By Nicholas Baldacchino
I have followed the English football team since I was a young boy. I fell in love with the Italia 90 team and was ecstatic during the wonderful performances of Euro 96 on home soil; I also endured Euro 92 and missing out on the World Cup in the USA. These tournaments were, in my opinion, the major high points and upsets for this great nation during the past 35 years.
All the other major tournaments were all a reflection of a very hectic campaign which always saw the England team players very tired and showing no true cohesion and fight within them; not to say that the team was based around 2 or 3 star players and the other components were under par.
Euro 2016, for different reasons, has left me very perplexed at how a manager with so much experience in professional football and who has also managed in continental Europe did so poorly with a talented team which most certainly should have done much more.
It is not nice to criticise a fellow coach and I do not want to do this as it is surely a very difficult task managing any team and football is a simple game but very complex as everyone sees things differently and has different opinions on every aspect of the beautiful game.
What I shall do is ask a number of questions and give my view on how things seem to run in the best way and maybe I can get some answers from someone.
First of all, when you take a job there must be a cohesive and comprehensive plan which is both short-term and also long term. Each and every coach is identified through his style and how he is able to convey his style through his team of players which he assembles in order to engineer his game plan. This is not such a straight forward task with a national team as the man in charge has an identified group of players which he needs to mould into a winning team, at club level the manager can identify particular players which may fit into his style to work with.
Everyone talks about different systems of play; 4-4-2, 3-4-3, 4-2-3-1, etc.... but the system is only a tool which is used to express your style of play and should facilitate your team depending on the type of players you have.
In this respect, which style of play did Mr Hodgson intend to stamp on the English National team? As I take it, during the 3 major tournaments England played in with Hodgson at the helm I saw a very compact and defensive team during Euro 2012 which tried to counter, during the World Cup in Brazil a very offensive team which tried to keep the ball as much as possible and during Euro 2016..... it is still a mystery till this day.
Let us take Antonio Conte’s Italy team as an example; Mr. Conte was appointed National team coach by the Italian Football Federation due to his style of play and his tactical prowess. The Federation had a clear picture of the material available and appointed Antonio as he had shown that he could mould a winning group with these players. He focused on a very solid style of play which has at its centre compactness and organisation and mixed it with the inventiveness and the strength and speed in his forward line. Did Mr. Conte do anything different throughout his tenure? No, he set up his team worked hard through qualifying and did not change for anyone or anything even when his team seemed to be under par. Did he change the players he worked with and believed in throughout the qualifiers? Neither because he had a plan and he stuck to it leading to a clear success despite the elimination at the hand of Germany.
This is the same for the German National team and their great manager Mr. Joachim Lowe. Although some of his stalwarts have grown older and are not on the same level of many younger players who are establishing themselves in the Bundesliga, he has decided to keep faith with them and his style of play. The likes of Bastian Schweinsteiger and Lukas Podolski still are an integral part to his team even though they have had abject and injury prone seasons lately and this shows that planning on the long run and believing in your players can reap benefits.
With this in mind I go to the next question to Mr. Hodgson: why did you decide to make such radical changes to the Squad you took to the Euros as you were able to qualify through the group stages with a defined nucleus of players?
Players like Dier, Alli, Vardy and Kane all had a great season and should have been in the England Squad but not at the expense of not playing in the same balanced way the team was set up through qualifiers.
England qualified with ten wins out of ten with 31 goals in favour and 3 against which is a pretty good result. The set up of the team was formed through a strong back line which included Clyne at right back, a good number of different left backs and Cahill together with either Jagielka or Smalling at Centre back, three in midfield with Henderson at the heart of midfield and the likes of Wilshere, Milner and Delph creating the much needed cover and balance, the captain Rooney up front and a number of quick and talented forwards working around him; Sterling, Oxlade Chamberlain, Sturridge, Walcott and Andros Townsend, to name a few.
With a style which was a possession game attacking through the flanks and with combinations through the middle England looked the real deal through qualifying and had a very good balance in the middle of the park allowing the team to defend well and concede only 3 goals in 10 matches. What happened during Euro 2016 is bewildering and I would truly like someone to give me a reasonable explanation to the changes made before such an important tournament.
Why was the midfield and defence torn apart to make way to players who had limited involvement previously? Was this pressure from the media? How can one expect a midfield with Dier taking the role of the additional defender he truly is and players like Alli and Rooney being the two midfield maestros. Rooney as a midfielder getting the ball from the defenders? Oh my! Who decided that? What style was the team based on and what were the movements the players had practiced and worked on? Could anyone identify any coaching in the team? And most important of all what was the game plan and did the England team have a plan B?
All I noticed was that when England were either loosing or couldn’t break down the opposition substitutions took place to put more strikers on and pray that something just happened! Is it just me who could see these things or am I still to learn some special traits in the simple game of football which I need to discover through magical sources?
Another thing which is bewildering and elusive to me and many other is the work done on set pieces. I cannot understand how one of the most dangerous players in and around the box was given the responsibility to take free kicks and corners. How does this even make sense? And to top it up how does a manager which should be the leader and a person of strong character and one who should be able to take prompt and effective decisions not be able to take crucial decisions like leaving players who have not performed out of the team.
With all due respect, playing Kane and Sterling and not omitting Hart shows a lack of true leadership and decision making which is the main aspect of football today on and off the pitch.
I augur that the FA does not make a shambles of the upcoming managerial appointment as the present and future bauds well as the talent necessary to perform is in place. The next England Manager needs to be a strong character that has a strategy and is able to lead a group of players who he believes in and who believe in him. No more excuses just smarter decisions.
Hope Mr. Hodgson has the time to give us some type of explanation on his decisions prior to and throughout the tournament. He was bright enough to prepare his resignation letter prior to the Iceland match and surely did the same by preparing an explanation to all these questions that I have raised!
Nicholas Baldacchino is a UEFA A Coach and Director of Youth Coaching qualification, currently Head of Coaching and Development at Valletta FC's Youth Development Sector.