"What do you mean you've hurt 'your' knee, it's Liverpool's knee" - Bill Shankly.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Does Roy Hodgson judge performances purely on shape?

February 1, 2011
By Joshua Askew

Much has been made of Roy Hodgson’s comments in press conferences. Hodgson’s gone from denying performances were below par to shifting blame onto everyone under the sun and the downright bizarre in between.

A lot of what he says could be dismissed as generic nonsense to give away as little as possible, and maybe that’s just what it is, but read between the lines and a lot of it gives a valuable insight into his mind-set.

Take this, for example, after the 1-1 draw away to Steaua Bucharest:

“It’s good for me to know the work we’re doing day in, day out on the training field is having some effect and the players are getting more and more comfortable with what we’re trying to do, even those that maybe don’t play every week.”

A fairly innocuous comment intended to praise the “B” team with little actual substance. The players are getting “more and more comfortable” shows his work isn’t done, but that progress is there. “A draw isn’t the best I can do, but give me some time” he appears to be saying. “Even if you can’t see the positives in having only 40% of possession and one shot on target, I can, and it’s based on what we do in training – something you can’t see. You can’t prove that it’s not going to get better, because you don’t what we’re doing.”

Oh, but you’re wrong Roy. Thanks to your journalist buddies, we know all the secrets to your success.

“I don’t believe in innovation,” claims Hodgson. “There are those people who think that training sessions is having lots of different practices that change every five or 10 minutes. This is the last place to come for that.”

“Strangely, football is a sport in which some don’t expect to rehearse or practise. The important thing is that what you are coaching the players to do has direct relevance to what will happen in a match situation.

“There’s a way I do my job. I realise I’m working with individuals but we need to be a team. The fans are coming, not to see me, but the team I prepare.”

“We work on it every day,” said Fulham’s Simon Davies. “Every day in training is geared towards team shape.”

Hodgson’s also admitted his primary influence is former FA technical director Allen Wade, who, in his coaching manuals, attempted to theorise every given match situation. His disciples then went off and drilled this into their players, “dehumanising” them as certain critics put it.

Rafa Benitez used a similar mechanised approach, but focussed much more on the attacking side of play. His players didn’t just use their creativity to score goals, they worked on set patterns of play, like in basketball, to target weak areas of the opposition and grind them down. However, they were based on the players’ strengths. For instance, how often would you see Glen Johnson pick up the ball, move inwards then knock it in between two players and whip in a cross? It was repeated too often not to have been a set pattern, but you never saw Alvaro Arbeloa do it, he was always involved in neat passing moves in the final third.

The players weren’t left to their own creative devices like Arsenal’s, but Benitez’s method allowed players to play their natural game in a controlled way that ensured its effectiveness, with players intelligent enough to make it work. Hodgson’s doesn’t.

Hodsgon’s approach is made for players who are neither talented nor smart. The players set up in a deep, narrow, rigid 4-4-2 based on the relationships between players and releasing the ball as quickly as possible. Through endless drilling and rare selection changes, the players become aware of where they are in relation to their teammates and their free thinking gets eroded, or, as Hodgson puts it, “positive brainwashing.” The organisation of the defence makes it difficult for opposing teams to break them down and the releasing the ball quickly allows them to keep mistakes to a minimum.

This system can make poor players like Fulham’s appear better than they are, but players who are talented and intelligent, like, say, Liverpool’s, will struggle because they can think for themselves and simply getting rid goes against everything a talented player stands for – Hodgson’s problem is actually that the squad he inherited from Benitez is too good.

Which brings us back to the original question: is sticking to this rigid shape all Hodgson judges performances on?

His happiness over performances in press conferences would suggest so, but for the sake of argument let’s assume that’s a façade.

In between the back-slapping of mediocrity during an interview with Sky, Hodgson mentioned that Raul Meireles just needed time to adapt, ignoring that the Portuguese had looked brilliant the second he was moved to the centre. Easy to forget about until the Wolves game, where he was shifted back out to the right to make space for Steven Gerrard, a player who’s consistently proven he doesn’t even have half the brain to play there. It doesn’t appear to matter where in the team Meireles plays to Hodgson, as long as he can stay in the shape.

Meireles isn’t an isolated case. It’s obvious that Fernando Torres isn’t suited to having to hold up hoofed balls against five or six players, yet he stays static up front so fulfils his role in the shape. Equally, although looking big and hard, Martin Skrtel isn’t particularly physical or good in the air, preferring to play on the ground, which makes him ill-suited to Hodgson’s style, yet he’s played in every game of Hodgson’s tenure so far. A glance at his transfer record confirms he’s not a very good judge of player.

Any improvement in Liverpool essentially means that the players are actually becoming worse – which makes Paul Konchesky’s slight uptake in form worrying – as it means Hodgson’s methods are having an effect, meaning they will inevitably have to unlearn it when a replacement is found.

Hodgson was brought in to “steady the ship”, but his system means ripping up everything Liverpool had worked on for the last few years for an undoubtedly, at least aesthetically, worse style that puts them right back where they started. Liverpool’s progress has come in distinct stages: Benitez was the highest stage – if he needed replacing, it had to be with someone of a similar level and style. Evolution over revolution. Instead, we got something worse. If Gerard Houllier was John Smith, and Rafa Benitez was Tony Blair, then Roy Hodgson is Gordon Brown.

This was originally intended for Well Red Magazine, although thanks to Roy Hodgson’s sacking it wasn’t necessary, but I thought it might be of some interest to some of you.

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Quote of the moment

Defying belief however, is a market Benitez has cornered quite well. The moment you think Benitez is clueless, he defies it by pulling off a result of majesty, like the one achieved in Madrid. The moment he is hailed a genius, he masterminds toothless surrender to a team going nowhere. In the ongoing Anfield power struggle, just when he was cornered by the firing squad, the Spaniard's demise at Liverpool looking practically assured with the ominous suspension of betting by the bookmakers, he squeezes out through a narrow trapdoor and eliminates Rick Parry. Rafa Benitez is Keyzer Soze.
- Just Football blog: The Curious Beast that is Football 28 Feb 2009