England comment: Can Hodgson deliver the result Keegan felt he was incapable of? (From The Northern Echo)
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England comment: Can Hodgson deliver the result Keegan felt he was incapable of?
WHEN Kevin Keegan stood down as England manager in October 2000, he offered the following comment as an acceptance of the tactical naivety that proved so damaging: “If you need someone to get you a goalless draw in Ukraine, I'm probably not your man.” This evening, we will discover if Roy Hodgson is able to complete the mission any more successfully.
Perhaps Hodgson will surprise us all by throwing caution to the wind in Kiev's Olympic Stadium in order to vigorously pursue the victory that would all but guarantee England an automatic place in next summer's World Cup finals.
It is possible, but extremely unlikely. Given the innate conservatism that has characterised Hodgson's career, not to mention the delicate state of the Group H table and the absence of a host of key players who would have otherwise have been in the starting line-up, this will be a night when caution is the name of the game.
A draw would leave England a point clear of both Montenegro and Ukraine, with two home games remaining. Defeat, however, would see Ukraine leapfrog their opponents at the top of the table, and leave England looking at a play-off at best unless Ukraine slip up in their final two matches, an unlikely scenario given they entertain a stumbling Poland before concluding their campaign in San Marino.
“We don't really do that,” insisted Hodgson, when asked whether he would send his side out with the target of attaining a draw. “Our style of play, which is well ingrained with the players, is based on both attacking and defending. We don't set out just to defend. When we get the ball, we try to attack, and we don't hold our full-backs back if it is Ukraine when we would be pushing them forward against San Marino.”
Clearly, any England manager would be pilloried for saying anything different. But while England's players will not be sent out with the explicit instruction to be risk averse tonight, they will nevertheless be given every assistance to ensure the potential for damage is limited.
This will be the most delicate team selection of Hodgson's international career, with Danny Welbeck's suspension in the wake of Friday's disputed booking against Moldova dismantling the manager's carefully-assembled plans.
Should Hodgson select the nearest like-for-like replacement he has for Welbeck, and promote Ashley Young to the starting line-up in order to retain the general shape that proved so effective, admittedly against much inferior opposition, on Friday?
Or would it be better to select James Milner on the left-hand side, with the former Newcastle midfielder offering a greater degree of defensive solidity that could be valuable given the continued absence of a natural holding midfielder?
Having immediately ruled out the possibility of calling up Aston Villa's Gabriel Agbonlahor on Friday night, another attacking player who could deputise for Welbeck in either the starting line-up or on the bench, it seems certain that Milner will be the fringe player getting the call.
“We know what James would do,” said Hodgson. “He isn't, and doesn't pretend to be, as exciting as some of the wingers we sometimes use these days.
“After a long period of time where I've not seen many wingers in the country, I'm now seeing lots of them. But we are going to need experience in Kiev. Milner is not a winger, but the qualities he brings could be very useful.”
Hodgson must also decide whether to retain Rickie Lambert in attack, or recall Jermain Defoe, who remains a valued asset despite his lack of domestic involvement with Tottenham at the start of the season.
Lambert has never played in a game with as much riding on it as this one, but given the effectiveness of his hold-up play and ball retention against Moldova, there seems no compelling reason to jettison him now.
The other selection decision comes at the base of midfield, with Frank Lampard, who needs one more cap to become the eighth player to join England's 100 club, and Michael Carrick battling for the right to accompany Steven Gerrard and Jack Wilshere.
Carrick is regarded as the more defensive and positionally disciplined of the two, although his most recent displays in an England shirt – particularly his wretched showing in last October's draw in Warsaw – hardly construct a compelling case for his inclusion.
England find themselves in a perilous position largely as a result of their failure to beat Ukraine in their opening home qualifier, a 1-1 draw that saw Yevhen Konoplianka stun Hodgson's side with a fantastic long-range strike.
Once two points had been dropped there, it was always likely that England would at least have to match their Wembley result in Kiev.
The two sides' last meeting on Ukrainian soil ended in an England victory, with Wayne Rooney's close-range header knocking the co-hosts out of Euro 2012. Rooney, of course, is another key absentee, and while the Manchester United striker has repeatedly struggled to live up to his billing on the international stage, his presence this evening would nevertheless have been reassuring.
“I feel sympathy for Wayne Rooney, but if we are being honest, it is a big positive for Ukraine,” said Ukrainian skipper Anatoliy Tymoshchuk. “England are a very different weapon without Wayne Rooney. He is the player England look to when they need something special.”
It could be argued that England do not need something special in their final away qualifier – they require solidity, something much more mundane.
In the unlikely environs of a Wembley toilet block, Keegan accepted that was one quality he could not engineer. Thirteen years on, let us see if Hodgson can help England deliver it.
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