the axis of Gillett and Hicks remained at the helm and whoever they chose to appoint following Rafael Benitez’s removal from office was sure to be tainted by association as he was their recruit. Poorly financed by a regime that knew their days were numbered, Hodgson was required to augment his squad feeding off of scraps. True, Paul Konchesky and Christian Poulsen were poor signings regardless of budget, although Hodgson was not by any means the first manager to go raiding a former club for a journeyman, a solid citizen he could trust in turbulent times to solve a problem child position. This has been a tactic Jose Mourinho employed when managing Chelsea, raiding Porto for Paolo Ferreira and Ricardo Carvalho. The trouble was Konchesky was out of his depth playing at a goldfish bowl club, much like Charlie Adam and Stewart Downing have generally been since they arrived in Liverpool. One signing Hodgson did make that added value to the team was Raul Meireles, a player who Kenny Dalglish built his Liverpool team around in the early months of his return to office.

None of this is to say that Liverpool were wrong to sack Roy Hodgson. Liverpool were showing no signs of progress under his charge, added to which he was not John W Henry’s man. When Henry took over and with Liverpool showing no noticeable signs of improvement, it was inevitable that Henry would choose to dispense with Hodgson’s services, especially given the clamour for the return of the King, who had conveniently re-entered the building. As such, this is a major black mark on Roy Hodgson’s career, given an acid test of managing a top club but being escorted from the premises within seven months. Given that he has now been appointed manager of England, a pressure cooker of intense scrutiny even greater than what he will have experienced at Anfield, within eighteen months of his undignified exit on Merseyside, it only magnifies the question marks about his suitability for the post.

Given the nomadic nature of Hodgson’s managerial career, people could be mistaken for thinking Hodgson had never managed a club with ambitions before, where players with big reputations and fragile egos were to be found. Yet this is not the case. Hodgson managed Inter Milan for two seasons between 1995 and 1997 at a time when the considerable ego of Paul Ince was housed at the San Siro. During that time, Inter reached a UEFA Cup final, losing to Schalke and did not threaten the dominance of their fellow tenants or that of Juventus, but Hodgson did at least maintain Inter as a competitive force at a time when they were regarded as a turbulent institution, with club owner Massimo Moratti renowned for doing more firing than a hitman. Hodgson’s reputation in Italy is largely recalled as a nearlyman, a tag that has been attached to many an England manager of the recent past, but he does evoke respect in a country that respects coaches for their tactical acumen and flexibility.

Following Hodgson’s departure from Inter, he arrived at Blackburn Rovers at a time when the club found itself in transition following the loss of key players from its 1994/95 Premier League winning outfit and after Kenny Dalglish had stepped down from office. By this stage, Rovers’ bankroller-in-chief, the late Jack Walker, had tightened the purse strings and Rovers were no longer competing at the top end of the transfer market. Nonetheless, Hodgson initially handled the transition smoothly and led Blackburn to a top six finish in his first campaign. Further sales and injuries to key players hampered progress thereafter and Rovers were languishing at the bottom of the table by the time Hodgson was removed from post. It would be inaccurate, however, to blame Hodgson fully for Blackburn’s relegation at the end of the 1998/99 season given that Brian Kidd was in charge for over half the season before they plunged through the trapdoor.

Hodgson’s previous international experience was cited as the principal reason for his appointment by the FA selection panel and in particular his exploits with Switzerland are recalled with fondness by his supporters. In a 1994 World Cup that was devoid of home nation representation, Hodgson was one of two English coaches participating in the tournament along with Jack Charlton. It was around this time that Switzerland reached number three in FIFA’s very scientific and completely foolproof rankings system. Hodgson was aided by a strong Swiss team containing the likes of Alain Sutter, Ciriaco Sforza, Adrian Knup and Stephane Chapuisat, a player who later won the Champions League with Borussia Dortmund. Hodgson enabled Switzerland to scale heights they had not reached since the 1950s, although ultimately they fell short in the USA, losing 3-0 to Spain in the first knockout round. Hodgson had departed for Inter by the time Switzerland played in England’s group in Euro ’96, where they were coached by Portuguese coach Artur Jorge.

