Michel Platini doesn’t get much right these days but he managed to hammer the nail squarely on the head when he considered the England football team a few years ago.
“Lions in winter, lambs in the spring,” he surmised. Breaking this ruinous cycle, which has whirred around the national team for decades, is Roy Hodgson’s challenge from here until the start of the tournament.
It is a sizeable one, too, for knowing the problems that he is likely to encounter in the lead up to the World Cup is very different from being able to do anything to actually affect them.
At a rough guess one of the following things will disrupt England’s progress towards Rio: lethargy and injury to a key player. When they actually make it to Brazil you can add the heat and humidity of some of the Brazilian cities the tournament will be played at into the mix.
Then there is the draw, of course, which is likely to pair England with one of the global game’s heavyweights. The Three Lions have not beaten one of those in a major tournament since 2002 and have not knocked one out of a World Cup or European Championships since 1996, when Spain were eliminated in the second round on penalties.
These are big problems; Hodgson has months to start working on them but must begin now.
Wayne Rooney has proved himself absolutely essential to England’s cause over the qualification tournament, but such is his attitude he is unlikely to slow down in the run-up to Brazil. Injury concerns surrounded him in 2006 and it was the same again in 2010, when he arrived at less than 100 per cent.
Again in 2012, disciplinary problems meant that he missed the first two games of the tournament. This is a recurring theme and while history isn’t guaranteed to repeat itself, it is just as well that Hodgson begins work on a Plan ‘B’.
The next few friendly games should be spent assembling a strategy that might work in the absence of a Rooney, Steven Gerrard or Joe Hart so that we are not subjected to a repeat of 2002, when Sven Goran Eriksson resorted to summoning David Beckham despite the fact he had barely recovered from a metatarsal injury.
It must not be disastrous if England lose a key man.
There is less that Hodgson can do about exhaustion other than to be aware of it. The consequence of the Premier League’s fixture schedule is that his players will have run themselves to a standstill by the summer and there is very little that he can do to combat that.
A personal hope is that Hodgson is more open to suggestion than Fabio Capello was. The Italian made some horrendous mistakes in the run-up to the last World Cup, including an altitude training camp that seemed to actually drain the energy of his players rather than prepare them for the consequences of playing above sea level.
There is no magic wand but Hodgson must at least listen to the advice of those who have been in a similar situation before. And it might just work to our advantage that he – unlike Terry Venables, Glenn Hoddle, Kevin Keegan or Capello – has actually experienced the pressure-cooker atmosphere of a major international tournament.
The previous manager who had – Eriksson – never did worse than a quarter-final place while Sir Bobby Robson used the experience garnered at Euro 88 to lead England to the last four of the World Cup.
England are not as strong as they were back then, although the team has a new lease of life thanks to Andros Townsend’s energy.
The best thing that Hodgson can be is flexible. The team that beat Poland and dismissed Montenegro will not endure the rigours of a Premier League season, so it is no use even supposing that England can play with the same energy and vigour that they mustered in those two games.
Things will be sent to try the England manager because the build-up to a World Cup very rarely runs smoothly. But Hodgson has to be prepared to embrace it all – and take it in its stride.