Monday, 25 June 2012

England: Looking to the future

Hodgson has a lot of thinking to do as he aims to mastermind England's revival 

We've seen it all before. It's the same old story. England eliminated from a major tournament once again. In golfing terms, an exit at the quarter-final stage of Euro 2012 was very much a par performance. When you consider the four semi-finalists - Portugal, Germany, Spain and Italy - there's no doubting that they're all operating at a far superior level in terms of quality. England are exactly what their sixth-placed world ranking suggests, a solid outfit but rank outsiders when it really matters.

Roy Hodgson has got through one of the most difficult honeymoon periods for any England manager and can hold his head high after successfully guiding his team through the group stage. Victory at the 2014 World Cup in Brazil may seem like an unfathomable dream, but what can be done by the boss over the next two years to maximise our chances? Here I focus on five key areas.

1. Implement possession football
An average of 39% possession across the four Euro 2012 matches says it all. We quite simply don't know how to keep hold of the ball and ware teams down like they do us. If the growing perception of England as a defensively-minded side is to reverse, this has to change. Yes, they can get away with it against the so called lesser teams but the top nations will ultimately punish them. I'm not suggesting that they need to reach the heights of Spain who consistently dominate possession regardless of the opposition, but they need to at least match their counterparts toe to toe. The old saying goes that 'you can't score a goal without the ball'. On that simplistic basis, England were 26% less likely to score a goal in Kiev's Olympic Stadium and their shot tally, eight to Italy's 31, was a true reflection of that. England have to learn to become more patient on the ball and not be afraid to pass sideways or backwards if that's the better option. Perhaps it's embedded in our football culture to always think about going forward but the game has changed and the Spanish especially have shown how probing football, which essentially forces teams into a physical and mental submission, is the key to success.

2. Think ahead and act now
John Terry, Steven Gerrard and Ashley Cole were arguably three of England's best performers over the course of the tournament and although they have the capability to play an integral part in qualifying for the World Cup, Hodgson has to decide now whether he envisages them in his starting line-up when the summer of 2014 arrives. Terry and Cole will both be 33 years of age by that time while Gerrard will be 34. Other key players to ponder over are Scott Parker and Gareth Barry who will both be 33 and Frank Lampard who will be 35. A sense of continuity and stability needs to be established throughout the qualifying campaign and it may be beneficial to use these older players sparingly and let the younger generation flourish as a team. Arsenal's Jack Wilshere appears to be the main focal point of England's future centre-midfield and even though Jordan Henderson has had his critics on the back of a disappointing season with Liverpool, he is still extremely young having only just turned 22. Phil Jones and Chris Smalling have the makings of a superb centre-back partnership and this is further enhanced by the fact that they're both playing together at Manchester United under the nurtureship of Sir Alex Ferguson. Leighton Baines may feel his time has come to fill Cole's shoes at left-back and Kieran Gibbs provides a promising youthful option. The more caps these players get between now and the World Cup, the stronger England's squad will be.

My predicted future England line-up: Hart, Walker, Jones, Smalling, Gibbs, Lennon, Henderson, Wilshere, Oxlade-Chamberlain, Welbeck, Rooney.

3. Keep the fans on his side
England supporters won't have been particularly excited by their team's performance at Euro 2012 but they will certainly be encouraged. There's something to build on. The foundations are there. Hodgson's come out of a major tournament with a considerable amount of credibility to his name but he will need to mould together a more expansive style of play to keep it that way. As with any England manager, results will define Hodgson's reign. If he can add a bit finesse to the way they go about achieveing them, then that can only benefit his cause.

4. Make proper use of friendlies
Pick the best team available everytime and give the budding stars their chance from the bench. It's as straightforward as that. International friendlies will only ever be taken seriously if the fans can see that they're being used effectively. There's no point in making an ambundance of changes throughout the ninety minutes. They all need to be treated as though they're competitive matches and Hodgson must make that clear to any Premier League managers that have an issue with that policy.

5. Be ruthless
The phrase 'England have done enough' is banded about too much. We don't do more than enough, often enough. It's about time that we start putting games to bed and give ourselves a chance to implement a pattern of play under less pressured circumstances. Montenegro, Ukraine, Poland, Moldova and San Marino all await us in the World Cup qualifiers. We needn't fear any of those nations and need to take full advantage of the freedom that should give us.

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