How England can win Euro 2012: play like Chelsea
Roy Hodgson is a master of getting the most out of ordinary players - and the championship favourites look weak
WANT A good outside tip for Euro 2012? A side currently available at juicy odds of 15-1 and whose chances of victory have been largely dismissed?
OK, I'll tell you the name of the team. It's England. That's right, England. The team that has never won the Euros or even been to the final. A team that hasn't won any major international tournament, in fact, since 1966.
This time round expectations of an England success have never been so low. We haven't got enough good strikers. Or enough good defenders. Or indeed enough good players all round. Our squad has been hit by injuries. The manager has only just taken over. And so on. Yet ironically, despite all the doom and gloom, we might just have the best chance of winning a major tournament that we've had in years.
Here's why. The European Championship, unlike the World Cup, can produce surprise winners. Czechoslovakia in 1976. Denmark in 1992. Greece in 2004. The World Cup, by contrast, always goes to a member of football's elite.
The difference is due to the format of the competition. To win the Euros under the current format, you only have to win three games once you've qualified from your group. That means that an extremely well-organised team who are very hard to break down - but who may not necessarily have the best players - can prevail.
If England can get out of their group (and two draws and a win should do it), then they'd only be three wins away from winning the tournament. The big plus for England is that they've got a manager whose approach to the game is perfect for the challenge which lies ahead. As he has shown at all the clubs he has managed, Roy Hodgson is a master of getting the most out of decidedly ordinary players - which, let's be honest - describes most of the players England have at their disposal at present.
Under Hodgson, England will be compact and well-organised with every player knowing exactly what he should be doing and where he should be on the pitch at any given time. It's no coincidence that England's first two matches under Hodgson have resulted in solid but unspectacular 1-0 wins. The victories against Norway and Belgium may not have been particularly exciting to watch, but they provide encouragement that England could be morphing into 'the New Greece'.
Back in 2004, Greece's German coach Otto Rehhagel pulled off one of the greatest sporting achievements of all time. Greece, who had never won a match at a major tournament before, only scored seven goals to win the tournament. But this incredibly well-regimented team failed to concede a single goal in the knockout rounds as they registered three shock 1-0 wins against more illustrious opponents.
Rehhagel moulded his tactics at Euro 2004 to suit the players he had at his disposal. He knew he had some strong defenders, but limited attacking options, so he set out to frustrate his opponents, challenging them to break Greece down, which they failed to do.
Hodgson, like Rehhagel, is likely to play it cautiously in the Euros - at least in the early stages. Henry Winter, writing in The Daily Telegraph, says: "The expectation is that Hodgson will be cautious against France, deploying Downing on the left for Oxlade-Chamberlain and James Milner on the right instead of Walcott. Milner's greater defensive strengths will be important against Franck Ribery."
It's not just Greece in 2004 who have proven that adopting an ultra-defensive approach against superior opposition can reap rich dividends: there are a couple more recent examples too.
In this year's Champions League semi-final first leg against Barcelona at Stamford Bridge, Chelsea only had 27 per cent of possession, yet still won 1-0.
At the Nou Camp in the return leg Chelsea only had 18 per cent of possession, and despite being reduced to 10 men, came away with a 2-2 draw.
Last November, when England played the World Cup and European Championship holders Spain, they only had 29 per cent of possession, yet won 1-0. Gareth Southgate, the FA's head of elite development, explains what England need to do to succeed at the Euros: "We rarely out-possess other countries, so we've got to think logically about how we set up and the best way to get results. That's not negative. How did we beat Spain? How did Chelsea get through against Barcelona?" He's absolutely right.
The danger is that after starting the tournament deploying safety-first tactics, the media back home will pressurise Hodgson to play more open, adventurous football when we meet the tournament's best teams in the knock-out stages. If Hodgson caves in and changes tactics, England are likely to end up getting thrashed. But if he does focus on making the team a compact outfit that is hard to break down, using Rehhagel's Greece as his model, we could pull off some big surprises.
There are others reasons too to back England to do well.
Firstly, there are no expectations surrounding the team - and therefore no pressure on either coach or players. Secondly, there are question marks about the tournament favourites.
Spain are arguably past their peak, and will be missing striker David Villa, who scored five of their eight goals at the 2010 World Cup, while Germany look shaky at the back. The Netherlands did look strong when putting six past Northern Ireland at the weekend, but prior to that the Oranje were beaten 2-1 at home by Bulgaria, who haven't even made it to the Euros.
Thirdly, there's the jubilee factor. In jubilee years, strange things happen to British sporting performers. Think back to 1977 when tennis player Virginia Wade, after years of frustration, finally won Wimbledon.
All things considered, the 15-1 odds of England winning the Euros look pretty good value. And if you still think it's all a bit too far-fetched, remember that Greece were ten times those odds when they won.