Hodgson remains humble after win
Having successfully steered England to next year’s World Cup, one of manager Roy Hodgson’s biggest tasks will be to manage expectations during the eight-month period until the tournament begins.
As the country that gave birth to the modern game and won the World Cup in 1966, England considers itself one of international football’s heavyweights, but in recent times, success has proved elusive.
Not since 1996 have the national team reached the semifinals of a major tournament and not since 1990 have they graced the last four at a World Cup.
The intervening years have brought nothing but false dawns and painful failures.
Typically, England’s players arrive at a tournament expressing bullish optimism about reaching the final, only to limp through the group phase and then fall at the first sizeable hurdle in the knockout rounds.
Their record is far from dismal, but a squad containing Champions League winners in the form of Wayne Rooney, Steven Gerrard, Frank Lampard, Michael Carrick, Ashley Cole and Gary Cahill is equipped for far better.
Although England have only lost once over 90 minutes during Hodgson’s 22-match tenure, the only sides currently in the top 25 in the Fifa ranking that they have beaten in competitive matches since 2006 are Russia, Croatia, Switzerland and Sweden.
For members of the England set-up, attempting to establish objectives for the World Cup has proved a fool’s errand in recent weeks.
Football Association chairman Greg Dyke came in for criticism after claiming it would be fanciful for England to target victory in Brazil, but former England manager Glenn Hoddle was similarly forthright, describing such ambitions as “unrealistic”.
Speaking after the 2-0 win over Poland on Tuesday, that secured England’s passage to Brazil, Hodgson twice ducked opportunities to set objectives for his side.
“It’s a bit early to talk about our impact at the tournament,” he told one inquisitor. “I’ll pass up on that question and use the next six or seven months to reflect upon it.”
With Hoddle having been invited by Dyke to join an FA commission set up to examine the misfortunes of the national team, it is against a backdrop of soul-searching that England will prepare for Brazil.
Hodgson must walk a diplomatic tightrope between tempering unreasonable expectations about what his team can hope to achieve and backing his squad to make an impact at the tournament.
He defended his players robustly after they were derided following a 0-0 draw in Ukraine last month and has also rubbished claims that England made heavy weather of qualifying.
Speaking earlier this month, he said: “It depends what attitude you take; whether you take a realistic attitude towards the England national team and where it is today, or whether you live on past glories and say, ‘This shouldn’t happen.’”
England, according to Hodgson, are in “something of a transitional period”, and it is a matter of tactics as much as personnel.
Since being outplayed by Italy in the quarterfinals at Euro 2012, he has insisted on the need for England to improve their ability to conserve possession, occasionally using a new 4-3-3 formation to give his side an extra man in midfield.
However, he changed tack for the trip to Ukraine, admitting afterwards, somewhat incongruously, that he had told his players to play long balls forward because “we didn’t want to play out from the back early and invite pressure”.
Furthermore, England’s best performances of the qualifying campaign –the latest victories over Montenegro and Poland – came after Hodgson abandoned his usual tendency towards caution by selection proactive sides that saw Rooney joined in attack by Daniel Sturridge, Danny Welbeck and breakthrough star Andros Townsend.
Hodgson will have further opportunities to hone his tactics next month, with Germany and Australia reportedly lined up for a pair of friendly games, but the battle to balance expectations is only just beginning.