Roy Hodgson was hired as England manager four years ago, as the culmination of a long and successful career built on defense-first tactics. With that in mind, it’s a remarkable process of transformation that he’s overseen since, having gambled on youth and a more free-flowing, aggressive blueprint than anyone could have imagined when he took charge. After Fabio Capello’s fascinatingly dour reign of terror, Hodgson remains a total breath of fresh air.
The squad he’s taking to France marks a continuation of the pleasingly forward-thinking approach he adopted for the World Cup in Brazil two years ago. Only this time, Hodgson — a man perceived from the outside as cuddly but conservative, a bit like your grandad — has made an even more radical selection. Not since 1958 have England taken a younger team to a major tournament, with over half of their 23-man selection no older than 26; almost a third are younger than 23.
England were fortunate enough to be handed a rather easy qualification group, though with Hodgson understandably taking the opportunity to tinker throughout the campaign, one would naturally expect a couple of slips. But impressively, the Three Lions will arrive in France as the only team to have won every one of their qualifying matches. They’ve not lost a single competitive game since being dumped out of the last World Cup by Uruguay.
Perhaps no one embodies England’s transformation under Hodgson better than 18-year-old striker Marcus Rashford, who has made a rapid rise from Manchester United youth star to Premier League regular and England international. Most thought he’d been included in the provisional squad for no more than experience, but a goal-scoring debut in a pre-tournament friendly against Australia sealed the deal and he made the final cut. Hodgson is working on the premise that if a player’s good enough, he’s old enough, with Rashford’s inclusion coming at the expense of more experienced internationals.
There are other players who’ve followed similar trajectories. In his first year as a Premier League player, Tottenham Hotspur’s combative but creative midfielder Dele Alli cemented his place in the Team of the Season. It now seems almost certain that he’ll be in the starting lineup when England kick off their Euro 2016 campaign against Russia on June 11. The same is true of his domestic teammate Harry Kane, who is almost un-droppable after finishing the season as the top flight’s top goalscorer.
But while this England team is, on paper, one of the most exciting and talented in the entire tournament, Hodgson’s approach does carry an inherent risk. With the squad having been cobbled together only over the last few months, they’ll be relying on pulling things together tactically in the pre-tournament training camp; an exercise comparable to your ill-advised cramming the night before that damn history exam. It would be much safer for Hodgson to return to his domestic pragmatism, set his side out with two regimented banks-of-four and hope for a shock of Leicester-esque proportions. After all, that strategy’s much easier to learn than a sequence of intricate pressing triggers and arrow-strewn chalkboards.
And yet, there seems to be a general feeling that England fans are buying into Hodgson’s project. His strategy doubtless comes with a higher risk, but the potential for a much greater reward. And conversely, having seen plenty of international coaches fail in the meekest of manners, the idea of going out in a blaze of glory appears perversely alluring. Under Capello and his predecessor-but-one, Sven-Göran Eriksson, the expectation was heaped on the Golden Generation; chastened by the experience, Hodgson’s first major tournament was one in which expectation was deliberately (and paradoxically) downplayed. For the upcoming Euros, there is little talk of expectation whatsoever.
Instead, the Three Lions’ faithful appear to have embraced an existentialist absurdity, in which the future isn't really worth worrying about. Hodgson’s more free-flowing brand of soccer has made living in the moment a little easier, and a picturesque journey at least partly offsets the inevitable disappointment of the destination. In all likelihood, England will get through the group and revert to type with an early knockout stage exit — probably on penalties. But with a likeable coach and a set of talented young lads, would that really be a disaster?
Who am I kidding? Yes, yes it would. HODGSON OUT!