This Blessed Plot (or: Meanwhile, in England)

TFN’s resident academic John Guillem dissects Roy Hodgson’s England. Set your brows to high! 

The accelerated qualities of the contemporary mediascape make international football something of an oddity. The cliché runs that international football, in spite of the best efforts of FIFA to reduce it to the same robotic fare as club football, remains something of a bastion for the core values of the game: passion, unpredictability, honour; a certain sense of pride connecting to the sport’s working class roots.

FIFA are obviously reprehensible types of the most reptilian of bents, but in spite of the unsavoury commerciality of the World Cup and other tournaments1 some of the above rings true, if only incidentally. The relative lack of cohesion and preparation compared to club football lends the scrappier proceedings a romantic aura, whilst the lower quantity of games (particularly when you factor in the fact that there are many fans who only show an interest in tournament, playoff and crunch qualifying games) means that upsets appear to possess greater magnitude and resonance than a domestic cup upset.

And yet, patience seems to be in shorter stock for national sides compared to the clubs who so gratefully pocket their fans’ earnings without, in many cases, giving much back. It’s pretty weird, if you take a moment to think about it.

This is a rather oblique way of getting into what is actually a very complicated issue, one which I do not have time, space or knowledge to tackle fully. National football teams are magnets for the basal discontents of the nations they represent in a way that clubs generally are not. For every sensible individual deploring the excessive pressuring and capriciosity of the English media in their treatment of the national side there is an equally sensible individual who will remind us that our media and fans have nothing on the Brazilians in terms of unreasonable expectations, or on the French for flat-out animosity towards their own team.

There are many threads running through these issues – and they are not the same in every country – but one element which strikes me is this tension between what international football is supposed to represent, and the corporatised, alienating predicament in which football as a competitive sport finds itself. From the media’s perspective, qualifiers and friendlies simply do not conform to the schematisation of pleasure and desire they follow, making them only good for excitement through resentment (which, it has to be admitted, is a particular speciality of the English press these days).

An upper midtable Premier League side which had opened its league campaign with three wins – all clean sheets – against one immediate rival and two inferior sides who showed little interest in getting men ahead of the ball would not be taking the kind of flak that England have been so far this autumn. In fact, what with the veteran domestic manager with an endearingly archaic turn of phrase2, they would likely be accruing plaudits, particularly given the list of top sides dropping points so early on3. However, obviously, club football is not international football, even if that difference emerges in unexpected ways.

The current ‘issue’ surrounding England’s national football team is the non-event surrounding Raheem Sterling’s fatigue and Roy Hodgson’s handling of said fatigue. Football365’s excellent Mediawatch feature noted quite correctly that Hodgson was set up for criticism whichever road he decided to go down. The fact is that Sterling is currently – particularly given the absence of Ross Barkley and Theo Walcott4 – England’s key player despite his callow years, his lively appearance off the bench against Estonia providing another reminder of the dynamism he brings in the final third, and media logic dictates that drama swirl around him.

There’s also an incipient soap opera storyline developing between Roy Hodgson and Brendan Rodgers, one which reflects underlying tensions between the clubs which pays the players’ wages (and, in the case of Sterling and Daniel Sturridge, arguably overplays them, expecting the national side to provide the necessary R&R) and the country which represents … ‘something else,’ I suppose. Where does all this come from though? The simple fact that England are ticking over nicely, even if it’s a bit boring to say so. Here, have some boring analysis:

John’s theses on England

Having such a supposedly easy qualifying group (and certainly so far we’ve succeeded in making it look easier than our officially ranked betters in international football) is a bit of a lose-lose for the media, and, consequently for Roy Hodgson, who is going to have a very tedious time in his press conferences. However, in another sense it gives Hodgson a good opportunity to try things out. He’s a naturally cautious manager but in the last few games we’ve seen him trying out a system which has more balance to it than either the insanely dour 4-4-2 of Euro 2012 or the naively open 4-2-3-1 we saw at the World Cup. It’s good in the sense that it feels like Roy might have a plan, an identity for this side5, on his own terms rather than any foisted upon him.

However – and I’m trying very hard to avoid kneejerking so early on in the qualifying campaign – there are still some question marks about flexibility. Hodgson has implemented a few different systems to varying degrees of success, but the most effective international managers seem to have an answer to any situation. Things have not really felt this way under Hodgson, and a creeping suspicion lurks that England will struggle to cope with both packed defences and top class sides in tournaments. By 2016, Roy will have been in charge for four years, and it would be comforting to feel by then that he has tricks up his sleeve which do not fall into the relatively straightforward ploys of (a) inverting the midfield pyramid, (b) bringing pace off the bench (worked against Estonia!), (c) bringing on a brick shithouse striker.