Hodgson’s spells with Switzerland and latterly with Finland were of course with international nations that would be considered unfashionable and so where expectation was low and progress was good. In many senses, this is the polar opposite to the situation he will find with England, where expectation is generally much greater than a nation that won its only bauble some forty-six years ago should be entitled to have. That said, it is hard to recall an England entering a tournament with so little fanfare and genuine expectation. Whatever Hodgson’s qualities as an alchemist, he will need to have the skills of conjuror to get a technically bereft England team to challenge at the business end of Euro 2012. A difficult group containing the host nation, one of the tournament’s most rapidly improving teams and a country that England have failed to beat competitively for over four decades represents one large, protruding fork sticking in the road. Even if they negotiate the group successfully, the likelihood of a match against Spain or Italy looms large in the quarter-finals. For England to go far in the tournament, they will need to punch above their fighting weight and perform far greater than the sum of their parts. This appears to be where Hodgson’s qualities lie.

The main reservation I would have, however, with Hodgson’s appointment is that his managerial back story has largely seen him remain rigidly loyal to the 4-4-2 system. It seems to be an Anglo-Saxon tendency to only think in terms of lines when it comes to football formations. Listen to any phone-in on any given Saturday and hear some fan complain about the negativity of his team because they only played one striker, whereas invariably there will have been another player in the withdrawn, support forward role. Or how often do you hear people complaining of the very same negativity when a team plays 4-3-3, when generally the team will line up with three forwards across the front line when in possession with the wide players then securing the edges of the midfield when they have not got the ball.

Yet, why is there this fixation with playing 4-4-2 when time and time again, England have deployed this very formation in major tournaments only to be pulled apart when its limitations are exposed? It just seems to be a classic case of being mistrustful of change, playing the game a different way. The rigid 4-4-2 formation that Fabio Capello deployed in the 2010 World Cup went some way to securing England’s exit from the tournament as their inflexible formation was pulled apart whenever possession was lost against Germany in Bloemfontein on that late June afternoon. The formation also results in a tendency to play square pegs in round holes, witness how England tried a vast number of players from the early-1990s into the middle part of the last decade to solve ‘the left sided problem’, when the problem only existed because it was felt necessary to have an orthodox left winger who always remained stationed on the left. Playing stagnant, static football and progress will also be static.

Whatever Capello’s foibles while in charge of England, he did at least seem to learn his lesson tactically from the 2010 World Cup and it was noticeable that in the qualification competition for Euro 2012, his England teams rarely reverted to 4-4-2 and instead either played 4-3-3 or 4-2-3-1, often resulting in greater movement and interchanging of position between the front three or four players. These are the principles on which ‘Total Football’ were based, principles which Germany updated in the 2010 World Cup and also principles that are prominent in the current Barcelona team. England do not have players of Barcelona’s class and quality unfortunately, but this should not preturb them from being more adventurous and getting to play a game ‘between the lines’ rather than sticking firmly to the lines.

Hodgson’s stewardship at each of the English clubs he has managed has seen him largely keep faith with 4-4-2 and as such it would not come as a surprise to see Hodgson regard this formation or a variation of it as his system of choice. He will need to find a way of getting more from the system and constraining players to individual lines and boxes than his predecessors have been able to. But it is the coaching structure as a whole that is the greatest hurdle to overcome as it is this structure that nurtures young players and brings them into the professional game without the requisite technique and getting them to play in this very same flat, inflexible system right from the junior ranks rather than encouraging players to be proficient on the ball in several positions from a young age. Until such times as these attitudes are changed, England will continue to produce technically and tactically limited players, both rigid in mind and foot and ill equipped to deal the demands of international football, regardless of whether Roy Hodgson or Jose Mourinho is manager.

For the present, Hodgson has to adapt his approach to the players at his disposal and in the here and now, going into Euro 2012 with just a month to get acquainted to his new position and its assorted challenges, progress will be to ensure England reach the knockout phase and from there that they at least compete against any of the marquee teams that they face. Failure to make the business end of proceedings will result in the shortening of Hodgson’s honeymoon period and tabloid editors carefully selecting an appropriate root vegetable of choice. Those with an allegiance to a St George’s Cross can only hope Hodgson defies the odds where his predecessors have fallen short, but the age old challenges lie in wait for him.