Two games into the last World Cup, England were so disappointed with their performances that they gave up on the rest of tournament and John Terry seemed a little bit to suggest that drunken mutiny was the answer. As fun as that was, the latest man tricked into taking charge, Roy Hodgson, seems intent on doing things more quietly.
After the opening-game draw with France, the phrase “quite good” was thrown in from Hodgson to describe the result. It led the way for other blandish descriptors like “good platform” and then, from his captain, Steven Gerrard, just: “a platform”. Even Captain Fantastic was playing it cool. As tempting as it might be to launch a full semantic investigation into what these comments meant precisely, it’s easiest to say that this England side was modest enough to accept its limitations and see that a 1-1 against a competent side like France currently constitutes at least some kind of achievement.
Not that the tactics employed in that game hadn’t already made that attitude clear. Two rigid banks of four equally rigid footballers stuck closely together in a tactical system designed not to be humiliated, with strikers chosen not for their goalscoring prowess but for their willingness to, in the immortal words of nearly-England-man Harry Redknapp, run around a bit. James Milner may be the neatest symbol of the new approach: his technical limitations—at a guess, he appears hampered by his ability to think only in binary—are overlooked because of his ability to take on a high workload, or at least go red enough in the face to look as if he’s doing that.
Against France, as against Belgium and Norway in warm-up games, not conceding a goal was prioritised. England sat deep in their own half and allowed France to have the ball in an act of deference that the Golden Generation of years gone by—Beckham, Lampard, Sessions—would surely not have jumped out of a tackle stood for.
Aside from Samir Nasri’s goal in that first game, where England’s two holding midfielders moved so deep as to allow too much space in front of them for a shot to be taken, the tactic got the reward it was looking for. France, despite dominating possession, rarely looked like turning it into goals. Seeing this as a success, however, marked a moving of the meaning of the word in England’s eyes: success used to mean winning the World Cup (even whilst playing in the European Championships); now, evidently, it means not being made to look silly.
The team’s response to the win against Sweden said similar things. Hodgson made sure to note, as he has done repeatedly, how “difficult” all of these games are, before praising his team for what was some of the best attacking play England has seen at a tournament for at least ten years. The suggestion, once again, was that nothing is to be taken for granted: any win is worthy of praise…although not too much as to sound like boasting. It’s a fine line, particularly given the justifiable readiness to see any England team as self-aggrandising narcissists, but Hodgson’s England are treading it far better than Fabio Capello’s or Sven Goran-Eriksson’s ever did.
The obvious difficulty is that the fans might not like this new modesty niche. Even if the England team are temporarily not self-aggrandising narcissists, the fans will always be: ITV’s Adrian Chiles, self-declared champion of the flag-on-car majority, managed not to sulk at England’s defensive antics in the first game, and was given enough goals to be happy in 3-2 against Sweden, but it is difficult to imagine him ever accepting an England that does not see itself as the natural heir to whichever throne is going at the time.
For that kind of fan, there is less than ever to grasp onto in Hodgson’s quiet revolution. But they’d do well to make do. Unlike Portugal, initially, and the Netherlands, almost throughout, who fixated on defensive solidarity at the cost of stifling Cristiano Ronaldo and Robin Van Persie, England don’t have a mass of sensual creativity waiting to be unleashed. Selecting James Milner over Theo Walcott may be a cautious decision but its impact is only incremental: there isn’t an England side Hodgson could select that would be able to outplay France or teams like them: the talent simply isn’t there. We’ve all seen Steven Gerrard’s first touch.
Hodgson’s caution might easily be mixed up with cowardice, but it’d be a mistake. He’s working with what England have—a strong defence and a weak midfield—and making the best of it. Against Ukraine, and perhaps on from there, it would be a surprise if he changed much about that approach. Although, for those who need some semblance of pre-Hodgson England, he has at least insisted that Wayne Rooney must come back into the side, so the fascination with star names prevails, even where quiet, good sense seems to be winning everywhere else.