Speaking of which, Rickie Lambert’s stock seems to have plummeted of late, doesn’t it? It’s always felt like Roy would really prefer to have Andy Carroll in that squad role, but the ogre-like Geordie remains stubbornly incapable of actually playing football matches. Lambert has much better technique than Carroll and has by-and-large performed well for England in his handful of caps, but in tournament play you really want that sort of player for their primary attributes: size, power, aerial ability. In terms of currently active English players, you’d be hard-pressed to beat Carroll in those departments. Perhaps Harry Kane will be ready by 2016, perhaps not…

It’s understandable that Hodgson would want to give Calum Chambers games, what with there being so many Arsenal players in the squad these days (plus he’ll probably be injured for the next international break), but you have to question his not giving Nathaniel Clyne a chance. The diamond requires attacking thrust from the full back positions, and Chambers, although a technically gifted player, doesn’t really fit the bill as well as Clyne. It seems a bit conservative on Hodgson’s part … and one wonders whether, had he been fit, John Stones (even less of an attacking full back) would have started instead.

On that note, it’s equally surprising that Kieran Gibbs isn’t getting a look-in. David Moyes’ Everton played to Leighton Baines’ strengths in a way that a England seem unlikely to, and his combination of relative slowness and advancing age make you wonder if he’s the best option for Euro 2016. Accepted wisdom seems to be that Luke Shaw’s rise is inexorable, but Gibbs is just as pacy and has played over eighty games in two years for a Champion’s League club. I find it hard to understand just how under the radar Gibbs’ maturation into a consistent (and not as injury prone as people seem to think) performer has gone.

The midfield looked good against Estonia. Jack Wilshere’s performances in a deep-lying role have been surprisingly good given the irritating media narrative we had over the summer that he’s not progressed/is shite/will never make anything of himself, as well as the fact that it’s hardly his natural position. Whether it will work against better sides is anyone’s guess, but if Hodgson is determined to start Henderson further upfield (which is a reasonable enough call, he’s a better shuttler than Wilshere) there aren’t many options at present for that position. It’s also nice to see Fabian Delph fitting in so swiftly. It’s almost as if players at (relatively) small clubs can play for England, eh? A lesson Roy still struggles to learn.

An instance where stats do not tell the full story: Milner was nowhere near as good against San Marino as everyone thinks. Whilst he’s a decent option as a shuttler on one side of the diamond (at least, better than as a winger in a flat 4-4-2), he would perhaps be better suited as one of the midfield 2 in a 4-3-3. Now maybe if we had a plan B…

Rooney, Rooney, Rooney. Nothing new to be said, although the Daily Mash ran a brilliant piece on him the other day which pretty much hits the nail on the head, tongue-in-cheek though it may be. He’s a remnant of an older time we’d like to forget, an unfortunate reminder that every day is exactly the same. Looks better without Sturridge in the side (who, to be frank, hasn’t been particularly impressive for England), the sense being that most likely there’s only room for one of them in the starting XI. Still, we know what’s going to happen anyway. As the devil says in Philip K. Dick’s late novel The Divine Invasion, ‘Nothing has changed and nothing is different. You could not escape it then and you cannot escape it now.’

And finally: Andros fucking Townsend. Oh well.


1. And not just with regards to the parasitism of the organising bodies. Some of the goings on in the Nigeria and Ghana camps at the World Cup brought the reminder that players are generally driven by motivations shadier than patriotism, and international football is not automatically exempt from this.

2. A note on this. It seems to me that most issues to do with Roy Hodgson’s management relate to his rather old fashioned diction. Certainly, there are criticisms of the management qua management but these tend to fade away as England continue to perform perfectly adequately (if not a lot better). This begs the question: should we really need to care about this? Do we actually care in any way? I suspect, despite our tepid attempts to pretend otherwise, we don’t.

3. Belgium, Netherlands, Spain, Germany, Russia, Switzerland and Portugal at time of writing.

4. Which is not to suggest that either of them would be THE key England player if fit, but certainly in the absence of (a) pacy runners with end product and (b) tricky players with vision and clever movement.

5. I mean, let’s be honest. 2012 was Roy playing it safe at short notice, and 2014 was a bit of a mess, albeit a well-intentioned one.

Leave a reply