Stodgy shape of things to come
2 June, Euro 2012 friendly: England 1, Belgium 0 (Wembley)
Roy Hodgson’s work in progress took a small step forward and a larger one back at Wembley in yesterday’s one-nil knockabout. Hodgson’s reputation as a theorist and thinker was much in evidence as he seeks to build the team around a proven core of old stalwarts, reckoning that fashioning a realistic striking force can be achieved only in front of a steadfast defensive line.
What he didn’t need was any more injuries and, two games into his new career, he already runs the risk of a “Hapless Hodgson” tag, with two more players on the treatment table. John Terry’s hamstring niggle is no more than that – thankfully, he has been given the all-clear – but Gary Cahill’s collision with Joe Hart resulted in a double fracture of the jaw and the Chelsea defender is out of Euro 2012. Like the recent weather, it never rains but seems to be pouring on poor Hodgson.
England’s defensive work against Belgium was dependable, with a cohesion and understanding you would expect of players who have seen more of each other in some form in the past year than they have of their families. However, some sloppy passing once again saw the ball being given away cheaply; if the received wisdom is to wear the opposition out by using a tight-passing pattern, then England need run with the ball less.
Outstanding in midfield, Scott Parker is enjoying his terrier-like role, working tirelessly to close down attacks while intelligently looking for a forward outlet. And there’s the rub: with Roy still experimenting, the forward line lacked polish, neither knowing whether to stay and collect or push up and receive.
A big positive will be Danny Welbeck’s 36th-minute goal, finished with the skill and poise of a confident striker – although less accomplished in this run-out was last week’s hero Ashley Young, who nevertheless played a killer pass for the goal. A fast winger will always be a fans’ favourite and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain is looking an exciting prospect in the role. He was eager to make runs down the left but it’s hard to see where his talents will be used if Hodgson elects a narrow formation with a Stewart Downing-James Milner line-up against France in Donetsk on 11 June.
Until the goal, England seemed to be content to sit back and be tested, perhaps Roy’s game plan, and it wasn’t until just before half time that they started to move the ball with any kind of flow, connecting throughout the team with positive intention. It was a brief vision of possibilities that flattered to deceive as the second half saw England come out for more defensive practice.
For a while, England were stretched as Belgium sought an equaliser with Moussa Dembele and Marouane Fellaini going close. Chelsea-bound Eden Hazard showed flashes of fabulous close ball skills but the latest new-kid-on-the-block looked lightweight against experienced defenders.
With defensive duties consolidated, the game opened up into an interesting free-flowing contest with substitutes Jermain Defoe and Wayne Rooney introducing a modicum of flexibility and movement. With chances created at both ends, against better opposition, the final score would have been different but two wins will be an obvious boost of confidence to Roy’s work in progress.
The media will focus on the cleansheet and the injuries but the reality is that, while England will enjoy status as a team hard to break down, future headline writers will already be aching to rhyme Hodge with stodge.
Group D update: Ukraine lost 3-2 against Austria in Kufstein on Friday. They conclude their warm-up schedule against Turkey in Augsburg, Germany, on Tuesday. Sweden play Serbia in Solna on the same day, when France also take on Estonia in Le Mans.