England have marched to Euro 2016 with a 100 per cent record, but the apathy surrounding Roy Hodgson’s men has never been as great.
The Three Lions wrapped up their qualifying campaign with a routine 3-0 win over Lithuania on Monday night in front of just 5,000 fans in Vilnius and that was a fitting end to a campaign which has echoed England’s professionalism, but lacked any sparkle.
To a certain extent Hodgson’s men have been victim to their own qualifying efficiency. Had they not beaten all that went before them in Group E, then the final couple of games against Estonia and Lithuania might have whipped up some interest. As it was Monday’s victory – with a much-changed side – was a poor spectacle.
Unlike some managers and teams from the past that were disliked, and Graham Taylor’s side of the early 1990s comes to mind, there is no hatred towards Hodgson and his team, it’s more that people are simply not bothered. Bobby Robson’s side from the 1986 and 1990 World Cups was loved, but the prospect of watching ‘Pets Make You Laugh Out Loud 2’ on Channel 5 was more appealing than tuning into Roy’s boys with Clive and Glenn last night.
Hodgson will certainly not be concerned by that fact and he must take credit for England becoming only the sixth team in history to qualify for the European Championships with a perfect record. His Lithuania counterpart didn’t seem too impressed with England though and being comprehensively beaten by Phil Jagielka and co. on the plastic in the Lithuanian capital was enough for him to resign.
The hosts, were in truth awful, and England were far superior and that has been the story of England’s qualification. The opposition have been poor and England would certainly benefit from the prospect of Europe’s minnows having to face pre-qualifiers before they reach the qualifying stage proper. That would improve the level of opposition, but it’s an idea that is unlikely to happen when you consider that UEFA have just expanded the finals to a 24-team tournament from a 16-team competition.
— UEFA EURO 2016 (@UEFAEURO) October 12, 2015
While England’s record is to be applauded, only Spain in 2012 have gone on to with the tournament after a faultless qualifying run. And Hodgson, who has gone about his business quietly since the World Cup failure, will be the first to acknowledge the level of the opposition has been limited.
Only Switzerland should have posed England any problems, but even they failed to offer an resistance as England sailed to a couple of two-nil victories. The other eight wins, were in real terms, victories against League Two equivalent opposition. Not great preparation for a tournament against Europe’s elite.
That has been recognised by the Football Association though and the friendlies that have been lined up against Spain, France and Germany will be the perfect barometer of just what level Hodgson’s men are operating at.
Three defeats will undoubtedly set England back, just as three victories will send England’s confidence soaring, but Hodgson, who has been a master of curbing expectation since the shambles in Brazil, will keep a lid on it.
Hodgson has managed to keep expectation levels down during qualifying. The former Swiss boss used 33 players in England’s 10 games and on Monday Jagielka became the sixth man to captain England under Hodgson’s reign and it is just as hard now to pick a starting XI for next summer as it was when England embarked on qualifying in September 2014.
I might be doing Roy a disservice and he may well have it all sorted in his mind, but the race for places next summer looks like being as competitive as ever with the likes of Jamie Vardy, Danny Ings and Spurs youngster Del Alli all in with a serious hope of making the plane.
But while competition for places is generally considered a positive point in football, the fact that Hodgson has used such a large pool of players is a concern. However, more of a concern is the fact that England do not seem to have a style of play.
They once again dominated possession against Lithuania, but still found creating clear-cut chances difficult, but in the forthcoming glamour friendlies and at the tournament next summer England will find themselves having less possession than their opponents.
Former England coach Glenn Hoddle, whose ITV co-commentary has on the whole been a strain to listen to, has at least continued to make a valid point over England’s style. Hoddle has maintained he believes England’s best chance of success in France will be to play as a counter-attacking team.
It’s an idea that Hodgson is surely contemplating, simply because of the players available to him. The one thing England have in abundance is pace and the best way to make use of that attacking threat would be to play on the break. It’s easier said than done though when the whole qualifying period has seen England dominating the ball with their opponents camped inside their own third of the field.
Just how England approach the next three friendlies and the personnel who feature will be fascinating and should at least see the apathy subside. But they will have to adapt their game quickly if Hodgson plans to go with a counter-attacking philosophy, because it will be a scenario that will be a complete reverse to the waltz through qualifying.