Lady Luck smiles on England
19 Jun, Euro 2012 (Group D): England 1, Ukraine 0 (Donetsk)
When I asked on Twitter yesterday if England were using Wayne Rooney’s reputation of world-class striker as a decoy, it was with tongue wedged firmly in cheek. Little did I believe that it was to be the feature of Roy Hodgson’s game plan.
I don’t remember a game that has featured a striker who was at once so ineffective and yet perversely game-changingly affective. The Manchester United man was looking so out of condition that maybe the Ukraine defence dropped their guard, reasoning that he presented little threat, especially after he managed to head a clear chance wide on the half-hour. However, it is a truism that a good striker can have a turgid game yet be in the right place for one second out of 90 minutes.
From the off, the game was the unattractive, scruffy affair expected by most, which saw Ukraine missing the talismanic Andriy Shevchenko and England sitting back to rely on very few set-pieces and quick breaks. If it is going to be a feature of Hodgson’s tenure to observe and assess the opposition before deciding on a game plan, then we need players with quicker brains than currently at our disposal.
Last night, England rode their luck while defending too deep for too long, allowing Denys Harmash, Andriy Yarmolenko and the impressive Marko Devic to create panic among defence – and fans – while offering no discernable threat in return. Worryingly, Portugal or Germany would have easily capitalised by alternating wing play with runs into channels that would have pinned back the midfield and left the defence in tatters.
Naturally, apart from rusty Rooney and a slightly anonymous Ashley Young perhaps, no English player was below par – Ashley Cole, Steven Gerrard and John Terry especially are too experienced to be otherwise – but we lack cohesion. We don’t need the football to be pretty but too often England’s progress is measured in fits and stutters and is a long way from the smooth machine needed at this level.
How long can we rely on goalline clearances/dubious decisions? I also thought it was a strange decision to start with Rooney as Hodgson is usually too pragmatic to play to the gallery and Andy Carroll’s towering strength would have been a useful weapon against a tall defence.
This is where I leave the standard match report. After all, everybody who was interested will have watched the game and formed an opinion.
There is a great malady facing the English national football side and some may consider the radical solution of reducing the number of Premier League teams and having a January break as heresy. When compared to continental teams, it is evident that English football lacks the quick-passing, keep-the-ball techniques that make many European teams so beguiling to watch and so hard to break down.
Our players don’t lack natural skill and football wisdom states that the ball is always round and the goals never move but too often they lumber while their opponents look ten games fresher. Another big difference is that there are no easy games in the English top flight but a study of La Liga, Serie A or the Bundesliga will confirm that the gulf between top and bottom teams means that the big boys have the luxury of playing what amounts to little more than a practice match every few weeks.
I am not personally advocating a change to the system – after all, we are talking about culture and tradition – but until we face the fact that we really do play too many games, the national side will always play at a disadvantage.
PS: My parents always told me it is better to be lucky than good looking, an aphorism I didn’t fully understand until I was tall enough to see in the mirror. With last night’s result in mind and England bypassing Spain in the next round, let’s hope that, while attractive football may not be an option, we have enough reserves of luck to see off Italy in our quarter-final in Kiev on Sunday.
Match rating (out of five): **
Also in Group D: Sweden 2, France 0 (Kiev)
France passed up the chance of winning the group – and an extra day’s rest – by succumbing to two second-half goals against already-eliminated Sweden. A stunning volley from Zlatan Ibrahimovic and a stoppage-time effort from Sebastian Larsson ended France’s 23-match unbeaten run and condemned them to a last-eight clash with Spain, the world and European champions, in Donetsk on Saturday.
Match rating: **