England’s best performer at Euro 2012 was Roy Hodgson.
He set a dignified tone, refused to panic, bound the group to the cause, restored pride in the shirt, instituted a plan that all bought into and acknowledged our failings.
He even encouraged James Milner to desert his post on the right for the occasional foray down the left. This is characteristic of the continental habit where the midfield men rotate in a fluid pattern.
For this correspondent, Hodgson has been a pleasant surprise. There were demonstrable signs of improvement, particularly in the first half against Italy, where for 20 minutes England looked a capable side.
The rigid intransigence of the friendlies against Norway and Belgium were gone, again illustrating how Hodgson has identified failings and affected a correction. The challenge now is to maintain progress.
In his excellent column in my own paper, The Independent, Rafa Benitez argues powerfully for the adoption of a philosophy that is taken up by all. The FA needs to decide on what is desirable and lay down the coaching template at grassroots. Hodgson and his captain, Steven Gerrard, both pointed to ball retention, or the lack of it in England’s case, as an area of great concern.
The stats back this up. Not once did England enjoy the majority of possession at Euro 2012. Pass completion was embarrassing, shots at goal likewise.
As always the commentary of the football ‘expert’ is disappointing. So many of our ex-players identify a lack of technique as the fundamental flaw. We cannot adopt the passing blueprint of our continental cousins because our players lack the basic skills at international level, or so the argument goes.
Have they not been watching Barcelona?
Xavi Hernandez barely hits a ball more than ten metres. He receives it on the deck in small spaces, turns and moves it on at pace. Ask him to bring a ball down out of the air travelling at the speed of sound a la Andy Carroll and see how strong his technique is.
He is not required to do that, which is just as well. Carroll makes a decent job of it, but it ain’t easy. Why make the game hard. Xavi excels because the movement off the ball at Barca is first rate. It is incumbent on the players to be available, which means to find space and have the courage to accept the pass even when marked. It comes to feet, not at their head, or chest. One touch and away.
Yes, they have Messi and Iniesta to complete the golden triangle, but Athletic Bilbao do not and we saw what mincemeat they made of Manchester United employing the same basic philosophy. But English players can do this too.
Wayne Rooney had a shocker in Ukraine but not for lack of conditioning than technique. When the strength drained from their legs England returned to old habits against Italy.
This is the danger Hodgson must resist. He reached into the bag on ancient tricks and pulled out Carroll. Hey presto England went downhill from there. Not because Carroll cannot play, necessarily, though in my view he is not international class, but because England did what their DNA told them, to knock it long to the big man up top.
What Euro 2012 told us above all is that those days are gone. There is no profit in the hoof up the pitch. Football is a game played on the deck. Keep the ball and you have a chance to win matches.
There is no guarantee England will win in Brazil in 2014 with the new approach – yes, I know, too early even to dream of that - only that we have no chance in Brazil and beyond if we don’t adopt it.
The return of Jack Wilshere gives us hope. The accent needs to be on youth. If Tom Cleverly trains on at United that won’t hurt. Chris Smalling, Kyle Walker, Adam Johnson, Phil Jones, Danny Welbeck, Jack Rodwell, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Theo Walcott, Nick Powell, just 18 and new at Old Trafford, Scott Sinclair at Swansea.
The tools are already there, but no Carroll, Stewart Downing or Frank Lampard, please. James Milner is in to carry the bags. Just.