New England manager admits 'we have work to do' after picking up a win in Norway but says he is eagerly looking to the future
While explaining his selection of Andy Carroll on the eve of the match against Norway, Roy Hodgson alluded to the willingness of Rinus Michels, the father of Holland's total football and a guru of modern coaching, to throw on a big man and bash the ball up to him in times of crisis. But before resorting to the tactic of despair, Michels had the imaginations of such men as Johan Cruyff and Johan Neeskens to exhaust. England, as we saw on Saturday night, are not so fortunate.
At the final whistle there were embraces between Steven Gerrard and John Arne Riise, former Liverpool team-mates, and Roy Hodgson and Brede Hangeland, erstwhile colleagues at Viking and Fulham, their warmth testifying to the genial nature of the occasion. Crimson streaks in the evening sky over the rapidly emptying Ullevaal Stadion, signalling more good weather to come, could have been taken as an optimistic omen. But although England secured their first victory under their new manager, they showed themselves, as so often in the past, capable of answering small questions while leaving the big one completely unanswered.
Those lesser matters are not without importance. Robert Green came through an increasingly busy 90 minutes unscathed, a relief on his first international appearance since the fateful blooper against the United States two summers ago, and will make an adequate understudy to Joe Hart. Similar judgments can be made of Joleon Lescott and Leighton Baines, who are unlikely to let the side down if called upon during Euro 2012. Up front, Andy Carroll appears to be back to the effectiveness he showed on his international debut against France 18 months ago while Ashley Young confirmed the impression that he rises naturally to the occasion in an England shirt.
But the old question remains hanging in the air: how are England going to fabricate a link between solid defence and promising attack effective enough to enable them to worry the best teams? Egil Olsen, Norway's manager, gently alluded afterwards to the lack of creativity in England's midfield, expressing surprise at the amount of space they had allowed his own men. Despite years of evidence to the contrary, foreigners still seem to expect England to produce qualities that have long been the property of others.
It is an issue that has bedevilled not just every manager of the national team since Terry Venables but most of those who preceded him as well, and it would have been foolish to imagine that Hodgson could provide the answer after a mere two training sessions in charge of a severely depleted squad. Nevertheless it is inevitable that the newcomer's early steps will be scrutinised for significance and on Saturday his midfield, arranged in a line of four between the defensive quartet and the attacking duo, looked stodgy and completely lacking in unpredictability, despite the big names and reputations involved.
Scott Parker, confirming his return to fitness after missing the end of the domestic season, performed more than adequately in the role of destroyer and blocker, the latter skill more frequently in demand the longer the evening went on. Alongside him, however, Gerrard was unable to bring the best of himself to the game – and even brought some of the worst when he lost possession a few minutes before half-time and responded by flying into the tackle that cost Tom Hogli, Norway's right-back, any further involvement in the occasion. Hodgson defended his captain, but it was the sort of rash challenge that can cause serious injury and, on a genuinely competitive occasion, might have attracted more than just a wagged finger from the referee.
Hodgson who had taken care to draw Gerrard into the fold by awarding him the armband and thus an unquestioned place in the team, explicitly criticised his captain's choice of passes while discussing the contribution of the two central midfield players. "They were passing the ball quite well," he said, "although at times Steven was looking for the early ball in behind. We have work to do."
Later he said: "We have to get in between the lines a little bit better. We have to be more positive when we get a chance to play the ball between those lines. When we break that midfield line when the other team are pressing, we have to be more positive trying to feed those balls in.
"A few times we had the opportunity but then we turn out or alternatively Steve is trying to find passes through there that are very, very difficult to find [even] with his passing ability. That's a work in progress and I'm hoping we will get our wide midfielders helping the [central] midfielders out there and get the balls fed into them, into Ashley Young, because the few times we did it looked good."
Hodgson was right to point out that since he has been contracted for four years, he is looking further ahead than the coming few weeks. "I have my sights firmly set on the future," he said, and what he needs is the return of Jack Wilshere to action and to the form that promised so much before his injury a year ago, along with the emergence of a fresh talent such as Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Josh McEachran or Tom Cleverley to work alongside him.
In the meantime he must find a way of providing Parker with the right defensive partner – probably Frank Lampard – and moving Gerrard further forward into a position from which his passing would become less speculative. But as long as the manager remains wedded to a traditional 4-4-2, a solution to his most profound problem may remain out of reach.