Bonhomie is the name of the game this summer. Roy Hodgson wants his England squad to assimilate in Poland and Ukraine, to engage with the locals in a good will campaign designed to reconnect players and the community.
A noble sentiment, but what about the hearts and minds of the English? A win is a win was at the head of a long line of justifications for what was an underwhelming first engagement for Hodgson. He liked the clean sheet, the industry of his players, the commitment of his captain. These are the buzzwords that echo drearily down the generations. The English game was baptised in blood, sweat and tears.
Where is the joy, the exhilaration, the return on emotional investment? Why does it have to be so dull, so devoid of ambition? Relief on Saturday was provided only by switching to Eurovision, and then not for long with slow emasculation of Engelbert in sympathy with the anti-climactic events in Oslo.
Is this all there is to look forward to in Poland and Ukraine, crunching tackles, tireless tracking back by the centre crash and the hopeful ball over the top? While it was pleasing to hear Hodgson acknowledge the lack of cohesion in the attacking third and pledge to improve on that against Belgium on Saturday, the evidence points to a conservative coach constrained by Stone Age thinking.
Steven Gerrard and Scott Parker, both excellent footballers, duplicated each other in deep space against Norway. Gerrard made his reputation as an unanswerable force attacking the opponent’s box. For England he plays in front of the wrong back four, his own. In this withdrawn role he is no better or worse than the next man.
With England’s midfield core so deep the creative responsibility falls to wide men who are essentially denied any opportunity to apply sustained pressure because they do not see enough of the ball. By extension the centre-forward is condemned to 90 minutes running in the wrong direction chasing down opposition full backs.
One does not have to be Gary Neville to identify this as a deeply unfulfilling viewing experience. The dominant school of thought lays the blame for English travails at the quality of players at Hodgson’s disposal. In Stewart Downing and James Milner, nobody’s idea of Finney and Matthews, they might have a point.
Yet Ashley Young showed in turning his defender inside out and slotting home with his left foot that there is technique in English feet. Was the Gerrard of 2005 Champions League lore lacking in footballing dexterity? He beat AC Milan on his own. He may not have the same explosive change of pace but Gerrard has the necessary authority and if he lives to be a 100 will not be any slower than Germany’s beating heart Bastian Schweinsteiger.
Without falling into the optimism trap that inflated expectation surrounding the ‘golden generation’ hope is retained in the calibre of Ashley Cole, Joe Hart, Wayne Rooney and the rapidly emerging Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain. But no amount of skill can flourish in a tactical straight jacket that places the emphasis on clean sheets over scoring.
Hodgson would do well to follow the example of his counterpart at Twickenham. Head rugby coach Stuart Lancaster began by reminding his squad what it meant to be English, to wear the white shirt, to honour the best traditions of the game. In other words his first move was a conceptual shift that began the process of liberating the deepest playing resource in world rugby.
Hodgson needs to trust his players to play, to place the emphasis higher up the pitch, to threaten Gerrard with the axe if he steps into his own half, to encourage a system that supports the centre forward as much as the centre back. England can’t progress this summer with Gerrard and Parker falling over each other to take the ball from John Terry and Joleon Lescott. They might if the team’s midfield hub floods the final third with menace.
England have nothing to lose but a reputation for losing assiduously acquired over too many years. Come on Roy, be a hero. Carpe diem.