Roy Hodgson’s unsuccessful selection gamble in England’s final group game of Euro 2016 has left senior figures within the Football Association questioning whether he has made a serious error of judgment that could jeopardise the team’s progress and potentially have repercussions for his future as manager.
While Hodgson is adamant he has “no regrets” about making six changes for the goalless draw against Slovakia, his employers are distinctly unimpressed by the risk-taking that finished with England losing their place at the top of Group B and forfeiting the chance to play one of the third-placed finishers in the first knockout round.
Wayne Rooney is also understood to be aggrieved at Hodgson’s decision to leave him out, and at the calculated gamble of breaking up the side that played so impressively in the second half of the 2-1 win against Wales. Rooney had expected to play and Hodgson’s decision to rest his captain is one of the issues that has troubled the people who will decide at the end of the tournament whether England’s manager warrants a new contract.
England’s inability to beat Slovakia has gone down badly with various FA executives because it means Wales will have, in theory, the easier game as group winners while Hodgson’s team will face the Group F runners-up, possibly Portugal, in Nice on Monday.
England have also been left with the daunting prospect of meeting France in the quarter-finals. Behind the scenes there is a firm belief that they did not have to make life so difficult for themselves – and that Hodgson went too far in giving half a dozen players their first starts of the tournament.
The issue is whether it will be held against him should England not make it past their next two games and what would happen if, for instance, they were to go out against France in a match that might have been avoided.
Greg Dyke, the FA’s chairman, has already made it clear that England may have to reach the semi-finals if Hodgson is to continue in the job through to the 2018 World Cup. Hodgson has the backing of at least one key decision-maker but has been heavily criticised by others and finishing as runners-up to Wales has not helped his cause at a time when Dyke has also stated the FA is looking for clear signs of improvement. Hodgson was taken aback to discover that Dyke had been openly discussing the manager’s future in a radio interview on the day before the Slovakia game. A difficult situation has not been helped by the disclosure that Dyke apparently agreed to be interviewed against the wishes of the FA’s media staff.
The ramifications of England finishing behind Wales are also being felt in a logistical sense, given that Hodgson’s side would have played their next game in Paris had they won their group, meaning they would have stayed at their Chantilly base 25 miles away. Instead they are now making arrangements to fly to Nice at the weekend. If they reach the quarter-finals, it will take place at the Stade de France but, if England get to the semi-finals, they are now in the side of the draw that would mean a return to Marseille, a proposition few would want after the carnage earlier in the tournament.
England will discover their next opponents after the final Group F matches and Hodgson was asked whether he would be confident facing Cristiano Ronaldo and his Portugal team-mates. “Why not?” he said. “We beat them at Wembley in another attack-versus-defence performance and they have taken only two points from their games so far. We have seen in this tournament it is not names and reputations that count, it is what teams do on the field. If it is Portugal, it is Portugal. I know one thing: I would rather play Portugal in the round of 16 than not be in the round of 16.”
Alternatively, there are other permutations that could see Hungary, Iceland or Austria finish in second position in Group F. Iceland play Austria at the Stade de France but Hodgson, perhaps surprisingly, has decided against making the short trip to Paris to watch England’s potential next opponents and will leave it to one of his scouts.
“I am disappointed we didn’t top the group but we will take whichever route we are given,” Hodgson said. “We don’t know if it will be a harder road or not because you never know which opponents are tough and which are not. I am not always convinced the opponents you get as a third-placed team are necessarily easier than a second-placed team. Let’s wait to see the Fifa rankings of the team we get.”
Hodgson’s argument is that there is no way of knowing whether his strongest England side would have beaten Slovakia. He admitted after the game that it had been a difficult night for Jack Wilshere, playing instead of Rooney in midfield, but insisted he was right to make so many changes.
“I never have regrets if the team has played well. I would maybe have had some regrets if we hadn’t dominated the game, played well and controlled it. I might have had some regrets if Jordan Henderson and Nathaniel Clyne were not candidates for man-of-the-match and I certainly would have had a few regrets if I had given Kyle Walker and Danny Rose another game on the bounce and they had been injured.
“I look at the performance and I don’t honestly believe I could have put out anyone else who would have played a lot differently from those who started the game. If I play Kyle Walker next week, someone will say it should be Nathaniel Clyne. If I don’t play Jordan Henderson, someone will say he should have played. People are going to be very critical of the performance because we didn’t win. But I cannot do that [criticise]. All I can do is put a team on the field that I feel is capable of winning the game.”
England’s latest result means they have won three out of Hodgson’s 10 tournament matches in charge, with only two occasions when they have scored more than one goal. “Where we are clearly at fault is that we are not taking the chances we are creating,” Hodgson said. “In my wildest dreams I could not have imagined that we would be so dominant in each of our first three games of this tournament. But the goals haven’t come. We scored three in one game against Sweden [in Euro 2012] and I do believe that, if the players keep this intensity and positivity, then someone will be on the end of a heavy defeat.”
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