English football under Roy Hodgson going backwards from the Dark Ages

World-class players continue to be plagued by inability to keep the ball while wearing national colours

Perhaps the most revealing moment came when someone gently pointed out England still appeared to have a profound inability to take care of the ball in the games that really matter and it was immediately obvious, from the way Roy Hodgson tensed up, that he did not like what he had heard.

"You're going down the wrong route there," he said. "Did we play longer balls forward early? Yes, we did. It was a tactical change. We didn't want to play out from the back and invite pressure. But you've just seen us play against Moldova. And if you are prepared, seriously, to stand there and say the England team that I'm coaching can't keep the ball, can't play from the back and through the midfield, there's really no point us having a conversation. Because we totally disagree. You keep your opinion and I'll keep mine."

It was not the only time Hodgson mentioned the game against Moldova, the nation rated between Grenada and Turkmenistan at 123 in Fifa's world rankings, as an accurate gauge with which to measure his own team. Yet it was the admission that he deliberately set them out to play over-the-top football against Ukraine that jarred the most. Hodgson, in other words, simply did not trust his players to take enough care of the ball in the way that other managers would. So the instruction, by his own admission, was to hit it long, aim for Rickie Lambert and go for the second ball.

Hodgson surely cannot expect to confess such a thing and then be outraged when his team face criticism for lacking refinement. Just consider what happened straight from the kick-off in Kiev, as the ball went back from the centre-spot to Frank Lampard and then back again to Phil Jagielka, the centre-half. That was the point it was lumped 40 yards forward. Ukraine broke and it was from that attack that Joe Hart was lucky not to concede a penalty for bringing down Roman Zozulya.

By now Hodgson must be growing a little weary of Gary Lineker chipping in every time England struggle to find any real cohesion and, of course, a manager is almost duty bound to defend his team. Hodgson's observation, however, that it was a "very high-quality game" was alarming, particularly when it comes on the back of him describing Manchester United's prosaic goalless draw against Chelsea as the outstanding match so far this season. All put together, it is no wonder Hodgson is increasingly regarded as someone who values structure, organisation and resilience rather than flair, entertainment or, in this case, just the simple basics of keeping the ball away from the opposition.

Lineker's criticisms are actually a sideshow because the real issue surely is whether England can maintain their position at the top of Group H and, beyond that, where this kind of football – methodical, joyless, practically devoid of imagination – would actually get them if they do qualify. Yet what Lineker says should not be ignored either. This is not just another of football's rent-a-quotes talking and Lineker was simply repeating the common opinion when he described England's passing as "woeful", to go with his comments about being "stuck in the Dark Ages" after they had muddled their way to a 1-1 draw against Republic of Ireland in May.

"I'm surprised anyone who has played for England, captained England and played in games of this nature can be that critical," Hodgson, breaking his usual policy of never responding to criticism from inside his own profession, said. "This is the second time. My disappointment would be that I saw Gary Lineker play, I remember him captaining the team and playing some great games for England. But I'm also pretty sure he played in some games when it wasn't that easy and I don't think every game he played for England was a total success.

"I try to placate most people but I'm afraid I've just seen a group of players missing seven first-team members beat Moldova 4-0 and come to Ukraine and draw 0-0. You can criticise us or praise us or do whatever you want to do but don't think you're going to put words into my mouth or get me agreeing with these opinions.

"I've been in football for 38 years and I will stick to my opinions. You can have yours, he can have his and anyone else can have theirs for that matter. This is the beauty of football. There are 60 million opinions out there. But I will be surprised if I am walking down the street in the next few weeks and people aren't actually saying: 'You did well in those two games.' I'd be surprised. But we'll see."

He was bending the truth a little bearing in mind there were actually only three absentees – Wayne Rooney, Danny Welbeck and Glen Johnson – who would have been guaranteed a place in the team. Hodgson also pointed out "no one else has done it", namely winning in Ukraine, when Montenegro did just that last October. But the more relevant point anyway was not that anyone thought England would "roll over" Ukraine in the first place. It was that once again England's lack of wit or creativity felt both dispiriting and predictable.

Nor is it new. If anything, the criticism coming Hodgson's way seems like an accumulation of everything that has happened during the competitive fixtures in his reign and, probably, some time before. The team's position in Group H is both encouraging and worrying and, this late on, it cannot easily be ignored or sugarcoated that so far they have beaten only Moldova and San Marino.

A moderate group has been made far too complicated and, other than the great English tradition of hoping for the best, there is no real logic or evidence blithely to assume Hodgson's men should now win back-to-back matches against Montenegro and Poland as a matter of course.

That, however, seems to be the popular assumption when the alternative – anything short of two straight victories – would probably propel England into the play-offs, with France among the possible opponents. A Montenegro win at Wembley may actually torpedo England from the whole process if Ukraine, with San Marino as their last game, beat Poland.

"It's a tight group, I can't deny that," Hodgson said. "We haven't been able to pull away but, luckily, none of the other teams have been able to pull away either.

"The fact is we've taken responsibility for two very important matches. Moldova, don't forget, lost only 2-1 in Ukraine and drew (the corresponding fixture) 0-0 in Moldova, so our 4-0 and 5-0 victories were maybe not quite as simple as some people want to make out.

"The team is getting stronger. We showed it against Moldova and we showed it again against Ukraine. The team is growing all the time. We've got a lot of players to come back into the squad who will strengthen us and we're playing at home in front of our own support.

"We've confronted two very different games and got a positive result on both occasions. One would always like to win and it would have made life very difficult for everyone in the group but, realistically, the people who understand the difficulties these games produce will understand you never just come here and win comfortably. I don't think we have to apologise in any way for getting a 0-0 and I'm obviously going to be disappointed if people did expect us to win comfortably because I don't think that has happened in the past either."

As prickly as at any time in his England reign, Hodgson was so aggrieved to learn that his analysis did not particularly equate with how the performance had been received elsewhere that he blanked his usual interview with Sky after the press conference.

It was put to him that maybe playing Michael Carrick would have helped the team maintain a greater sense of control – and there was another flicker of irritation. "Michael Carrick didn't play because we had Steven Gerrard, Frank Lampard and Jack Wilshere. If Michael Carrick played, your question would be about the one who didn't play. So let's move on from that level of discussion."

Fair enough. Gerrard, Lampard and Wilshere are hardly known for their carelessness on the ball for Liverpool, Chelsea and Arsenal. It is just, as Lineker said, that when players pull on that England shirt something seems to change.

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