Manager has dumped ‘buzz formation’ for his old favourite but has selected a youthful side to face Norway at Wembley
The new era for England begins with a return to old ways. Roy Hodgson’s team will revert to 4-4-2 when they take on Norway at Wembley on Wednesday night, with the manager making his case that before going forward they have to go back. He would not, he insisted, be tempted to modernise with what he described as a “buzz formation”.
Instead, Hodgson is going back to the system he used for England’s games in their World Cup qualifying group, culminating in Gary Lineker describing it memorably as “a step back to the Dark Ages”. Yet Hodgson, in fairness, did try out the 4-2-3-1 look in the World Cup.
“We thought we were making great strides,” he said. “We went there to do well, to try to win the tournament, but we were knocked out in the first round. You can’t say too much in defence of the situation.” And now he is going back to what he knows best.
There will, however, be a gradual shift in personnel. Phil Jagielka’s poor performance in the World Cup has continued into the new season and the Everton defender has lost his position as one of Hodgson’s first-choice centre-backs. Phil Jones will play alongside Gary Cahill with a view to continuing that way when the team play their first Euro 2016 qualifier in Switzerland on Monday.
John Stones will come in at right-back and the team’s overall inexperience is particularly noticeable in midfield now Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard have moved aside. Jack Wilshere has 12 England starts to his name, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain eight, Jordan Henderson six and Raheem Sterling four.
This will be the theme of England’s first match since the disappointments of Brazil – after Wayne Rooney’s 95 caps, the outfield player with the most appearances is Cahill, with 27 – and there was a long sermon from Hodgson about what he expected of the younger players who would form the nucleus of his plans.
“The qualifying group has been fairly kind to us for Euro 2016,” he said. “That’s when we will be judged and in the course of these two years the players have to use that time well. The demands are going to be high. They’ve always been high. Now the young ones have to step up to the plate, to use another buzz-word, and make certain they don’t let themselves down. I know they won’t want to let their country down, but they must not let themselves down either.
“They’ve got good reputations from playing with their clubs. I’m not the only one to see their talent and their chance to be good England players, just as many years ago you saw the chance for Rooney and Gerrard. Those guys took it. They got there and they got their 100 caps.
“These boys have got a long way to go: Sterling, Sturridge, Lallana, Henderson, Stones, Chambers, Smalling, Jones, Shaw, the list goes on. I defy anyone to tell me these players are not good enough for the national team. But if you say: ‘Prove it,’ of course I can’t. They haven’t had the chance to do that but I will give them that chance. I will prepare them and I will make sure they have a bloody clear idea of what I expect of them and what I won’t tolerate. They’ll either become Rooneys and Gerrards, or they won’t.”
Hodgson has previously used the example of Wilfried Zaha – “the next best England player” – as someone who had not made the most of his chance. Here, he referred again to the World Cup. “We thought we were making certain strides [before the World Cup], that it was a rejuvenation of the team and that youngsters were developing. Those bad experiences will scar us but they also serve as a reminder. None of us want to be in the situation that we were in against Uruguay. The young players were thrown into the deep end. Unfortunately they didn’t swim on that occasion. Hopefully they will swim on the next occasion.”
Wembley will be only half-full and Hodgson, accepting the state of apathy among the English public, seemed well aware that many in the crowd would consider a return to 4-4-2 as football’s equivalent of a dog returning to its vomit. “I don’t need to get hung up about whether it’s the buzz formation of the moment,” he said matter-of-factly.
“When it comes to formations there are trends but those trends mean you risk putting square pegs in round holes. The gameplan is to use the quality of the players in the right way. The important thing is whether it’s a good formation and a good way of playing that will suit the players and get the most out of us.”
The secret, perhaps, is making sure that 4-4-2 does not mean two rigid banks of four. Hodgson will tell Rooney and Daniel Sturridge that one of them has to drop back to midfield when the team are defending. Stones will be encouraged to advance on the right and the left-back Leighton Baines should be expected to do the same on the other side.
Norway are starting their own rebuilding phase, also with the emphasis on youth. They look like carefully selected opponents at a time when England will probably just be happy to avoid any more upset.