Thursday, March 6, 2014

Muddling on under Hodgson

England 1:0 Denmark

Wembley, London

Roy Hodgson must be the anxious-looking manager around. Once more at Wembley last night, as the camera homed in on the England bench, a nervous-looking middle-aged man, biting his fingernails, sat glued to his seat.

Off-field the much-travelled coach speaks with calm assuredness and authority, but the key ninety minutes always sets his pulse-rate soaring.

Last night it was his side's inability to break down second-rate European opponents until eight minutes from time which meant the manager's face of worry was beamed across the nation.

His task in Brazil is indeed immense, with Italy, Uruguay and Costa Rica at the first hurdle.

With less than a hundred days to go until the World Cup Finals, one would hope Hodgson's mind is full of last-minute plans and the never easy job of trimming the squad down to 23.

The arrival of Southampton's young legion in the upper reaches of the Premier League has given him a welcome host of new options. Adam Lallana looks the most likely of the young Saints to get the nod, having injected real zest into the attack in the second half.

Lallana glided fluently up the left flank, supplied the assist for Daniel Sturridge's clincher and performed a perfect Cruyff turn in the box to boot.  His contribution was certainly more effective than the comparatively slow and increasingly disappointing Jack Wilshere.

Luke Shaw generated a lot of hype before the game but Ashley Cole, although struggling to keep his place at Chelsea, performed better at left-back in his 45 minute audition.

With John Terry's enforced retirement, central defence still looks less than airtight. Last night it was Gary Cahill and Chris Smalling who twice let Danish attackers slip between them for chances they luckily spurned. Memories of Terry and Matthew Upson leaving acres between them in 2010 against Germany are all too raw.

Steven Gerrard seems sure to play the role of deep midfield anchorman in Brazil ahead of Michael Carrick, while Jordan Henderson did a reasonable job of hoovering around him in the centre, an alternative to Tom Cleverley.

In their own half, England look smooth and organised, whipping the ball around confidently, but by the time the ball reaches the final third, telepathy has gone to pot.

If the Three Lions are going to challenge for the World Cup, there is no sign that they have the requisite attacking fluency.

Sturridge, despite a couple of snap-shots, was oddly marooned in a right-sided role in the first half, afraid of raiding the box, which left Wayne Rooney, expertly positioned as a support striker beyond his markers, with no-one to combine with.

The result was a static attack taking hopeful pot-shots from distance or lumping optimistic crosses into a box full of Danish shirts. Over in Madrid meanwhile, Spain were attacking with alacrity and beautiful waves of dribbling and overlapping in their win over Italy.

Would that England had the likes of Santi Cazorla, Andres Iniesta, Pedro Rodriguez or David Silva in their ranks.

In the absence of top individuals, England need a system to progress and Hodgson admitted last year he wanted to play a quick counter-attacking style, despite the tropical heat of Manaus presumably.

This implies his team will be on the back foot in Brazil most of the time. Against poorer opponents like Denmark however, there did not seem to be much of a plan B, until Lallana replaced Wilshere. If this was a night of experimentation, then the late inclusion of James Milner, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Andros Townsend and Danny Welbeck might hint at Hodgson's first choice men.

Sturridge seems ahead of Welbeck for now, but league form up until June is what counts. If Andy Carroll can find the net for West Ham, his physical presence could be a useful alternative for what is not a glittering range of attacking options. Adam Johnson's recent goals for Sunderland should have merited a call-up, but the phone oddly remained silent.

Raheem Sterling  is a last-minute possibility for the England attack and he was lively on the left at Wembley but his schoolboy-esque tricks need to be matched by good final balls and team-play which only experience can provide.

Scouts from England's World Cup opponents are unlikely to have been worried by what they saw. England are lacking ideas up front and Hodgson is still using a variety of attackers. The defence looks more settled, yet far from secure.

(c) Sean O'Conor & Soccerphile

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