London: Roy Hodgson accepts England are now “in a dogfight” after another poor display left them scrapping for a place at the World Cup in Brazil with teams they should be beating fairly comfortably.
Rather worryingly, England’s manager appears to see this as a “good thing”.
“There’s nothing wrong with that,” he said after his side dropped two more qualification points here in Poland. “We know we can stay and take part in a dogfight. We took part in a few dogfights during the Euros and we certainly dug in against Poland and showed the right sort of character and determination.
“There will be some groups where one team shoots away and others where it’s going to be quite close to the end,” Hodgson added. “I still think we will improve. If you’d said to me that we’d have eight points and be unbeaten, I’d have been happy to accept that.”
Really? Eight points? Eight points that will probably leave England two points adrift of Montenegro come the middle of next month. Eight points that make the trip to Montenegro in March exactly the kind of “must-win game” that Hodgson seems keen to avoid. Is it not time to remind the players of a responsibility that goes way beyond their new code of conduct? To remind them how painful it would be to be 10,000 kilometres away when 32 teams are in a proper dogfight in South America in the summer of 2014?
Hodgson did not appreciate the question. “They know that,” he said. “It would be teaching my grandmother to suck eggs if I was to stand up in front of them and tell them that. They would regard that as slightly insulting.
“The bottom line is that this is not an easy group. Poland and Ukraine were at the Euros, we know about Montenegro from the previous campaign. We’ve always been aware of that.
“It would’ve been lovely to have got off to a flyer and be sitting here with 12 points. But you don’t get what you want by asking for it. You get what you want by playing for it. Ukraine played very well at Wembley and deserved their point. Poland played well and deserved their point. We’ve got to be disappointed because we couldn’t produce good enough performances in those games to get six points.
“But sometimes you’ve got to fight for something, rather than just sail through, and that can help. If you look at the Euros, Russia and Holland sailed through but neither of them got out of their group, even though they’d qualified unbeaten.”
Point one — Poland and Ukraine were at the Euros because they were the tournament hosts. Point two — sailing through qualification is always better than fighting to the death in a group of this quality. It means the team are playing well and it does not “help” when they are performing as they have done against Ukraine and Poland.
But England do have six games in which to improve and two friendlies, against Sweden in November and Brazil in February, that Hodgson can put to good use before returning to the serious business of qualification.
So what does he need to do?
Identify his best players and stick with them.
Hodgson was informed on Wednesday night that, in his 11 games in charge so far, he has used 35 players.
“That’s a lot,” he said. “But I think we’re quite close to bedding down a team.”
It is time to identify Danny Welbeck as the best option as partner to Wayne Rooney and stick with him, just as it is time to identify Andy Carroll as the best alternative and Jermain Defoe as an option should he need a goal when international defenders are tiring.
Hodgson is right to regard Rooney as a No 10, and he can only hope he does not have too many more games like Wednesday night’s. But it would help Rooney if he builds a partnership with one player, and an understanding with a small group of wingers. Tom Cleverley on the left is not something Hodgson should consider again.
Make the best use of Sweden next month.
Hodgson has suggested that he will take an experimental team to Stockholm, but he must use the game to work on his first team. Rooney has said he wants to play “all the games, if that’s possible”.
Hodgson does not seem convinced. “I don’t intend to go to Stockholm with a weak team,” he said. “But I’m also conscious that a lot of players, the Gerrards and the Rooneys and the Carricks, will be right in the middle of European football and I don’t know how much I can bash them.”
Introduce some younger players, by all means. Bring Arsenal right back Carl Jenkinson into the group. But give the first team 45 minutes, and with it, the opportunity to build a bit of confidence and understanding. It’s Brazil after that, and without the right preparation that could be brutal.
It was not an easy night for Joleon Lescott and Phil Jagielka in Warsaw and it was difficult for them against Ukraine, too. Understandably, England are suffering in the absence of John Terry and Rio Ferdinand. And not just defensively. These are quality players who are comfortable on the ball, and it was the hesitancy that Lescott and Jagielka displayed on the ball that contributed to a stuttering performance from England. The return of Phil Jones and Chris Smalling could improve things. It would at least create competition for places. But has Hodgson been too hasty in all but ending Ferdinand’s international career? I would recall him for Sweden.
On a training pitch at London Colney, a 20-year-old midfielder is working tirelessly to return from a long-term injury. Hodgson does not want to put Jack Wilshere under any kind of pressure.
“When he broke into the team before, he was a revelation,” said the England manager.
“But he’s been out of football for a long, long time. He’s a wonderful talent and, of course, it would be terrific if he could reproduce that form when he becomes involved again. But I’m also keen, like Arsene Wenger, to play down the expectations.”
And rightly so. But the return of Wilshere might just enable England to play with more fluency and finesse. A midfield with Gerrard and Wilshere is a far more balanced one, and Wilshere’s eye for a pass would certainly benefit Rooney.
By March, Hodgson can only hope he is impressing for Arsenal and is therefore ready to return to an England side in serious need of some quality.