Kane and Alli lead England into new era
As Roy Hodgson stood deep inside the Olympic Stadium on Saturday evening, burnished by the glow of an astonishing victory over world champions Germany, he spoke about being on track.
The England manager was, quite literally, correct; standing on the athletics warm-up track that runs along the back of the cavernous press conference room.
Hodgson also spoke about – and railed against – straight lines, the conventional wisdom that deems him a conservative, even boring coach who prefers experienced players, fixed formations and uninspired tactics.
“Unfortunately, I don’t know when I got it but I was given an epithet at one stage that will stay with me for the rest of my life,” Hodgson explained of how he was perceived in England. “I don’t have it in Switzerland, I don’t have it in Italy [where he has also worked], that I am conservative in some way. It’s not true and I have never felt that way.
“I have worked for one or two teams where we have been nowhere near as good as the opposition and we have been on the back foot and have had to work for results. But whenever I have the team to take control and take the initiative, all my teams have done that.”
England emphatically did that in Berlin. This felt like the definitive emergence of something fresh and bold. There can be no way back now.
There were performances that were statements: from Dele Alli, Eric Dier, Harry Kane and Jamie Vardy. The victory was not just about the players from the Premier League’s two outstanding teams, Leicester City and Tottenham Hotspur, but they set the tone.
The question now is: how far will Hodgson take this? How bold will this self-proclaimed bold manager be? He spoke as if this was all a deliberate strategy and not just, partly, a product of injury to players, including Wayne Rooney, who will surely have a problem getting back in the side.
“I don’t think it is just about the fearlessness of youth,” Hodgson said. “I think in our approach to working with these players, we have also been quite fearless. We’ve also said, ‘ We are backing you on this, this is how we want you to play, this is what we want you to do.’ I am prepared – and also my coaching staff are prepared – that we will take the responsibility, if it goes wrong.
“We’re going to be the first ones standing up to say: ‘This is what we told him to do, so don’t have a go at him. This is what we want to do.’ This is the message we have been putting across for a long period. “We have also been lucky that some players who have come into the team seem to flourish with that confidence and freedom being given to them. That freedom to make mistakes. We would still like to play out more from the back than we did. We are trying to.
“Our goalkeepers have got work to do if they are to become as good as the De Geas and Lloris’s of the world. Because the fewer times we have to play the ball long the better it will be, because we want to use our midfield players who are players who can really run the game.”
It sounded exciting and refreshing, and it is. No one should get carried away and say England will win the Euros but there is a genuine sense of being on the brink of something – and of simply being able to enjoy the fact that Hodgson’s approach, with this set of players, is worth pursuing.
This win was the first time in 40 years that England had overturned a two-goal deficit (even if Germany would have been three ahead had Mario Gómez’s effort not been wrongly ruled out for offside). The last time they managed the feat was at a friendly tournament in New York in 1976 when England came back to beat Italy.
A certain Fabio Capello was in the Italy team, while Hodgson, his successor as England manager, embarked on his managerial career in the same year, when he took over the Swedish club Halmstads, with whom he won two league titles.
The 68-year-old ranks it as his “water into wine” managerial feat, perhaps the best of a career that has taken him across Scandinavia, to Italy and to coaching the national teams of Finland and Switzerland.
The best may be to come – as Hodgson himself often says – and maybe it will be water into champagne with this emerging England team, for whom Kane and the remarkable Alli appear not only the two most important players but nascent leaders. “We thought he was excellent and he is getting a lot of praise, and I hope he enjoys it because it is truly deserved,” Hodgson said of Alli, who drew a huge amount of positive comment, not least from the World Cupwinning captain who was part of the ITV Sport punditry team. “The TV people told me Lothar Matthäus said he was the best player on the pitch. That’s some praise indeed,” Hodgson said.
There are problems. England’s defence is a concern. Danny Rose did well on debut but Nathaniel Clyne looked limited while, although Gary Cahill captained the side, he was vulnerable. Question marks hang over Jordan Henderson and, possibly, Adam Lallana.
After England fell behind to Toni Kroos’s fierce strike, a goal aided by Jack Butland’s injury, it seemed game over when Gómez exposed Cahill’s fragility to head home.
Not at all. Kane quickly scored with a superb low shot, after a brilliant Cruyff turn (how apt) before substitute Vardy struck from close range with an equally deft touch. Dier then headed the winner in injury time.
What was remarkable was that England kept going. They did not settle for a draw; they were far from conservative. OK, Germany played the second half with a defence that had only 20 caps but it was not a victory to be churlish about; they are the world champions and were leading 2-0.
“You can only win seriously if you can take the game to the opposition,” Hodgson said. “It is very hard to win if you are on the back foot all the time and try to nick a goal.”
The mantra is out there. England are on the front foot; on track. Now let us see how far they can go.
Fearless: Dele Alli (right) takes on Germany’s Antonio Rüdiger as England’s youngsters come of age with their finest win under Roy Hodgson (below, left)