Friday, 22 June 2012

Hodgson's Choice


So far, the diminished expectations of England's chances have resulted in relatively little scrutiny of Roy Hodgson's selection choices. The consensus that the pool of players he has to drawn on is irredeemably mediocre has dulled the usual bitter acrimony surrounding who's been selected and who hasn't. The one controversial managerial decision so far - to leave Rio Ferdinand behind - was made, despite Hodgson's protestations to the contrary, for non-footballing reasons. 

In the light of this Hodgson's tactical choices for the second game against Sweden - playing Andy Carroll from the off and bringing on Walcott after we fell behind - have seen his stock rise enormously. Quite understandably, as these two players scored a goal each and set up the third. Walcott's appearance in particular was hugely impressive, adding pace, sharpness and unpredictability to England's attack. The question it raises though, is why have a player of his ability on the bench to start with? And, more importantly, why put him back there subsequently?

For surely Walcott merited a place in the starting line up against Ukraine? In the short space of time he was on the pitch against Sweden, he was by and away England's best player. In defending the odd decision not to use him though, one could immediately sense the mobilising forces of perverse British pragmatism. Walcott, we were told, is the ideal player to bring on if we're in trouble, or need an injection of pace late on in the game. Heaven forbid that a team would want to start with some pace or, indeed, set out not to get into trouble in the first place. 

There's a strange parsimonious logic to the idea of only using a player if you really need to. It suggests that it would be much better, more sporting perhaps, to win without using him. "He's a great player to have on the bench", people say, as if this represents some unarguable logic. But, like the equally bizarre idea that there is a "good time to concede a goal", this has always struck me as one of those ultimately meaningless phrases used by expert commentators to fill the void. What does it mean to be a good player but not actually play? Is the scoring of goals really only necessary in an emergency? Would the ideal team set up be to have ALL the best players on the bench?

So, James Milner started again against Ukraine having done virtually nothing to justify his place in doing so.  His work rate and uninspired finishing was inexplicably favoured over Walcott's explosive pace and inspired goal. At the same time, Rooney's return was never really in doubt. Even though it threw the shape and formation of the team that ultimately triumphed against Sweden completely out, Rooney's return was a given. He - England's supposedly best player - was obviously not too good to be left on the bench. 

The only other selection justification that Hodgson has been called on to make was Rio Ferdinand's omission. And again, his stated reasoning made little sense. Ferdinand was too good to be in the squad. Poor old Rio was too experienced to be there just to make up the numbers. Well, if he's that good why not play him? And if he's better and more experienced than people ahead of him in the squad what are they doing there? Clearly, in Ferdinand's case there are other, much murkier reasons for his omission. But it's interesting too that Hodgson's stated reason has been accepted, at least on a footballing level. 

So, finally, here we are back in the familiar territory of inexplicable tactical choices and mystifying team selection. England's progress to the last eight has granted us the right to quibble. It has opened up Hodgson to something more than benign pity at his hapless lot. He now has choices to make.

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