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Will Roy Hodgson’s Tactics Hold England Back?

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With Brazil nearing, the camp of pundits and fans claiming that Roy Hodgson’s coaching philosophy will pose a problem for England in their World Cup run is chirping yet again, but how does the way in which England lines up on the field affect their results?

Changing formations and adapting his tactical arsenal to suit the squad he selects, characterizing Roy Hodgson’s managerial style is a difficult task. With the creativity present in England’s squad with midfielders like Steven Gerrard and Jack Wilshere, it is an enormous task to figure out the way in which they will interact best against a given opponent.

When Hodgson adopted a 4-4-2 in last year’s frustrating draw with the Republic of Ireland, the gaffer attracted criticism. Former England footballer Gary Lineker responded to the formation choice on Twitter, saying: "Don't like England playing this system, so easy to play against... predictable and dated... this is a step back to the dark ages of 2 lines of 4... It's not about playing in straight lines."

Lineker insisted that the formation was a tactical error on the part of Hodgson, but he failed to realize that realistically, England were playing a 4-2-3-1 hybrid with a 4-4-2 defensive look. This setup was reminiscent of Hodgson’s early managerial career in Sweden at Halmstad, where he took the squad from relegation candidates to champions in a year by switching to a zone-marking system for the back-four while maintaining creativity with a diamond further up the pitch.

While the formation’s success in 1976 does not guarantee its relevance on the international stage today, the 4-4-2 / 4-2-3-1 hybrid is still a widely used tactic and hardly warrants to be called a tactic from "the dark ages." Opting for the 4-4-2 would grant England greater width in the midfield, which might be necessary if Walcott truly does miss out on the World Cup, leaving England without a true winger. A player like Wayne Rooney up top can also play a bit further back if he so chooses, taking on more defensive responsibilities while supplying a pacey centre-forward like Daniel Sturridge.

But as manager of the Three Lions, Hodgson has shown greater appreciation of the 4-3-3. England’s 3-2 win over Scotland is a perfect example of the system’s advantages. The gaffer has expressed a desire to grab a greater share of possession, and with 64 percent of the ball against England’s rival, the 4-3-3 proved effective in this regard. It allows for structure and creative link-up play, as one more defensive midfielder provides cover for the back four, allowing the fullbacks to move up the pitch with greater attacking ambitions.

The 4-3-3 has allowed Frank Lampard and Steven Gerrard to coexist and flourish on the pitch, which was a challenging prospect in the past. Each footballer commands a separate space to set up the offence given the formation’s natural width. In a 4-2-3-1, only one of the two deep-lying central midfielders is able to surge forward, and they typically remain closer together on the pitch. Such chance-creation difficulties were evident when England ran the formation against Germany last year.

There is no definite tactical template when it comes to Roy Hodgson’s formation, but what is clear is that when the link-up play breaks down against a pressing side, England are vulnerable. In this case, many teams default to a 4-4-2 defensive look and hope to prevent the opposition from scoring through crowding the midfield.

Will Roy Hodgson’s tactics hurt England in the World Cup? It depends. Given the manager's tendency to adapt his team’s formation to suit the challenge at hand and the squad available, they will only hurt if he makes the wrong choice. Taking into account Hodgson’s history, he very likely could choose a 4-4-2 defensive setup against an attack-heavy side like Uruguay or to combat the creativity of the Italian midfield. The offensive formation depends on the makeup and form of England's squad.

At least in theory, Hodgson's tactics are not "nineteenth-century" or "boring," but rather take into account the strengths and weaknesses of England's squad. The effectiveness of his choices will depend on player execution, but the gaffer's influence and football acumen could prove vital during crucial matches.