Roy Hodgson and 4-4-2: Will England boss break the habit of a lifetime?

Considering this blog is called Two Banks Of Four, you could be forgiven for thinking it was being written by Roy Hodgson himself. After all, he has built a long and respectable managerial career out of this most basic and English of formations. However, with his side’s 2014 World Cup qualification campaign due to get underway this week, and memories of their Euro 2012 performances still fresh in the mind, the two qualifiers against Moldova and Ukraine may be a chance for Hodgson and England to belatedly enter modern day football.

The phrases “well-drilled” and “disciplined”  were some of the more positive words used to describe Hodgson’s England during the Euros. Unfortunately, “rigid” and “wasteful” were equally valid descriptions. The sight of watching England’s 4 midfielders running from side to side whilst the opposition attempted to play their way through was pleasing to some. The sight of watching them give the ball away within seconds of winning it back was anything but. Their quarter-final defeat to Italy saw them with a mere 32% of possession (described by Jamie Carragher as the statistics of a Championship side playing a Premier League side in the FA Cup.) They were outpassed 833-364, and had only 8 shots to Italy’s 31. The fact that they made it to a penalty shoot out was down to brave defending, poor Italian finishing, and good fortune.

Rigid Roy: But will Hodgson change his ways? All rights for this image are reserved by Tom Jenkins for The Guardian.

Hodgson was forgiven in many quarters for his use of formation in that tournament. After all, he had only taken charge of the national side six weeks beforehand. Therefore it made sense to do what he knew best. Two banks of four, keep your shape and grind out the results. The unavailability of midfielders such as Jack Wilshere, Tom Cleverley and Michael Carrick also meant that a stylish brand of football was never going to be the order of the day. Now there will be no such goodwill if he persists with an outdated way of playing.

His Liverpool reign was notable for much criticism, partly due to his tactical approach. He strongly defended himself, stating: “It is insulting to suggest that because you move to a new club, your methods suddenly don’t work when they’ve held you in good stead for 35 years and made you one of the most respected coaches in Europe”.

He also defended his use of the 4-4-2 during the Euros, and despite expressing disappointment that his players did not make better use of the ball, has frequently claimed that possession statistics do not concern him. In fact, one of his early England training sessions consisted of him telling his players to not “just play short passes” and “Don’t be afraid to knock it up to the big man”. Not the most encouraging signs for English fans hoping to see more progressive football.

However, the recent friendly against Italy suggested that England and their manager may have learnt their lessons. A 4-3-3 formation saw the returning Carrick demonstrate the value of patience, positional sense and class on the ball, in stark contrast to Scott Parker’s headless chicken offerings. Alongside him, Frank Lampard was equally mature with his passing, while debutant Cleverley combined quick movement and short passes with the “X Factor” ability to make things happen in between the lines. Although just a friendly, it was one of the most accomplished English performances in recent years, thanks largely to the change in the middle of the park – both in formation and personnel.

Pass Master: Carrick’s ability to retain possession is key.

A front 3 with genuine pace and trickery in the wide areas, rather than the graft of James Milner, will enable England to stretch teams when necessary, and the likes of Theo Walcott, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Daniel Sturridge and Adam Johnson all fit the bill. Although he is currently uncapped, Nathan Dyer may also be one to watch, having been in great form for Swansea over the last year. As for the centre forward position, the injury to Andy Carroll may be a blessing in disguise, as Sturridge or Danny Welbeck both offer more mobile and technical options.

There is of course the chance that Hodgson was merely experimenting in Berne, and will now revert to his tried and trusted methods for the qualifiers. Captain Steven Gerrard was rested in that match but will return, and already there are rumblings of him starting alongside Lampard, which would represent a significant backwards step. John Terry is also back, although England may be better off with a centre half partnership of Gary Cahill and Joleon Lescott, which offers more pace and better ball playing ability.

The next 2 fixtures are certainly winnable for England. Whether they are achieved in a style which suggests they are moving forward is another matter altogether. Over to you Mr Hodgson.