England face Norway in Oslo this evening in Roy Hodgson’s first game as manager of the national side. Will his pragmatic approach ensure victory over the long-ball specialists?
The prospect of an international fixture involving Norway is not guaranteed to set the pulse of the average England fan racing.
Not because Norwegian players are an unknown quantity in this country. Several members of the national side – John Arne Riise, Brede Hangeland, and Morten Gamst Pedersen – are established members of Premier League teams (although Pedersen’s Blackburn Rovers will be playing in the second tier from next season).
Nor because Norway are international footballing minnows. Fifa currently ranks them 24th in the world out of 205 national sides, above countries like the Czech Republic, Turkey and the United States. Indeed, for a period in the 1990s they were ranked second.
But it is precisely the recollection of that period between 1990 and 1998, when Norway were managed by Egil “Drillo” Olsen, that makes the eyes of some football fans glaze over.
Olsen, who returned to manage Norway for a second time in 2009 and remains in charge, is indelibly associated with route-one – or long-ball – football, the bane of purists everywhere. As a footballing style, it is the diametric opposite of Barcelona’s intricate “tiki-taka” passing game.
But there is still enough about today’s fixture at Oslo’s Ullevall Stadium to interest us. First of all, it will be England manager Roy Hodgson’s first game in charge.
On the positive side, the former West Bromwich Albion boss is known for ensuring that his sides are well drilled. But then Fabio Capello, his predecessor, was no slouch in that area.
A good Andy Carroll performance could ensure that he plays a role in at least the first two games of Euro 2012.
So what else can Hodgson bring to the party? It seems likely he will adopt a “defence first” approach. The probable formation is 4-5-1, with Phil Jones, Phil Jagielka, Joleon Lescott and Leighton Baines protecting the goalkeeper – either Manchester City’s Joe Hart or Rob Green of West Ham.
Ahead of them, Gareth Barry and – assuming he is fit – Scott Parker are likely to assume defensive midfield duties. Theo Walcott, Steven Gerrard and Ashley may line up behind target man Andy Carroll.
Carroll has not enjoyed a successful season at Anfield, and is completely unproven at international level. But the England manager is known to favour a traditional number nine. A good performance by the Liverpool centre forward could ensure that, pending Wayne Rooney’s return, he plays a role in at least the first two games of Euro 2012.
England’s team this evening, therefore, will not represent the sort of constellation of talent that the national manager had to draw on 10, or even five, years ago. Then, he could choose from the likes of David Beckham, Ashley Cole, Rio Ferdinand, Steven Gerrard, Paul Scholes, Joe Cole, Frank Lampard, Gary Neville and Michael Owen – most of them in their prime.
Hodgson arguably secured the England managership by demonstrating his ability to get the best from players at smaller clubs.
What is more, England’s best player, Wayne Rooney, will not represent his country until 19 June, when team play Ukraine in the third – and possibly decisive – game of their Euro 2012 group.
What will emerge from the Norway game, though, is an idea of how Roy Hodgson plans to deploy what are, in international footballing terms, limited resources. Hodgson has managed big club sides like Liverpool and Internazionale, but he arguably made his name – and secured the England managership – by demonstrating his ability to get the best from players at smaller clubs.
He took Fulham to the final of the Europa Cup just two seasons, after rescuing them from near demotion to the Championship. In less than two years, he established West Brom as a team comfortably occupying the middle tier of clubs within the Premier League.
Lowered expectations mean Hodgson’s challenge next month in Poland and Ukraine will be, first and foremost, to get England out of their group and into the quarter-finals. Anything beyond that will be a bonus. In Oslo, against the Norwegians’ sometimes discredited football, we should get some of how Hodgson plans to go about the task.