There is a good reason why Roy Hodgson was offered the England role just as there was good reason for Liverpool to come calling in 2010, even if both ended ignominiously. The 70-year-old is one of the most cultured and intelligent English managers of his generation and, had it not been for that disastrous 90 minutes against Iceland at Euro 2016, his reputation in this country would be considerably higher. But Hodgson’s appointment as Crystal Palace manager was met with scepticism and derision by many, despite his superb achievements at Fulham and West Brom making him an ideal candidate for a club of their stature. His side’s 2-1 win against Chelsea last weekend was proof that Hodgson has the tactical credentials to steer Palace away from relegation – and turn them into a top ten side.
No manager should be judged on a single 90 minutes of football no matter how appalling. But following England’s diabolical display against Iceland, whose subsequent achievements have partially redeemed Hodgson and his side, the nation collectively forgot everything that had happened in the four years leading up to June 28 2016. Hodgson had cultivated a more mature brand of possession football, had brought through several exciting young players, and had succeeded in dramatically lowering national expectations at a time when entitlement had reached a fever pitch. Hodgson’s PR work is the single biggest reason why England could leap from Fabio Capello to Gareth Southgate in just two moves, leaving the latter to get on with the job under less scrutiny than any of his predecessors of the last 30 years.
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Not that Hodgson would want to be judged on his England tenure. Instead, his finest achievements came during a remarkable three-year spell at Fulham, in which the west London club went from certain relegation to the Europa League final. He was never a good fit for Liverpool, but at West Brom Hodgson again steadied the ship by implementing a solid defensive shape and some bright-but-calculated attacking football. The current media interpretation of Hodgson, as a meat-and-potatoes manager who implements a boring style of play, is thanks primarily to that Iceland result and a sprinkling of ageism. West Brom and Fulham fans have no memory of things being dull with Hodgson in charge.
And so to Palace, the club at which Hodgson began his playing career back in 1965 having grown up in Croydon. The romantic side of their reunion has been used by many to criticise the appointment, as if heart ruled head after Frank de Boer’s dismissal, but this is nonsense. Crystal Palace is the perfect club – in terms of its size and the current style of its playing staff – for Hodgson to remind English fans why he was once seen as a fitting choice for the England job.
Technically speaking, Crystal Palace aren’t among the three worst teams in the division. Patrick van Aanholt, Scott Dann, Timothy Fosu-Mensah, Andros Townsend, Ruben Loftus-Cheek, Christian Benteke, Wilfried Zaha, Yohan Cabaye, Jairo Reiderwald, Jason Puncheon, and Luka Milivojevic are all at least mid-table Premier League quality, which gives Hodgson and his staff plenty to work with for the final 30 matches. Significantly, eight of the above were signed by Sam Allardyce, Alan Pardew, or Tony Pulis, all of whom share a similar tactical philosophy that chimes with Hodgson’s preferred methods.
Hodgson’s tactics aren’t as simplistic or dull as generally assumed, but they are still direct, revolving around speed on the flanks, tenacity in central midfield, and a compressed defensive shape. In this regard he shares a lot with Big Sam, another former England manager whose tactical directness has always been misrepresented as somehow boring by a media increasingly obsessed with the purity of possession football.
Case in point: Hodgson masterminded victory on Saturday using a 4-4-2 formation with two wingers, Zaha and Townsend, up front. Though instructed to shift out wide when counter-attacking opportunities arose, crucially these two stayed close together to help overload one side of the pitch. This formation allowed Hodgson to field Jeffrey Schlupp and James McArthur on the flanks, essentially meaning he had an extra left-back on one side and an extra central midfielder moving infield from the right. Antonio Conte’s five-pronged attack was stunted and Palace deservedly stole the points.
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It won’t be the last time Hodgson springs a tactical surprise this season – and it won’t be the last time he achieves something unexpected. Before victory at the weekend most people had already written off goalless and pointless Palace, claiming that their gap to 17th was already too great. This is strangely mistaken mathematics. Palace need 37 points from their final 30 games, or 1.23 points per game, to survive, which is the equivalent of 47 points from a 38 game season – hardly outside of the expected target for a club boasting such talented attackers. In fact, wins from their next two league matches, against Newcastle United and West Ham United, could even lift them out of the bottom three before November.
Hodgson’s Palace are already beginning to resemble his Fulham and West Brom sides; determined, together, and defensively reliable. Zaha and Townsend have already proven their value against one of the best sides in the division, and so when Benteke and Loftus-Cheek return in the next month Hodgson will have an attack worthy of a top ten finish. They need 37 more points. It is most definitely achievable.