Having dedicated almost half a century to a life in football, Roy Hodgson no longer possesses much mystery about him - but a well-established reputation for conservatism was still given a minor dent on Friday night with the selection of Andros Townsend. It wasn’t quite a case of breaking the habit of a lifetime, but having shown somewhat unexpected initiative, Hodgson must continue in this vein for Tuesday’s critical game against Poland.
England, under Hodgson, have been unspectacular as a general rule. This was only their first win against a side other than Moldova and San Marino in Group H. But while they were playing an unadventurous team shorn of some of their best players due to injury, most notably Mirko Vucinic, there should still be encouragement in the fact that they managed to cut loose and score four goals in a rather frantic second half. It was most unlike them.
Having been rewarded for an adventurous approach, Hodgson must field a four-man attack again on Tuesday – comprising Daniel Sturridge as the striker, and Danny Welbeck, Wayne Rooney and Townsend in a line of three – for a game where England will qualify for the World Cup with a win. Poland, defeated by Ukraine, are now out of the qualifying occasion and, dispirited, should be attacked from the off.
This was undoubtedly an encouraging evening: In Townsend England have found a real impact player; Welbeck continues his fine career in international football; Sturridge looked bright and eager right until his injury-time penalty; and Rooney’s inexorable path to the country’s all-time goalscoring record continues.
A win against Poland on Tuesday will secure England a place at Brazil 2014. Anything else, with Ukraine certain to win at home to San Marino, means a play-off place will be their fate.
Hodgson, of course, is expecting nothing else than three points after a morale-boosting performance against Montenegro. "The job is half done," he said. "If we want to qualify directly we have to win again against Poland on Tuesday. They played very well in the first half against Ukraine. If they play as well on Tuesday then it will be a tough game. I always back players to hold their nerve – I always trust the players. We are quite capable of going unbeaten through 10 games. Playing at Wembley with all the talented individuals we have in our team, it’d be foolish not to back them.”
A certain Jan ‘The Clown’ Tomaszewski will likely loom large in the public consciousness in the next few days as memories of his success in thwarting England for Poland in 1973 are dredged up. It is a sign of Hodgson’s longevity in the game that he recalled on Friday night he was still winding down his playing career in South Africa when Tomaszewski prevented England from qualifying. He didn’t watch the game though – “They didn’t have any TVs,” he said.
Hodgson’s 50 years in football have given him an enviable reputation across the world. It is now 20 years since he took Switzerland to the World Cup in 1994 - a tournament England missed. It is the last World Cup they were absent for. Should he avoid a similar catastrophe England side, the finals in Brazil could prove his proudest hour.
And after all those decades, the selection of Townsend proved he still has the capacity to surprise.
Though the England manager has made brave choices in his brief time in charge of the national side – showing his faith in the young Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain at the start of Euro 2012, installing Tom Cleverley as a No.10 in the early part of qualifying – his picks, and England’s performances, have often erred on the side of unadventurous, but the gamble on Townsend did him credit here.
It felt like a minor point scored against some of his critics, but when questioned whether he felt happy having confounded expectations, Hodgson bristled somewhat, and refused to accept the premise of the question.
“I think we have been picking young players all along haven’t we? Sterling … Welbeck has played almost every game, Sturridge were it not for injury. I’m not sure about that [reputation for being conservative] - people need to see beyond these things. You can only pick the players you have and some of the young players have not been available.”
It was a fair point. Still, some aspects of this Hodgson side still do not sit quite perfectly. The first half was certainly an ordinary affair, England struggling to break down two banks of four and seeing only Welbeck and Rooney go close.
While the selection of Townsend was undoubtedly the correct one, Hodgson’s decision to set up with Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard in the two deep positions in midfield was unconvincing. Neither are players in the Xavi (or, if we are being kind, Carrick) mould: both look to push beyond the midfield lines and neither has an instinct to sit. This resulted in a constant fear that Manchester City forward Stevan Jovetic would find space in between the lines to punish England, though his contribution was limited to a thunderous effort that hit the bar in the second half.
Emerging from the break, and with Ukraine having won 1-0 at home to Poland, England even found themselves in the precarious position of being one goal away from elimination from the World Cup at one point.
However, Townsend’s vigour and the potency of the England attack soon made such fears obsolete. Emboldened by his unexpected attacking twist, Hodgson must now demand a repeat to ensure the job of World Cup qualifying is complete.