England v France: Hodgson's Toughest Task Will Be Convincing The Players It Can Be Done

In the 40 days since he took over as England manager Roy Hodgson has downplayed expectation in public. In private however, he will need all his powers of inspiration to convince them they can go all the way...
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In the 40 days since he took over as England manager Roy Hodgson has downplayed expectation in public. In private however, he will need all his powers of inspiration to convince them they can go all the way...

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There’s an interesting debate going on in Ireland at the moment based around Giovanni Trapattoni’s work as national team coach. You’d think that the man who qualified a country for Euro 2012, after ten years without them reaching a major tournament, would be a hero, but it’s not quite that simple.

Trapattoni, you see, has looked at his team’s players, and concluded that the best chance of success is with a strict adherence to 4-4-2 and a safety-first philosophy that has ‘workhorse’ players Glenn Whelan and Keith Andrews starting ahead of others like Darron Gibson or James McCarthy, who are arguably more talented, but play with less discipline. Trapattoni had, until last night’s capitulation, made Ireland hard to beat with a tactic that is perhaps befitting of a nation that size.

This is relevant to England coach Roy Hodgson: firstly, as Michael Cox points out in Gary Lineker’s Definitive Guide to Euro 2012, if Hodgson looked at the final two games coached by his predecessor Fabio Capello, he would have noted that England beat world champions Spain and Sweden, both 1-0, in November last year, with Trapattonian tactics. After the Spain victory, Capello admitted that there is no point in trying to beat Spain at their own game, and so reverted to the underdogs’ role and punished Spain from a set-piece.

The other reason Ireland’s situation is relevant is that Hodgson’s best results as a coach have come as an underdog. “The expectations on England won’t be high this summer and ‘Underdog’ is Roy’s middle name,” wrote Swedish columnist Peter Wennman in Aftonbladet newspaper.

Ever since his appointment as England coach, Hodgson has been managing the nation’s expectations

In the Premier League, Hodgson found success with Fulham, whom he led to the 2010 Europa League: along the way beating ‘bigger’ teams like Juventus, Wolfsburg, Hamburg, FC Basel and Shakhtar Donetsk (in fact, the day the FA made the formal approach to West Brom to speak to Hodgson was the two-year anniversary of Fulham reaching that final).

Ever since his appointment as England coach, Hodgson has been managing the nation’s expectations. When he named his squad, he didn’t say what most coaches say: “We are going there to win the tournament and anything less would be a disappointment.” That just sets you up for failure. No, Hodgson has been circumspect throughout, and the two examples he gave for England to bear in mind were both huge underdogs: Denmark winning the European Championship in 1992, and Greece in 2004. “You don't necessarily have to be the best team to win a tournament,” Hodgson said. “You can get by with good team spirit, and a bit of luck at the right times.” Trapattoni, interestingly, has been saying almost exactly the same in Ireland.

Cynics will shrug that Hodgson has no choice but to play down England’s chances, given the squad he named. And it’s true that Hodgson has it tough, with Jack Wilshere missing out entirely, Wayne Rooney suspended for two games, and many others in the squad – among them Andy Carroll, Jermain Defoe, James Milner and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain – far from regular starters for their club sides. As Daniel Taylor wrote in The Guardian: “He is not so much selecting from a shallow pool but something more resembling a puddle.”

At one stage under Hodgson, Switzerland were ranked three in the world

But Hodgson does have something that no other England coach has ever had on his appointment: previous experience of coaching at a major tournament.  That came at the 1994 World Cup, when Hodgson was in charge of Switzerland. He qualified them from a difficult group that contained Italy and Portugal and, in USA, and got through Group A by drawing 1-1 with hosts USA (in baking heat) and smashing Gheorghe Hagi’s Romania 4-1.

At one stage under Hodgson, Switzerland were ranked three in the world, so it’s no wonder he has named that period among his career highlights. “The major problem was dealing with the jealousies between the French, German and Italian speakers,” he said. “The Germans considered themselves the best, the French thought themselves culturally superior, and the Italians felt they knew football best.” That puts his current diplomatic skills surrounding John Terry into perspective.

Just like in most of the countries Hodgson has worked (with the exception, maybe, of England), his appointment as England coach was welcomed in Switzerland. “I don't think there are any Englishmen with such broad experience of how football works outside of their island. That cannot be such a bad thing,” said David Lemos of Radio Television Suisse. “Anyway, can England afford to snub a man like Hodgson? What have they achieved with bigger names?”

While Hodgson has named Denmark and Greece as the targets for England to follow, there are other, more recent examples of underdogs achieving international success.

“We really played like a team under him. Everyone worked for each other, and knew what to do. He’s fantastic at inspiring players."

Last summer, Paraguay stunned South America by reaching the Copa America final after drawing its three group games and then beating Brazil (quarter-finals) and Venezuela (semi-finals) on penalties. In the only other national tournament already played in 2012, Zambia won the African Cup of Nations, beating three of the strongest teams going into the competition - Senegal, Ghana and Ivory Coast – despite having the lowest pass completion rate of all competing sides.

Hodgson could face one of his former West Brom players in England’s second group game in Kiev. Jonas Olsson is expected to start for Sweden at centre-back, and he has no doubt what the coach will bring to England. “He’s so good at organising teams and getting everyone to pull in the same direction,” he explained. “We really played like a team under him. Everyone worked for each other, and knew what to do. He’s fantastic at inspiring players."

If that success is to come as an underdog, Hodgson is doing a good job of talking down England’s hopes as the tournament gets closer. His toughest task may be to persuade his players to do the same, while privately convincing them it can be done.

This is an edited extract from the ebook ‘Best XI Insider: England vs France’, which also contains exclusive profiles of Scott Parker, Franck Ribery and Laurent Blanc, tactical analysis by The Score’s Michael Cox, and Robert Pires picking his best ‘Frangland XI’. It’s available to buy here

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