LONDON, ENGLAND – There was a moment after England 's tie away to Ukraine in its last World Cup qualifier that seemed to sum up the whole problem of international football, and perhaps also the problem with Roy Hodgson. Before the game, the consensus had been that a tie would be a good result. Ukraine had won its previous four matches and was on a roll, and a point would leave England still in control of Group H , its destiny still in its own hands.
England achieved that. It frustrated Ukraine so entirely that, one very good early shout for a penalty aside, it never looked like scoring. Until Frank Lampard put a header narrowly wide in the final seconds, neither did England, but that wasn't the point. Hodgson had set up to frustrate Ukraine and kill the game and in that aim he had been undeniably successful. He came in to the postgame press-conference with a smile in his eye, clearly expecting to be lauded for a job well done, perhaps even ready to expand on his tactical plans: pushing Rickie Lambert tight on Yaroslav Rakitskiy for instance, so that Ukraine ended up trying to play out from the back through the clumsy Yevhen Khacheridi, or making sure Lampard and Jack Wilshere were quick to close down Edmar to prevent him creating from the back of midfield.
What Hodgson faced instead was a barrage of criticism. Why hadn't England created more? Why had it been so wasteful in possession? Why did it go long so often? The former England striker turned television presenter Gary Linker weighed in, describing England as "awful" and previously claimed that Hodgson was taking England back to the Dark Ages.
ueens Park Rangers manager Harry Redknapp, who many expected to be appointed when Hodgson got the England job, added his voice this week in serialized extracts from his autobiography. "We should be better," he said. "Doesn't everyone think that? It is sad, but England can sometimes be quite painful to watch, and I know from some of the players that it is not an enjoyable experience for them, either... when your best pass completion statistic is from Joe Hart to Andy Carroll -- goalkeeper to big lump of centre-forward, bypassing nine outfield players -- you know you've got a problem.... I just hope he [Hodgson] will also be a little bit bold, open up and try to get England playing the type of football we all want to see."
Little wonder Hodgson has at times looked confused. Despite being without his three first-choice forwards (arguably four, depending how highly you rate Carroll), he got the result he needed -- arguably achieved his aims too well, in that it made it appear that a Ukraine side that had scored 16 goals in its previous four games (nine of them, admittedly, against San Marino) was without threat -- and found himself condemned. The complaint has been regularly raised in the past few weeks that England hasn't beaten any of its three main rivals for qualification from Group H; that's true, but the only one its played at home has been Ukraine. It's true that England played poorly in that 1-1 tie , but that game was well played in Sept. 2012. How long can it be used as a stick to beat Hodgson with?
With a squad that changes dramatically from match to match with player withdrawals -- and injuries always seem to hurt more in international weeks -- it's almost impossible to generate a cohesive style through a qualifying series. The time to do that is in the weeks before a tournament (which still aren't really long enough), and so the best an international manager can realistically hope to achieve is a basic solidity (and probably to hold the ball a little better than England do). After wobbles in Poland and Montenegro, when England gave up leads, and even more alarmingly in the 3-2 home friendly defeat to Scotland, Ukraine was almost a model defensive display. Yet there remains an unrealistic expectation that England, despite half a century of underachievement and failures of coaching and youth development, should somehow outplay every team it meets. Even when England beat Spain under Fabio Capello, there were complaints about the manner of the victory.
None of which is to say that Hodgson doesn't deserve criticism should England fail to qualify. As it is, though, his pragmatism has left England needing to beat Montenegro ( live, FOX Sports 1, Friday, 3 p.m. ET ) and Poland ( live, FOX Sports 1, Tuesday, 3 p.m. ET ) at home to make it through, something that should be within its capabilities. Ashley Cole is ruled out with an injury and Kyle Walker has had a skittish season for Tottenham , which raises some concerns at fullback, but the central defensive pairing of Gary Cahill ad Phil Jagielka, having played together in each of the last five games, now seems to have an understanding.
The midfield trio of Steven Gerrard, Frank Lampard and Jack Wilshere has snap and energy -- if only, you think, Gerrard and Lamaprd had been played together in a midfield three earlier in their careers -- while a front three of Wayne Rooney, Daniel Sturridge and Danny Welbeck features three intelligent, technically gifted players who, in time, could be devastatingly fluid just in time for the Three Lions come 2014.
"We've never discussed not qualifying, within the camp we are convinced we are a good team, we are convinced we are good enough to qualify and with two home games to come we are convinced that we will do the job," Hodgson told a news conference. "Words like fear, anxiety or concern haven't crossed our minds or lips and I've been very impressed this week by the quality of training."
That sort of understanding takes time to develop though, and so the truth is that England is likely to be stodgy still through these final two games. That's why Hodgson, so long as the defensive platform he has constructed gets England through, must be afforded patience.