In Sybil, a not-very-good novel of 1845, novelist-cum-Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli famously split England into "two nations". George Orwell, writing a century later, says that it’s three. The question, as England head into their final group match against Ukraine, is how many Englands Roy Hodgson has.
We have seen two so far: a deep and narrow 4-4-1-1 against France and a more proactive and expansive 4-4-2 against Sweden. In a perverse way, given the extent to which the latter performance, courtesy of an exhilarating 3-2 victory, has invigorated supporters ("I think we can beat Spain. Saw them last night and they weren’t that good" [Man in a Ukrainian Campsite interviewed on BBC Breakfast]), it was actually the first plan that was the more successfully executed.
With Wayne Rooney certain to replace Andy Carroll in the starting line-up and reports from the camp suggesting that Theo Walcott is expected to take James Milner’s place, indications are that Hodgson will try for a third England against the Ukraine in Donetsk this evening.
Which could be a problem.
England’s distinct tactical identities so far have been essentially reactive: primarily determined by the makeup of the opponents. France, technically far superior to England, demanded a restrictive, defensive approach. Sweden, on the other hand, chronically unable to defend crosses (7 out of the last 8 goals they conceded prior to the England game were from crosses), invited Carroll’s inclusion and Walcott’s later introduction.
Ukraine are a less known quantity. Even if Oleh Blokhin’s side lack the intrigue of the ‘crack Eastern European outfits’ that routinely troubled English sides in Europe through the 60s, 70s and 80s, the Ukraine, as host nation, have only played two competitive matches in the last two years. This is problematic for them too, of course, but from England’s perspective it holds the hosts’ makeup somewhat in suspense.
Against France, they seemed cowed, a little reactive and lacking in pace. Against Sweden, seemingly inspired by the atmosphere in Kiev’s Olympic Stadium (and by Andriy Shevchenko), they were effervescent.
So, if Hodgson’s "Two Englands" are less distinct than they might have appeared, since both are essentially response teams, then they might struggle against a side with a less unitary, or at least predictable, makeup. Essentially, England can’t really keep the ball, which leaves them little choice other than to build their team in response to the characteristics of their oppositions (and don’t get me wrong, this is no criticism; respect for the opposition is a HUGE step forward in England’s international identity). And this is why Rooney’s return is so crucial.
Tactical plans, as Jonathan Wilson neatly argued in the Guardian recently, often benefit from the inclusion or addition of a 'game-changer': the individual who can disrupt the harmony of his own team’s approach and thereby eviscerate their opponents' coping mechanism. Theo Walcott performed this role to perfection for England against Sweden, and Rooney can do the same this evening.
Not good enough to dictate the game to the Ukraine, and not clear enough on the host’s likely approach to anticipate it, England have the most revolutionary players on the pitch (although Ukraine’s Andriy Yarmolenko definitely has something about him), the two most likely to change the game. And often, in international football, at least, that’s all it takes. Hodgson’s third England, then, should be his best; with Rooney and Walcott, perhaps from the bench, reactive England can become proactive (which, incidentally, is what Orwell wanted to happen too).
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