By Jason McKeown
It is, in my time watching football at least, the most different and unique England team that I have ever seen. Largely very organised (apart from a crazy 10-minute second half spell against Sweden), tactically-minded and ultra conservative. Roy Hodgson may not have had long to prepare, but he has whipped together a team with a far greater tactical nous than the usual long ball kick-and-rush we’ve seen repeatedly fail over the years.
The early signs of Euro 2012 are that England are not in the same league, ability wise, as your Spains, Germanys, Hollands and even France. Yet Hodgson is harnessing the limited tools at his disposal to create a unit greater than the sum of its parts. It will be very interesting to see how far England can go in this tournament – in truth, they still look rather dated compared to the open expansive football that other nations are producing – especially in view of the familiarity of it all to us Bradford City fans.
Hodgson is a pragmatist, just as Peter Taylor was a pragmatist and just as Phil Parkinson is a pragmatist. That is they deal with matters in a sensible and realistic way, which is based more on practical rather than theoretical considerations. In the case of all three managers, they took over England/City at a time where hopes were low and people wanted to believe that a manager was capable of lifting below average performances through a different kind of magic. England have endured a very poor decade and there is no longer confidence that having four or five world class players is good enough to live up to the lofty expectations of a nation. City have gone through a host of players and spent a great deal of money without reward, and the manager is looked upon as the differential factor between more failure and belated success.
Watching England’s first two matches, there were eerie familiarities to Taylor and Parkinson’s line ups and tactics. The France draw was certainly more Taylor-esqe, with the majority of the squad staying behind the ball and expected to retain positional and tactical discipline. Attacks were rare, and when they occurred few bodies were racing forwards into the box. But for all the French possession and territorial advantage, the threat on Joe Hart’s goal was limited. Hodgson played for a draw and got it, Taylor would approve.
(Incidentally, the 1-0 friendly victory over Belgium was like watching a re-run of City and Taylor’s infamous 1-0 win over Stevenage two years ago. Boo!)
Against Sweden last night, England lined up in a manner that had remarkable similarities to the approach Parkinson took last season. 4-4-2, but with only one out-and-out winger and two central midfielders who rarely got forwards. James Milner played like Craig Fagan did for City on the right – an extra body to tuck in when the opposition had the ball – while Scott Parker and Steven Gerrard provided a passable imitation of Ritchie Jones and Ricky Ravenhill. With Ashley Young (Kyel Reid) asked to run at people on the left, England’s threat was either from this one flank or from knocking direct balls to Andy Carroll (James Hanson), who would look for Danny Welbeck (Nahki Wells).
England showed far greater attacking intent against Sweden, just as Parkinson’s City are more offensively-minded that Taylor’s Bantams. But there is still a huge element of restraint and a priority of not getting beaten first. At Valley Parade last season, at least, City were very tough to beat because of the high work-rate and tactical discipline of the players. For a side struggling against relegation, results at home were that of a team punching above their weight.
The challenge for Parkinson next season – just as it will be for Hodgson in time – is to produce a greater attacking threat from his team. Just as Theo Walcott’s introduction for England last night changed a game that had drifted out of their control, it is the right flank of City’s midfield where Parkinson will be expected to find what was lacking last season. Fagan has left the club having done a job for his team in the way Milner has for England the last two games, but it won’t live long in the memory and there’s a feeling that more is needed from this position.
It is widely expected that Parkinson – free from the weighted pressure of a relegation battle to fight – will go for two out and out wingers next season. He has just above got his defence sorted, and in Jones and Ravenhill has two central midfielders who do a superb job protecting the back four. Reid proved himself to be a great attacking threat on the left (better, relatively speaking of course, than Young on Friday night), but it is predictable for the opposition. Having two direct and pacy wingers, of Reid’s ilk, will suddenly present a far more varied and unpredictable attacking threat. Provided Parkinson’s full backs can cope with less defensive support in front of them and do not roam forward themselves too often (again, we see attacking full backs Glen Johnson and Ashley Cole playing in a more restricted manner under Hodgson) it could work rather well.
Until the City team is ready, watching England represents a very useful confidence barometer. Like other Euro 2012 teams, League Two has over the past few years become an environment where teams willing to pass the ball and play in an attacking manner can flourish.
In Crawley last season, we might have seen an almost comical caricature of the crude, ugly long ball football that England’s bottom tier is always associated with; but ahead of them Swindon and Shrewsbury were promoted by playing open expansive football. Meanwhile Crewe – more direct last season than usual, but largely remaining true to their principles – defeated an impressive Cheltenham side 2-0 in the play off final. Some might argue that pragmatism is now looking dated (Spain won the World Cup of 2010 with tika taka, while Italy’s pragmatism won in 2006), though the fact that City smashed aside Shrewsbury and Crewe at Valley Parade last season shows it can succeed.
And succeed it can next season. Not always pretty to watch, and with a lot of chopping and changing the team on a regular basis – Hodgson looking as guilty of this as Taylor and Parkinson have been, and he will change a winning team on Tuesday night – but it is the route City have chosen and hope that Parkinson can get it right, where Taylor got it wrong.
England need to perform better at Euro 2012 than they have at previous major tournaments. City need to do whatever it takes to get out of League Two, after several botched attempts. The answer, it is hoped, to both dilemmas is an ism that begins with ‘P’.