Roy Hodgson’s first game in charge of England was a low key affair, nestled alongside Eurovision in the television schedule – actual human people watch that garbage, apparently – on an evening far more conducive to the first legitimate barbecuing opportunity of the summer. So as England stepped out onto the field at Oslo’s Ullevaal Stadion on Saturday the television audience may well have been limited to viewers with acute back pain and only four television channels in their new flats. Guilty as charged.
The most important acknowledgement in any assessment of the game, no matter how brief or amateurish, is that this was not the first choice England team. From Robert Green in goal to the participation of standby players with dashed hopes of going to UEFA Euro 2012, Hodgson’s line-up was not one that will answer many of his questions ahead of this Saturday’s final warm-up against Belgium.
The absence of Chelsea defenders John Terry, Ashley Cole and Gary Cahill forced Hodgson’s hand at the back, where he took the opportunity to cast his eye over Leighton Baines, Joleon Lescott and Phil Jagielka in defence.
The absence of Chelsea defenders John Terry, Ashley Cole and Gary Cahill forced Hodgson’s hand at the back, where he took the opportunity to cast his eye over Leighton Baines, Joleon Lescott and Phil Jagielka in defence. While not looking particularly impressive, England’s defensive unit stood firm against a Norway side that did occasionally look to attack, and they largely nullified the potentially tricky presence of Hannover 96 striker Moa Abdellaoue, who had a quieter evening than he would have liked.
In spite of the rigidity of England’s performance, Manchester United winger Ashley Young was able to roam around and often beyond striker Andy Carroll, and provided a bright spot for England. Like England in general, Young was much more effective in the first half than the second, causing problems for the Norwegians and being rewarded for his efforts with a fine individual winning goal through which he demonstrated ingenuity and a change of pace to pull down Brede Hangeland’s pants before clipping a composed but perhaps fortunate finish across the goalkeeper into the bottom corner.
That’s four goals in his last four internationals for Young, whose creative influence would be sorely missed by a functional England team should he be unable to complete the full Euro 2012 campaign for some reason.
Saturday also represented the full England debut of Arsenal’s Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain. He came on in the second half and applied himself well, using the ball tidily enough and showing briefly the intelligence and imagination that got him called up in the first place. Most importantly, it seemed a nerveless introduction – Oxlade-Chamberlain plays entirely without fear, a characteristic sadly beaten out of England players with more experience.
Jagielka’s selection caused some questions in parts of the media on Saturday afternoon, with one or two pundits seemingly far from happy that Hodgson was using a place in the team on a mere standby just weeks away from a major tournament. As it turned out, of course, Jagielka’s run out was more meaningful than that: he’s not a standby anymore.
Gareth Barry’s appearance as a substitute was short and not very sweet. He gave the ball away unnecessarily five times by my count and his passing and decision making were abysmal. Given his usual efficiency, something didn’t seem quite right in the Manchester City man’s showing, and sure enough he was withdrawn through injury before long. His lower abdominal tear has now ruled him out of the European Championships, affording Jagielka an unexpected but presumably welcome opportunity.
Captain Steven Gerrard’s night ended at half time, but not before he finished off Norway’s Tom Hogli with a thundering tackle near the halfway line that left his opponent in a heap. The tackle caused debate, as any strong challenge in which the ball was won does.
However, there are considerations that must be taken into account. Firstly, the laws of the game are not nearly as forgiving as the traditional English interpretation of such tackles. Secondly, international referees are not especially forgiving either. It’s something I expect both Hodgson and Gerrard to bear in mind.
England’s win did not inspire much celebration in the press, and rightly so. In his comment for The Guardian, David Pleat argued that England conceded too much possession in midfield because of Hodgson’s selection and approach:
“With England reluctant but aware of the need for a long pass, Hodgson kept Young high up the pitch in order to benefit from any aerial ascendancy Carroll might have achieved against Hangeland. In effect, this overworked England’s various midfield combinations. Despite using four different partnerships in the middle, they were second best to Egil Olsen’s greater numbers in midfield. Although Milner and Downing’s graft is beyond reproach, they were pressed too deep by Norway’s full-backs, John Arne Riise and Espen Ruud. Theo Walcott, when introduced, was more defender than incisive attacker.”
Ian Herbert at The Independent also had some criticism for Hodgson’s system, echoing concerns about the inflexible four-four-two that date back as far as his appointment itself:
“Hodgson’s serried columns of men looked flat and flaccid at times against Norway. No one ran between the lines. Scott Parker seemed frustrated by the absence of someone willing to break the confines of the grid and give him a passing option. Time and again, the Tottenham player was forced to swivel round and propel the ball back. There was only one overlap from a full-back to speak of all night – that honour belonged to Leighton Baines – and a solitary whipped cross from Stewart Downing, a player still looking for the old-fashioned art of the winger which he put down somewhere months ago and forgot to pick up again.”
Daily Telegraph journalist Henry Winter edged towards the negative in his match reaction, but also examined Hodgson’s comments about the respective deployments of Young, Andy Carroll and Wayne Rooney, taking into account the performance of one of their colleagues on the flank on Saturday:
“Young’s excellence and welcome cutting edge must be retained even when Rooney is restored. Young is an obvious option to go left against Ukraine, although Hodgson’s first priority should be improving the service towards Carroll against France and Sweden. Stewart Downing again disappointed. Unless he considers a radical move of partnering Ashley Cole and Leighton Baines down the left, or starts Adam Johnson instead of Downing, Hodgson may have to play James Milner left and Theo Walcott right.”
Overall, the reaction has been unenthusiastic and borderline pessimistic. We know what we’ve got with Hodgson, and it’s not tactical fluidity and cutting edge movement on the field. What we must hope is that the players will be prepared for and managed through the big occasion, and with a win on the board in his first game Hodgson has inarguably enjoyed a positive start.