Although I am a fan of Roy Hodgson, having been incredibly successful during his days at Fulham and West Brom, in addition to changing the world of Swedish football as we know it by introducing zonal marking in the 1990s, I’m still yet to be convinced by his tenure as England boss.
Despite being far more likeable than his predecessors Fabio Capello and Steve McLaren, and making some difficult decisions over questions that neither dared to answer, such as the eternal Gerrard-Lampard-midfield complex, I continually find myself frustrated at Three Lions performances. If it’s not a 1-1 draw and poor showing against Montenegro, it’s a casual victory against a European minnow, by scoring from a set piece or taking advantage of lacklustre defending, rather than creating a style of play which allows the England national team to assert dominance over their opponents, despite their often lack of ability.
Of course, the team’s failings should never be attributed to the manager alone. I think we’ve all accepted that our golden generation, the likes of Rio Ferdinand, John Terry, Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard, has been wasted, and now, with the majority of the squad either firmly into their twilight years, late 20-somethings who never reached their full potential, or early 20-somethings still yet to claim a place in the national set-up on merit rather than potential, Hodgson’s options are limited due to the overall decline in ability in comparison to the mid 2000s.
But is he using the best he’s got? And furthermore, is Hodgson actually playing towards our own strengths? While many a fan are confused by the constant inclusion of Tom Cleverley, either as a wide midfielder or even more disturbingly at the tip of a midfield diamond, my concern is in the striker department. Sam Allardyce recently raised an interesting point regarding his loaned-in star, Andy Carrroll.
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When quizzed upon the Geordie being given a more important role in regards to the Three Lions, the West Ham boss replied: “Roy [Hodgson] would be scared to do it because of the reaction he’d get. He would be accused of a direct approach and people would be on his case. But playing Andy does not make you a long-ball team, it just gives you extra options. He is good on the floor and others can play off him. Andy and Wayne Rooney together would work very well and it would benefit Wayne, who is often carrying England’s hopes all on his own.”
The words ring true. You get the feeling that even if the England team recorded a surprise victory against one of the bigger European powers, there would still be an adverse reaction had it been carried out in the style of Stoke rather than that of Manchester United, and any suggestion that it might become Hodgson’s long-term tactical policy would be sternly protested against by the British media.
Yet, the height, pace and power of the Premier League is undoubtedly our strength. Similarly, while other countries focus on passing, technique and movement from an early age, our youth system, which has potential wonder-kids playing on full-sized pitches by the time they’re teenagers, has been geared towards all things physical. It’s created a generation of James Milners, Micah Richards and Gareth Barrys, who may be incredibly athletic in one form or another, but in comparison to their foreign counter-parts, are sufficiently lacking in ability on the ball.
Yet, I still witness England teams on a regular basis woefully attempting to exert control of a match via the use of the football rather than our English hustle and bustle, which more often than not results in our version of ball retention of continually passing up and down the backline, Michael Carrick or Steven Gerrard exchanging a series of short passes with a central defender, before eventually trying to thread the ball to Wayne Rooney who, due to our lack of mobility, is completely isolated as a lone striker.
In addition to playing to our strengths, the biggest advantage I can see from making Andy Carroll an England regular would be to get better use out of Wayne Rooney. The Manchester United forward has been amongst the goals on international duty this season, with seven in his last eight appearances for the Three Lions, yet apart from being able to find the net, Rooney goes absent for most of the game, and rather than being the first port of call to build an attack, he spends the majority of the match wrestling with the ball and unable to find anyone within twenty yards of him to pass to.
Playing Carroll would allow Hodgson to deploy the 27-year-old further back, in a similar position to where he is used for United, and without the requirement to spearhead the attack, Rooney would be given the freedom to find space, drop into midfield when required and play off the front man, which furthermore would make him considerably harder to mark in comparison to him being often doubled-up by opponents, limiting his capability to truly affect the game.
Furthermore, the amount of goals that Carroll creates through his presence alone far outweighs his unspectacular record of six goals and two assists in 20 Premier League appearances during his season in exile at Upton Park. His partnership with Kevin Nolan works on the simple premise that defenders will be naturally drawn towards the lanky Geordie, often attempting to block him off in front as well as behind him, which leaves space that the former Bolton and Newcastle man can then exploit and subsequently find the net.
I could never understand why Liverpool never mastered the same concept, by either using Steven Gerrard – who is essentially a rich man’s Kevin Nolan – or Luis Suarez. Similarly, I believe the simple process could be used with Wayne Rooney for the England national team.
But it all depends on your opinions of Andy Carroll in terms of quality, and whether a striker who has scored 26 goals in 103 Premier League appearances throughout his career warrants such a pivotal role in the national set-up. Whilst he has shown glimpses of his ability during the latter half of the season, with one his goals – a volley with the ball travelling over his shoulder – required exceptional skill and technique, the majority of what we’ve seen from the 24 year old has been a lot of hard work with very little end product.
Similarly, I feel Jermain Defoe’s 11 domestic goals this season, in addition to him being an ever-consistent performer throughout his career, give him as much right to be starting for England as Carroll, and additionally, Daniel Sturridge has been exceptional for Liverpool, with five goals and two assists in seven appearances since signing in January, and more than anything I’ve found myself impressed with the 23 year old’s all round game – a stark deviation to his selfish, trigger-happy manner during his Chelsea days.
Perhaps it is too soon to be discussing the Hammers’ target man’s role in the England squad, considering he is still not at his peak as a footballer, and we are yet to see a full season of him bursting with confidence and free of spells on the sidelines. But with the 2014 World Cup just over a year away, the England team desperately need to find some sense of identity in time for the international tournament.
While perhaps Carroll would not be our most skilled footballer, or even our most efficient striker, he is the epitome of the Premier League. Although he requires an ugly style of play, which even West Ham fans still often disagree with, it is the only slim advantage we have on paper over our more technically gifted, more creative and more tactically astute European rivals. If we finally played to our strengths, rather than playing to get a result, perhaps the England team will finally put in a performance to be proud of.
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