CLEAN SHEETS: Hodgson focuses on building a fortress
MANCHESTER: ENGLAND look set to base their Euro 2012 strategy on defensive strength as they prepare to face Norway in what will be new manager Roy Hodgson's first game in charge since taking over from Fabio Capello.
Hodgson, well known for producing teams that are well organised and difficult to beat, has brought in former Manchester United full-back Gary Neville as an extra coach and had his team working on defensive patterns on Thursday ahead of today's friendly fixture in Oslo.
The former Switzerland, Fulham, Inter Milan and West Brom manager has problems up front where Wayne Rooney, who is suspended for the opening two matches of the Euros, is also injured -- as is his natural replacement Danny Welbeck.
But with all of England's first-choice defence having won trophies with their clubs this season there is more reason for optimism at the back.
Ashley Cole, John Terry and Gary Cahill won FA Cup and Champions League medals with Chelsea, while Joleon Lescott and goalkeeper Joe Hart won the Premier League with Manchester City.
So no wonder there is a growing feeling that clean sheets could be more important to England's hopes of progress in Poland and Ukraine than any decision over how to replace Rooney.
"Most of us have had successful seasons so the squad are confident and that can only bode well going into the tournament," said Lescott.
"We've won Premier Leagues and Champions Leagues -- and don't forget the League Cup as well with Glen Johnson.
"I'd like to think that defence can be our strength. In Joe Hart we have one of the best goalkeepers in the world and if the forward players need to rely on us they can."
England demonstrated their defensive abilities even before Hodgson's arrival when they beat Spain 1-0 in a friendly at Wembley earlier this year, despite surrendering the vast majority of possession to the world and European champions and conceding a string of chances.
Chelsea used similar tactics to overcome Barcelona and Bayern Munich on the way to Champions League victory and Lescott has hinted there could be more of the same when England face France, Sweden and co-hosts Ukraine this summer.
"Not everyone can go and play the Spain way and play them at their own game. You have to play each team individually, look at their strengths and try and beat them accordingly. Chelsea showed that in Barcelona," he said.
The introduction of Neville to the England coaching team seems to have added a new dynamic -- an extra emphasis on defending as well as a more approachable air now that Capello and his famously disciplinarian regime is in the past.
"Gary's been good" said Lescott. "He gets his point across, he's addressed almost every member of the squad.
"He didn't say much to me -- just keep away from the chocolate cake! It was just a bit of banter -- but it's more natural for Gary to do that, he'll feel closer to us than some members of staff as he's only been out of the game for a year or so.
"I think he'll be a great addition to the squad. What he's achieved in football and the way he conducts himself, he's very professional and he's someone I look up to."
Hodgson is not renowned for an emotional or light-hearted approach to training; in many ways his style is similar to his predecessor and requires level of detachment.
But by bringing Neville on board and by demonstrating of course a better grasp of English than Capello, he has already made an impact on his players.
"He has great experience and his CV speaks for itself. He's calm as well," said Lescott.
"He knows what he wants from the team and individuals, there are no grey areas there.
"It's going to be easier for him to communicate with the boys and get his point across. It wasn't a problem under Fabio but it's a lot easier under Roy in terms of communication.
"And it's been good so far. His first real session was a strategy session about the defensive unit, not just the back four but from the front. His teams are very organised."
That, in a nutshell, could be England's calling card in Poland and Ukraine. AFP