Faced with a limited squad and scarcely any time to prepare, the Three Lions boss did an admirable job leading his team to a quarterfinal berth.
His Three Lions were no better than any of their under-performing predecessors, handed their tickets home after their penalty shoot-out loss to Italy in Sunday’s quarterfinal. But they were no worse either. And given the circumstances that Hodgson was dropped into, that was no mean feat. By comparison to some of the other “major footballing nations” who flamed out spectacularly, England actually looked a beacon of moderation and stability, a label it has seldom been tagged with in the past.
When Hodgson was appointed May 1, he took on a job vacated almost three months prior by Fabio Capello, who had quit in a huff over John Terry’s being removed by the Football Associated on the grounds of the racism charge against him. In the meantime, talk of the Terry situation had been masticated on endlessly. His ability to coexist with fellow central defender Rio Ferdinand was questioned – as Ferdinand’s younger brother Anton had been the target of Terry’s alleged verbal racist abuse – while the country assumed Tottenham manager Harry Redknapp’s takeover of the team was imminent.
Qualification for the Euro had been fairly straightforward, but the England Hodgson inherited was a meltdown waiting to happen.
Given the above, and appreciating fully how pedestrian the players at Hodgson’s disposal were on balance, wins over Sweden and Ukraine and draws with France and Italy weren’t at all bad. Coming within a better-aimed penalty kick or two of the semifinals – which would have matched England’s second-best ever performance in the continental tournament – the English outperformed co-favorite the Netherlands and France, a solid outsider.
It did so by avoiding what torpedoed the campaigns of the aforementioned two: internal strife. Hodgson headed the Terry-Ferdinand situation off at the pass by leaving Ferdinand at home. This may seem cosmically unfair, since it is Terry who stands accused of having affronted the Ferdinand family, not the other way around, but it made footballing sense. And it was “footballing reasons” that Hodgson hid behind, to the merriment of the English press. But if his reason was a bit of a fib, its effect was as desired.
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By cutting potential points of friction from his squad before even entering the tournament, Hodgson forged a team that appeared unified and undistracted. Deplorably, this is quite the accomplishment in the age of total player power, when egos rule the locker room and mutiny is an accepted occupational hazard for national team managers.
That his authority and team harmony weren’t bogged down by an excess of stars grating under limited minutes was his good fortune, as there weren’t all that many household names to select once Ferdinand was cut and Frank Lampard pulled out with an injury. And so for once, England wasn’t undone by infighting or scandal or misuse of players or fatigue. It played up to its potential. That potential was no more than a quarterfinals place, is all.
Hodgson, who scarcely had the time to tell his players what he wanted from them, let alone build a squad, carved out clear roles for everybody on the team. And then he sent them into the field with simple instructions that were within reach for a team whose only strength was its defense. If his 4-4-2 was clearly out of vogue, it did the trick for England so long as all four midfielders tracked back. It didn’t yield them much possession, chances or highights, but it did enough.
This simplified, unfussy England incarnation achieved all it could.
And that’s to the credit of Hodgson. He and his playing style of two rigid banks of four can be accused of cynicism, pragmatism, defensiveness or any other dirty word of the modern soccer parlance. But his was most of all the realism of a man who knew better, bereft of the notion that it’s England’s birth-right to dominate the sport it imagines it invented.
England didn’t show anything real pretty, that’s for sure. But it worked. It was functional and it was fairly effective. Things went about as well as one could reasonably expect from this group at this juncture in these circumstances. A land accustomed to crippling disappointment should be satisfied with this outcome.