Irrespective of the criticism Roy Hodgson received for England's boxy shape in the 1-1 draw against Ireland on Wednesday, he was always going to select an additional central midfielder for this trip to the Maracanã.
Intended to be 4-5-1 without the ball and 4-3-3 in possession, England's dreadful ball retention ensured this was simply 4-5-1 for long periods.
While often considered a strict 4-4-2 man, Hodgson has used three central midfielders in the majority of matches since England's Euro 2012 exit, particularly when facing strong opposition. Against Italy, Sweden and now twice versus Brazil England have played one up front, with a strike duo generally employed only against weaker opposition.
Evidently Hodgson acknowledges the need for two separate systems to suit different situations, and this 4-5-1 is seemingly England's "underdog" strategy – not dissimilar from the formation Fabio Capello stumbled on towards the end of his tenure. The line of four behind Wayne Rooney in the Maracanã – Frank Lampard and Phil Jones in the centre, with Theo Walcott wide right and James Milner on the left – was the same quartet Capello selected in the ugly but effective 1-0 victory over Spain in November 2011.
Possession dominance is not a key part of Hodgson's game plan but he would have been dismayed at England's wayward passing throughout the first half. Brazil pressed high upfield at goal-kicks, meaning Joe Hart was not comfortable passing out to his centre-backs, and England had no tall central striker to compete for long balls, with Milner, Rooney and Walcott all standing at 5ft 9in and playing against a physically impressive Brazilian backline.
Hart's distribution was ambitious but frequently misdirected and, with Michael Carrick unable to receive possession deep in midfield, England were boxed into their own half and, in addition to inviting heavy pressure, lacked smooth transitions from defence to attack.
They steadily improved as the match continued but an attack-minded substitution from Hodgson was crucial in the comeback. He was brave in introducing Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain centrally, the role the Arsenal youngster favours in the long term, particularly because he removed Glen Johnson rather than another midfielder. He moved Jones to right-back and ensured England continued with as many energetic ball-carriers as possible.
Oxlade-Chamberlain's impact was instant, underlined by his equaliser – but in terms of England's strategy, Rooney's goal was the more promising moment. Collecting possession on the edge of their own penalty box, England's attack flowed through four players – Walcott, Oxlade-Chamberlain, Milner and finally Rooney – all of whom are comfortable powering towards goal on the break. There is little chance Hodgson will convert England to a possession-based side. Instead the players must attack quickly when the ball is won and Rooney's goal demonstrated that concept perfectly.
England's two results from this international break sum up Hodgson's strategy nicely: two forwards when expecting to dominate, but a more cautious 4-5-1 against top-class opposition. The results, too, are very Hodgson – England are adept at collecting results against superior sides when able to play reactively, but remain disappointing versus poorer teams they should be defeating.
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image: © Ronnie Macdonald