Football: Clueless Hodgson

Football: Clueless Hodgson
England manager Roy Hodgson before the match.

ITALY 1

(Graziano Pelle 29)

ENGLAND 1

(Andros Townsend 79)

Theo Walcott was finally put out of his misery in the 55th minute.

As he trudged from the Turin turf, his bewildered expression betrayed his internal turmoil. In that moment, he shared our muddled thoughts.

What just happened?

Roy Hodgson had ripped back the curtain once more not to reveal a man, but an incomprehensible coach.

Against a transitional Italy side, the smokescreen of the easy Euro 2016 qualifying campaign dissipated. What was left was woeful.

Whenever Hodgson encounters an opponent of substance, he folds faster than a jittery poker player. His innate conservatism is ruthlessly exposed.

He made several personnel changes against Italy. None of them worked.

He made tactical adjustments against Italy. Some worked.

Andros Townsend's terrific equaliser and the late flurry of opportunities must not obscure Hodgson's repeated tactical shortcomings.

Euro 2012 and last year's World Cup both underscored the manager's inability to rise to the occasion against superior opposition and his tinkering in Turin was no different.

Just ponder the poor, haunted soul of Walcott. He hadn't started for England since September 2013. He hasn't completed 90 minutes of competitive football since New Year's Day 2014.

Hodgson started him up front and threw him to the wolves.

Four years ago, Walcott was telling anyone who'd listen that his future belonged up front.

The trouble was no one listened, least of all his Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger who has some experience in taking cocky, speedy wingers and moulding them into elegant strikers.

But Walcott isn't Thierry Henry. He is blessed with pace and directness, but cursed with the indecision of C-3P0, which saddles him with the balance of R2-D2 anywhere near the penalty box.

Wayne Rooney played Walcott through in the 27th minute, but his deflected shot span away from goal. That was the penalty box imposter's only contribution.

BOTTOMLESS PIT

So Hodgson went one better. He dropped Walcott in the hole, which might as well have been a bottomless pit. He never got close to climbing out.

Wenger has never handed his erratic winger the creative duties of a No. 10.

Walcott's qualities are plentiful, but they do not include an ability to roll a foot over the ball and play for time, to fashion an opening and thread the needle.

As daft decisions go, it's up there with Michael Carrick plodding down the wing.

Hodgson didn't do that of course. He had a cunning plan to rival Blackadder's Baldrick instead. He left England's finest defensive midfielder on the bench.

If one footballer was symptomatic of English football's malaise - not to mention a shocking indictment of Hodgson's reign - it's Carrick.

If the Manchester United architect had long hair, an even longer beard, scooted around on a Vespa and was Italian, England would again lament their inability to produce such cerebral football philosophers.

But he's not. He's English. So Hodgson picked Phil Jones instead.

That England's midfield diamond cracked within moments of kick-off came as no surprise.

Even a post-Andrea Pirlo Italy had few problems against anchorman Jones, out of his depth and out of the races.

The 30-year-old Giorgio Chiellini edged Jones aside as if he were flicking a mosquito from his knee before crossing for Graziano Pelle to nod home.

That's the same Pelle who hasn't scored in the EPL for Southampton since Dec 20 and was recently dropped. Against England, he was unmarked.

After the game, Hodgson insisted: "There might come a game when we need a Phil Jones-type in the centre of the midfield."

That is the game played on ice when hell freezes over, the beginning of the football apocalypse and the end of hope, reason, sanity and perhaps even Hodgson's England reign.

No one wants Jones in a defensive midfield role again, least of all his teammates and the man himself.

Red-faced and panting, Jones stumbled around from one Walking Dead audition to another until Chris Smalling's injury allowed him to retreat into defence.

But Hodgson still wasn't quite done with the blunders.

He also started with Rooney in the hole, separating a potentially profitable partnership between the England skipper and Harry Kane before it had even started.

After Kane's euphoric debut goal against Lithuania last week, benefiting from a positive 4-3-3 formation, the young striker was left isolated by Hodgson's tactical caution.

In the second half, with Carrick in his rightful place, Kane and Rooney paired together and Jones was put out of harm's way, England hinted at the attacking promise they showed against Lithuania.

But that was the smokescreen. The starting line-up was the real England, Hodgson's England: safe, cautious, slightly clueless and mostly inexplicable.

The Three Lions have been here twice before.

And there's little to suggest that Euro 2016 will be third-time lucky.

npsports@sph.com.sg


This article was first published on April 2, 2015.
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