Talk of tactics and formations obscures the real, all too familiar problems that have plagued England managers for decades
When it comes to England managers the song really does remain the same. We know how this one goes. In fact, judging by the brewing sense of enmity towards Roy Hodgson after England's disappointing but not disastrous 1-1 draw with Ireland at Wembley, it seems we may now be heading for an abridged version of that all-too familiar narrative: hope followed by stasis, followed by blame, followed by traumatic farewell.
Perhaps we are getting better at this. Or perhaps we are simply getting bored. Either way with Hodgson we seem to have skipped through the stages and gone straight for the big one: blame. According to a disparate but vocal consensus, rallied around a moment of tweeted frustration from the usually rather mild Gary Lineker, it is to a large extent Hodgson's fault that England, whom he has managed for just over a year, have continued to play like England of the last 141 years.
And blame is, as ever, central to this never-ending story. England failed under Don Revie and this was Don Revie's fault for being eccentric and flighty and for not being Brian Clough (who was eccentric and flighty). England failed under Sven-Goran Eriksson because they were too predictable and the players were having too much fun: England then failed under Steve McClaren because they were too unpredictable; and under Fabio Capello as the players were not having enough fun.
Now, as England begin the carefully nuanced process of failing under Roy Hodgson – and their home form will have to improve significantly to ensure World Cup qualification – it is of course necessary once again to blame the manager, for all that in England's age of footballing austerity even the traditional avenues of blame seem to have withered away a little.
The most committed of finger-pointers would struggle to blame England's stodginess on Hodgson's team selection. This is not 1994 or even 1974. There are no estranged maverick talents out there waiting to be brought triumphantly into the fold as there might, in a shadow world, have been a mid-1990s team of Le Tissier-Beardsley-Waddle. This is essentially what we have now. Indeed Wednesday night was a reduced version of what England have, with Hodgson's first-choice midfield duo, Steven Gerrard and Jack Wilshere, absent, a centre-forward making his first start and a playmaker-ish team factotum who looks desperately in need of rest and remodelling.
Deprived of the stalking horse of absent personnel it is necessary for those who wish to incriminate Hodgson to settle instead on systems. This was the gist of Lineker's Tweeted complaint, that the coalescing of England's players into lateral "banks of four" for much of the game against Ireland was in some way a consciously retrograde ploy on Hodgson's behalf, the result of having schooled his men carefully in the art of tactical inflexibility.
There are a number of objections to this. The most obvious is that systems themselves are overrated in modern football. Like Capello before him Hodgson believes the notion that a team can be front-loaded with a numerical formula - hey presto! 4-1-3-1-1! - is the province of the armchair fan and the computer game enthusiast. It is instead the technical qualities and internal cohesion of that team, an accrued in-game intelligence married to specific instructions on certain phases of play - plus of course the performance of the opposition - that determine exactly which pieces of grass will be occupied and to what effect. International players do not stand around being a formation, the Hodgson-Capello manager will say. The game is a morass of interlocking detail and capabilities. Formations simply follow this.
In a way this faith in the alchemical properties of the manager is quite touching. In another it is dangerously reductive. Lineker's assertion that England will be thrashed if they play "that way" against Brazil is a good example. England did employ a similar system against Brazil at Wembley in March. They won 2-1.
The difference was not in the formation, which was a similar basic set-up to Wednesday night. The differences were that against Brazil Jack Wilshere's drive and attacking fluidity made the "system" work; the encouragingly mobile Danny Welbeck did not get injured (as Daniel Sturridge, encouragingly mobile in the opening 30 minutes, did on Wednesday); and Brazil's full-back's decided not to defend, where Ireland were compact throughout. Hodgson is not responsible for any of these things. And yet, it seems, he must be called to account for them.
Hodgson does not help himself at times, not least in his post-match pronouncement that his England were set up to play just like the brilliantly coherent overachievers of Borussia Dortmund. It is likely this was intended as a pointed dig at the preoccupation with numerical formations, a point of contrast being drawn between a well-grooved, consistently coached team and this on-the-hoof and under-staffed England.
In fact, as Hodgson might perhaps like to say but cannot, there is no system that will refresh Wayne Rooney's creative juices, turn Jermain Defoe into anything other than a game but flighty scuttler or provide some impetus for Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain's stop-start progress. Of course the real stumbling block here is the Premier League, which is in turn a magnification of historic problems.
The separation of ownership and control of the England team has always been a source of constriction and in the current structure there is no incentive at all for Premier League clubs either to develop or to show patience with England-qualified players.
And yet, even if we accept that it is unfair to blame Hodgson for the paucity of talent and that this is not simply a case of jiggling numbers on his teamsheet, with a little cohesion second-rank teams can still compete among the elite. Pre-forged club-partnerships help here, as does a sense of continuity in selection. Unfortunately neither of these is available to Hodgson.
There are just not enough English regulars out there for ready-made club units to be imported wholesale. Similarly the demands of the Premier League routinely decimate his selections. The defence must be reconfigured every match. Wilshere and Gerrard have started together once. And yet Hodgson is expected to combat those inherited ills, the aggregation of marginal failings that has undermined successive England eras.
How much easier it is simply to blame the manager for all of this. And Hodgson, right now, is straying dangerously close to the accepted model of patsy-manager, the wild-eyed scapegoat with his wonky pronouncements, the doomed sense of an endgame already under way and of an ever more rapid descent into blame without progress.