CHISINAU, MOLDOVA - SEPTEMBER 07: England manager Roy Hodgson applauds the fans after the FIFA 2014 World Cup qualifier match between Moldova and England at Zimbru Stadium on September 7, 2012 in Chisinau, Moldova. (Photo by Michael Regan/Getty Images)
Roy Hodgson's tenure is earning him few critics, but England don't appear to be making any real progress. Follow @SBNationSoccer
Bizarre "I've managed at Neuchatel Xanax, you know" rants aside, England manager Roy Hodgson appears to be permanently blessed and cursed with a humble, small-club mentality. Most of the time that's to his credit, but occasionally it's not. During Plucky Little Fulham's Europa League run, it served him well - a likeable team that needed kind words and encouragement to help them turn over the likes of Juventus as they went further than any reasonable person could've expected. Such an attitude, however, with its boasts of "a famous European victory against Trabzonspor" did not go down well with the natives at Anfield, and while it may have worked with an utterly demoralised England, expectation will reach boiling point as the summer of 2014 approaches, and a sweet smile may not be enough to get the job done anymore.
Ironically, it was one of that old golden generation that Hodgson had indulged far beyond his suitability or form, Steven Gerrard, who gave a taste of what was to come: appearing on several English back pages with some classic "We can win the World Cup" braggadocio. Hodgson probably would've choked on his coffee as he read it, but it's difficult to make a prediction for what will happen in two years, when nobody - not Steven Gerrard, not Frank Lampard, and apparently not Roy Hodgson - knows what England's team will look like when the time comes.
It's a curious time in international football, where we don't really have a firm idea of what many of the traditional major powers that will contest the 2014 World Cup will look like. France and Italy's likely teams by then are anyone's guess, Holland appear to be at a crossroads, and even Brazil and Argentina have serious doubts of how best to accomodate their stars and who to leave out. England are no different, but the questions are largely in who won't survive the cut, since the youth likely to take their place - Jack Wilshere, Danny Welbeck, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, et al - should have few surprises.
Mystifying, then, that Hodgson chose to select Lampard and Gerrard, one of the great English comedy double-acts, against Moldova. It doesn't seem a huge problem - it's only Moldova, who aren't going to provide suitable test conditions for any experiment - but the fact remains that there are three overwhelming arguments as to why it was a bad idea. Number one, they don't play together effectively. That's not a theory, or a niggling doubt, it's a painful and repeatedly-proven fact. Number two, if the duo are going to be a serious consideration for a starting midfield pairing in 2014, then it's probably not worth qualifying. Number three, both are in their worst form for quite some time. Gerrard has been abysmal so far this season, the worst player on the pitch in all but one of Liverpool's games, whereas Lampard's struggling decline is the main reason there are doubts about Chelsea's midfield, particularly with the baffling exits of Raul Meireles and Michael Essien.
Largely, it seems that Hodgson is too eager to placate those who attempt to manage England from within or afar - the 'golden generation' has been kept on life-support, the media have been placated, and a relatively straightforward qualifying group will probably be negotiated with ease. All this, however, means nothing should England still be left with the usual combination of the untested and unready versus the decrepit and past-it, as the manager gets the usual pillorying in the press after claiming "Trinidad and Tobago are a very good team" in the post-match interview to an unwatchable 1-1 draw.
Hodgson is undoubtedly a good manager, but as his contrasting times at Fulham, Liverpool, and West Brom proved, only in specific circumstances. He can keep England ticking over, get them winning the games they should be winning and maybe drawing the odd one they should be losing, but that's it. Any long-term plan for the national team is conspicuous by its absence, and England do have a wide array of talented young players that could form a strong team in the very near future. England don't need someone to smile sweetly and keep the peace - they need somebody to forge a team that, with discipline and efficiency, could perhaps overachieve and go all the way.
It's England's poor luck that they simply don't seem to produce that kind of manager anymore - dour, joyless managers may be Scotland's highest export after oil and maudlin sentimentality, but they can all be ruled out for obvious reasons. To combat it, England have been by far the highest-profile team to resort to foreigners - the first a manager somehow even more happy-go-lucky and chummy than your standard English boss, and the second, Fabio Capello, a man out of his time. You can't help but feel that Hodgson would've been a better bet to oversee the twilight of the players that took part in the South Africa debacle, whereas Capello might've stood more of a chance of whipping the current crop into a genuinely great team.
Hodgson is unlikely to oversee any total disasters, but it must be questioned whether he is the right man to oversee the kind of overhaul necessary. England have little to gain, but much to lose in the long-term - in the best case they may go farther than expected in Brazil, but even that could represent a great missed opportunity.